The persistent allure of military coups

Executions and war are not the inevitable sequel to a popular uprising.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus
Image Credit: CSVR-Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

“After me, the deluge,” Louis XV reportedly said back in 1757.

“Be careful what you wish for,” the French king seemed to be saying, “because once I’m gone, the country will go to the dogs, and frankly I don’t care.”

Louis’ remark had a very specific context—an assassination attempt in 1757, a French military defeat at the hands of the Prussians later that year, and predictions of floods in the wake of Halley’s Comet. Through the centuries, however, the phrase has become indelibly linked—avant la lettre—to the French Revolution that removed his son Louis XVI from power and ushered in the horrors of the guillotine and the despotism of Napoleon.

Executions and war are not the inevitable sequel to a popular uprising. The American revolution had a relatively peaceful aftermath. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 was, as the name suggests, pretty soft and smooth. But in both cases, the adverse effects came with a time delay, civil war a half century later for the United States and the separation of the Czech Republic from Slovakia a mere four years after the 1989 changes.

The political transformation of Sudan, meanwhile, has not been smooth at all. Four years after a popular uprising helped to depose a long-ruling despot, the country is now once again descending into a terrifying civil war.

Is there any way to minimize the impact of this deluge of violence and build on the remarkable foundation of political engagement that non-violent activists constructed four years ago?

Taking down a dictator

In June 1989, just as Eastern Europe was beginning its peaceful transition away from communism, Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan in a military coup. Bashir’s rationale was, effectively, “before me, the deluge.” The new leader argued that only he could deploy the force necessary to unify the country.

In 1989, Africa’s then-largest country was six years into a second civil war between the north and the south. A first civil war, from 1955 to 1972, failed to address the grievances of the non-Arab south, which had carried over from the colonial era. Despite Bashir’s intention to end the second civil war, it lasted for another 16 years under his reign. A separate conflict sprang up in Darfur, with the Bashir regime squaring off there against non-Arab rebels. Together with an Arab militia called the Janjaweed, Bashir later stood accused of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in Darfur. In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted the Sudanese president on charges of war crimes, later adding genocide.

Peace has always been provisional in Sudan. The Darfur conflict ended in a ceasefire agreement in 2010, but a peace agreement remains pending. In the long-running north-south conflict, South Sudan became a separate country in 2011. But then, two years later, South Sudan began its own civil war, which lasted until 2020 just as COVID began to spread around the world.

Even as wars raged across the country, Bashir managed to rule for nearly three decades with a mixture of canniness and brutality. A year after his coup in 1989, he executed 28 military officers to consolidate his control over the army. For the next 30 years, Bashir jailed, tortured, and killed his opponents. He exercised complete control over Sudanese society and created such a climate of fear that few dared to stand up to him.

That changed in 2011 when, influenced by the Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring countries, a set of protests broke out in the capital Khartoum and several other places in response to austerity measures imposed by the government. In 2013, Bashir crushed the dissidents with characteristic brutality by killing dozens and arresting thousands more.

In December 2018, protesters returned to the street, again in anger over price hikes. Bashir declared a state of emergency and fell back on his now-familiar tactics of repression. This time, perhaps sensing the aging Bashir’s political fragility, the protesters didn’t back down. Marija Marovic and Zahra Hayder pick up the thread of the story:

Led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and the umbrella opposition coalition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), this nonviolent campaign persisted for months despite repression, culminating in a climactic mass sit-in at the military headquarters in Khartoum. On April 11, the Sudanese army abandoned Bashir, arresting the beleaguered dictator. Yet peaceful demonstrations continued as the opposition rejected the leadership of the junta, known as the Transitional Military Council (TMC), that removed Bashir. Boosted by a wave of protests after security forces killed more than 100 protesters at the sit-in site on June 3, the opposition successfully negotiated an agreement in August for a 39-month democratic transition, to be headed by a Sovereignty Council with power shared between civilians and the military.

