Military-led transitions return to the spotlight as Sudan crisis rages

April 2023

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Since 15 April, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have been clashing for control of the capital Khartoum and other parts of Sudan. More than 420 people have been killed in the violence, and over 3,700 injured, while thousands have fled to safer parts of Sudan or into neighbouring countries.

The SAF, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo had cooperated to maintain the military in power since a 2019 coup deposed long-standing president Omar al-Bashir (1989-2019). However, tensions between the two forces have risen in recent months, with the generals notably disagreeing on the timeline to integrate the RSF into the national army, and ultimately hand over power to civilians. These tensions have now brought the country to the brink of civil war.

Sudan’s 2019 coup was the first in a swathe of coups d’état across the continent in the past four years. As Sudan’s transition to civilian rule is derailed, Africa Matters Limited takes the pulse on the four other military-led transitions underway across the continent. Beyond Khartoum, military leaders are currently in power in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Chad. And like in Sudan, contention over transitional processes has many times led to milestones being missed, transitional charters being revised, or new coups being mounted. This has implications for businesses operating across the region, from security headaches to increased regulatory uncertainty.

Malian transition at the centre of geopolitical shifts

In August 2020, following weeks of anti-government protests, a group of military officers led by Colonel Assimi Goïta forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (2013-2020) to resign. The junta, the so-called National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), agreed to an 18-month civilian-led transition, with Bah Ndaw appointed president and Goïta vice-president in September 2020. However, disagreements over the conduct of the transition prompted Goïta to oust Ndaw in a second coup in May 2021. Goïta was sworn in as interim president in June 2021.

Following months of diplomatic tensions and the imposition of sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the junta in June 2022 adopted a new 24-month transitional timeline, effective from March 2022. While ECOWAS sanctions have now been lifted, tensions persist between the Malian junta and the regional and international community. This is notably in light of Mali forging closer ties with Russia at the expense of Western partners, highlighted by the presence of Russia’s Wagner group in the country and the withdrawal of French troops in August 2022.

These new security partnerships, however, do little to stop the continued expansion of Islamist militant groups across the country – a fact most strikingly highlighted by the murder of Goïta’s chief of staff on 18 April in an ambush near the Mauritanian border. Serious distrust also persists between the junta and Tuareg groups in the north. These tensions had already provoked Mali’s 2012 coup. All these fragilities provide a recipe for prolonged instability in the country, and the threat of new crises.

Islamist insurgency drives instability in Burkina Faso

Like Mali, Burkina Faso also experienced two coups in just eight months. In January 2022, amidst popular discontent with President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s (2015-2022) inability to eradicate the Islamist insurgency in the country, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and his Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR) ousted Kaboré. Damiba was inaugurated as interim president in February 2022, and pledged to improve security. However, with the terrorist threat showing no signs of abating, Damiba in September 2022 was ousted by dissatisfied army elements headed by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who used the same insecurity justification Damiba had used eight months prior. Traoré was inaugurated as interim president in October 2022.

Since assuming power, and likely in an attempt not to suffer the same fate as Damiba, Traoré has stepped up the counter-terrorist fight. Pledging to reconquer the 40 percent of the territory currently under the control of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, he has reorganised the army and launched ambitious campaigns to recruit civilian volunteers and 5,000 additional soldiers. Most recently on 19 April, he signed a ‘general mobilisation’ decree to give the state all necessary means to fight insurgents, including the right to requisition people and the right to restrain certain civil liberties. Like his Malian counterparts, Traoré has also revised Burkina Faso’s security partnerships, with French troops leaving Burkina Faso in February amidst rumours Traoré could also seek the support of Russia’s Wagner group. Nonetheless, despite sizeable momentum behind the counter-terrorist fight in recent months, gaps persist in the security response, making the eradication of the insurgent threat unlikely.

Guinean junta in no hurry to restore civilian rule

In Guinea, amidst contention with President Alpha Condé’s (2010-2021) re-election for a third term in October 2020, special forces in September 2021 deposed Condé. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, head of the so-called National Committee of Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), was sworn in as interim president in October 2021. After much delay, an interim parliament, the National Transitional Council (CNT), was also inaugurated in January 2022.

Promising profound constitutional and electoral reforms ahead of new polls and a return to civilian rule, Doumbouya in May 2022 announced a 36-month transition. The move prompted outcry from ECOWAS and protests from opposition and civil society groups, in defiance of a ban on demonstrations. Pressures eventually saw the transitional government agree to a shorter 24-month timeline, effective from January 2023. However, Doumbouya’s perceived feet-dragging and unilateral conduct of the transition create scope for continued tensions with the regional community. Further opposition protests are also possible, with three people for example killed in protests in the capital Conakry in mid-February, prompting the junta to threaten to ban political parties.

Chadian regime anxiously watches its Sudanese neighbour

Finally, long-standing Chadian President Idriss Déby (1990-2021) was killed in April 2021 while leading army offensives against rebel groups. The army swiftly established a transitional military council, headed by Déby’s son Mahamat Idriss Déby, to oversee an 18-month transition to new polls. However, amidst delays in transitional milestones – including protracted government-rebel talks and a contentious national dialogue – the transition was extended by another two years in October 2022.

Contention over the conduct of the transition also creates stability threats. According to civil society groups, over 200 people were killed in anti-government protests in October 2022. While there have been fewer protests since, civil society and opposition groups continue to denounce the Déby clan’s grip on power. Rebel groups at the country’s periphery also continue to plot to oust Déby, while there are questions over the regime’s ability to maintain clan and army unity. More worryingly, amidst ethnic linkages and a long history of proxy rebel warfare between Chad and Sudan, prolonged instability in the latter could have spill over effects in the former. Like in the Sahel, there are also concerns Russia – active in Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR) – is seeking to foment instability in Chad.

Security and regulatory headaches for businesses

As businesses in Sudan activate their crisis management plans and evacuate their staff, operators in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Chad are also adapting their operations to navigate these volatile transitions and associated security challenges. Some mining operators in Burkina Faso are, for example, divesting from assets there to focus on less riskier jurisdictions in coastal countries.

Beyond direct security implications, these contested transitions and complex security challenges are also creating regulatory and contract risks for businesses. Regional sanctions – such as land closures and trade embargoes imposed on Mali by ECOWAS in early 2022 – can disrupt supply chains for businesses operating across borders, even if sanctions regimes often include exceptions for strategic sectors. Meanwhile, distraction with transition matters – including regional pressures, popular discontent or intra-regime rivalries – can disrupt strategic decision and policymaking. Major asset transactions in the Chadian oil and gas sector have, for example, been delayed for months, with the Chadian junta nationalising some of these assets last month.

In some countries, juntas are also increasingly relying on businesses to fund their military campaigns or respond to populist pressures. Burkinabé authorities on 19 April notably revised the mining code to allow for funds from the Local Development Mining Fund, destined for local development projects, to be transferred to the Patriotic Support Fund (FSP), designed to fight insurgent groups. The Guinean junta in recent months has also pressured bauxite mining companies to support the local transformation of the mineral. As military transitions drag on in the region, and the threat of Sudan-like scenarios persist, businesses that continue to operate in these volatile contexts will need to navigate these security and regulatory challenges carefully.