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Military coup in Sudan threatens African democracy

James clay explores why there have been an unusually high number of coups in Africa during 2021.

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ON 25 OCTOBER, the military took over rule in Sudan, putting the prime minister under house arrest, abolishing the Sovereign Council and removing all civilian aspects of government. With the claim that military rule was necessary in order to prevent another civil war, General Abdel Fattah Burhan shifted Sudan further and further away from democracy. The USA has responded to this by withdrawing $700 million in aid for Sudan, clearly demonstrating the West’s view when it comes to protecting democracy.

Gaining independence from the British empire in 1956, Sudan has seen more than its fair share of political upheaval. Since then, there have been three revolutions and five military take-overs – the last one being only in 2019. This ended the thirty-year domination of Omar al-Bashir, with an agreement promising elections in 2022 after a brief transitional government, made up of both civilians and the military. Bringing the transitional stage to a sudden and violent end in October, General Burhan has now promised elections by July2023 – something many doubt considering the military’s use of the brutal Rapid Support Forces to suppress pro-democracy groups in Khartoum.

Omar Al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2008 for alleged crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes due to his government’s response to the conflict in Darfur since 2003. Despite a comprehensive peace agreement being signed in August 2020,this conflict is a continuous problem for the Sudanese authorities.

Unfortunately, this coup represents a very worrying trend currently taking place across the African continent. In the early 2000s, the African Union promised a ‘no coups policy’ which, it would appear, is failing to prevent military takeovers. In this year alone, there have been four successful coups in Africa, occurring in Chad, Guinea, Mali and now Sudan. Two other attempts in Sudan and Nigeria this year, although unsuccessful, further add to the threat posed by various militaries. To put this into perspective, in the previous five years, there were only three successful military coups across Africa. Progress towards democracy, or at least political stability, was seen as becoming a reality across Africa but the events of 2021 suggest a different picture.

Most democratic governments in Africa lack the checks and balances necessary to prevent democratic deceit which often comes in the form of press censorship and corrupt judiciaries. On top of this, many armed groups continue to deny the legitimacy of democratically elected governments as current political institutions haven’t had the time to plant their roots deeply enough for long-lasting subsistence. These problems have been pretty constant for the last few decades so fail to explain why 2021, in particular, has seen an unusually high number of coups within the African continent.

In the last few years, the rise of jihadism, particularly in north Africa, has posed a significant threat to democracy. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram, for example, is an Islamic terrorist organisation, which has become increasingly active, in the north of Africa, since 2015. During previous decades, the African Union, not only roundly condemned military coups, but also punished the perpetrators through economic sanctions and other punitive measures. Some have argued that today, though, political leaders throughout Africa would rather have stable and militarily strong governments to act as a bulwark to Islamic extremism- even if this impinges upon democracy.

A further recent development is the role of geopolitical tensions between global superpowers that play out within Africa. In order to expand global influence and rival the west, both Russia and China have tried to cosy up to African leaders. Russia, for example, hires mercenaries to protect certain African leaders while also training their armies. In an effort to avoid alienating their current African allies, the west now has a tendency to either ignore or not fully condemn military coups.

Covid-19 has undeniably had an effect when it comes to eroding democracy within Africa. On top of the obvious central government power grab that comes with lockdowns, the economic implications of Covid-19 have arguably been more influential. Coming out of the pandemic, Sudan, along with other African nations, have suffered fuel shortages as a result of the global supply chain problems. Economic contraction, rising inflation and fluctuating commodity prices have also hampered the ability of democratically elected governments to justify why they deserve to remain in office.

The future of Sudanese democracy does not look bright and despite the promises of General Abdel Fattah Burhan, fair and free elections are highly unlikely to occur any time soon. Advocates for democracy have a long way to go until the forces fighting to suppress and subdue the will of the people have been swept from the land. This state of paralysis within Africa clearly disproves the notion that history is a straight and narrow track towards progress.

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