Bashir came to power through a military coup, and thus did a military coup unseat him approximately 30 years later. In December 2019, after a trial, Bashir was sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges. In February 2020, the Sudanese government agreed to hand Bashir over to the ICC to be tried on charges of crimes against humanity. When the latest outbreak of violence occurred this month, the 79-year-old ex-leader was still in Kober prison, the same place he’d imprisoned many of his critics.

In October 2021, approximately 26 months into Sudan’s 39-month “democratic transition,” the military took full control of the country. It was the sixth successful coup since 1956, on top of a dozen unsuccessful attempts. Like Bashir and the French kings, the coup leaders declared that the country was at serious risk of instability without the application of a firm hand. A military coup, they were suggesting, functioned like a dike to hold back the flood waters.

Civil War returns

The war now in the headlines is essentially a falling out between rogues. The president, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, heads up the country’s military; his former vice president, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti), is in charge of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary. They were allies in the last two coups, which displaced first Bashir and then the civilian elements of the transitional government. Then they began to argue over how to integrate the Rapid Support Forces into the country’s armed forces. Really they’re just battling over who will be top dog.

It’s hard to decide which of these strongmen has the more compromised history. Dagalo was once the head of the Janjaweed, responsible for horrific crimes during the Darfur war. Burhan was in charge of Sudanese forces fighting in the Saudi-led war in Yemen (where Dagalo, too, commanded a battalion). They both have blood on their hands from their close association with Bashir.

And now their hands are even more blood-stained. So far, hundreds of died during the clashes between these two rivals, and countries are scrambling to evacuate their nationals.

The geopolitics of the war are murky. Russia has been allied with the Sudanese regime for some time, but it apparently hasn’t decided whether to support the government or the paramilitary challenger. Egypt supports Burhan; the UAE backs Dagalo. Other countries have taken Russia’s wait-and-see approach.

The United States has managed, by working behind the scenes, to broker a three-day ceasefire in an effort to negotiate a compromise between the warring factions. However commendable in terms of stanching the bloodletting, this diplomatic approach is actually part of the problem.

By focusing on the strongmen, the international community has given these armed factions even greater legitimacy.

As Jacqueline Burns, a former adviser to the U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, explains in her reflections on past negotiations, “We were so focused on getting concessions and splitting power between the armed groups to reach a signed peace agreement that, despite paying lip service to the need for inclusivity and sustainable peace, we lost sight of this longer-term goal.”

The very people who put their lives on the line for democracy when they demonstrated against Bashir were not given a place at the negotiating table. Burns continues:

despite their leading role in the uprising that resulted in the eventual ouster of Mr. al-Bashir, women were not substantially included in the transitional government, and were only marginally included in political and peace negotiations. Instead, yet another peace agreement facilitated by a third party brought the armed rebel movements to the table and into the transitional government.

Guys with guns: when they’re in control of the “peace” negotiations, it’s no surprise when they later pull out their weapons to preserve that same “peace.”

What’s next for Sudan?

It’s not like Sudan’s two military rivals are fighting over enormous wealth. Sudan is a very poor country. Though not the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita GDP, nearly half of Sudan’s population live below the poverty (and many experts think that number is much closer to 80 percent). Most Sudanese get by on subsistence agriculture, but the worst drought in 40 years has plunged two-thirds of the population into severe food insecurity, the highest levels ever in the country. The war has led to a suspension of humanitarian aid operations, which has only made matters worse.

The endgame for Sudan is unclear in terms of which military force will end up on top. The eternal challenge for the country is to break the cycle of violence and military coups. This is no easy task. Thailand, a much richer and more stable country, has suffered through a number of coups as well, the most recent in 2014, and the military remains in charge. What hope can water-poor, warlord-rich Sudan have by comparison?

Sudan does have a resilient civil society. Lawyers have led the charge to hold leaders accountable, doctors have released information on who has been killed and injured in protests, journalists have formed their own union, the women’s coalition MANSAM has pressed for gender equality and women farmers have been at the forefront of addressing climate change, and political parties participated in guiding the transition away from military rule.

The military leaders hold a trump card, however, and that is naked force. They justify that force by predicting that after them, the deluge. But it usually turns out that they don’t hold back the flood. They cause the flood.

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