by Giorgio Cafiero
Intensifying violence in Sudan following a breakdown in talks between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and oppositionists have resulted in the African Union (AU) suspending Sudan from all activities in the pan-African body “with immediate effect.” The AU has also issued warnings to Khartoum that further action will be taken if the Sudanese junta does not transfer power to civilian authorities in line with the demands of the country’s protest movement.
The AU Peace and Security Council’s decision to suspend Sudan’s membership in the body received unanimous support from the members who held an emergency meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss the Sudanese crisis. Several days before the country’s suspension, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the AU commission, called for “immediate and transparent” investigations into the Sudanese security forces’ recent killing of protestors in Khartoum.
Sudan is now a geopolitical battleground for various Middle Eastern powers, pitting the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis against Turkey and Qatar. The ruling generals’ violent response to ongoing protests factors into a grander power struggle throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Whereas ex-President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was keen to keep Sudan and Qatar’s relationship close after the Saudi-Emirati bloc began blockading Doha in 2017, the current leadership in Khartoum appears to be aligning Sudan much more closely with the anti-Qatar coalition. In pledging $3 billion to Sudan’s TMC shortly after the coup that ousted Bashir in April, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi managed to position themselves as the most influential external drivers of Sudan’s fragile transition.
Such external support for the TMC has given the body less incentive to make concessions to the opposition groups that demand the civilianization of Sudanese politics and a quick transition to democracy. The recent shelling of demonstrators in Khartoum following visits by Sudanese military leaders to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt suggests such a connection. Memories of the violence that plagued Egypt following that country’s 2013 coup remain on the minds of many in the region.
The AU, however, has sided with Sudanese protestors. This reaction is not a surprise given the African institution’s determination to set an example for the world of rejecting coups. The AU has a “zero tolerance” policy regarding military coups, which began with the coups in Burundi and Sierra Leone during the 1990s. The then-Organization of African Unity’s Lomé Declaration of 2000 banned unconstitutional changes of government, which became a principle that the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the AU’s 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance fully embraced. Throughout the twenty-first century, the AU has been mostly consistent in applying this principle after coups that take place, or are attempted, on the continent.
On numerous occasions prior to its recent decision over Sudan, the body has suspended the membership of countries because of coups such as Mauritania (2008), Guinea (2008), Madagascar (2009), Niger (2010), Mali (2012), the Central African Republic (2013), and Egypt (2013). In response to these coups, the AU also imposed sanctions on the putschists along with conditions for unfreezing their countries’ membership in the pan-African body.
In Sudan’s case, the AU says that it will lift the suspension of its membership if the country’s military rulers hand power to civilians. Ultimately, it is unclear how much of an impact the AU’s move will have on the ground in Sudan given how much support Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh are providing Sudan’s TMC. However, the AU’s suspension of Sudan will put at least some degree of pressure on the country’s ruling junta to transfer power to a civilian-led body while further legitimizing the protest movement’s demands from an international perspective. Indeed, the country’s new military rulers will have to accept diplomatic isolation on the continent plus sanctions as part of the cost for refusing to transfer power to civilians.
Sudan risks falling into escalating cycles of violence that ultimately further destabilize the country. By turning to lethal force to intimidate protestors into leaving the streets and abandoning their camps, the military rulers put themselves into somewhat of a box, making the TMC a body that the opposition groups simply cannot trust and thus do not want to talk to about a transition. If Sudan falls into greater violence—perhaps a civil war—the AU will have limited influence in bridging the widening gap between the rulers and the ruled.