The U.S. Must Raise the Stakes for Sudan’s Coup Leaders
The U.S. Must Raise the Stakes for Sudan’s Coup Leaders
Op-Ed / Africa 5 minutes

The U.S. Must Raise the Stakes for Sudan’s Coup Leaders

The United States is currently faced with multiple international crises that are occupying much of Washington’s attention, but it should not lose sight of events in Sudan. Since last October’s military coup, millions of people across the country have taken to the streets week after week to show their determination to get Sudan back on the path toward democracy. The U.S. reacted swiftly after the military takeover with words of support for a return to civilian rule and blocks on bilateral aid to the coup regime. But these necessary steps have not changed the calculations of Sudan’s military leaders, and the country is now in a dangerous period of drift, repression and violence.

U.S. diplomacy should now go further in coordinating with its partners and making clear to Sudan’s generals that they will face serious consequences unless they are able to come together with civilian leaders to put the country back on a credible transitional path.

There is still hope for a new Sudan. The protesters’ persistence in the face of a brutal crackdown by security forces shows that military takeovers are not so readily accepted, and civilians refuse to take a back seat. Today’s Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world, and the current generation appears ready to continue its fight for a just transition to democracy.

Sudan’s August 2019 charter creating a transitional, coalition government between civilian and military leaders offered hope, not only to Sudanese, but also to many across the Horn of Africa. After 30 years of authoritarian rule under Omar al-Bashir, Sudan appeared on the cusp of a new dawn after its sustained, peaceful and diverse protest movement succeeded against the odds in toppling one of the continent’s most entrenched autocrats.

Abdalla Hamdok, a United Nations technocrat, was tapped as prime minister and tasked with leading a Cabinet mandated with reviving a fragile economy, reforming weak political institutions and delivering justice to the many victims of Bashir-era atrocities.

Despite the mountainous task before them, Hamdok and his civilian partners represented a signal of change and hope among Sudanese, their neighbors and international actors like the U.S. that the country was on the right track toward a more just and representative order. The greatest challenge, however, was the military’s clear reluctance to engage with civilian leaders or to support reforms.

That reluctance has now turned into outright obstruction, but there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. The coup late last October, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, resulted not only in widespread outrage among ordinary Sudanese but also condemnation by international actors. Despite this, Burhan continued to roll back reforms brought about by the civilian-led administration, all the while clamping down on the ongoing protests. The military’s attempt to restore some faith in its authority by reinstating Hamdok in late November did little to calm the concerns of Sudanese or foreign partners. Recognizing this, Hamdok subsequently resigned within weeks.

The United States was quick to announce the suspension of assistance and urged the “immediate” restoration of the civilian-led transitional government. The coup now threatens to derail U.S. bilateral support and any possibility of cooperative relations with the United States more broadly. In 2020, following decades of tension between the two countries, the U.S. removed Sudan’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism” to support the post-Bashir transition. Yet, in the aftermath of October’s coup, a spokesman for the State Department said the U.S. would have to reevaluate its “entire relationship” with the country, including its terrorism designation.

The U.S. must make it clear to Sudan’s generals that violence and obstruction will be met with consequences.

The swift warming of relations following Bashir’s ouster underscored Washington’s aspirations for Sudan. In 2019, the two countries upgraded their diplomatic ties, with plans to exchange ambassadors after a 23-year hiatus. Now one of Sudan’s most important external partners, the U.S. is in a strong position to put pressure on the generals and support efforts to reestablish a transition. Nevertheless, despite the recent setbacks, U.S. President Joe Biden went ahead with his announcement of a nominee for the ambassadorial position in late January 2022.

Biden’s commitment to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people” should be reflected in U.S. support for Sudan’s return to a transitional government. Grim stories of the brutality inflicted by security forces are not only indicative of the coup’s grave human cost, but also of the closing window for dialogue between military and civilian leaders. If the generals refuse to back down, they risk further conflict, alienation from the international community and possibly further division within the military itself.

Against this discouraging backdrop, the United States should work alongside other external partners, including the African Union and European Union, to coordinate targeted sanctions against military leaders that would be imposed if violence is not halted and specific milestones with respect to the political transition are not met. Thus far, the military has had little incentive to relinquish control. The U.S. must make it clear to the generals that violence and obstruction will be met with consequences, including asset freezes and travel bans. This sanctions program should aim to deter the military from carrying out further violence or obstructing the electoral process by targeting key figures, rather than the country as a whole.

The U.S. should hold firm on its decision to suspend $700 million in planned aid and link its resumption to the military’s recommitment to a genuine power-sharing deal that provides adequate protections and assurances for the country’s civilian political leaders. While the generals have hoped to win eventual public acceptance through such actions as slashing commodity prices, they will most likely face continued opposition in the face of an ailing economy and no sign of Western financial assistance. Resuming financial aid, however, will be vital to support any fledgling government resulting from a Sudanese political agreement.

In the meantime, the United States should further its efforts to repurpose assistance and direct it to civil society actors. It should also redouble its efforts with partners like the U.N. to provide direct humanitarian assistance and support to the Sudanese people.

Perhaps most importantly, the United States should maintain its public support for a civilian-led government and urge all regional actors to back such efforts. To achieve that outcome, the United States should continue to support negotiations between the military and civilians, emphasizing the need for a maximally inclusive dialogue.

While demands from civilians for a sharply diminished military role are justified, some form of accommodation with the military will be necessary. However, such an accommodation cannot only be a return to the 2019 agreement, which effectively enabled the military’s obstruction and failed to give adequate protections for civilian leaders.

A transition to genuine civilian rule is still a real possibility in Sudan. Despite the military’s best intentions to block the path to democracy, the protest movement is still going strong and shows no signs of waning yet. However, with mounting challenges, the country will require outside support. Getting the transition back on track will serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.


Program Director, U.S.
Program Director, Africa

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