Sudan’s military has seized power in a coup. Here's what you need to know

Key Points
  • The military arrested civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and dissolved the country's transitional government on Monday, sparking protests in several cities.
  • Due to its location, Sudan is politically important for stability in the Horn of Africa, North Africa and the Sahel.
  • The U.S., U.K. and Norway have condemned the coup and urged security forces to release unlawfully detained government officials.
KHARTOUM, Sudan - Sudanese men protest against a military coup that overthrew the transition to civilian rule, on October 25, 2021 in the al-Shajara district in southern Khartoum
Photo by AFP via Getty Images

A coup in Sudan has been met by widespread international condemnation, amid growing fears about the country's democratic transition and economy.

The military arrested civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and dissolved the country's transitional government on Monday, sparking protests in several cities. According to Reuters, seven people have been killed and 140 injured in the ensuing clashes between security forces and protesters.

Experts say the coup could have a serious impact on the country and beyond.

The coup

Tensions in Sudan have been simmering since an attempted coup on Sept. 21, with the country divided between proponents of pro-military and pro-civilian rule. 

On Monday, Hamdok and several other government officials were moved to an undisclosed location after refusing to endorse the latest coup.

KHARTOUM, Sudan - Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok chairs an emergency cabinet session in the capital Khartoum, on October 18, 2021.
AFP via Getty Images

Telecommunications access has been restricted and various outlets have reported that the military has blocked roads and bridges into the capital city of Khartoum. 

Zaynab Mohamed, political analyst at Oxford Economics Africa, said in a note Monday that while these restrictions make the situation difficult to gauge in real time, an attempted coup appeared to be in progress. 

"The continued rift between the civilian and military factions of government had been raising questions about whether the fragile power sharing agreement will hold until democratic elections are held in 2023, and the current situation suggests that it is unlikely to last," Mohamed said.  

"If the military takes over, it will interrupt the transition to democracy, which threatens international donor support and IMF debt relief and, ultimately, puts the country's economic revival on the line." 

Economic impact

Those advocating for a military-led government had staged a sit-in outside Khartoum's presidential palace for over a week, lamenting the rising cost of living and an economic situation they claim is worse now than under former dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown in April 2019. Pro-civilian demonstrators have also turned out in Khartoum in recent weeks.

"The coup comes amid acute tension between the military and civilian factions of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, with each blaming the other for the failure to resolve the cost-of-living crisis that has been ongoing since the start of the year," said Edward Hobey-Hamsher, senior Africa analyst at political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. 

The cost of living crisis has been exacerbated by an effective blockade at Port Sudan by tribal protesters from the northeast. Among other demands, these demonstrators object to the cancellation of the Juba Peace Agreement signed between the government and rebel groups in Oct. 2020, which they argue does not represent their interests.

OMDURMAN, Sudan - Sudanese security forces keep watch as they protect a military hospital and government offices during protests against a military coup overthrowing the transition to civilian rule on October 25, 2021 in the capital's twin city of Omdurman.
AFP via Getty Images

The blockade has put strain on the government's supplies of essential medicines, fuel and wheat, plunging the country's economic and humanitarian situation deeper into the mire. 

Democratic transition 

Sudan became independent from British-Egyptian rule in 1956 and has endured a series of shaky parliamentary governments and military regimes ever since.

After a number of coups and a protracted civil war, the south of the country voted for independence and became the separate state of South Sudan in 2011. Wrangling over border demarcations and revenue distribution from natural resources has continued, and the IMF estimates that Sudan's GDP halved between 2011 and 2019 after the secession of the oil-rich south.

A military-civilian Sovereign Council was set up after al-Bashir was overthrown in 2019 in an effort to shepherd Sudan toward democracy, with elections scheduled for 2023. However, this transitional government was dissolved on Monday by coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who subsequently declared a state of emergency. 

Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, highlighted that the sacrifices of the Sudanese people working towards a fairer and more rights-respecting Sudan were now at risk.

"The military authorities should instruct security forces to fully respect and protect the people's right to protest and that any members using excessive force will be promptly held to account," she said.

Wider implications 

Located in northeast Africa, Sudan is politically important for stability in the Horn of Africa, North Africa and the Sahel. The vast country is situated between Egypt to the north and Ethiopia and Eritrea to the south. It borders Libya in the northwest and the northeast extends to the Red Sea, across which lies Saudi Arabia.

Major Western powers had resumed cooperation with Sudan after the establishment of the transitional government in 2020.

Among international allies of the transition were the U.S., Israel and Russia, all of which joined with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to supply $3 billion in funding for the Sovereignty Council.

In 2020, Sudan and Israel agreed to a normalization of relations after UAE officials brokered meetings, while the Russian Ministry of Defense entered into a 25-year accord with Sudanese authorities to establish a new naval base for Russian troops at Port Sudan.

KHARTOUM, Sudan - Sudanese demonstrators take to the streets of the capital Khartoum to demand the government's transition to civilian rule, on October 21, 2021.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

The country is also rich in natural gas, gold, silver, zinc, iron and chromite. In Jan. 2020, Sudan opened up its gold market to generate revenue, and the new government sought ways to ensure safer mining and a greater contribution to public finances.

The promised reform, both domestically and in terms of international relations and stability, hangs in the balance in light of Monday's coup.

International condemnation 

The U.S., U.K. and Norway have all condemned the coup and urged security forces to release unlawfully detained government officials, in a joint Troika statement published by the U.S. State Department

The Biden administration also paused delivery of $700 million in emergency economic support to Sudan. 

Human Rights Watch called on the U.S., U.K. and Germany, all of which had in recent days voiced support for Sudan's civilian transition, to ensure that the military leaders do not damage or reverse progress on the country's reform agenda. 

"The stakes couldn't be higher right now," Segun said. "Sudan's international and regional partners need to make clear that small but important steps towards redress for past harm and establishing a more positive rights framework should not be lost."