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Targeted Sanctions Can Help Restore Democracy in Sudan

Focusing on key military leaders and their networks can force the regime to change course.

By , a U.S. senator from Delaware and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and , the Co-Founder of The Sentry and the senior advisor to the Clooney Foundation for Justice.
Sudanese protesters gather in the busy Jabra district of southern Khartoum on Nov. 25, 2021.
Sudanese protesters gather in the busy Jabra district of southern Khartoum on Nov. 25, 2021.
Sudanese protesters gather in the busy Jabra district of southern Khartoum on Nov. 25, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

The struggle is on for Sudan’s future, and the outcome of the current strife between the kleptocratic military and the resilient protest movement in the streets will have consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa for the United States, its allies, and its adversaries. Russia held talks in Moscow with senior Sudanese military officials as Russian troops were invading Ukraine, and is suspected of involvement in the military coup in Khartoum in October. Egypt and Persian Gulf countries are reluctant to risk short-term stability to support a democratic transition in their neighborhood. China wants a business partner.

Though Europe supports a democratic transition, it does not want hundreds of thousands of new migrants heading north; Sudanese regime leaders have suggested this will happen if the international community does not support the military-led government.

The Sudanese people, however, are not backing down in the defense of their political gains. Even in the face of persistent killings, sexual violence, and arrests by the regime, a massive, nationwide pro-democracy movement has for months maintained nonviolent street protests. The determination these thousands of people have shown as they risk their lives against heavily armed security forces should serve as a reminder the world over of how precious democracy truly is.

The struggle is on for Sudan’s future, and the outcome of the current strife between the kleptocratic military and the resilient protest movement in the streets will have consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa for the United States, its allies, and its adversaries. Russia held talks in Moscow with senior Sudanese military officials as Russian troops were invading Ukraine, and is suspected of involvement in the military coup in Khartoum in October. Egypt and Persian Gulf countries are reluctant to risk short-term stability to support a democratic transition in their neighborhood. China wants a business partner.

Though Europe supports a democratic transition, it does not want hundreds of thousands of new migrants heading north; Sudanese regime leaders have suggested this will happen if the international community does not support the military-led government.

The Sudanese people, however, are not backing down in the defense of their political gains. Even in the face of persistent killings, sexual violence, and arrests by the regime, a massive, nationwide pro-democracy movement has for months maintained nonviolent street protests. The determination these thousands of people have shown as they risk their lives against heavily armed security forces should serve as a reminder the world over of how precious democracy truly is.

The United States and its European partners have long been leading voices for democracy and human rights in Sudan. Now, they have the chance to back up words with action.

The United States and its European partners have long been leading voices for democracy and human rights in Sudan. Now, they have the chance to back up words with action and play a critical role in checking the military’s stranglehold on the country and building a new political reality in Sudan.

A decade ago, the United States was the leading international actor in Sudan, playing a major part in ending the decades long north-south war and supporting the independence referendum for South Sudan. Now, the United States once again has the chance to create a path for democracy and accountability to take hold in Sudan. The challenge is creating the necessary leverage to achieve that.

The United States should first invest in Sudan’s resistance committees and other grassroots organizations—with technical support and capacity-building resources, and by ensuring they are at the negotiating table for any political processes. Washington should not stop there. Sudan’s kleptocratic military leaders have throttled the nation’s economy and used it to enrich and entrench themselves. A modern, comprehensive set of sanctions on the coup leaders and their networks will disrupt the military’s revenue streams and their grip on power, creating an opening for the nation’s nascent democracy movement to grow.


Since its independence in 1955, Sudan has been beset by one destabilizing crisis after another, despite civil society pressing for democracy, peace, and clean government. The coup on Oct. 25, 2021—which brought the democratic transition to a halt—is more the norm than the exception in Sudanese history. Military leaders have controlled the levers of political power for 53 of its 66 years of existence.

These current street protests in response to the coup are much better organized than they were during previous popular uprisings in 1964 and 1985, which both resulted in short-lived civilian governments later overthrown by the military. If they are to ultimately succeed, however, they must have help from the international community to hold military and political actors accountable and cut off access to the funds that military leaders have relied upon to bide their time before reasserting themselves.

It is understandable to ask whether sanctions would work in this instance; after all, they were one of the many tools the international community used to address Sudan’s multiple crises in the past. In the 1990s, the U.S. government imposed blanket sanctions on the entire economy aimed at countering Sudan’s support for Osama bin Laden and massive human rights violations, but over time, these blunt force policy measures helped accelerate an economic implosion caused by ill-advised regime policies, massive security sector spending, and corruption on a grand scale.

Peace negotiations led by the United States, United Nations, and others did help bring an end to the north-south war in Sudan, but at the expense of further empowering those with the biggest guns economically and politically. Cutoffs of development aid by donors have deprived the population of services that sitting governments never showed an interest in providing, while failing to harm the indifferent autocrats they were intended to influence.

The problem with all these external interventions is that they have never truly targeted the core of these issues: a deeply entrenched kleptocracy controlled by leading networks within the military and security sector, and their domestic and foreign allies and enablers.

The comprehensive sanctions of the 1990s may have failed, but the sanctioning tools the U.S. government has at its disposal in 2022 are vastly different: more effective, focused, and humane. Previous sanctions didn’t actually target the key actors destabilizing the country; the modernized playbook for effective sanctions has evolved in the last 30 years, away from economywide or individual sanctions.

Sanctions work when they are aimed at not only individual officials but also, more importantly, their networks—the companies they’re associated with, the family members they use as proxies, and the facilitators that move their money and profit from their misdeeds.

Sudan and its military provide a textbook target for such modernized sanctions. For decades, Sudan’s military and security sector have hoarded commercial opportunities, particularly after former dictator Omar al-Bashir came to power in a previous coup in 1989. Oil, gold, and other resources fueled the concentration of asset ownership in an increasingly small network of officials. That network changed slightly when Bashir was deposed in 2019, but the structural control of large segments of the economy remained unchanged.

The newest member of the kleptocratic network is the leader of the janjaweed militia-turned-paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, or “Hemeti.” Hemeti is the official who led a delegation to Moscow this past week as the Russian incursion into Ukraine was unfolding. The janjaweed provided the foot soldiers for the Darfur genocide, and Hemeti was deeply complicit.

Companies linked to the Sudanese military, should be the primary targets for U.S. and European financial pressure on the coup leaders.

His companies are involved in mining, construction, real estate, agriculture, and procurement. They also profit from the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and human beings. Violence is spiking in Darfur again, part of a yearlong increase in instability there, with its roots in the genocidal policies from which Hemeti and the military have profited for years, leaving millions of non-Arab Sudanese in squalid displacement and refugee camps.

The Sudanese army consolidated and expanded its extensive commercial holdings under Bashir. The military’s commercial empire is managed by the Defense Industries System, which was formerly known as the Military Industry Corporation. The Giad conglomerate, the crown jewel of the Defense Industries System, is front and center in the army’s stranglehold on Sudan’s economy, alongside holding companies of more recent creation such as the Etegahat Group and Zadna International Company for Investment.

Companies like these, linked to the Sudanese military, should be the primary targets for U.S. and European financial pressure on the coup leaders, as well as the commanders who hold leadership positions within these companies. Significant attention should also be devoted to the mining sector, given the large number of military-affiliated companies involved throughout that industry. Addressing the fundamental power imbalance and warped incentive structures that gave way to the most recent coup in this way will be a crucial piece of any strategy to revive Sudan’s democratic transition.


Currently, one vehicle to enact these sanctions is the Sudan Democracy Act, which has already begun to move through both the Senate and House of Representatives. It would give the Biden administration the authority to block the assets of, and impose visa bans on, the actors undermining the transition to democracy in Sudan and their economic interests. The administration can also act immediately by issuing an executive order creating these authorities or use Global Magnitsky sanctions to begin imposing consequences.

To further strengthen these financial measures, global banks, as the front-line institutions tasked with monitoring, detecting, and reporting suspicious activity, need to be engaged in the effort to block Sudanese spoilers and their enablers from the international financial system. The cabal of coup leaders would be a good place to start.

If properly implemented, targeted sanctions on the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces’ leadership could be a transformative policy measure that would strengthen pro-democracy forces and help the Sudanese people in the streets risking their lives for democracy and freedom.

Within days of the introduction of the Sudan Democracy Act, military leaders made serious concessions to temporarily restore the authority of Sudan’s civilian prime minister, and you could find banners in the streets of Khartoum thanking the lawmakers responsible for the legislation. These protesters know well the source of the economic power that drove and sustained the coup. They know they will need the help of the international community to weaken that power and give them a fighting chance at a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic future.

Once again, the U.S. government finds itself being asked to assert its leadership in Sudan in a way that can bring peace to the streets and restore power to the people. Modernized sanctions that target the responsible military networks will work and help bring about a new government of the people in a nation far too long known for dictatorship.

Chris Coons is a U.S. senator from Delaware and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. Twitter: @ChrisCoons

John Prendergast is the Co-Founder of The Sentry and the senior advisor to the Clooney Foundation for Justice.

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