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Why Sudan's Return to Civilian Rule Can't be a Short-Term Project


The rivalry between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which helped overthrow Sudan's civilian administration in October 2021, derives from the two sides' disagreements on how to begin a new internationally backed transition with civilian groups. In early April 2023, a final agreement was supposed to be signed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the fall of long-reigning despot Omar al-Bashir by a popular revolt. The arrangement called for the army, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF deputy General, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti) to transfer control. Two issues, however, stood out as being very divisive: the first was the precise date the army would be fully placed under civilian control; the second was the timeline for the RSF's integration into the regular armed forces.

Hemedti allied himself more closely with civilian groups from a coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), that had shared power with the military between Bashir's fall and the coup in 2021 as the plan for a new transition took shape. Analysts and diplomats agreed that this was a part of Hemedti's plan to reinvent himself as a statesman, most likely to lead the military in the civilian government.

Before the most recent violence between two fierce competing factions broke out in Sudan on April 15, 2023, the primary diplomatic initiatives by regional and international players were to bring the nation back under civilian government. In October 2021, the Sudanese military overthrew the civilian government, suspended the constitution, and detained several ministers, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. It made the case that Sudan's civilian administration was too fractured to handle the country's security risks. General Burhan, the head of the coup government in Sudan, added that the military's measures were necessary to uphold the revolution's objectives and advances, which led to the overthrow of longstanding leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

Burhan, however, made the unexpected revelation that the military was prepared to return power to civilians in July 2022. This move provided a chance to restart the democratic transition. While many people doubted the military's sincerity in returning control to civilians, influential political groups rejected Burhan's assertion. They advocated for intensifying protests that resulted in numerous fatalities and extensive property damage.

Nonetheless, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), of which Sudan is a member, the United States as a partner bilaterally and a leader in the United Nations, and the African Union continued with negotiations for a democratic process. Indeed, Volker Perthes, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Sudan, stated in March 2023 that a solution and the restoration of a civilian government were "closer than they have ever been" for Sudanese parties. However, fighting broke out between the two opposing military leaders in April 2023, shattering hopes for signing of the transition agreements, which showed that neither side was prepared for a civilian transition.

What may persuade the military to cede authority to civilians?

In Sudan, the military has held power for more than three decades and controls practically the entire industrial base and the economy. It is challenging to negotiate a power transition with civilians because each party must make complex compromises to reach an agreement. The question would be: what compromises should the civilians make in the arrangement if the military is giving up power it has controlled for decades? In such a scenario, the military would want assurance that it will not be victimized by the reforms, sidelined, or targeted for criticism.

The United States, in collaboration with the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (collectively known as the QUAD for Sudan) can facilitate the African Union and IGAD to initiate civil sector reforms so that the civilian authority can serve the Sudanese population. Additionally, dialogue with the military should be conducted to agree on what sectors they can oversee and those that should be left to civilians  to maintain the military's productivity. While key areas may occasionally remain in the state authority's control, in some cases, particular sectors may be privatized to address the economic decay and disintegration.

Finally, any intervention aimed at a transitional framework from military to civilian administration should not be a short-term project.  It must be a carefully thought-out and deliberate approach that gradually diminishes military influence or presence in government to the bare minimum over time. This move would enable long-term civil-military relations, which could prevent future coups.


Ruth Namatovu is a Doctor of International Affairs candidate and a Graduate Research Assistant at Johns Hopkins University-School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: Zakariya Irfan/

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Ruth Namatovu

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more