Sudan’s army is at a stalemate, and the costs are mounting

A military coup on 25 October put an abrupt end to Sudan’s fragile democratic transition. Hager Ali argues that although the coup pre-empted a power transfer, the military created a much bigger problem for itself. The same socio-political conditions that kept al-Bashir in power for decades now threaten the military’s capacity to govern

On 25 October, a military coup by General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' ousted Sudan’s transitional government, the Sovereignty Council. As of 11 November, al-Burhan named a new Sovereignty Council in which Dagalo remains deputy. Civilians critical of military rule, however, are excluded.

Civilian former prime minister Abdallah Hamdok refused to back the coup, and the Sovereignty Council placed him under house arrest. Al-Burhan then reinstated Hamdok as prime minister under a new power-sharing deal. Hamdok cited economic reasons for agreeing to cooperate after all. In the wake of this ‘betrayal’, there followed protests and mass resignations by ministers.

Sudan had planned for democratic elections in summer 2022. In the transitional period, the Sovereignty Council would be led by the military for the first 21 months, before civilians took over in the run-up to the election. When the military-to-civilian-handoff was imminent, security reforms, commercial military activities, the judiciary and the actual transfer to civilians all became highly contentious. This led to civilian protests in favour of, and against, a military takeover. Under the guise of restoring order, the military eventually stepped in.

With Al-Burhan, Dagalo, and Hamdok back to their pre-coup positions, and a changed power-sharing deal, democratisation in Sudan now looks uncertain. To make sense of the October coup and its implications, it is important to understand what drives – or hinders – military rule.

Divide and conquer the periphery…

There have been 17 failed and successful coup attempts in almost every decade since Sudan gained independence from colonial rule. High coup frequency always indicates underlying systemic problems with regime stability. In Sudan, that means deeply entrenched cleavages that reinforce each other, and render the country prone to conflict and power struggles.

Recurring coups always indicate underlying systemic problems with regime stability

Ethnoreligious divisions in Sudan run parallel to a salient urban-rural cleavage. In Sudan’s ethnically diverse society, the predominantly Arabic Muslim population is concentrated in the wealthier centre. Its non-Arabic population, in the periphery, remains economically neglected, and politically excluded.

Sudan recruits its army from predominantly Arab backgrounds. Likewise, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which fought in Darfur and were commanded by Dagalo, are recruited from Arabised indigenous peoples.

The geographic distribution of natural resources and their administration exacerbates these tensions. The most important resources in Sudan’s economy today are gold, crude oil, base metals, and gum Arabic, mined in the periphery. When South Sudan seceded in 2011, Sudan lost over 70% of its oil revenues, and gold trade thus became highly significant. The Blue Nile State is particularly rich in gold, metals, fertile soil and gum Arabic. Khartoum adminsters the resources, though Blue Nile’s indigenous population has little political representation. Oil-rich Abyei in South Kordofan is administered by Khartoum, yet its population identifies with South Sudan. Droughts created tension over land ownership between Arabic nomads and non-Arabic local tribes in the resource-rich Nuba-Mountains in South Kordofan.

…Unite and control the centre

El-Bashir frequently exploited and exacerbated ethnoreligious divisions by arming specific tribes for proxy conflicts over religion, identity, and local resources. That way, he could stabilise his regime in the comparatively homogenous centre, while weakening opposition in the fractured periphery. Protest mobilisation ahead of the Arab Spring mostly took place outside Khartoum. Meanwhile, el-Bashir held tight control of the capital.

Regime change cannot undo societal structures. Neither do such strucures disappear with peace treaties. The risk of destabilisation, therefore, never went away, even after el-Bashir’s ousting in 2019. Militaries are not immune to economic crises, and pre-Arab Spring grievances could still fuel conflict. What changed in 2021 is that a realistic prospect for democratisation emerged. This jolted the army into action to pre-empt a civilian takeover.

To a ruling army like the Sudanese military, democratisation means loss of power and resources

Democratisation presupposes full civilian control over an army. But to a ruling army like the Sudanese military, which has a dominant role in domestic conflicts, and vast economic stakes, democratisation always means loss of power monopoly and resources. The mere prospect of political representation for other non-Arab ethnic groups threatens the military’s socio-political hegemony in strategic areas outside Khartoum.

Wars and insurgencies require a constant supply of military equipment, personnel, and funding. That makes the centralised administration of natural resources essential to regime survival. Added expenditures then drive a military’s incentive to pursue commercial interests and control over budgetary allocations. The pre-coup transitional arrangement put both of these explicitly at risk.

In 2017, the Rapid Support Forces also seized goldmines in Darfur. This made Dagalo, now deputy of the Sovereignty Council, into one of the richest men in Sudan. Personal investments became entangled with military interests and Sudanese trade, especially to political allies like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The army’s gambit

The October coup manoeuvred the Sudanese Army into a strategic stalemate. Civilian control posed a predictable threat to the military’s commercial interests. But under current circumstances, military control cannot guarantee the fulfilment of its interests, either. On top of damaging Hamdok’s reputation, the coup cast reasonable doubt on the military’s future willingness to share power. It also precipitated the loss of urgently needed foreign aid, which is devastating to all parties affected.

the coup damaged Hamdok's reputation, and cast doubt on the military’s future willingness to share power

Prior to the ousting of el-Bashir, protests in the periphery posed little threat to a consolidated capital. Sudan’s societal structures remained the same, but now governance in Khartoum is in flux. The same conditions that stabilised al-Bashir could now break al-Burhan’s power. Against this backdrop, reappointing Hamdok is little more than virtue-signalling for crisis-management.

Democratisation after direct military rule is difficult, but not impossible. Military leaders can withdraw if there is too little support to sustain continued rule, or when their interests are safeguarded by civilian leaders. Militaries could also withdraw from direct power when the costs of military rule simply become too high. And right now in Sudan, the costs of the army’s gambit just keep mounting.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Hager Ali
Hager Ali
Research Fellow and Doctoral Student, GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, Hamburg

Hager's research focuses on civil-military relations, regime stability, and authoritarian politics across the Middle East and North Africa.

She received her MA from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, where she specialised in comparative political science, and her BA in Political Science and Sociology from Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Hager is also a freelance journalist.

She tweets @ActuallyHager

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