Can Sudan’s Military Be Convinced to Support Democracy?


On April 11, the 30-year rule of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir came to an end. Tens of thousands of protesters staged a sit-in in front of military headquarters, dividing the armed forces, and leading top military brass to place Bashir under arrest. The streets of Khartoum filled with jubilant protesters honking car horns, singing songs, and waving Sudanese flags.

Now, the same security forces that ended Bashir’s reign threaten the survival of the revolution. After Bashir’s ouster, senior generals representing the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the National Intelligence and Security Services, and paramilitary groups including the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) formed a Transitional Military Council, promising to work with protest leaders to guide the transition. However, after two months of negotiations, the council and the opposition failed to come to an agreement on the composition of the interim government. Security forces brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protesters, killing at least 100, with hundreds more unaccounted for.  The council’s decision to repress the protest movement has drastically increased the chances of protracted conflict, dimming hopes for a genuine democratic settlement.

Convincing Sudan’s Transitional Military Council to agree to civilian rule is unlikely but still possible. Protestors will need to continue to apply nonviolent pressure to agitate for civilian-led rule, and to hold security forces accountable for their actions. But, as our research suggests, it will also require concessions to address the military’s fears about its place in a future political settlement. By ramping up the pressure on the Transitional Military Council to allow civilian rule while offering to support those security forces not implicated in the recent crackdown, the United States and its allies can help keep Sudan’s hopes for peace and democracy alive. To provide any kind of support to security forces that have for so long terrorized the Sudanese people will be hard to accept for those who wish to see the old regime dismantled for good. However, we believe that compromise between civilians and security forces is Sudan’s most viable pathway to a better future.

Civil-Military Relations and Transitional Politics in Sudan

The odds of democratization are not in Sudan’s favor. When Bashir seized power in 1989, he relied on tribal identity, Arab nationalism, and Islamist political party connections to create vast networks of patronage that fragmented Sudan’s security forces and rendered them loyal to him. These forces helped make Bashir’s reign the longest of any Sudanese political leader, as they stood by him in the face of attempted coups, international sanctions, cruise missile strikes, and devastating wars in South Sudan and Darfur. The generals’ decision to oust Bashir may have been less a sign of their discontent with his regime and more because he became a political liability due to a combination of his advanced age, the country’s deepening economic crisis, and the population’s mass anger with his rule. From a comparative perspective, out of 40 African dictatorships with ethnically fragmented security forces such as Sudan’s, only four have ever succeeded in reaching democracy.

Now, the most repressive elements of Sudan’s security apparatus are consolidating control. The massacre of protesters was masterminded by the RSF and implemented in coordination with the rest of the Transitional Military Council. The RSF were constituted in 2013 from janjaweed militia groups responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the conflict in Darfur. Supported by lucrative commercial deals and funding from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, these forces now command the streets of Khartoum. The middle and lower ranks of the regular military, the SAF – who were reluctant to repress the opposition and even defended them in the days leading up to Bashir’s ouster — appear to have been disarmed.

Nevertheless, the Transitional Military Council is more divided than is commonly assumed. Senior SAF officers, including the council’s chairman, Lt. Gen. Abdelfattah al-Burhan, went along with the crackdown in part due to security concerns and fears of being prosecuted by civilians were they to hand over power. These officers are reportedly not happy with the RSF and undoubtedly reluctant to see the regular army disarmed and weakened. There is therefore a potential split between much of the SAF, a more professional institution whose lower ranks are more representative of the population, and the RSF, which is clearly more willing to perpetrate mass violence  to stay in power.

Getting the Military to Support Democracy

For Sudan to democratize, these divisions between the SAF and the RSF will have to be exploited. Our scholarship indicates that despite the recent setback, the population will have to remain mobilized and committed to rejecting military-led rule. Like recent opposition movements in nearby Ethiopia, or past movements in countries such as Spain and the Soviet Union, civilians can band together to thwart security forces’ political ambitions. If the pro-democracy movements in Sudan can remain mobilized and unified — including men and women; Islamists and secularists; riverain Arab, Fur, Beja, and Nuban — the generals will find their soldiers reluctant to repress these large, cross-cutting movements. The more united and mobilized the opposition, the more it will divide soft-liners and hard-liners in the Transitional Military Council. Thus far, the leadership of the protest movement, the Sudan Professionals Association, has shown remarkable resilience in its ability to keep the opposition united.

Unity among the political opposition will be important, but not enough. For democracy to have any chance, the SAF will need to wrest control back from the RSF. This is a tall order, as parts of the regular army have been disarmed or redeployed while the RSF has been strengthened by foreign powers. The commander of the RSF and deputy Transitional Military Council chief, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, has reportedly said he would step down only “over his dead body.” Moreover, the SAF is unlikely to initiate a conflict that risks further destabilizing Sudan to support a pro-democracy movement it does not fully trust.

