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How the U.N. and the West Failed Sudan

Self-delusion and negligence stopped governments and aid agencies from facilitating a genuine and lasting transition to democracy.

By , a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity.
A Sudanese man waves his country's flag as he stands in front of a barricaded street during protests in the capital Khartoum to mark the second anniversary of the revolt that toppled the previous government, on Dec. 19, 2020.
A Sudanese man waves his country's flag as he stands in front of a barricaded street during protests in the capital Khartoum to mark the second anniversary of the revolt that toppled the previous government, on Dec. 19, 2020.
A Sudanese man waves his country's flag as he stands in front of a barricaded street during protests in the capital Khartoum to mark the second anniversary of the revolt that toppled the previous government, on Dec. 19, 2020. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

Three years ago last month, Sudan overthrew its autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir. For the United States, the United Nations, and the international community, Sudan’s revolution was seen as a historic opportunity to transition a dictatorship into a democracy. The United States pledged $700 million to support the transition to democracy in addition to around $600 million in annual assistance. The U.N. set up a mission to support the elections. French leader Emmanuel Macron held a high-profile international donor conference to support the civilian government.

But today, Sudan’s democratic movement is all but stamped out. A military coup against the civilian prime minister in October 2021 halted hopes of a real transition.

I had an up-close view of the revolution as a reporter but wanted to live through Sudan’s transition as well as one could as a foreigner. I worked as a midlevel U.N. official and for nongovernmental organizations in Sudan while conducting candid conversations with activists, the ousted prime minister, and military officials for a book with other authors that chronicled Sudan’s revolution.

Three years ago last month, Sudan overthrew its autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir. For the United States, the United Nations, and the international community, Sudan’s revolution was seen as a historic opportunity to transition a dictatorship into a democracy. The United States pledged $700 million to support the transition to democracy in addition to around $600 million in annual assistance. The U.N. set up a mission to support the elections. French leader Emmanuel Macron held a high-profile international donor conference to support the civilian government.

But today, Sudan’s democratic movement is all but stamped out. A military coup against the civilian prime minister in October 2021 halted hopes of a real transition.

I had an up-close view of the revolution as a reporter but wanted to live through Sudan’s transition as well as one could as a foreigner. I worked as a midlevel U.N. official and for nongovernmental organizations in Sudan while conducting candid conversations with activists, the ousted prime minister, and military officials for a book with other authors that chronicled Sudan’s revolution.

There was a window of opportunity for reform  that was missed by technocrats and foreign nations and institutions that wanted to support democracy.

The story of the international community’s role in Sudan details the limits of foreign assistance, but also a story of self-delusion and negligence. Make no mistake, Sudan’s military and politicians are responsible for the fate of their own country. Legacies of corruption and violence remained after the fall of Bashir. It meant that Sudan’s transition was always going to be bumpy—if it worked at all.

The civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was always clear that he expected a regression in Sudan’s revolution. Hamdok and other technocrats in the civilian government lacked political skill to use the little clout they had and were constrained by a constitution that gave the military near-total power.

There was a window of opportunity to make important reforms before a counterrevolution that was missed not only by these technocrats but also by those foreign nations and institutions that wanted to support democracy. Lessons from the international community’s assistance to Sudan are important, because Bashir will not be the last dictator to be overthrown. If democracy supporters want to do a better job of supporting transitions to democracy, they must learn from Khartoum’s botched transition.


The power dynamic of Sudan’s transition was never clearer than when Hamdok became perhaps the world’s first homeless prime minister. When Hamdok arrived in Khartoum in 2019, the army chief and leader of the country, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, refused to give the new prime minister any of Bashir’s old palaces to stay in. Instead, I first met Hamdok a few days after he was appointed prime minister in a pillared house lent to him by a prominent family in Sudan; it felt as if the head of government had been put up in an Airbnb.

The housing dispute represented a key flaw in Sudan’s revolution. The transitional constitution kept the military in power for 18 months and gave little real power to Hamdok and the civilian government. The power imbalance presented a dilemma for the international community: Was Sudan’s transition real?

