Risks the Sudanese People Face in Their Transition to a Democracy

Sudan was ruled by Omar Al-Bashir, a strongman, for the last three decades. Like many other countries in the region, Al Bashir’s rise to power came in the form of a military coup d’état and ruled one of the largest countries in Africa. On December 19, 2018 hundreds of protestors gathered in many cities across the country to protest price increases of many goods, including the price of bread. What began as protests for better living conditions quickly turned into protest of ideology. Demands for Al Bashir to step down raged like wildfire throughout the country. Over the next six months Al Bashir used brute force to jail and use violence against protesters. On April 19th, the Sudanese military forced Al Bashir out of office. There were pictures of women and young students joyously celebrating what they believed to be a peaceful transition to democracy. The restraint of the military practiced in weeks after the ousting of Al Bashir gave some people hope that this transition will indeed be a peaceful transition. However due to disagreements on the makeup of a transitional government between the military and the main opposition clashes erupted earlier this month. In this essay I will discuss the possible challenges and risks associated with this transition. The risks associated with the transition are corruption and the probability of ethnic violence.

What led to the political uncertainty in Sudan? A brief timeline.

There have been sporadic protests in Sudan beginning in January of 2018 but most of them were quelled by the police. Major demonstrations erupted on December 19, 2018 after the government tripled the price of bread. The next day the protests spread to the country’s capital Khartoum and other cities. Clashes between the police and demonstrators broke out and eight demonstrators were killed in the process. Six days later, Al Bashir spoke to the country promising real reforms but resisted stepping down. On the first of January, twenty political groups issued a joint call for Al-Bashir to step down. 1 Still Al-Bashir resisted and fired the health minister later that week. Over the next few months there were protests and counter-protests and the military eventually forced Al Bashir out and the military took control of the country, promising it was only temporary and that elections will be held soon. 2

Sudan’s corruption problem, and how it will affect the democratic transition.

Risk is the probability that any event will result in a change in an outcome, typically a significant loss and is measured by the probability of the risk and the impact of the risk on the population. The dominating frustration of the Sudanese people is the rise in prices of goods and the role corruption has played. According to Transparency International, Sudan ranked 172 out of 180 on the Corruption Perceptions Index and scores just 16 out of 100. Corruption however is not always a bad thing and may be required in some transitions. Corruption is expected in countries that are mired in conflict such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan. The problem is that, the countries that are entrenched in violence, there is little rule of law and accountability is nearly non-existent. This rings true for Sudan currently but can also be the case after a transition depending on the makeup of the transitional government. Before the protests began, government officials in Sudan had no incentives to not be corrupt. There was no punishment for corrupt behavior, and most accepted it as a norm.

Corruption in Sudan takes many forms. For example, it is common practice for people in the public sector to demand bribes for services they are paid to provide such as bribery by the police. Additionally, high level government officials often have stakes in private businesses resulting in a system of patronage and crony capitalism. This closely knitted relationship between the private sector and public sector creates a quid pro quo cycle, in which a few elite individuals and businesses are the beneficiaries of the reform. This typically comes at a great sacrifice to the Sudanese population. According to the USAID fact sheet on Sudan, Sudan received nearly 340 million dollars in funding from the United States and is one of the highest recipients of global aid. USAID explains that the protests were sparked in part because “crises resulting from mismanagement, corruption, and the weak structural transformation the government adopted in 2018…” One of the issues with tracking corruption is that it is hard to verify the statistics on aid. Charles Kenny, Director of Technology and Development and Senior Fellow at center for global development writes:

Statistics about corruption are hard to verify and open to considerable dispute. I’ve written before about a recent Supreme Court case where the justices strongly disagreed about what counts as ‘corrupt,’ for example. But also, for obvious reasons, people don’t tend to advertise the fact that they are involved in corruption. That all makes measurement hard.4

There can be an argument made that the new transitional government in Sudan will not be as corrupt as Al Bashir’s regime. This sentiment is more hopeful and not really based facts and any kind of analysis is hard to measure since the transition is still in in process. The recent flare ups in violence and the rejection by the military council of the Ethiopian proposal makes any kind of economic reforms more difficult. The opposition want to have a majority in the transitional government and the military want to have a majority, creating cleavages between the military and the civilian population.

