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Protesters gesture and shout slogans as they demonstrate against the Sudanese military's recent seizure of power and ousting of the civilian government, in the capital Khartoum, Sudan, on Oct. 30, 2021.MOHAMED NURELDIN ABDALLAH/Reuters

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

Avarice triumphs. Military officers in Africa and Asia resent civilian leaders. They absolutely fear giving up their power and privilege but, even more, they refuse to let civilians interfere with their lucrative grip on a wide range of moneymaking enterprises. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), in Sri Lanka, in Pakistan, in Egypt, and now in Sudan that is the case, leading to last week’s coup.

Massive popular protests in Sudan, one of Africa’s largest countries, so far have been unable to restore civilian rule. Soldiers firing on crowds in six cities led to a dozen deaths and nearly 300 wounded. Whether these demonstrations will lead, as they did in 2019, to a reverse of the coup is not yet known. But such crowd responses failed in Egypt, and so far in Myanmar.

This week, Sudan’s generals had been scheduled to let the civilian Prime Minister and his cabinet fully take total control after what had been intended to be a two-year period of joint rule. But letting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an international economist, and his civilian team gain full power meant the potential loss of access to the broad range of commercial profits that sustain the country’s army and air force brass, especially Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (who made himself head of state last week) and Lieutenant-General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti). Gen. Hemeti, who heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, may have been the key figure in the military decision-making that led to the coup, and to the arrest of Mr. Hamdok and other civilians.

Sudan’s generals, like Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar and his fellow commanders, have sticky fingers deep into the commercial entrails of their country, a poor place with an annual per capita GDP of US$660. Sudan is slightly smaller in size than Mexico, with a population of 46 million.

Not only do the generals run trucking businesses, livestock exporting concerns, a construction corporation and pharmaceutical companies, they dig and sell gold. Gen. al-Burhan heads military firm Defense Industrial Systems, a major source of personal wealth. Moreover, few of the military commercial operations pay taxes or contribute profits to the state. Sentry, an authoritative think tank in Washington, reports that the military’s commercial operations are vastly corrupt. (Myanmar’s generals likewise profit from control over opium trafficking, jade mining and transport monopolies.)

Sudan’s ruling generals (like those in Myanmar) worried before the recent coup about letting civilians gain full control for fear that civil authorities might examine everything that the military has done since 2000 to terrorize Sudan’s people, especially in Darfur. There, militias, often led by Gen. Hemeti, massacred civilians, indulged in episodes of ethnic cleansing, gang raped and strafed encampments. The generals are hardly anxious to be held accountable.

Former president Omar al-Bashir, ousted in 2019 after popular protests, has been held in prison by the just ousted civilian-military transitional government. It contemplated sending Mr. al-Bashir, indicted in 2009 for genocidal crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, to the Hague for trial. Gen al-Burhan and Gen. Hemeti both served under Mr. al-Bashir; both are obviously implicated in the crimes perpetrated during his long period of autocratic military rule. Thus, if the Hamdok government had taken over this week as planned, both Gen. al-Burhan and Gen. Hemeti, and all of their military collaborators, would have been at risk of being investigated, if not condemned and tried, for their participation in Sudan’s decades of repression.

The African Union condemned earlier coups in Africa and has now suspended Sudan’s membership. The Arab League opposed the coup in Sudan, as has the UN. Washington has frozen US$700-million in aid and promised sanctions. The World Bank halted disbursing US$2-billion.

Because of its proximity and control of trade, military-led Egypt could deter Sudan’s generals, but will not. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has influence, but has not yet condemned the coup. Pressure from Ottawa and Washington on Egypt and the UAE could make a difference. Otherwise, only internal popular dissenters in the tens of thousands may be able to beat back the military takeover of Sudan. World order should encourage and support them from afar.

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