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To Safeguard Sudan’s Democratic Transition, Act Now

Abdalla Hamdok’s resignation has sparked a constitutional crisis. Only international support can keep the country’s democratization on track.

By , a former assistant chief of staff to Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Sudanese protesters flash victory signs and lift national flags as they demonstrate in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 25, 2021.
Sudanese protesters flash victory signs and lift national flags as they demonstrate in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 25, 2021.
Sudanese protesters flash victory signs and lift national flags as they demonstrate in Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 25, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 1, Sudan marked the 66th anniversary of its independence. Just one year ago, the Sudanese people anticipated that this would be an anniversary to celebrate, bringing the country a step closer to civilian-led government and democracy. Indeed, Sudan has been held up as a model of hope amid global despair and democratic backsliding after the success of its 2019 revolution in overthrowing an Islamist regime led by President Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted in 2009 by the International Criminal Court for his role in atrocities in Darfur. 

Sudan opened to the world and gradually restored diplomatic ties with the international community. The removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in December 2020 seemed to promise the restoration of the country’s reputation around the world. Finally, it seemed that Sudan, too often associated with civil wars and military coups, was advancing steadily on the path to stability.

However, the military coup on Oct. 25, 2021 threatened this hope and returned the country to a state of instability. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander in chief of the Sudanese armed forces and chairman of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, overthrew the agreement that had brought together civilian and military leaders in a 39-month transitional arrangement. Acting outside the constitutional agreement, Burhan expelled the civilian component, dissolved the transitional government, and arrested ministers and senior politicians, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

On Jan. 1, Sudan marked the 66th anniversary of its independence. Just one year ago, the Sudanese people anticipated that this would be an anniversary to celebrate, bringing the country a step closer to civilian-led government and democracy. Indeed, Sudan has been held up as a model of hope amid global despair and democratic backsliding after the success of its 2019 revolution in overthrowing an Islamist regime led by President Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted in 2009 by the International Criminal Court for his role in atrocities in Darfur. 

Sudan opened to the world and gradually restored diplomatic ties with the international community. The removal of Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in December 2020 seemed to promise the restoration of the country’s reputation around the world. Finally, it seemed that Sudan, too often associated with civil wars and military coups, was advancing steadily on the path to stability.

However, the military coup on Oct. 25, 2021 threatened this hope and returned the country to a state of instability. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander in chief of the Sudanese armed forces and chairman of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, overthrew the agreement that had brought together civilian and military leaders in a 39-month transitional arrangement. Acting outside the constitutional agreement, Burhan expelled the civilian component, dissolved the transitional government, and arrested ministers and senior politicians, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

The following month, on Nov. 21, Burhan signed an agreement with Hamdok, which returned the prime minister to his position but did not restore the previous constitutional order. The repercussions of this agreement continued to worsen, culminating in Hamdok’s resignation this past weekend. 
There is a risk that the military will grant itself additional powers under the state of emergency and unilaterally appoint a new prime minister. That would be illegitimate and unconstitutional.

Indeed, from the first moments of the October coup, the Sudanese people launched a fierce, determined, and peaceful resistance. Economic and daily life remains slowed and, in some cases, frozen since the day the military seized power. In the months since the coup, millions of Sudanese people of all ages, political stripes, and ethnicities have mobilized in street protests to reject the military takeover.

The authorities met this peaceful expression and association with violence, repression, and the increasing use of force. Security forces have killed at least 45 people with live rounds. On Dec. 30 alone, five people were killed, dozens wounded, hospitals stormed, communication and internet cut off, and media outlets violently attacked

The prime minister tendered his resignation because his repeated initiatives to forge consensus between the political and military forces had failed—in essence, the pillars of his Nov. 21 agreement collapsed. The agreement’s priorities were to stop the bloodshed, stop violence against peaceful protesters, and give Hamdok full powers to perform his executive duties. None of those things happened. 

Hamdok’s resignation has now opened the doors to all possibilities in Sudan, as it puts the military and civilians in direct confrontation. This confrontation is not one that can be resolved through a technical fix. In fact, his resignation sparks a constitutional crisis. The Transitional Legislative Council has the authority to choose the prime minister if the position becomes vacant. However, the council has not yet been formed.

Absent this body, Article 18-3 of Sudan’s post-2019 transitional constitution, which was not suspended at the time of the Oct. 25 coup, grants the Forces of Freedom and Change, the coalition of political forces that led the 2019 revolution and negotiated the transitional constitutional arrangements, the power to choose the prime minister in the event the position becomes vacant. 

Now, there is a risk that the military will grant itself additional powers under the state of emergency and unilaterally appoint a new prime minister. Such unilateral moves would be illegitimate and unconstitutional—and unacceptable to protesters and pro-democracy leaders.


The Sudanese political transition represented a new glimmer of hope for the establishment of democracy and stability in the region. Despite regular comparisons of Sudan’s revolution to the Arab Spring, the country offered a pathway out of authoritarianism that was distinct from the trajectories of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Looking toward the Horn of Africa, Sudan’s success cannot be understated in determining the prospects for ending the civil war in Ethiopia and resolving the outstanding issues between the two countries related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and disputes over border areas.

