Updated May 2022

Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, Sudan has experienced decades of autocratic rule. The military has wielded control for 52 of those 66 years and seized power again in October 2021, in a coup that swept away Sudan’s fragile, civilian-led government. Sudan likewise has been buffeted by unrest stemming from political and socio-economic imbalances across its vast geography. The elite of Sudan’s Nile Valley continue to enjoy political and economic advantage over marginalised populations in the country’s peripheries, where the struggle for control over key resources – such as gold and land for agriculture and pasture – often descends into violence. Disputes across Sudan’s porous borders, including Egypt and Ethiopia, further destabilise a volatile region.

Recent Political Transition

The April 2019 coup that swept away thirty years of autocratic rule by al-Bashir and his military-backed Islamist government was fueled by months of popular unrest.  It ushered in a period of political transition in Sudan, with the coup’s military leaders joining civilian officials in August 2019 in a transitional government intended to shepherd Sudan toward civilian-led governance.

The democratic transition was derailed in October 2021, when the transitional government’s senior military figure, Sovereignty Council Chairman Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, orchestrated a coup, unseating the Council’s civilian leadership and dismissing Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The military’s seizure of full government control was backed by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and two commanders of armed groups who had signed the October 2020 Juba Peace Agreement that had brought most of the country’s rebel forces into government. Although a controversial deal briefly reinstated Hamdok as Prime Minister in late 2021, he resigned in January 2022 as protesters railed against concessions to the military.

Civilian anger at the coup has been sustained and highly visible. Levels of international pushback initially surprised the military. Since the coup, security forces have killed almost 100 protestors and injured thousands during near daily demonstrations. The international community’s withdrawal of financial assistance to Sudan in response to the coup has amplified the country’s economic crisis. International assistance, including a debt relief process that was advancing swiftly during Hamdok’s tenure, is now contingent upon the return of a representative civilian leadership and the military taking a significant step back from politics. Sudan’s military leaders, increasingly isolated and under pressure, are relying on continued backing from Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel to withstand broader international blowback and withering civilian fury.

Dynamics in the Borderlands

Since Bashir’s ouster, elite focus in government on securing power at Sudan’s center has meant that historic neglect of security and the economies of the regions along the country’s periphery has continued with little attention to boosting representation of states that are the engines of the country’s economy. Borderland regions in Sudan’s west, south, and east continue to be destabilised by conflict and displacement – fueled by attempts to control gold mines, farmland and pasture — while the country’s north remains deeply impoverished. Discord with Egypt over the lucrative areas of Halayeb and Shalateen, and with Ethiopia and South Sudan over large swathes of the countries’ shared borders creates an uneasy set of relations for Khartoum. Sudan is also mired in low-level diplomatic and proxy conflict in Tigray over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as part of a larger battle over control of the Nile’s water.

Looking Forward

Restoring the country’s civilian-led transition to democracy and reducing the military’s role in politics are critical to stabilising Sudan and combatting the exploitation and marginalisation of communities in the country’s periphery regions. The path back toward democratic transition will require a renewed bargain amongst military and civilian elites to jump-start the political process, recover the spiraling economy and lay the foundation for credible elections. However, battles over control of transitional government and its institutions overseeing crucial issues including land rights, justice, elections, and drafting a new constitution will continue to shake the country, and will be fought over for the duration of the transition.

Associated Reading:

What Next for the Juba Peace Agreement? Evolving Political and Security Dynamics in Darfur

7th February 2022

This brief considers the changing political situation in Sudan with a particular focus on the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) and evolving dynamics in Darfur. JPA implementation has been complicated by Sudan Revolutionary Front leaders before, during, and after the 2021 coup. Two key Darfuri signatories benefitted from the JPA and supported the coup. Other Darfur-based SRF leaders must decide which path to follow.

What Next for the Juba Peace Agreement After the Coup in Sudan?

16th December 2021

This brief considers the impact of the 2021 coup on the Juba Peace Agreement and, more generally, peace and security in Sudan’s conflict affected regions. The coup saw the military component of the transitional government assert itself over its civilian counterpart, revealing how the military has successfully managed political relationships with elites in the country’s conflict-affected borderlands.

Reversing the Military Coup in Sudan

12th November 2021

This article discusses the ramifications of the 2021 military coup, including the concerning reappearance of parts of the old regime. The coup is a major setback for Sudan’s democratic transition. There are fears of an Islamist counter-revolution by stealth which could lead to renewed conflict. However, Sudan’s military leaders may have exposed their own fragile foundations both at home and abroad.

