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The Post-Bashir Era in Sudan: Tragedy or Remedy?

19 Apr 2021
By Dr Noah Bassil and Jingwei Zhang
Protestors on a train from Atbra city about 300 km from Khartoum. Source: Osama Elfaki

Two years after the fall of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, the future is still unclear. There is a chance that Sudan can avoid a repeat of the past tragedies.

On 23 October 2020, US President Donald Trump announced that the Sudanese government had agreed to normalise ties with Israel and would be removed from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. While the announcement received a large amount of fanfare, both positive and not so, the deal is far from finalised. On both sides, the deal requires formalisation. The US Congress must decide whether to remove Sudan as a state that sponsors terrorism, and while the Sudan’s transitional leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has no need for such trivialities as parliamentary consent, a lack of popular support might still prevent normalisation.

While the 23 October deal opened some funding channels for Sudan, notably from the US and the Gulf States, the economy continues to tailspin into further crisis. In September 2020, inflation exceeded 200 percent, and the Sudanese pound lost 50 percent of its value against the US dollar. Unemployment remains incredibly high, and food shortages continue to rise as lockdowns and severe floods impact on people’s ability to produce and secure food amidst recurring low-intensity violence across the country. All this still occurring as the country approaches the two-year mark since the commencement of protests that finally ended the almost 30-year brutal dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir was deposed on 11 April 2019 as a result of almost six months of sustained mass rallies against the government. Despite the fall of the tyrant, the protests continued. The Sudanese people understood, from being in a similar situation before, that deposing a dictator did not necessarily lead to better outcomes. Twice previously, in fact, in 1964 and again in 1985, popular protests brought down military dictators. Both times what followed was political infighting and corruption, war, and economic crisis and a military coup and another military dictator.

Old wine in new bottles

Both governments of 1964 and 1985 failed because they relied on the old political parties established during British colonialism which were only representative in the sense that they represented the interests of a narrow elite vis-à-vis the colonial government. Both parties, the Umma Party and the National Unionist Party, were based in northern Sudan. Both parties rallied support from the numerous regions of a vast country. However, when in power, neither party did much for promoting national unity or national development. As Sudanese politician and writer Mansour Khalid wrote in the 1990s, both parties achieved the opposite: disunity, fragmentation, and impoverishment.

Omar al-Bashir’s 30 years in power only worsened the situation, albeit with Southern Sudan no longer as central to the woes of the country as it was for previous governments. With the independence of Southern Sudan in 2010, the problem of regionalism in Sudan was laid bare. For decades, the insistence was that the north-south divide was a religious and racial problem. Yet, the north, which is almost entirely inhabited by Muslims, continues to be ravaged by conflicts. The horrific decades-long wars in the Nuba Mountains and the region of Darfur have exposed the extent to which the wars in Sudan have little to do with religion. Closer inspection establishes that political and economic interests demarcate those lines more than group identities that in earlier Sudanese history have shifted relatively fluidly.

The economic situation in Sudan has also deteriorated in recent years. The end of the north-south conflict in 2003 provided some respite from decades of human and economic carnage caused by war. Peace between the north and south also brought oil production and rapid economic development. Whatever gains that accrued from oil money were almost exclusively located in the capital in the form of high-rise construction, and the benefits enjoyed by a small elite centred around the president and ruling cabal. When the south ceded in 2010, the Sudan lost the majority of the oil. A shaky post-separation deal to ensure sharing of the oil revenues provided some reprieve.

While this was occurring in Sudan in December 2010, Tunisia erupted in anti-government protests which led to similar uprisings across the entire region. Arab dictators long in power were either swept aside, as in Tunisia and Egypt, or fought unsuccessfully to hold on to power, as in Libya, or fought wars that allowed them to hold on to power, as in Syria. A year of protests and wars led many experts to say the region would never be the same again. Ten years on, such claims seem to have been premature. In Sudan, despite the wave of popular anger across the Arab region, protests in 2011 were small and easily navigated by Bashir’s regime.

