Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

To Restore Sudan’s Path to Democracy, the Global Community Should Sanction the Coup Leaders

sudan's coup sanctions democracy
A flag-clad Sudanese opponent of the military coup flashes the victory sign as he takes part in a protest in the city of Khartoum North near the capital, on November 13, 2021. AFP

Mat Nashed

Sudan ’s junta has consolidated power since overthrowing the civilian-led transitional government on October 25, 2021. Less than a month later, the frontman of the coup, top military chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, appointed himself as the head of a new ruling body, signalling his determination to move forward with the power grab. 

Burhan will likely go down in history as a traitor that sabotaged Sudan’s democratic aspirations. At the beginning of the transition, he was appointed Chairman of the now dissolved 11-member Sovereign Council, which was then the highest governing authority. However, Burhan’s position was technically ceremonial since the council exercised power as a collective, while delegating executive powers to a mostly civilian cabinet headed by Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok. Burhan was nonetheless supposed to surrender his position to a civilian in the coming months. But rather than do so, he arrested Hamdok, jailed a number of civilian ministers, and dissolved the government.

The brazen power grab has plunged Sudan into a crisis due to the junta’s selfish desire to preserve its lucrative economic advantages and political influence. That was indicative when Burhan quickly moved to dissolve two committees following the coup. The first was the Empowerment Removal Committee – known as Tamkeen in Arabic – which was tasked with retrieving assets that were stolen by the cronies of former dictator Omar Al-Bashir. However, the committee’s mandate threatened the commercial interests of military elites. 

The second committee was responsible for pressing criminal charges against individuals deemed responsible for orchestrating the Khartoum massacre outside the defense ministry on June 3, 2019. U.S officials told reporters that Sudan’s top generals feared that they would be held accountable for the grave crime against humanity if they lost their legal immunity, which is only bestowed to sitting members in government. That’s largely why Sudan’s top brass refuses to step down from power, even in the face of mounting civil disobedience. 

After all, protesters aren’t calling for a return to the pre-coup status quo, which saw security officers share power with a civilian coalition known as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC). The streets are instead calling for the full withdrawal of the military from political life. Protests are being mobilized by resistance committees, which are neighborhood groups with a horizontal command structure. Their ability to organize protests of hundreds of thousands of people – despite an internet blackout – is a testament to the legitimacy they have garnered on the streets. 

Sudan’s junta is acutely aware that they can’t govern without subduing the urban population, which they’re attempting to do through coercion and cooptation. So far, the junta is relying on the former method more than the latter. Doctors say that more than 38 protesters have died, including 15 killed on November 17 alone. Hundreds also have been injured, yet the real number of casualties is likely much higher due to a 3-week internet blackout that made it impossible to record the full scope of abuses. In the western province of Darfur alone, Radio Dabanga reported on November 4 that at least 43 people had been arbitrarily detained and taken to unknown locations. The same fate befell two dozen high-level protest leaders and civilian officials in Khartoum. These forms of arrests are considered enforced disappearances under international law. 

In a sign of hope, the global community has responded swiftly. The U.S has frozen $700 million in aid, followed by the World Bank which has paused $2 billion in planned disbursements. Germany has also halted all development cooperation with Khartoum, while the African Union (AU) kicked Sudan out of its bloc until the coup is reversed. More punitive measures can be taken, such as halting billions of dollars in debt relief, which is essential to rehabilitate the country’s battered economy following years of misappropriation and U.S sanctions. 

Regional states that are likely or certainly backing the coup – such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel and Egypt – will find that Sudan’s financial losses are too steep to cover. And even if they could fill the gap, no level of regional support can bestow Sudan’s junta with domestic legitimacy. 

The coup plotters are simply betting that protesters will eventually surrender to the idea of military rule. To convince them, they have slashed commodity prices to make basic staples affordable again. The move was intended to win popular support considering that austerity measures imposed by the previous civilian-led government – and which the military backed to obtain much needed debt relief – resulted in sky high inflation. 

But protesters are seeing right through the military’s bribery. Most activists are aware that the military has a stranglehold over the most important civilian sectors in the economy, such as sesame and gum arabic, with the latter used in a variety of products like glue and cat food. Sudan is one of the top exporters of sesame globally, while producing about 70 percent of the world’s gum arabic. The army also controls import sectors, including most of the wheat market, telecommunications, banking, water distribution, pharmaceuticals, and the manufacturing of household appliances. One of Sudan’s most powerful paramilitary groups, known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), also has a number of shadowy commercial activities that flow into a web of offshore accounts. 

The junta’s control over the economy forced the civilian cabinet to rely on international financial institutions and western allies to keep its economy afloat. What’s more, many people depended on the RSF for cash handouts, welfare services, and jobs. 

The junta’s control over the economy means that suspended western support could hurt the most vulnerable Sudanese more than sitting security officers. That’s precisely why Washington and its European allies should directly sanction assets belonging to coup leaders. Western states could start by targeting the private companies of the RSF – a group that is detested by mid-level army commanders, urban revolutionaries, and tribes in the peripheries. Isolating the RSF would make it inconvenient for Burhan to maintain his alliance with the group, thereby prompting him to engage in serious talks with Hamdok and global mediators. But before talks begin, the global community should insist – and even threaten punitive measures against senior military commanders – until everyone that has been detained since the coup is released. 

This is a risky gambit since the RSF could be a major spoiler. To sideline the group, parallel efforts must be made by civilian forces to align closer with Darfuri rebel groups that signed onto the Juba Peace Agreement in October 2020. All of those groups have backed the coup, and are likely not interested in ditching the RSF or military unless the alliance becomes too inconvenient. There is already talk that fighters within the ranks of the Justice Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Movement — Minnie Minawi (SLM-MM) are at odds with their leaders’ decision to support the coup. 

Exploring this fissure could help sideline the RSF, thereby compelling the group to integrate into a unified security force, under civilian control.  That would set the stage for global actors to then try to incentivize the military to divest from lucrative economic sectors and relinquish decision making power. They could attempt to do this by promising increased funding and training to a unified army that absorbs the RSF. Western leaders should also push the military to scale down in size to reduce the burden on the public budget. The next step would be to identify mid-level commanders that have the ambition and vision to realize a new, constructive role for the army. These officers should be supported to replace the old guard, who are beyond redeemable in the public eye. In the case that Burhan refuses to entertain any reality beyond military rule, Washington could wield the Global Magnitsky Act. That act was conceived to ban foreign persons from the U.S and freeze their assets if they’re deemed to have committed grave human rights abuses or are involved in high-level corruption. 

Equally necessary is for civilian ministers and protest leaders to consider not prosecuting senior commanders if they agree to resign and withdraw from political life. This move carries its own risks, since it would send a message that overthrowing a civilian government won’t result in repercussions. However, there is simply no scenario where Sudan’s top brass would surrender power unless they’re bestowed with immunity for past war crimes. Indeed, sacrificing the pursuit of justice would be a bitter trade off, but it’s better than living under the shackles of a junta. 

While these are ambitious goals, they shouldn’t be dismissed in the name of pragmatism. The global community may be tempted to merely rehash the pre-coup power-sharing agreement, yet that outcome would do little to avert a future crisis. Western leaders should instead support protest demands by ensuring that coup leaders suffer steep financial consequences for their power grab. Otherwise, the junta won’t be pressured to reverse course.

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