Main Image Credit Braving the baton: protests in the aftermath of the October 2021 coup in Sudan. Image: Osama Eid / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
As Sudan’s coup-regime tries to maintain its authority amid mounting economic pressure and mass protests, is this just a repeat of previous cycles of instability, a prelude to ‘Bashirism 2.0’, or an opportunity for genuine change?
In late October 2021, Sudan’s Transitional Government – a tentative bid towards democratisation after Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship – was overthrown by the military, marking the sixth ‘successful’ coup since independence. Civilian institutions were dismantled and cabinet members, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, arrested. In their place, a cartel of security services established a new Sovereign Council, led by Abdel al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed ‘Hemmeti’ Dagalo, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Framed as a ‘corrective measure to the transition’, the coup appears to be an atavistic rehash of the Bashir regime: a counter-revolution playing out with predictable linearity. Under a thin whitewash, the old mechanics of authoritarianism seem unchanged, a testament perhaps to the resilience of Sudan’s ‘Deep State’.
However, looks can be deceiving. Sudanese protesters – the same activists that forced the downfall of Bashir in 2019 – remain defiant, offering disjointed but effective resistance to Khartoum’s kingpins. At the same time, internal rifts – whether structural or personal – and external pressures are straining the government’s capabilities, suggesting the conventions and configurations that previously defined Sudanese kleptocracy may now be self-defeating. Whether these dynamics can coalesce and drive progressive change is unclear and depends on the response of local and international stakeholders. But they raise real questions over the sustainability of coup-governance and the need for systemic, comprehensive change.
Motion Without Movement?
The current model of Sudanese authoritarianism stems back, at least in part, to the secession of South Sudan in 2011, which fundamentally reshaped the logic of Bashir’s dictatorship. Previously benefiting from a glut of oil revenues, the president exploited a ‘rentier crony-capitalist system’ to buy elite loyalty and (some) public apathy, stoking a ‘boom in construction and consumer commodities’ across Khartoum and its surrounds – the so-called ‘Hamdi Triangle’ – while monetising wider governance at the expense of efficiency and function.
As Alex de Waal argues, the loss of Juba, and by extension Sudan’s oil fields, made these arrangements untenable, forcing diversification in the political economy and a dispersal of political power. Consequently, Bashir’s ‘centralised authoritarian kleptocracy’, fronted by the National Congress Party (NCP), lapsed into something closer to a ‘collusive oligopoly’, with various security organs and provincial strongmen from the Native Administration assuming control over new sources of political finance, namely gold mining, agriculture, and ‘state mercenarism’. Amid this fragmentation, the President’s leverage steadily diminished, leaving him as the least unfavourable option between competing powerbrokers. When protests over Sudan’s economic crisis in 2018/19 shifted into mass opposition against the regime, the calculus changed, exposing him as a liability and hastening his removal.
In this context, it is important to understand his fall not just as an outcome of popular revolution but also firewalling by lieutenants who had a stake in maintaining the wider systems Bashir himself helped cultivate. With their subsequent involvement in setting the terms of the transition and participation in its delivery, elites such as al-Burhan and Hemmeti were therefore able to keep the structure, pathology, and disposition of the country’s political economy largely intact: preserving a ‘colourfully corrupt transactional politics’ branded by some as ‘Bashirism without Bashir’.
Take, for instance, SAF’s commercial networks, which actually appeared to grow in the aftermath of Bashir’s ousting, supplemented with assets pilfered from the former president’s family and rump agencies like the National Intelligence and Security Service (now the General Intelligence Service). No longer sharing their income with NCP bosses, Defence Industries Systems (formerly the Military Industrial Corporation) and other army holding companies have gradually assumed ownership of ‘hundreds of firms’ spanning sectors from oil, weapons and water through to pharmaceuticals, textiles and trucking. Reports suggest SAF controlled up to 60% of the Sudanese wheat market alone in 2020, ensuring senior officers benefitted from long-running state subsidies. Hemmeti’s RSF reaped similar dividends, expanding stakes in gold mining and mineral exports and profiting from a matrix of shell and subsidiary businesses in agriculture, real estate and construction. Collectively labelled a ‘Deep State’, both groups have only become more prolific in reach and influence, consolidating ‘vertically integrated monopolies’ – both public and private – that continue to dominate the domestic economy.