Incentivizing the SAF to put pressure on its opponent will require alleviating its concerns about civilian rule. This means the more likely path to democracy for Sudan is one of compromise, through what is called a negotiated exit or “pacted transition.” In exchange for ceding political authority to elected civilians, the SAF would receive certain guarantees: for instance, amnesty for abuses committed by its officers during Bashir’s rule, substantial influence over security policy, and reliable funding for equipment and training. To avert war, an amnesty may also have to be extended to the lower ranks of the RSF and other militia and parallel military forces, who could be disbanded or incorporated into the ranks of the SAF.



Samuel Huntington once observed that transitions succeed when new democracies provide militaries with “new toys,” modernizing their equipment and enhancing their professional reputation. If enough members of Sudan’s security forces calculate that democracy will not threaten — and may even advance — their institutional status, they will be more supportive of the transition.

This solution might appear distasteful, but it is likely the only way to unite enough of the Sudanese security apparatus around the possibility of a genuine transition without significantly increasing the risk of conflict. For protesters who have risked or sacrificed their lives, support for any security forces will be a bitter pill to swallow, and may require them to  back off demands for full accountability or complete civilian control over the transition process. But the alternatives — that security forces unite behind the present configuration of power, or that the country descends into conflict — are far worse.

What the United States Can Do

The international community can play an important role in tilting the Transitional Military Council’s calculations toward democracy. Outside countries must keep up pressure on the regime, making clear that remaining on the current course will jeopardize Sudan’s ties with the United States, its allies, and its other major partners in the region. Following the crackdown, the African Union decided to expel Sudan until a civilian-led government is in place, a significant move that decisively upheld the union’s values. In addition, the United States and its partners should impose sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes on those most responsible for the massacre, starting with the leadership of the RSF.

The United States can also help reduce the malign influence of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, none of whom see themselves as having an interest in a democratic Sudan. For the sake of political stability, the United States can and should convince each of these countries to get behind a power-sharing agreement led by civilians but including representatives from the armed forces. And it should threaten to cut military support to each of these regimes if they do not cease their support to the RSF and other elements of security forces with no interest in civilian government.

At the same time, however, the United States can offer incentives to help create a critical mass of support for democracy within the security forces. One option could be to remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List once a civilian-led government is in place, which, while cumbersome from a U.S. interagency perspective, would help to repair Sudan’s reputation and spur international investment in the country. In addition, the United States should consider offering the SAF military assistance, joint trainings, and exchange programs if the military agrees to return to the barracks. Particularly if the foreign aid results in increased salaries, benefits, and equipment for junior officers and soldiers, the top brass may find that they do not have support from below to continue standing in the way of democracy.

The United States would need to carefully pursue any offer of increased military aid, and such a proposal is not without risks. The Sudanese military could calculate that it would receive foreign aid and other benefits regardless of its behavior, much like the Egyptian military did prior to its coup in 2013. Military assistance from the United States should therefore be conditional, accompanied by a credible threat to suspend it in the event of a military coup, political interference, or further repression of peaceful protests. Lethal training and equipment — if it is provided at all — should be offered only to units with a clean human rights record. And U.S. aid should include serious efforts to increase transparency, reduce corruption, and promote civilian control of the senior ranks of the armed forces.

Providing aid to any army that has long supported such a repressive dictatorship might sound morally and strategically dubious. But our research suggests that the military’s cost-benefit analyses regarding this transitional period are crucial to whether they permit democracy to take root. In Egypt after the Arab Spring, for instance, the top brass calculated that the costs of democracy — losing control over national security decision-making and certain economic contracts — outweighed the benefits, sparking a coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohamed Morsi.

Countries in similar situations that manage to transition to democratic rule tend to be the ones that keep soldiers satisfied. Like Sudan and Egypt, Nigeria is another country whose military played an outsized role in politics for much of its post-colonial history. Nigeria’s current democratic government has survived — while all three previous attempts at democracy failed — in part because the newly elected leaders increased the military’s salaries and benefits even while retiring all officers who had served in political roles.

Those who would like to see a complete transformation of Sudan will find this proposal lacking. Many security force elites who have long terrorized Sudan’s population would likely escape justice, and some, as in Nigeria, might even use ill-begotten wealth to pursue civilian political careers. But completely upending the networks of political and economic patronage that have taken root over the past 30 years is not realistic. By compromising in order to reduce the immediate prospects of repression and violence, governments and societies can begin a long, arduous process of laying the foundations for sustained recovery and broader political change.

The atrocities committed by Sudan’s security forces, combined with today’s revolutionary momentum, may have led protesters to push the military too far and too quickly. The challenge now is tempering that revolutionary fervor with a sober realization: Getting to democracy will require a better future both for the people and for the soldiers who commit to serve them.



Nathaniel Allen is a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an Adjunct Professor at George Washington University. Sharan Grewal is a post-doctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution and an Assistant Professor at the College of William & Mary.


Image: Wikimedia Commons