- Military strongmen in Sudan, Guinea, Chad and Mali have in recent months taken power from weakened governments that were vulnerable to foreign interference.
- Attempted or successful coups in Africa are occurring more frequently as democratic states buckle under pressure from Covid-19.
- The return of military strongmen in sub-Saharan Africa comes a decade after the Middle East’s Arab Spring protests
- The Egyptians were unhappy with the prime minister’s leadership, particularly his public openness to the Ethiopian dam, as well as his reluctance to deepen ties with Israel.
On the day before launching the coup that halted Sudan’s democratic transition last month, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan made a string of daring geopolitical moves. He reassured Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. envoy to Sudan, that he didn’t intend to seize power. Then he boarded a jet to Egypt for secret talks to ensure his plot would have regional support.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who seized power in a 2013 coup backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, reassured his fellow general, according to three people familiar with the meeting.
Upon his return to Khartoum, Gen. Burhan arrested dozens of government officials, including the prime minister, dissolving the civilian-military power-sharing deal that had brought Sudan out of three decades of international isolation. Spokesmen for Gen. Burhan and Mr. Sisi didn’t return requests for comment.
Sudan’s military coup—the fourth in Africa this year—underscores the increasingly complex international backdrop that is helping fuel a surge in military takeovers that have almost disappeared in other parts of the globe.
Military strongmen in Guinea, Chad and Mali have in recent months taken power from weakened governments that were vulnerable to foreign interference and plagued by poor governance, stuttering economies and insecurity. Attempts at military coups have been foiled this year in Madagascar, Central African Republic and Niger.
The result is what United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called “an epidemic of coup d’états” in a speech following the Sudanese putsch. He called on the U.N. Security Council to take action. “Some military leaders feel that they have total impunity,” he said.
The return of military strongmen in sub-Saharan Africa comes a decade after the Middle East’s Arab Spring protests, when many hoped democracy would take root in regions where generals once held sway. It comes three decades after many Latin American and Southeast Asian countries transitioned from military rule to democracy.
In Africa, this year has seen a quadrupling of coups after just one putsch in 2020—again in Mali—and an average of just two a year over the past decade. The number is the highest since 1980 and is more in line with the 1970s, after African countries won their independence when generals and politicians seized power, says Jonathan Powell, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida and an expert on coups. Military strongmen have said corruption, mismanagement and poverty have justified such moves.
Diplomats and analysts say that a key reason for the surge in coups is that the willingness of a number of international powers to deal with authoritarian regimes has lowered the potential cost of a regime change.
China, the dominant economic power in Africa, has “no interference” policy.
Russia—which is expanding its influence through the sale of weapons and mercenary services via Kremlin-linked military company, Wagner—has been assisting an embattled president in Central African Republic. Wagner has also offered its services to Mali, Libya and Mozambique, Western and African officials say. Moscow denies involvement with Wagner.
The U.S., France—the former colonial power in Mali, Chad and Guinea—and the European Union have threatened financial consequences for coup leaders.
After the takeover in Sudan, the Biden administration announced that Washington was freezing its $700 million aid package. The EU has issued stern reprimands but hasn’t taken any action.
Virginie Baudais, a Sahel expert at think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the lack of firm and coordinated responses has helped military leaders stay in power. By contrast, coup leaders in Niger in 1999 and 2010 faced drastic cuts in international aid, and were forced to relent.
The root causes for African coups are little changed: struggling economies weakened by poor and corrupt governance and persistent security challenges.
Meanwhile, many of Africa’s young democracies are unable to cope with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, including strains on healthcare, rising food prices and the continent’s worst economic contraction on record.
When Mamady Doumbouya, the 41-year-old colonel and former French legionnaire, led his coup in Guinea last September, he quoted Jerry Rawlings, the Ghanaian military leader who seized power in 1981 before overseeing a transition to democracy: “If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom.”
“We didn’t work to empower strongmen but strong institutions,” said Mahamadou Issoufou, Mr. Bazoum’s immediate predecessor, in an interview.
Sudan’s coup took place amid inflation of nearly 400% and a shortage of food and basic necessities for the country’s 45 million people.
Gen. Burhan was set to hand over control of the sovereign council, the top transitional government body, to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in November, making the civilian the country’s top leader ahead of elections slated for 2023. Some of the protesters blamed the economic turmoil on the civilian government and backed the military, providing key political support ahead of the coup.
Meanwhile, Egypt has been seeking international support for its dispute with Ethiopia, which is building a giant dam that the Sisi government says threatens to choke off the waters that run into the Nile. Just before the coup, Egypt’s intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, traveled to Khartoum to meet Gen. Burhan—but shunned Mr. Hamdok.
The Egyptians were unhappy with the prime minister’s leadership, particularly his public openness to the Ethiopian dam, as well as his reluctance to deepen ties with Israel, a key Cairo ally that Khartoum recognized last year. “Hamdok has to go,” Mr. Kamel told Gen. Burhan, one Sudan government adviser said.
For days, Mr. Feltman shuttled between Gen. Burhan and Mr. Hamdok, hoping to prevent the collapse of the democratic transition two years in the making. At a final meeting on Oct. 24, the general the road map for the democratic transition. “There was no hint or conversation about a potential military takeover,” Mr. Feltman later said.
The next day, Gen. Burhan dissolved the Sovereign Council and the transitional government, detained Mr. Hamdok and other officials, and declared a state of emergency. The U.S. and European countries are attempting to defuse the crisis by discussing the appointment of a new civilian prime minister, according to the Sudan adviser and a European security official.
In weekend anticoup protests that Secretary of State Antony Blinken said numbered in the millions, demonstrators decried President Sisi as the hidden hand behind the coup.
“Abdel Fatta Burhan and Sisi—one and the same,” they chanted.
—Gabriele Steinhauser contributed to this article.