Sudan’s military seized power in a coup on October 24, arresting the prime minister, dissolving the government, declaring a state of emergency, and ultimately throwing the country’s democratic transition into chaos. Widespread demonstrations against the takeover continue, as organizations representing teachers, bankers, and other professionals call for strikes, with the military jailing dozens of protesters. This coup comes two years after a mass uprising toppled Sudan’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, who’d been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity. A military-civilian council replaced Bashir in 2019, and elections were planned for 2022. The turmoil in Sudan is only the latest dispiriting example of an unsuccessful transition following an Arab Spring revolution and regime change. Even countries that appeared to have created democratic systems after revolutions decades ago, such as Hungary and Poland, are sliding back into authoritarian rule. Why aren’t popular revolutions producing democratic governments?

James A. Robinson is the director of the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago and a co-author of Why Nations Fail and The Narrow Corridor, two best-selling books about the historical paths to political and economic success. As Robinson sees it, the problem in Sudan is that the military controlled large parts of the economy under Bashir, so sweeping changes to the system would threaten military leaders’ financial interests. They don’t want a more inclusive economy, Robinson says, and the groups that led the revolution failed to give the military incentives to accept change. In his view, the broad coalition that overthrew Bashir couldn’t translate popular support into new institutions. The problems and the solutions for nurturing democracy vary from country to country, but the key after any democratic revolution, Robinson says, is sustaining popular pressure and a broad alliance for change—and converting that energy into an inclusive political system and economy.


Michael Bluhm: What’s happening in Sudan?

James A. Robinson: It’s a battle between people who have a vested interest in what we call extractive institutions and people who are trying to force the system to become more inclusive.

Sudan has a famously extractive political economy. There’s a wonderful article published anonymously by Sudanese intellectuals about 20 years ago called “The Black Book,” which is a very clever political-economy analysis of the conflict between the core of the state, based around Khartoum and the Nile Valley, and the periphery—the South, Kordofan, Darfur—with a very extractive organization of institutions.

There was a massive collective uprising against this in 2019. The people managed to get rid of [former President Omar] al-Bashir and force the military to agree to a transitional government. But now, the battle to create more inclusive institutions seems to be failing. The army has reorganized, and new people have come to the top.

Bluhm: What do you mean by extractive institutions?

Robinson: I mean the institutions are designed to block most people’s opportunities and create wealth and opportunities for a very small number of people, through monopolies, preferential access to foreign exchange, control of imports, control of the agricultural economy, lots of labor oppression, violence. Extractive institutions are institutions that concentrate opportunities, incentives, and power in very few hands, at the expense of the vast majority.

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