Sudan’s June 30 demonstrations reflect citizens’ desire for civilian control of the state, and the junta’s discomfort with expressions of popular will. The international actors involved with Sudan should take note.
Thirty-three years ago, on June 30, 1989, Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan. His long tenure in power was characterized by brutality at home, support for violent extremism abroad, and a fundamental rejection of human rights norms and the rule of law. The people of Sudan took to the streets to demand change in a movement that began in 2018 and led to Bashir’s ouster by 2019, but military leaders threatened by the prospect of democracy and meaningful accountability took full control of Sudan’s transition in a coup in October of 2021.
They have since busied themselves with a project of restoration, rebuilding the machinery that for decades intimidated and repressed the Sudanese people and ensured that connected elites could enrich themselves while playing by their own set of rules.
The people of Sudan have other ideas. They have continued their protests despite lethal attempts to stop them, and resistance committees have called for commemorating this June 30 with massive countrywide demonstrations to continue demanding genuinely democratic, civilian-controlled government. Initial reports indicate that military authorities are responding with internet shutdowns and violence.
The risks that Sudanese civilians continue to take as they demand the military step aside are breathtakingly brave. They are also increasingly lonely. The world is distracted by the global consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (consequences felt deeply in Sudan just as they are elsewhere). Most international involvement comes either from actors with an interest in increasing the ranks of authoritarian states in the region, or those invested in the tripartite mediation process of the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—a process recently characterized by distracting infighting among the facilitators and one that appears to have far more traction with international diplomats than it does with the Sudanese public. Thus, the lead-up to June 30 featured news of new United Arab Emirates (UAE) investments in Sudan that offer an economic lifeline to the junta, stories of Russian involvement in Sudan’s gold trade, and calls from the United States admonishing all parties to avoid actions on June 30 that could undermine unspecified “progress” in the tripartite process, possibly a reference to the release of some detained under the junta’s the state of emergency.
Meanwhile, tensions on the Sudan-Ethiopia border are heating up, threatening a costly conflict between two already economically devastated states. But while escalation will mean suffering, it could also give unpopular military leaders in Sudan a pretext for continuing to cling to power, and provide a new enemy to unify the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s fractious coalition in Ethiopia. It would also add to the noise that seems to drown out the clear and consistent demand coming from the Sudanese street for a government in which the military is subordinate to elected and accountable civilian leaders.
The diplomats working to breathe life into the UN-AU-IGAD facilitation effort are working in good faith. But as time passes, the military’s senior leadership grows more entrenched in power and has ample opportunity to ensure that the institutions and economy of Sudan will protect its interests and its grip on power. If those with legitimacy among Sudanese civilians refuse to come to the tripartite process table, diplomats should set a different table. The people of Sudan do not just have a right to demonstrate on June 30. They have a right to determine the future of their country.