Unequal Adaptations: A History of Environmental Change in the Sudan-Eritrea-Ethiopia Border

16th August 2021

This report considers how Little Ice Age (c1640-c1820) and the 1887 introduction of rinderpest (also known as cattle plague) can help us better understand the Horn of Africa’s current challenges with rapid environmental change. The wealthy and powerful have historically had the means to adapt to crisis, exacerbating inequalities. Looking forward, struggling communities will need additional resources to invest in developing sustainable adaptive strategies.

Illicit Flows Fueling Conflict in the Tri-Border

16th July 2021

This report examines the intersection of armed actors, gold-mining and migration in the tri-border area of Chad, Libya and Sudan. Far from the control of capitals, these areas, at least in Sudan and Libya, are controlled by strongmen who have capitalised on the presence of gold and the flow of people and other commodities to enrich themselves and bolster their power.

Peripheral Vision: Views from the Borderlands – Spring 2021

23rd June 2021

This joint bulletin from the X-Border Local Research Network delves into war and peace in the Sudan-Ethiopia borderlands, examining how political, security and socio-economic developments affect the people living there and, conversely, how border dynamics shape change and transition at the national level. The bulletin also explores borderland dynamics in Iraq and Myanmar.

COVID-19 in South Sudan’s Borderlands: A View from Northern Bahr El-Ghazal

26th May 2020

National response to the COVID-19 virus has rapidly become a new factor in Sudan and South Sudan’s cross-border political economy. This update summarizes the current political holding pattern around both COVID-19 and the political transitions in Khartoum and Juba, and how these interact with established long-distance trade and migrant work systems that drive the borderland economy.

From Dust to Dollar: Gold-Mining and Trade in the Sudan-Ethiopia Borderland

21st April 2021

This report focuses on the border region between Sudan and Ethiopia, using gold-mining and trade to examine transnational flows of people and commodities across this semi-permeable frontier. Gold-mining has shifted from a long-term, family- and community-based livelihood strategy to a short-term entrepreneurial pursuit. Mining is increasingly dominated by the private sector, with the military now a leading player in Sudan.

The Dam That Broke Open an Ethiopia-Egypt Dispute

11th February 2021

This article argues that Sudan could help ease Ethiopia and Egypt’s longstanding dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Like Egypt, Sudan is concerned about how much water will flow downstream once the dam becomes operational. However, Sudan stands to benefit from cheaper electricity, easier irrigation, and the likelihood of less flooding the dam would provide. Such relative impartiality could help Khartoum gain the trust of both sides.

The Egypt-Sudan Border: A Story of Unfulfilled Promise

11th June 2020

Sudan’s border relations with Egypt have long been characterized more by mutual suspicion than by peaceful exchange. This legacy has been exacerbated by myriad obstacles and conflicts, particularly over the disputed Halayeb triangle. Suffering from this reality, border communities have pushed for improved ties, but mistrust has prevailed. This paper argues that both countries need to reexamine their border policies to prevent further escalation.

How Sudan’s Gold Boom is Changing Labour Relations in Blue Nile State

23rd March 2020

This paper focuses on the impact that gold-mining has had on labour relations in Sudan’s Blue Nile state. Gold markets — where gold is extracted from ore brought from the mines and sold — have brought significant changes to labour relations in the area. For instance, they have provided a new source of income for women and children; however, they have generally maintained pre-existing socioeconomic hierarchies.

Sudan’s Grain Divide: A Revolution of Bread and Sorghum

20th February 2020

This briefing unpacks the connected political and economic crisis that reached a climax in early 2019 through the contrasting but connected worlds of Sudan’s bread and sorghum eaters. Its conclusion presents the limited options available to the as yet unelected technocratic government.

Mobilization and Resistance in Sudan’s Uprising from Neighbourhood Committees to Zanig Queens

6th January 2020

This paper explores the forms of popular resistance and organization that emerged within Sudan’s uprising in 2018-19 and attempts by the emerging political elites to co-opt neighbourhood activists.

Security Elites and Gold-mining in Sudan’s Economic Transition

1st October 2019

Sudan’s struggling economy remains primarily in the hands of security and business elites. The Rapid Support Forces, in particular, has deep stakes in gold-mining and has become the major security actor in the industry. The continuing securitization of the gold sector undermines financial (and environmental) accountability and has stimulated confrontations between civilians and security forces in mining areas.

Kiir Consolidates Power Through Border Deal with Khartoum

1st September 2019

This briefing paper discusses how South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s government has deployed a range of tactics to achieve its objectives in the Northern Bahr el-Ghazal – South Darfur borderland, using the opportunity of Sudan’s transition to either neutralise or bind-in transnational military actors and fiscal resources, to strengthen its position in advance of the establishment of a transitional government in Juba.