Ibrahim Elbadawi explains how the African country’s cycle of autocracy and often peaceful uprisings occurs and how to solve it.

Featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine as a “bright spot in a dark continent,” Sudan once carried the promise of becoming the breadbasket for Africa and the Arab world and developing into a democratic agro-industrial powerhouse.

That was in 1953.

Ibrahim Elbadawi
Ibrahim Elbadawi

Today, Africa’s third-largest country “has come to be defined by conflicts, political instability, and development failures,” Ibrahim Elbadawi told about 150 people at the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Lecture on May 23rd. “It’s a highly socially-polarized country without a unifying national identity, and a politicized military.”

Over the course of an hour in the Assembly Hall at UChicago’s International House, Elbadawi, former Minister of Finance and Economic Planning for Sudan, outlined how that promise eroded to the current “total state breakdown” and “high-intensity functional military warfare.” He also offered a framework for how his homeland can emerge and realize its potential.

Elbadawi’s speech was the centerpiece of the sixth Pearson Annual Lecture, a forum hosted by the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts to hear directly from international policy leaders engaged in issues of peace and conflict. Housed in the Harris School of Public Policy, The Pearson Institute promotes a more peaceful global society by utilizing an analytically rigorous, data-driven approach and global perspective to understand violent conflict.

Recent Pearson Annual Lecture speakers have included former Mexico President Ernesto Zedillo; Sergio Jaramillo, former Colombian High Commissioner for Peace; and Jonathan Powell, Director and Founder of Inter Mediate and negotiator on the Good Friday Agreement.

Robinson and Elbadawi
Professor James Robinson and Elbadawi

In a brief introduction to the lunchtime gathering, James A. Robinson,  the Pearson Institute Director and the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict Studies, said his admiration for Elbadawi, now Managing Director of the Economic Research Forum, has grown in the nearly two decades since they first met.

“Ibraham is not just an academic, and someone who's been a scholar, who’s been a teacher, who's been a policy maker trying to change his society and the transitional government,” Robinson said. “He also is someone who creates incredible opportunities. He's always got one foot in different institutions, trying to build resources, trying to bring people into academia, into policy. He has this kind of remarkable personality, this remarkable ability to do many things simultaneously, which I’m completely in awe of.”

Sudan, Robinson added, “is kind of a microcosm of everything I’ve been trying to understand for the last 40 years in my research,” which was why he was so excited to have Elbadawi speak at such a compelling moment in the country.

Breakdown in power balance

Since gaining independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, Sudan has experienced what Elbadawi described as “three, long-reigning, dysfunctional autocratic military regimes interrupted by three popular uprisings,” in 1964, 1985, and 2018. Up to and including the most recent uprising, the country had established a reputation for peaceful, effective civil disobedience.

That “peculiar political history” of autocracy and peaceful uprisings came to be known as the Sudanese Syndrome, Elbadawi said, which he experienced firsthand while serving in the Sudanese Transitional Government (STG) in 2019-20. That chapter in Sudan’s story, which ended with a coup in October of 2021, shared one characteristic with previous unsuccessful transitions to democracy in the country of nearly 46 million people: the rupture of a power balance between the state and society—a relationship that reinforces each segment and moves a country toward a mature democracy.

The emergency talks in Saudi Arabia are an opportunity for other countries and intergovernmental organizations to put pressure on the two sides to reform and agree to a civilian democratic transition.

“For the case of Sudan, the syndrome is essentially about a revolution or an uprising that gets aligned with the relative strengths between the (state and society),” Elbadawi said. He referred to Robinson’s latest book, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty,  (2019, Penguin Books) written with MIT Professor Daron Acemoglu, which explains that difficult balance formed by a continuous struggle between the state and society.

“But then the staying power of the forces that actually combine to create an alignment fade over time,” Elbadawi said, “a very short time in the case of Sudan.”

Specific to Sudan, he said, the STG had to solve a host of political, security and economic challenges that included removing the U.S. designation of the country as a state sponsor of terrorism, imposing sweeping economic, legislative and security reforms, prosecuting corruption and achieving peace with armed movements.

Progress was made. Elbadawi signed an initial framework agreement with the International Monetary Fund on debt relief and other economic reform. But it was contingent on the military liquidating economic activities and transferring them to civilian control. The military balked and that reluctance became a major obstacle.

Then on April 15, 2023 the country’s army and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) began fighting. Elbadawi said evidence exists that elements of Sudan’s former regime are responsible for sparking the violence.

The fighting has created widespread turmoil. Ceasefires have been breached.

As of late May, the death toll from the warfare has exceeded 500 and the number of wounded is estimated at 4,500, the Associated Press reported. Reuters reported that more than 1 million Sudanese have been displaced in the country and nearly 320,000 have fled Sudan. The humanitarian crisis threatens to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Peace is fated’

Hisham Yousif, MPP Class of 2023
Hisham Yousif, MPP Class of 2023

Before Elbadawi was introduced, Pearson Fellow Hisham Yousif, MPP Class of 2023, spoke to the gathering, noting that, “studying global conflict as we are apt to do here at Pearson, is to study tragedy. It is not for the faint of heart. The situation in Sudan is no different.”

Elbadawi’s context was extremely valuable, Yousif said. Though Elbadawi endured a frightening, disheartening ordeal as finance minister of the transitional government, he reminds Yousif of the Sudanese ability to absorb tragedy and make peace.

“To see the finance minister, who had bayonets outside of his window, carry himself with such humility and optimism, despite setbacks, despite the headlines,” Yousif said, “is in essence the quintessence of the Sudanese people: a reminder to accept fate but not to despair and instead redouble your effort to find peace no matter what because peace is fated, even as war is as well.”

Elbadawi said the people of Sudan are pinning their hopes on the peace process unfolding in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where parties in May negotiated a shaky ceasefire to allow for civilian evacuation and humanitarian aid.

He added that the emergency talks in Jeddah provide an opportunity for the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the African Union, Arab League, and United Nations, “to put credible pressure on the two warring sides” to reform and agree to a civilian democratic transition.

Civilians need to mobilize the masses to express popular support for peace, Elbadawi said, and the army must be de-politicized, integrated with the RSF into a professional army that civilians supervise. Elbadawi also called for a thorough, open investigation into how the violence started, which would lead to holding those accountable, and the convening of a national peace conference.

“Electoral political legitimacy is not enough,” Elbadawi concluded. “The survival of democracy requires commitment by democratic elites to economic development. Finally, successful execution of the social contract must be a living process of social learning, and interactive cross-fertilizing engagement among the key actors—the society, the political elite as well as the economic elite.”

The lecture ended after a brief Q&A in which audience members asked about Elbadawi’s inference of a third party’s responsibility for the violence, economic activities that may endure through the conflict and other reasons for the fighting.

After, first-year Harris student Mehul Gupta, MPP Class of 2024, said he gained insight on how countries get trapped in the cycle of autocracy and democracy and how they may emerge from it. He also appreciated Elbadawi’s ability to combine theoretical elements of academic research with ground-level experiences, and historical and institutional background.

“I think it’s important as policy makers, particularly those of us in the west, that we have those perspectives,” Gupta said, “and we aren’t approaching the conversation from an uninformed position.”