As Hamdok explained his governing strategy to me, his normal speaking voice was so low that it was barely audible. I needed to lean in as far as I could just to hear how one of his biggest priorities was to normalize relations with the international community. (I would come to see Hamdok as a very smart man who didn’t like speaking in public—a crucial deficiency for a politician.)

Hamdok explained to me in a 2019 interview for The Associated Press how for nearly three decades Sudan had been listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and essentially cut off from the international monetary system. “We were treated as a pariah state,” Hamdok told me.

Debt rescheduling and budget support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were paused during the critical first year of Hamdok’s tenure. 

Hamdok’s basic strategy as prime minister was to improve the lives of Sudanese by boosting the economy and the civilian government’s popularity so the military could not carry out a coup. But Hamdok needed cash, quickly. Huge debts from the previous government meant there was simply no money. Prices for bread, electricity, and staple products were skyrocketing due to inflation that reached 359 percent in 2021. It was an economy in free fall. Having Washington drop its state sponsor of terrorism designation on Sudan was the “key to anything that we can do in this country,” Hamdok explained to me in the AP interview.

But help from the U.S. government was delayed. The battle inside the Trump administration to lift Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list would take more than a year. It meant that debt rescheduling and budget support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were paused during the critical first year of Hamdok’s tenure. The delay slashed the transitional government’s chances of success. The limbo was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which cratered Sudan’s economy as it contracted by 3.6 percent in 2020.

Some U.S. officials explained to me that they were not sure if Sudan’s transition was real, and they did not want to provide support that ended up in the military’s hands if it took over the country. Other officials said that those in Washington who had the clout to push through the assistance package were afraid to make a decision.

When the Trump administration finally announced it would lift the terrorism designation in October 2020 and give financial support to Sudan’s transition, it was not just because of altruism. Removal from the terrorism list and eventual financial assistance was tied to Sudan’s recognition of Israel under the Abraham Accords. Leaders in Khartoum felt that the United States held their transition hostage in order to support President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Despite American rhetoric of supporting Sudan’s transition to democracy, in practice the United States was stalling.


When help to Sudan finally came, it wasn’t in the right form. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, managed the majority of a one-time fund of $700 million in addition to around what U.S. officials told me was a total of around $600 million in annual assistance to help the transition and address humanitarian issues in Sudan. Each Western embassy had its own similar aid package, and together they had more than a billion dollars each year to address poverty, respond to violence, and support democracy.

But that money could not just be written in a check to Hamdok or Sudan. The United States and other nations had to spend their money mostly on programs carried out by the U.N., NGOs, and contractors. The programs included systems to monitor violence in Sudan, the purchase of Sudanese wheat, and paying salaries of staff in Hamdok’s office. Some of these programs had minor success, but they never addressed the fundamental root causes of violence and corruption. Many of the programs supported individual interests at the expense of what Hamdok needed. It was a very expensive but small Band-Aid on a gaping wound that kept bleeding.

Humanitarian officials at embassies across Khartoum admitted to me that they didn’t know how to spend the money they had been allocated.

As the transition went on, finding ways to spend money actually became very difficult. Humanitarian officials at embassies across Khartoum admitted to me that they didn’t know how to spend the money they had been allocated. Supply of this programmatic aid exceeded demand, so the massive amounts of advisors, programs, and trainings simply couldn’t be absorbed.

As of the end of 2021, much of the $700 million the U.S. government had pledged to Sudan’s transition was not obligated, according to U.S. officials, meaning the money hadn’t actually been spent. Diplomats from other embassies admitted to me that they gave money to U.N. agencies in Sudan even though they knew it would be ineffective, because they didn’t know how else to use it during their budgeting cycle.

What money was spent on productive programs was rarely coordinated so there was huge duplication of assistance from each donor nation. For example, diplomats told me that at one point three different donors funded communications efforts in Hamdok’s office that did nearly the same thing.

Hamdok needed cash quickly to make electricity cheaper, make bread more available, and offer funds to mobilize political supporters. Giving the money directly to Hamdok probably would have been more efficient. Instead Hamdok got an army of Western consultants who didn’t really know the local context and implemented expensive programs with rare success.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the international community was failing to push for reforms that would have made assistance more effective. Under Bashir’s government the Humanitarian Aid Commission was under the umbrella of the country’s intelligence service.

The intelligence agencies were masterful at stealing, impairing, or outright blocking foreign assistance. Foreign aid was used as a tool of political coercion by the old regime. However, during the transition the system of coercion remained. Hamdok alluded to me a few times that he didn’t have the power to confront the military and intelligence services that benefited from corruption.

The examples of siphoned or outright blocked aid were overwhelming. For example, at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, military intelligence blocked the testing of COVID-19 swabs, it seemed for no other reason than they reflexively viewed foreign aid as something that threatened their system of coercion. U.N. officials reported being threatened with expulsion for raising these issues publicly.

When I was visiting an area of Sudan affected by conflict, a group of women in colorful shawls walked up to me as I conducted interviews. The women told me that to be included on lists to receive aid they had to have sex with community leaders who had been appointed by the government. “If the result of [aid workers] bringing money to leaders is that they buy women, this is not good,” one woman told me. Just as shocking was the near-absent diplomatic effort to fix this type of wrongdoing despite the billions of dollars pumped into Sudan.

The U.N. system made Sudan’s transition to democracy a priority, but its results were hard to see. In 2020, the U.N. created a new mission, the U.N. Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), to support the transition, and it phased out the troubled U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur. During discussions to create UNITAMS, I saw how senior U.N. officials undermined its goal of helping Sudan’s transition, because they saw it as an opportunity to get more money for their agencies.

One morning while sitting with another diplomat over breakfast, the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Sudan, Paola Emerson, told us that the new mission shouldn’t have peacekeepers, because without troops there would be more money for other U.N. agencies like hers. The other diplomat and I sat there stunned. Not only were U.N. agencies funded through different mechanisms than peacekeepers, but this statement also ignored the new round of conflict brewing in Darfur. (More than 430,000 people in Sudan were displaced due to conflict, mostly in Darfur, from January to October 2021.)

Diplomats left for their photo-ops with their teams congratulating each other on a successful visit. Meanwhile, the humanitarian response was failing.

OCHA’s opposition to peacekeepers was hardly determinative, but it spoke to a system that seemed to value milking money at all costs and career politicking rather than actually helping Sudanese. I saw a few weeks later how OCHA and the peacekeeping mission blocked efforts to detail crimes in Darfur that had been committed with the assistance of the government, despite clear internal information.

I arrived in refugee camps along the Ethiopian border shortly after Ethiopia’s civil war began in November 2020. For days there was little water, food, or clothing for refugees who had survived gruesome atrocities. Whenever a senior diplomat planned to visit the camp for a photo-op, U.N. officials would spend days before their arrival preparing and plastering as many of their agency’s logos across water tanks, trucks, and other items. I often felt that the goal of the U.N. and some NGOs was to grab more money rather than actually help people. Walking through the camp sometimes felt like surfing the internet without a pop-up blocker.

Diplomats left for their photo-ops with their teams congratulating each other on a successful visit. Meanwhile, the humanitarian response was uncoordinated and failing at basic tasks such as gender-based violence prevention. To be sure, I saw how aid gave people shelters to live in, children schools to learn in, and clean water. Thousands would have died without emergency help. But it was no excuse for how the Ethiopia refugee response would become horribly mismanaged by the U.N. despite it being fully funded.


The last time I saw Hamdok was in June 2021. He was more upbeat than ever. A peace deal promised to end civil war in part of Sudan. The economy was finally improving. There seemed to be hope the quarrelsome politicians in his coalition would unite.

It came as no surprise, then, that when there was finally a glimmer of hope for Hamdok, the military removed him in a coup on Oct. 25, 2021. It’s hard to speculate if the international community could have changed the eventual outcome in Sudan. Sudan’s military controlled the transition, and technocratic politicians such as Hamdok were not effective with the little power they had.

Yet just because Western nations’ ability to influence foreign nations is limited doesn’t mean it’s totally absent. Hopefully next time the West will do better.

 

This article is adapted from Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy: The Promise and Betrayal of a People’s Revolution, by Willow Berridge, Alex de Waal, Justin Lynch, and Raga Makawi, Oxford University Press, 280 pp., $30, August 2022 (already published by Hurst in the U.K.)

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

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