Against this backdrop, civilian regulators never really had ‘control over these firms [or] access to their books’ during the transition. Although Hamdok pushed for greater transparency during his premiership, efforts to instigate military divestment, or simply catalogue state-owned enterprises, floundered. As an example, a milestone proposal was announced in March 2021 to transfer the civil arm of Defence Industries Systems over to the Ministry of Finance (MoF), but little concrete action seems to have taken place prior to the coup, in part because administrators had no sway over the Ministries of Defence and Interior. Whether from a lack of capacity or inclination, MoF authorities even struggled to extend their monitoring of Sudapet and Sudamin, corporate entities tied to comparatively benign technical institutions like the Ministry of Energy and Mining, reflecting a broader pattern of poor public financial management that crosscut the Sudanese government.
Calls for ‘national salvation’ and ‘strong leadership’ were exploited by the Sudanese Armed Forces as the pretext for its power-grab, drawing on the familiar script of past coups
Official budgetary lines for the RSF and SAF (roughly one third of public revenues) were similarly kept secret and failed to account for covert or illicit funding streams. While Sudan’s Auditor General and National Audit Chamber were ostensibly empowered to examine such expenditure, they were rarely able to impose penalties. Nor, crucially, was the transitional government able to map the scope of the defence sector as a whole, which remained concealed behind a series of informal linkages between political elites and local militia groups – a legacy of past policies dubbed ‘counterinsurgency on the cheap’.
Of course, there was some progress. In contrast to previous regulatory bodies, the ‘Elimination, Empowerment, Anti-Corruption and Funds Recovery Committee’ (EAFRC) and its various state-level affiliates did produce results, recovering between $1.06 billion and $3.5 billion in stolen assets. But its remit and activities were selective, initially prioritising former NCP officials and Bashir’s family over graft within the Sudanese defence establishment or its extra-legal offshoots. The inclusion of military stakeholders in Committee deliberations also risked insulating SAF conglomerates and financial dealings from ‘external’ investigation, compelling Hamdok to launch the exclusively civilian ‘Sudan Holding Company to Receive and Manage Recovered Assets’ to reinforce the process. Tellingly, the Committee’s belated re-focusing on the security services coincided with the coup’s preparation and build-up, demonstrating both the real threat the EAFRC posed to established interests and the transition’s chronic vulnerability when it came to pushing substantive reform.
The inherent limitations spelt out in the Draft Constitutional Declaration (2019/20) – the legal basis for Sudan’s transition – and the preservation of securocrats’ control therefore left Hamdok’s efforts looking superficial and short-lived. Many policies were reversed following the coup, with the arrest of civilian politicians and EAFRC personnel and the nullification of key decisions. For instance, a Khartoum court overrode the termination of over 100 staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; several NCP leaders were acquitted of corruption charges; Bashir-appointed judges were reinstated; and the Central Bank unfroze a suite of accounts connected to high-level functionaries and members of the Islamic Dawa Organisation. Additionally, in September Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission re-registered 23 outfits banned under the EAFRC, including the Maarif Organisation for Peace and Development, chaired by Bashir’s brother, and the Sanad Charitable Organisation, run by his wife. Regressive trends are similarly evident in legislation, such as the reauthorisation of detention by General Intelligence Service agents, and the launch of a new Community Police Unit, a cursory rebrand of the Community Service Unit responsible for enforcing Sudan’s erstwhile Public Order laws.
Consequently, there seems to be little diminution in the power of the Sudanese ‘Deep State’. Despite Hamdok’s experimental technocracy, the sinews of Bashirism are still there, leading some to cast the experience more as a ‘decorative coup’ than an actual ‘transition’, one that eventually dropped any pretence of reform on 25 October 2021.
‘Something’s Got to Give…’
Beneath this apparent resilience, there are nevertheless external and internal stresses that not only reveal the weaknesses of the coup-regime but also reflect fundamental tensions with the logic of kleptocracy it represents.
Most obviously, the country is still beset by a deep economic malaise, with no panacea readily available. There is an irony here as calls for ‘national salvation’ and ‘strong leadership’ were exploited by SAF as the pretext for its power-grab, drawing on the familiar script of past Sudanese coups. Upping the pressure on Hamdok, pro-military demonstrations were manufactured in September 2021, with civilians bussed into the capital chanting ‘the army will bring us bread’. In the same month, a blockade of Port Sudan by the Beja Council – an ethno-centric political group – may have also been deliberately strung out, with a bargain between al-Burhan and ‘local big men’ only restoring the flow of basic imports to Khartoum after the army’s takeover: an exercise in ‘transactional provincial politicking’ possibly designed to help showcase military efficacy. While the authenticity of these moves was not particularly convincing, the optics and slogans laid the groundwork for October’s putsch.
