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On 2 January 2022, Abdallah Hamdok resigned as Prime Minister of Sudan.
Hamdok’s departure should be welcomed by supporters of Sudan’s transition. As prime minister after the 25 October coup Hamdok was powerless and gave legitimacy to an authoritarian junta. Hamdok provided the illusion of a civilian partnership. The experience of Burma (now Myanmar) shows what happens when a Potemkin leader continues in their role as the face of a military junta. Civil war. Ethnic cleansing. Instability.
Hamdok’s resignation creates a crisis of legitimacy for Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The veneer of validity that Hamdok offered al-Burhan is gone. To prove he can lead Sudan, al-Burhan must coup-proof his regime. That means al-Burhan must convince the senior officer core around him that he can maximize their personal interests. Al-Burhan does not want to be removed in a coup like his two predecessors, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf and Omar al-Bashir. Al-Burhan’s tactics to coup-proof his regime provide clues to the transition’s path to victory. It requires showing these officers that al-Burhan’s leadership is legitimate.
First, attempts by al-Burhan to persuade “representatives” of the protest movement to join a military government must be stopped. The easiest group to co-opt are the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC). These political parties, which have not faced an election in more than 30 years, have a recent history of being corrupted. Yet some, mostly international actors, grant the FFC the power to represent demonstrators. What makes Sudan’s protest movement resilient is that it is leaderless. Its organizational structure is flat with little hierarchy. Politicians claiming to represent the protest movement should be eyed with suspicion.
Dangerously, al-Burhan may resort to increased mass violence to scare off the democratic movement in Sudan. However, mid- and low-level soldiers must be convinced not to carry out these orders. Recent Sudanese history provides an example. In April 2019, demonstrations called on soldiers to abandon al-Bashir. It is no accident that a few days later al-Bashir was removed in a coup. During military coups soldiers prefer to be on the winning side and fear fratricide and punishment. It means that a military commander’s greatest asset becomes a liability when soldiers don’t follow orders. However, a call for the military to abandon their leaders has not occurred during the 2021–22 marches. This is in part because demonstrators understandably don’t trust the junta. Protestors have already seen the military break their democratic promises. However, creating internal divisions within a regime is the easiest way for a non-violent movement to achieve its goals. Still, this strategy is risky. Military leaders could break democratic promises, like al-Burhan, or lead an Islamist movement, like al-Bashir. A real international strategy must be developed to convince soldiers to follow through on democratic commitments. There has always been a core faction of senior Sudanese soldiers who want a normalized relationship with the West. Those elements must be engaged with.
Finally, the international community must abandon the junta. One example of steps that should be taken include pausing development assistance to the junta. International organizations or embassies that give assistance to the junta now are complicit in their actions. After the 25 October coup, UN agencies, international organizations and some diplomats privately argued that development assistance should continue to the new government. UN agencies interpret some of their mandates as executing the plans of Sudanese authorities. However, Hamdok’s resignation is further proof that the Sudanese authorities are illegitimate and support must be halted.
While international sanctions a few months ago might not have had a great impact on supporting a transition to democracy, targeted embargoes may now serve as a deterrent for military leaders to carry out orders of authoritarianism. A revived protest movement and the reality of global isolation for the junta means that sanctions may be more effective. Inside Sudan’s army there has always been a core group of officers who are personally interested in a legitimate relationship with Western nations.
“This Is Not a Coup” is a daily update from Sudan that gives perspective on the country’s military takeover. The author is anonymous to protect their identity. The title is a reference to the 26 October speech of General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan.