Nicholas Coghlan: Sudan’s Political Transition & Lessons Learned in South-Sudan

Sudan’s Political Transition and Lessons Learned in South Sudan

An Interview with Nicholas Coghlan

To provide context for our discussion, can you briefly explain how and why South Sudan gained independence from Sudan?

Sudan was a British-Egyptian joint colony until 1956. Broadly speaking, the British administered the southern part—now called South Sudan—and the Egyptians administered the northern part. When independence came in 1956, there was an expectation from the south, which is largely African/Christian/Animist, that they would be associated in some fashion with the neighbouring and more likeminded British colonies in East Africa, namely Kenya and Uganda. Instead, Sudan was maintained as one country and within a few weeks, a civil war between the south and the largely Muslim, Arab north began. That civil war went on and off for about fifty years, with a ten-year break. In the final years, it was ostensibly a fight for a secular, more decentralized and democratic Sudan— the “New Sudan.” In reality, most people in the south were fighting for out-and out separation. An agreement signed in 2005, the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement), provided for a six-year interim period, to be followed by a referendum. The referendum took place in 2011, with 99% of southerners in favour of separation, thereby creating an independent South Sudan.

Why did the al-Bashir government and the ensuing civil-military power sharing arrangement break down?

By 2018, President Bashir and his supporting National Congress Party had been in power for nearly thirty years. The economy was in very poor shape, as had occurred in the Arab Spring of roughly ten years prior. You started to get demonstrations in reaction to growing economic hardship, which gradually transformed into broader political demonstrations against the government.

Mass mobilizations began in December 2018 with trade unions and professional associations leading large but peaceful crowds onto the streets of Khartoum and other cities. By mid-2019, army officers essentially decided that Bashir and his immediate clique had become liabilities and had to go, leading to an internal coup.

This was not exactly what the protesters wanted. They did want the removal of Bashir, but they ultimately wanted civilian rule. Instead, they got a joint governing body called the Sovereign Council, which was 50/50 civilian-military and headed by a military man as de facto president, with a civilian Prime Minister. This was widely welcomed by the international community, and a timetable was set for transition to full civilian rule. November 17, 2021 was set for a civilian to take over the Council’s leadership.

In the interim, the government tried to improve the economy. The civilian half of the Council attempted to enact long overdue reforms and disentangle the military from the economy, in which it was (and is) heavily involved, and from which senior officers have allegedly profited enormously. It also pressed for accountability by the military for a wide range of abuses and indicated that al-Bashir should finally be handed over to the International Criminal Court. On October 25th, 2021, rising tension culminated in the military’s seizure of the Sovereign Council and the imprisonment of the Prime Minister, along with many other ministers. This was greeted in turn by more massive mobilization on the streets and demands for a 100% civilian government.

Recently, the military has backed down to some degree by reinstating the Prime Minister. However, for many people on the streets it is too late. It is difficult accurately to gauge overall popular opinion but is clear that many are no longer prepared to accept any military control at all—the Sudanese want a civilian government.

At this stage it is important that the international community, including Canada, ensure that we do not interfere with what is happening, to the extent of obstructing popular will—the situation is delicate. We should certainly welcome the fact that the Prime Minister and others have been freed from detention, but their reinstatement is not necessarily a positive development. In some ways it legitimizes the coup and signifies that Sudan will now have a civilian government that is under tighter control by the military than before.

The initial response by the security forces to popular protests following the coup has been harsh. The internet was completely suspended, which made organizing demonstrations difficult. Over the past month more than fifty people have been killed in demonstrations. As protests continue there are signs of a more moderate approach by the security forces, but there is every indication that this is far from over. The road ahead will be long and bumpy.

In your opinion, what are the implications of these latest developments for Sudan’s democratic transition, as well as for the democratic progress that has been made in surrounding regions?

There is no question that this coup has damaged the transition in Sudan. It is also a setback for the causes of international justice and transitional justice. It had been hoped that al-Bashir, who has been sitting in a jail cell in Khartoum for two years now, would be delivered to the International Criminal Court where he has been under indictment for 10 years. That is now very unlikely. The civilians have returned to government, but there is no question they are going to feel cowed and intimidated. What has happened over the past few weeks in Sudan is thus a setback for international justice, a signal to actual and would-be dictators on the continent that they can rest easy. Furthermore, it is disappointing to see open support by internal armed groups within Sudan that have only recently signed a peace agreement with the central government (the Juba Agreement). It is now evident for all to see that these groups do not greatly value democracy for its own sake.

Do you think the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution will have any impact on the current state of affairs?