Yet, they have also exposed al-Burhan’s ensuing tenure as a failure on its own terms. Sudanese cities are still paralysed by protests; inflation remains rampant; and the reimposition of sanctions has smothered foreign investment. As a direct consequence of the coup, essential processes – the normalisation of financial relations, debt rescheduling, and participation in the World Bank’s ‘HIPC’ programme – were suspended, and desperately needed international assistance has been paused. As Hemmeti himself conceded in March, the government does not even have the liquidity to fund its embassies. Cash infusions from the Gulf stave off total collapse, but they cannot ‘fix the fundamentals’ and lack the scale, breadth and sustainability to replace support from Western-backed financial institutions. Nor is input from alternative partners like Russia a realistic proposition: despite bilateral visits, military cooperation and Sudan’s backing for the self-ascribed People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, the Kremlin is preoccupied by its own economic concerns. This leaves al-Burhan reliant on unpopular austerity measures analogous to those of Bashir, exposing him to the same public anger and political vulnerabilities as the price of goods soars.
Even as mass demonstrations rallied around the broad aim of toppling Bashir back in 2019, there were discrepancies between the longer-term priorities voiced in Khartoum, and those further afield
A second issue is factionalism within the Deep State itself. Unlike Egypt, the Sudanese army does not have the capacity to govern alone, leaving it dependent on a cluster of parallel security services, most obviously the RSF. This has always been a tenuous coalition given the group’s genealogy and disparities in pay and equipment, with the increasing clout of rural militiamen chafing against SAF’s conservative sensibilities and ethnic chauvinism. Hemmeti’s prominence – as a Darfurian – likewise distorts Sudan’s normative conventions and social geography. His leadership of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement, for example, not only increased his own political heft, but also allowed former rebels access to national ministries in Khartoum, spaces usually reserved for the country’s riverine elite.
Amid a fragmented political and security arena – one no longer mediated by an astute manager like Bashir – RSF resources also pose a direct threat to al-Burhan’s influence and authority. The group has already offered salaries to teachers and police; pledged $1 billion to stabilise the Sudanese Central Bank; supplied welfare services, vaccines and medical support through purpose-built hospitals; and established a string of ‘proto-towns’ such as Zurrug in Darfur, replete with schools and clinics recycled from UN bases. Local units ‘dig wells, organise healthcare’, oversee harvests, invest in entrepreneurship and ‘[assume] social provision and insurance functions’. The RSF has even pursued ‘its own foreign policy’, receiving lucrative kickbacks for counterinsurgency operations in Yemen. In short, Hemmeti’s paramilitary is starting to resemble a state in itself.
This has only become more pronounced in the context of international grain shortages. Much of the country’s political economy is based on ‘turning rural surpluses into foreign exchange that pays for the basic food and energy needs of urban [customers]’ – inequities requiring the ‘hyper-exploitation’ of Sudan’s peripheries. Over time, such processes have been outsourced to local militias, expediting a ‘militarisation of pastoral livelihoods’ and violent cycles of expropriation. Within this context, Edward Thomas and Magdi el Gizouli describe how the RSF leverages superior military organisation and ‘logistical capabilities’ to swallow up competitors ‘en toto’, extending its control over vast chunks of the agricultural and resource base that conditions Sudan’s (post-oil) system of consumption and production. By supervising the flow of crops, livestock, gold and minerals – a significant proportion of national exports, and by extension foreign currency – Hemmeti has expanded his hold over those ingredients necessary to meet the expectations of Sudanese cities. Failing to satisfy this social contract contributed to Bashir’s fall, and – given Russia and Ukraine account for around 59% of Khartoum’s wheat supply – any rise in global food prices only increases al-Burhan’s dependence on the RSF.
Tensions between the pair could therefore have real fallout. Despite assurances of congeniality, Hemmeti has so far resisted SAF efforts to absorb the RSF and tried to ‘curry favour’ with the pro-democracy movement, claiming ‘the coup has failed’. In turn, al-Burhan saddled his deputy with the Higher Committee for Economic Emergencies – a thankless task deflecting blame from SAF – and is increasingly leaning on Bashir’s old Islamist networks, a staunch anti-RSF constituency, to buy time and perhaps a civic – or pseudo-civic – face for his government. Given the ‘coup cannot serve two masters’, this friction will only become more acute as the regime sags under economic pressure, social upheaval and internal rivalries.
What Happens Next?
Unfortunately, this does not mean there is an obvious solution to the crisis, as proved by inert domestic dialogue and the failure of external peacemaking in its push for compromise.
