"The world is right to be worried"

Protests in Sudan against the military coup: the international community is far from agreeing on a joint response to the crisis in Sudan
Protests in Sudan against the military coup: the international community is far from agreeing on a joint response to the crisis in Sudan

The crisis in Sudan is sending shock waves that not only affect stability in Africa, but have repercussions beyond the continent. Condemning the coup with words is not enough. Cristina Krippahl reports

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Cristina Krippahl

The situation in Sudan remains unstable: thousands of people continue to take to the streets and demonstrate following the military coup last week. Last Thursday, they rebuilt street barricades that had been destroyed by security forces overnight. The Democracy Movement called for "million-strong" protests at the weekend.

The international community strongly condemned the military's coup, in which General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who until now headed an interim government together with Abdullah Hamdok, ousted civilian members of the government and imposed a state of emergency.

Security Council struggles to find a common position

At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the five permanent members struggled for two days to come up with a joint statement, as China and Russia rejected sanctions against the coup plotters.

"All states have their own interests and ideas about Sudan," Volker Perthes, a special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sudan, told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. Referring to the meeting, Perthes said the analyses of Russia on the one hand and the U.S. on the other remained far apart.

German political scientist and diplomat Volker Perthes, 63, has been the United Nations Special Representative for Sudan since the beginning of the year (photo: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/picture alliance)
Der deutsche Politikwissenschaftler und Diplomat Volker Perthes, 63, ist seit Anfang des Jahres Sonderbeauftragter der Vereinten Nationen für den Sudan. Im Auftrag des UN-Generalsekretärs soll er den Übergang zur Demokratie am Nil unterstützen. Perthes fordert mehr Geschlossenheit der Großmächte in den Verhandlungen zur Sudan-Krise.

"Yesterday, we saw that the analysis of, for example, Russia on the one hand and the U.S. and Western states on the other hand, are still far apart," Perthes said.

Last Thursday, the Security Council was finally able to agree on a common wording – according to diplomats, Russia lobbied for a much weakened wording. Now the body is calling for the resumption of political dialogue "without preconditions", the "immediate release" of those arrested, and respect for the "right to peaceful assembly".

Perthes warned of dire consequences if a "minimum" of unity was not maintained, saying it could potentially resemble the recent conflicts in Libya and Syria. "Any fragmentation, any major difference in the Security Council between major powers, eventually spills over into the internal situation of countries like Sudan," he said. Meanwhile, the UN confirmed that Perthes had met with coup leader Burhan and urged the release of all political prisoners.

Increased pressure on Khartoum

The African Union (AU) acted unanimously last Wednesday when it suspended Sudan's membership. The European Union has strongly condemned the military takeover.

But according to Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa programme at the European Council for Foreign Relations, condemnation alone is not enough. "When you undertake a coup, you don't expect it to be welcomed," he said. "You expect it to be condemned. That's the normal reaction. A statement alone will be interpreted by the military as a statement, meaning that there isn't really going to be consequences."

Although international pressure initially seemed to produce results after deposed Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was allowed to go home late last Tuesday, many civilian and military leaders remain in detention. On Wednesday, coup leaders arrested several prominent pro-democracy activists. Security forces also used tear gas against demonstrators on Thursday.

Just met with @SudanPMHamdok at his residence where he remains well but under house arrest. We discussed options for mediation and the way forward for Sudan. I will continue these efforts with other Sudanese stakeholders.

— Volker Perthes (@volkerperthes) October 31, 2021


Europe needs to act

The EU has an interest in stability in the region, not least because of the potential of a new wave of refugees. But there are other factors at play, owing to Sudan's central role at the continent's crossroads, according to Murphy.

"Sudan has the potential to play a positive role in Ethiopia, which is of interest to Europe, and in South Sudan, which is also of interest to Europe, and furthermore, in Chad, which is going through its own transition, and, finally, in Libya, to the north," he said. "But the key to all of that is that Sudan has a stable, functioning and democratic government."

Stability and democracy currently seem out of reach in Sudan. Around 60 people were killed and scores more wounded in the street protests that followed the military takeover on Monday. Civilian resistance remains strong and shows no signs of abating. "The world is right to be worried," said Murithi Mutiga, the Horn of Africa project director at International Crisis Group.



Repercussions expected beyond the continent

Events in Sudan are bound to have repercussions in Africa and beyond. The military leadership in Khartoum is likely to alter the political dynamics being played out between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia in the dispute over Addis Ababa's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, due to the close relationship between the military leaderships of Sudan and Egypt. Sudan could also take a more active role in the Ethiopian conflict by openly siding with the Tigray forces.

"What we are seeing is a reversal from what we had about 10 years ago when Sudan was very close to the Ethiopian administration and therefore supported the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam," Mutiga said. Although it is difficult to make clear predictions at this point, Mutiga believes that "without question, Cairo might see this [military takeover] as a satisfactory outcome."

There is also a chance that Egypt and Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will support a regime that is trying to quash democratic resistance – something they deeply worry about themselves. But according to Mutiga, this would only prolong the crisis, which isn't in anyone's interest.

Calls for a negotiated solution

"All actors, including the Gulf monarchies, have to be conscious about the need for a negotiated solution," he said. "There is no way Sudan can easily be run through strongman rule, especially after the Sudanese tasted the fruits of freedom in April 2019," Mutiga added, referring to the people's revolution which brought an end to the autocratic rule of President Omar al-Bashir.

External pressure is not only political, but also financial. The World Bank has suspended its aid to Sudan, citing concerns over "the dramatic impact this can have on the country's social and economic recovery and development," according to a statement by President David Malpass. Earlier, the U.S. said they would temporarily suspend $700 million (€600 million) in aid.

Suspending aid as a means of pressuring a junta may not be the best option, with human rights and people's wellbeing at stake. "The tragedy is that a lot of this financial support was going to be channelled towards the poorest of the poor, as Sudan is going through a terrible economic crisis," Mutiga said.

Cristina Krippahl

© Deutsche Welle 2021