A recent resolution at the Council condemned the coup, with the predictable abstentions—Russia, Venezuela, and a number of others. Russia is certain to oppose any substantive action by the UN—they have their own interests and contacts with the military in Sudan and have made no secret of their interest in negotiating access to a naval base on the Red Sea. The UN has also appointed an expert on human rights to cover Sudan—the highly qualified Senegalese lawyer, Adama Dieng. The West has generally condemned the coup, which is helpful, but when it comes to mediating a way out of this crisis, things become more delicate.

There is a question as to how far the international community should go in suggesting compromise in the current context. Diplomats instinctively say let’s compromise on this. Well, compromise here means going back to a civilian-military joint government, meanwhile a lot of people on the street are saying, we’ve seen that this doesn’t work anymore. Just putting the same people back into government—is that progress? You could say that it might legitimize the coup.

What are some of the challenges you faced during your time in Sudan?

One very practical challenge, back in 2000, was attempting to open a new Canadian embassy from scratch in a country that was then under very tight U.S sanctions. Dollars could not be used, and the Sudanese pound was a non-convertible currency.

When we opened, there were also political constraints imposed by Ottawa. These were perfectly justifiable at the time. The al-Bashir regime had been conducting a civil war in a ruthless manner, involving all kinds of war crimes and human rights abuses. The principal reason we set up shop was to find out how bad things were in Sudan. We had very unusual diplomatic instructions—do nothing to improve relations with Sudan. We made a point of not appointing an ambassador with a capital A and we didn’t open as an embassy, but rather, an office of the embassy. That is diplomatic speak for the lowest profile office you can have.

We did not have a bilateral aid programme. We did not wish to deal with such a highly corrupt government—one involved in so many human rights abuses. We merely provided humanitarian aid through UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations. A lot of NGOs were not able to operate— faith-based operations like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse, for example, could not.

You describe South Sudan as a failed state. Do we hold any responsibility for this lack of progress? What mistakes did we make there? What lessons can we take away? And what are your predictions for the future of the region?

Sudan itself, despite its problems, has a very strong civil society, which I think will ultimately get them through this crisis.

South Sudan is a different story. During the fifty or so years of civil war, the rebel movement in South Sudan had pretty much unquestioning Western support—particularly from the U.S. The rebels successfully portrayed themselves as a predominantly Christian movement, framing the war as one about oppression by the Islamist north. As you can imagine, that resonated very strongly in the U.S, particularly after 9/11. We did not ask too many questions about other contributory factors to the fighting. We did not ask many questions either about what was actually quite evident, which was that the rebels were far from united and that their real objective was unclear—did they want a democratic Sudan, or out-and-out separation? Collectively and in response to a catastrophic humanitarian situation, we poured in massive amounts of aid, which saved lives, but which created a certain amount of dependency that still exists today.

When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, we did not question the fact that the agreement was negotiated with a single large military faction in South Sudan—the Sudan People’s Liberation Army—which, dominated as it was by one particular ethnic group, was not necessarily representative of the broader country. The SPLA leadership was thus unofficially blessed as the legitimate leadership of the new country. This was a key mistake on our part.

It had been hoped when South Sudan became independent that they would be able to build a prosperous new state based on oil revenues. South Sudan inherited significant resources, but these have very largely been squandered. A lot of revenue has simply disappeared. It was recently revealed, for example, that in 2018, an advance sale of $500 million of oil had been made—but no money had visibly accrued to the Treasury. In a small country like South Sudan, that is a lot of money.

A particular failing by the international community is that we have been insufficiently insistent that the South Sudanese use their own resources to develop the country. We have instead made up much of the slack ourselves, bearing the brunt of health and education costs for the past fifteen years.

Back to Sudan, what is happening now is very important. The events of late 2018, when we saw literally millions in the streets overturning thirty years of dictatorship was hugely inspiring. Women were very much on the frontlines, which many did not expect to see in a predominantly Muslim country. Three years on from 2018, with the transition in danger, the international community should not try to be too hands on, but rather, supportive around the edges. As a former political officer in the Canadian Foreign Service, I would say that simply reading today’s situation accurately is the major challenge; then measuring our words very carefully.

There are positive trends underway in Sudan, and negative as well. We need to be sure that we reinforce the positive, and that we recognize that—counter-intuitively—compromise is not necessarily positive.


Nicholas Coghlan served as Canada’s first resident diplomat in Khartoum, Sudan (2000–2003). His experiences over that period are recounted in Far in the Waste Sudan (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005). He was also the first resident Canadian ambassador in Juba, the capital of the newly independent South Sudan. Coghlan and his wife, Jenny, were awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for their role in the evacuation of Canadian citizens from Juba when civil war broke out in late 2013. His most recent book is Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s Memoir of South Sudan (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). 

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