Looking west, the new governing equation in Chad following Idriss Déby’s death is linked to and impacted by parties in the Sudanese transitional government, most notably, the Rapid Support Forces and the armed movements from Darfur. The intense increase in violence in Darfur foreshadows renewed civil war in the region as the national political elite’s agreement collapses. This would import new instability into both Chad and Libya, where Sudanese militias are widely deployed. 

Looking south, Sudan’s transitional government should be serving as a mediator and guarantor of peace as South Sudan approaches the final year of its peace agreement. With security sector reform and elections on the horizon, Sudan’s absence cannot come at a worse time. 

The collapse of the democratic transition in Sudan would be catastrophic.

Furthermore, the risk of armed conflicts between the two countries over their outstanding border disputes, either the status of the Abyei region or the many unresolved boundary delimitations, increases dramatically under a military regime in Sudan.

What happens in Sudan is not simply an African problem. It touches at the heart of the global competition between the democratic, rules-based order and those countries offering alternative authoritarian approaches. The collapse of the civil democratic transition in Sudan will strengthen the Russian presence in the region.

Russia has actively sought to conclude agreements with the Sudanese military to establish a naval base on the Red Sea coast. There have been numerous reports of the extensive presence of the Russian Wagner Group throughout Sudan and linking its activities to the Oct. 25 military coup. Russia’s presence in Sudan is not surprising, given Wagner forces’ engagement across the Sahel and their activities in mining, money laundering, military exercises, and gray-zone security tasks.

In short, the collapse of the democratic transition in Sudan would be catastrophic—for Sudan’s neighbors, for the global system, and for those who continue to stand with the pro-democracy protesters in the streets. There is still opportunity to act, but the window is closing. And Sudanese cannot and should not have to act alone. 


An internationally facilitated, inclusive political process is needed to end this crisis and begin a renewed political transition. It is essential to include new influential forces that had the loudest voices in resisting the coup, such as resistance committees. There is a risk that in the moment of crisis Sudanese political elites will repeat their previous mistakes and negotiate a deal behind closed doors that falls short of the hopes of the Sudanese people. Meaningful engagement of the voices of resistance committees can prevent a recourse to empty slogans and further division.

Similarly, there can be no real democratic transition in Sudan without completing the peace process, and there can be no inclusive process without the participation of all these actors. The 2020 peace deal between the transitional government and various groups in Darfur, the Blue Nile region, and the east failed to bring on board the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (Al-Hilu) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (Abdel-Wahed Nour).

These are the main rebel movements that have not signed a peace agreement yet in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur regions, respectively. Their role in any prospective peace process is crucial. There will be complex issues related to governance, religion and state, land ownership, and security arrangements and reform, among others. These groups have the right, if not the duty, to discuss and present their priorities on broad national political issues.

An internationally facilitated political process requires leadership, mandate, commitment, and resources. Fortunately, several of these building blocks are in place and ready to be activated, and now is the moment to activate them. Earlier in the transition, the  U.N. Security Council established, at the request of the civilian cabinet, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, or Unitams, to support progress toward democratic governance, protection and promotion of human rights, and sustainable peace. 

This mandate provides a direct opening for Unitams to engage actively in the restoration of the democratic transition in Sudan. A U.N. mission cannot do this alone. Security Council members need to lend their leverage and capacity. A panel of eminent and internationally recognized personalities—adopting the model and structure of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation—can signal global commitment and effectively influence all parties to come to the table to agree on the arrangements needed for a democratic civilian-led government in Sudan.

Freedom, peace, and justice need not just be slogans of Sudan’s revolution.

Burhan and other military leaders, including his deputy—the commander of the infamous Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemeti—have a lot at stake. In addition to the risks of direct individual sanctions against them in case the coup continues, they and their institutions need to discuss the transitional justice process and agree to procedures for truth and national reconciliation. The Sudanese people have clearly expressed their categorical rejection of the return of any totalitarian military rule to the country. The fate that the ousted Bashir faced is still likely on their minds.

Today in Sudan, reaching a deal also has to extend beyond the political and military elite to respond to the consistent, dedicated call of the street. The events of the past two years are a reminder that any future agreement needs strong guarantors who can safeguard and monitor its implementation. This means continued facilitation through complex, charged issues such as security sector reform, criminal and transitional justice, drafting a new constitution, and free and fair elections.

The Sudanese people will reach agreement on the agenda and substance of their own future, but assistance in structuring and facilitating the political process and safeguarding it will require the backing and capabilities of the international community.

The cost of establishing and mediating a proper political process that includes all Sudanese actors now is immeasurably cheaper than the costs and consequences of allowing the collapse of the democratic transition in Sudan later. The international community knows all too well the costs of humanitarian aid operations in the event of the reemergence of civil war in Darfur, Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains. The country and the region have seen firsthand the risks and dangers of the spread of terrorism, radicalization, and conflict-induced displacement and forced migration. And it is nearly impossible to overstate the costs of another failed attempt at democratization in the region, especially if the countries that so often champion democracy fail to stand with those defending it on the front lines.

Freedom, peace, and justice need not just be slogans of Sudan’s revolution. Standing with the Sudanese people to achieve them would represent a victory for stability, equality, and the promise of democracy far beyond the country’s borders. The international community needs to act quickly and forcefully now to avert an explosion, rather than reacting later and seeking to put out the fire.

Amgad Fareid Eltayeb is a former assistant chief of staff to Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, serving in that role from January 2020 to February 2021.

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