In the year since the coup, the UN’s mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) and regional organisations such as the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development have tried to facilitate a political resolution, driven by a shared Tripartite Mechanism backed by Western donors. Officially launching in May, the process suffered an immediate ‘credibility deficit’, having not received the necessary ‘ask’ from either ‘pro- or anti-coup parties’. Discussions in June – the ‘Rotana talks’ – were boycotted by most opposition groups, and complementary efforts led by the US and Saudi Arabia appear to be waning.
The challenge partially stems from the heterogeneity of Sudanese ‘street’ politics. Even as mass demonstrations rallied around the broad aim of toppling Bashir back in 2019, there were discrepancies between the longer-term priorities voiced in Khartoum, and those further afield. The realities of transition further exacerbated these divisions, not only exposing gaps along an urban-rural axis, but also revealing contradictions between technocratic strands of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and a slate of horizontally organised, more radical ‘neighbourhood resistance-committees’. Following the coup, such rifts are still very much evident, with competing preferences and an increasingly congested civil marketplace making it difficult to impose clear, consistent or practical boundaries on any participatory process. Although this polycentrism has enabled protesters to better withstand state violence, and there are signs of nascent agreement across key issues, progress is still waylaid by the messy realities of a leaderless social movement striving for systemic change.
Under extreme economic pressure, Sudanese kleptocracy is struggling to satisfy its own beneficiaries as stakeholders compete over diminishing resources to cover rising loyalty costs
Additionally, external donors have limited agency and clout. The government is undoubtedly under pressure, but reports already document the opacity helping Sudan’s coup-makers skirt international sanctions, with ‘complex and dynamic ownership structures’ preserving their control of (and profits from) ‘major financial and commercial institutions’ and ensuring they maintain some semblance of largesse and political capital.
The regime has also proved adept at perfunctory compliance, projecting the appearance of reform, but stripped of functionality. For instance, during the transition, Hemmeti and al-Burhan used extraneous bureaucracy such as a Council of Transitional Partners and Joint Defence and Security Council to undermine Hamdok’s authority. Although seats on the Sovereign Council were distributed to the FFC, participants lacked real sway over security decisions. Opportunities for independent scrutiny were likewise hampered by self-policing in the Constitutional Charter, devolving the mandate for security sector reform to the military itself.
In calling for negotiations and compromise, there is therefore a risk that international stakeholders will simply reproduce these same dynamics, inadvertently ‘rubber stamping’ the rule of Khartoum’s securocrats and lowering the threshold for diplomatic re-engagement without achieving any meaningful change. As observed by Crisis Group, ‘Western allies’ should not overreach ‘lest they accidently suffocate the pro-democracy movement in an attempt to save it’. To do so would continue a well-established trend in Sudanese peacemaking, with exogenous peace projects ‘displac[ing] civil politics and rais[ing] the political currency of violence’.
Such dangers were already evident in al-Burhan’s withdrawal from talks to create a new set of transitional authorities in July. Appearing to acknowledge the need for a civilian led government, he also announced the creation of a ‘Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Rapid Support’, an amorphic entity retaining control over ‘defence tasks and related responsibilities’, elements of foreign policy, oversight of the Central Bank, and ‘some executive functions’. In effect, it was a gesture to appease donor concerns while preserving a grip over the same pillars of Sudan’s political economy that allowed him to launch the coup in the first place. Given his invitation to address the UN General Assembly, the performance may be working.
A 2014 op-ed on Darfur opened with: ‘Sudanese politics is different every week but if you come back after ten years it is exactly the same’. Perhaps this adage holds up: after all, the logic of Bashirism is still there, inherited by a cabal of security tsars.
Yet, there is no denying it is now of a more convoluted flavour. Under extreme economic pressure, Sudanese kleptocracy is struggling to satisfy its own beneficiaries as stakeholders compete over diminishing resources to cover rising loyalty costs. Control mechanisms continue to weaken as protesters brave baton and bullets. At the same time, latent questions over identity and equity are challenging elite social structures along ethnic and geographic lines. Yes, such turbulence conforms with past cycles of coup and revolution, but these dynamics rarely happen in concert, generating new forms of agency and opportunities for change.
Genuine reform is precarious. But the genesis and governance of Sudan’s coup-regime exposes both the dangers of political compromise and the inherent instability of the status quo. International stakeholders would do well to recognise these lessons, understanding the need for systemic overhaul and the risks posed by outside interference.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to email@example.com and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Terrorism and Conflict