There are ways to mitigate the risk of corruption but that requires strong structural organizations and cooperation between the government and the donors. It would be a mistake for the transitional government if they focused primarily on rapid economic growth and not focus on institutional reforms first, for example the courts. Independent courts without pressure or influence from the government will be better equipped to handle cases of corruption at all levels of the bureaucracy. In addition to independent courts, the transitional government should ensure that the government is transparent. A main frustration of the people of Sudan is that they have very little access, if any, to government operations and its handling of funds received from foreign aid, taxes, and monies generated from exports. A transparent government is more receptive to its constituents and forces government officials to spend its resources on projects and initiatives that help the country and not just the needs of a few elitists and government officials. To address the corruption (or theft) of aid, NGOs and donors can define aid by projects. Most aid given do not have specific projects attached to them, making it harder to track where and how impactful the aid is to ease the suffering the general public. Economic reforms need to be measured through political economy analysis, in which any reforms have to address problems at the country level, sector level, and project level.

Risk of violence along sectarian and ethnic lines is a real possibility after a civilian transition in Sudan.

A common characteristic of transitions in North Africa and parts of the Middle East is the sectarian violence that ensues after a transition. For example, during the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a relatively peaceful country. Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims lived in peace with each other. The same could be said of Libya during Gaddafi’s rule and Syria before its civil war began. According to the World Atlas, the Sudanese population consists of 19 major ethnic groups, 597 ethnic subgroups, and over 100 languages and dialects are spoken. Under an authoritarian rule the differences of these groups are not relevant because everyone is subjected to the same set of laws and their grievance is projected at the authoritative government, and not one another. In Sudan the people were aligned with their grievances throughout the country, although Al Bashir did have some support in the capital.

Sudan, prior to the South Sudanese independence in 2011, was mired in ethnic violence, primarily between the North’s Arab population and the South’s Christian population. South Sudan is still suffering from violence across ethnic lines and there have been instances of clashes in Khartoum. The risk of violence along ethnic lines in Sudan is low probability and high impact. It is a low risk probability because unlike Iraq, Sudan’s population is roughly 97% Sunni Muslim. On the other hand, Libya which also boasts a significant Sunni Muslim population and conflict between factions are still ongoing.5 Sudan is not an identity in itself. Unlike Iran, Sudan is a mixture of people from different tribes. Before its independence in 1956 it was part of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The Sudanese people do not share historical cohesion with each other in the ways that the Iranians do.

There is a lack of social cohesion in Sudan that makes the atmosphere ripe for the eruption of ethnic violence. Approximately seventy percent of Sudan’s population are considered Sudanese Arabs and about thirty percent of the population are the black African minority. It is not improbable that should the country elect a constituent of the minority group, there could be a revolt or rebellion from the majority. How likely that a conflict erupts in Sudan similar to that of South Sudan and Iraq is hard to tell. At the moment it appears that the Sudanese people are mobilized together to bring about a civilian government in Sudan. Another thing to keep in mind is that liberal democracies do not function the same in every part of the world. The kind of democracy in Sudan would have to be similar to other democracies that are not secular and are predominantly Muslim.


All transitions come with some inherent risk because there will always be some uncertainties that are not considered in transitions. The impact of the risk and the probability of the risk depends on the makeup of the country’s demographics, history, geography, and economic conditions. The most pressing risk for the transition of Sudan is corruption, especially in the early stages of the transition. The risk of corruption is highly probable with high impact to the country. Even though the country receives billions in aid, the effects of that aid has not trickled down to most of the population. Inflation and worsening economic conditions caused the demonstrations to begin and corruption is directly and indirectly the cause of the economic conditions.

The second risk written about in this essay is the probability of violence along ethnic lines. Could violence erupt if a minority member wins the election, and will the majority even accept the results of that election? Ethnic violence appears to be more of an issue for South Sudan because of its more heterogeneous makeup. North Sudan is more homogenous, but violence can still erupt along other cleavages. To mitigate against these risks, the transitional government needs to strengthen its institutions and ensure there is adequate transparency within the government. Without focusing on these priorities first, the transition will create a fragile democracy that is vulnerable to collapsing by even the simplest disruption.

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