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Sudan’s upheaval is the latest example of a ‘gray-zone coup’

Autocrats learned “coup-proofing” — and militaries learned negotiating.

- April 17, 2019

Last week, after months of increasing protests, the Sudanese army announced that it would soon make an important statement, leading to speculation about an imminent coup. Within what seemed like minutes, the news service Arabiya announced that President Omar al-Bashir, after 20 years in power, was stepping down. A transitional military council announced it would rule for two years, followed by al-Bashir’s arrest.

Clearly, the military did topple the government. The African Union denounced the military takeover, and protesters are still in the streets demanding civilian rule.

Since the end of World War II, the top three most common ways autocrats have left power are through coups, elections, and negotiated settlements. My research shows that autocrats are increasingly choosing the last option preemptively, rather than gambling on hanging on to power by trying to prevent or survive conventional coups. What changed?

Autocrats learned ‘coup-proofing’

Autocrats now stay in power for far longer than their predecessors did. One way they achieve this is by “coup-proofing,” targeting their military’s capacity and willingness to mount a coup.

As political scientist Philip Roessler notes, Bashir is just one of many dictators who has done this. Bashir used a combination of strategies. First, he purged, removing military members he thought might oppose his rule. Second, he used “ethnic stacking,” filling the Sudanese military largely with members who shared his ethnic identity. Third, he gave preferential financial and political treatment to top military leaders. The latter two methods help keep military leaders satisfied with the status quo.

But while all this helps bolster autocrats’ power, it also leaves them vulnerable. Military leaders are still the only ones strong enough to oust them — even if coups are harder to mount and more dangerous should they occur, because failed coup plotters and their families often face execution.

Why has Sudan ousted two autocrats in three days?

The rise of the negotiated exit and the ‘gray-zone coup’

As a result, when the military and autocrats are at odds, both are more likely to negotiate before tensions escalate. For militaries, negotiating means they can force leaders out without using violence — and can avoid angering other governments, international donors and their own citizens — with far less risk of failure. Leaders, for their part, can negotiate some of the terms of departure from office.

Consider the difference between the events in the Dominican Republic in 1961 and the 1986 coup — or was it a coup? — in Haiti. The autocrat Rafael Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961, when the military began pushing to force him out. After the United States refused him asylum in 1961, Trujillo tried to stay in power. As a result, members of the country’s armed forces, allegedly with CIA support, assassinated him in 1961. By contrast, in 1986, when military forces began pressuring Jean-Claude Duvalier to leave, he announced his “resignation” — and the new ruling junta allowed him to leave for France.

In between those two transitions, the number of leaders killed in coups peaked, with 17 killed between 1965 and 1985. After that, leaders who knew they were vulnerable took a look at how much they valued power vs. how much they valued their lives — and explored options such as exile and immunity. That led to an increase in negotiated settlements and what I call “gray-zone coups.”

Generals overthrew Sudan’s president Bashir — and now they can’t agree on what’s next.

In a negotiated settlement, leaders agree with the military to step down in exchange for protection afterward. For example, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently announced he was stepping down after 20 years in power after the military refused to support his bid for a fifth term.

A gray-zone coup occurs when the military must use more coercion to force a negotiated settlement, thereby falling in the gray zone between a negotiated settlement and a conventional coup. The leader says he has stepped down; he may stay in the country or go elsewhere to live out his days in relative comfort. Consider, for instance, how Robert Mugabe ended his almost 40-year tenure as president, stepping down in what Zimbabwe’s military insisted was not a coup. Today, Mugabe lives within Zimbabwe, supported by the government with a pension, a luxurious residence, up to 23 people on his staff, and diplomatic passports for travel, which give him immunity from prosecution elsewhere.

No wonder, then, that Juan Guaidó, who has declared himself the interim president of Venezuela, has floated the idea of offering asylum and amnesty as possible exit strategies for Nicolás Maduro; it’s become one of the most popular ways to end intragovernment conflict.

What happens to Bashir may tell us what happened behind the scenes

Why, then, did the military take over in Sudan? Maybe Bashir miscalculated both his military’s will or capacity to remove him as well as his inner circle’s loyalty, thereby making him unwilling to negotiate. Or maybe he was waiting for a better deal but capitulated once the military made a show of force, making this a gray-zone coup.

The ruling council has ruled out extraditing Bashir to The Hague to face International Criminal Court war crimes and crimes against humanity charges, claiming it will prosecute him in Sudan. That’s hardly surprising given the complex war crimes that the Sudanese military committed in Darfur — and the likelihood that members of the new junta were involved.

Bashir may spend the rest of his life in a cell in Khartoum. Many of his former allies have been arrested or dismissed. Prosecuting Bashir would be a concession to domestic and international audiences, helping the junta to gain popular support and legitimacy.

Or he might get the Mugabe deal — or safe passage to Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Bashir’s first replacement, Awad Ibn Auf, was already forced to cede power. Public prosecution might risk exposing the new junta members’ own pasts. The potential for a military faction’s countercoup and wide-scale protests continue to threaten the junta’s ability to stay in power.

But Bashir’s exit options depend on whether he’s willing to work with the junta to leave, given his unpopularity. Why should the military council offer him those escape hatches unless he agrees to make it easy for them?

If and where Bashir goes may be the biggest clue to what just happened in Sudan.

Nandita Balakrishnan (@NanditaBala) is a PhD candidate in international relations in the department of political science at Stanford University.