Last year, things were largely looking up in the African nation of Sudan, despite the pandemic. Popular protests helped to oust a brutal military dictatorship in 2019, and the joint civil-military transitional government that replaced the dictatorship continued its work throughout 2020. In December, the United States removed the country from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, opening the door to long-sought foreign funding and investment.
But all of that changed Monday, when the Sudanese military arrested five civilian cabinet members and announced a return to military rule. In response, the US froze $700 million in foreign aid funds to the country.
Many within Sudan saw this coming, given recent political maneuvers on the ground. Last month, military officials blamed civilian leaders’ feckless leadership for a prior failed coup attempt. Just two weeks ago, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a Sudanese general and leader of the recent successful coup, gave a speech to army officers calling for a dissolution of the cabinet.
Despite accusations of incompetence, Sudan’s transitional government has actually proven itself fairly adept at addressing some extreme challenges. Recently the government slowed runaway inflation, and gaining favor with the United States was a smart move bound to bring some stability and much-needed foreign cash.
While the progress of the last two years has certainly been uneven, generating considerable dissatisfaction along the way, the people of Sudan seem to be standing firmly against the military. Last week, before the coup, tens of thousands marched in the capital to discourage the apparent gear-up to topple the government. This week, even more have swelled their ranks, as countless Sudanese have taken to the streets reiterating the same call: that the military stand down and allow a transition to a fully civilian government to proceed.
The leaders of the coup will not have an easy time securing themselves. Without the civilian-led 2019 protests that weakened the previous regime of Omar al-Bashir, the military would not have found itself in the transitional government which it has now overthrown. As politics professor Jeffrey A. Sachs notes, Bashir’s 2019 fall was the third time in Sudan’s history since the end of British rule that a civilian movement led a successful push for a new government. Sudan’s military is not up against an easy enemy, but it is impossible to deny the potential for widespread suffering in the near term. Eight protestors are already dead and 140 more are injured.
Despite the potential that the present coup attempt could unravel, Sudan’s political prospects do not look overly hopeful. Its history since independence in 1956 has been marred by more coup attempts than any other country in the same time except Bolivia and Argentina.
As extreme an example as Sudan is, it’s also part of a disturbing global trend of eroding political stability. Counting Monday’s, there have been five successful coups worldwide in 2021: six, if you count Tunisia’s democratic collapse. Between 2015 and 2020, there were three total. No other year of the 21st century saw as many as 2021.
Writing in 2016, noted scholar of democracy Nancy Bermeo theorized that outright coups were no longer fashionable. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the global decline in instability after 1999. In places like Europe—where the popular examples of Poland and Hungary have quietly dismantled democracy while keeping up some appearances—her theory remains spot-on. In those countries, overt coups would likely mean a painful loss of indispensable EU funding.
What can explain this resurgence of bold-faced seizures of power elsewhere is not exactly clear. However, as Jeffrey Feltman, US special envoy to the Horn of Africa, notes, the military in Sudan must have secured some foreign backing to jeopardize $700 million in American funding.
Perhaps in today’s world, waning US dominance in the face of other rising powers has rekindled the imaginations of aspiring autocrats who see new opportunities. Sponsor nations with deep pockets and without commitments to democracy make coups a more feasible business plan than they were a decade ago. It wouldn’t be surprising if Sudan’s General Burhan looked at the Assad regime in Syria—bankrolled by Russia and flimsily opposed by the US—and at China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and wondered, “why not me?”Subscribe to Spectacles