New wine in new bottles?

Years of social-economic problems in Sudan eventually triggered the demonstration on 19 December 2018 when the ending of subsidies for wheat and fuel ignited popular indignation against Bashir. Government attempts to suppress the protests only intensified the outrage, bringing more people into the streets. By mid-January 2019, amidst deadly clashes between the government and angry Sudanese protesters, the uprising turned into a national revolution against the rule of Bashir. While the revolution continued, the National Congress Party (NCP) announced that it was withdrawing from the government. Then on 22 February 2019, Bashir declared a state of emergency and demanded people return home. Bashir even resorted to Islamic law to try and quash the revolutionary impetus by insisting that women who protested were exhibiting un-Islamic behaviour and if caught would be sentenced to flogging. None of this worked and the protests continued through March and into April. Seeing the writing on the wall, in early April the military transferred support from Bashir to the protesters. Without the support of the military, Bashir’s position became untenable and he was forced to step down on 11 April.

According to the Draft Constitutional Charter, there are 16 specific duties that the transitional government has to complete in the 39-month transitional period, which include achieving a just and comprehensive peace, repealing laws that restrict freedoms or that discriminate between citizens, reversing economic decline, enacting legal reform, ensuring the rights of women and youth, and promoting social welfare by providing healthcare, education, housing and social security. In addition, the charter requires that the state protect and strengthen the rights contained in this document and guarantee them for all without discrimination on the basis of race, colour, gender, language, religion, political opinion, social status, or other reason. Since the formation of the transitional government, progress towards these goals has been made.

Despite ongoing violence in many of the regional areas of Sudan, attempts to secure peace agreements with rebel groups have been one of the government’s priorities. Results here have been mixed, partly as a result of Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagolo’s presence in the government as the Vice-President of the Sovereignty Council. Hemeti, as the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the notorious Janjaweed, led the counter-insurgency in Darfur. Notwithstanding Hemeti’s reputation, the transitional government was able to secure a peace deal with five Darfur rebel groups under the umbrella of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Shortly after, on 3 September, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebel group, signed a declaration in Addis Ababa in support of a new constitution. Despite the peace accords that have been signed, Darfur remains unstable and a site of ongoing rebel activity resulting in numerous clashes and government-supported Janjaweed reprisals targeting civilians. It is doubtful that a government led by Hemeti will be willing or able to achieve peace in the Darfur region.

Change, continuity and the challenges ahead

Despite the progress made by the transitional government, there is a long way to go before Sudan can recover fully from decades of sanctions and civil conflict. With an estimated 65 percent of Sudanese living in poverty the economic task ahead to save the country is a herculean one with or without the impact of COVID-19.

International actors will have a significant impact on the future of the Sudan. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Trump’s US have propped up the old regime in support of their own agendas. The United Nations has created a task force to monitor the transition. Other international actors such as Russia and the African Union (AU) are also showing interest in the events unfolding in Sudan. Russia, which has few qualms about supporting authoritarian governments, is promoting closer ties with the TMC by increasing trade in arms, mining, and energy. The formation of the transitional government was the catalyst for the lifting of the AU sanctions and for a more active role for the African multilateral body in promoting Sudan’s efforts to rebuild its political, economic, and social relations and institutions. The ongoing violence in Darfur remains a concern for the AU which it continues to monitor, and the AU seeks further positive moves from the military to win back the trust of the Darfuri people.

What lies ahead is always difficult to predict at the best of times. Today, with the pandemic continuing to destabilise national economies and international activities, prediction is an even more dangerous activity. That said, it might be possible to say with some certainty that the efforts of the Sudanese people to oust Omar al-Bashir and pressure the military to include civilians in the government of transition are a sign that the people of this long-suffering country may have achieved more than many of their Arab counterparts in the ten years since the onset of the Arab Spring.

Whatever the future brings, the lessons of the past should not be neglected. At the national level, economic and political opportunities must be widened to areas beyond the capital and immediate surrounds, and genuine national inclusiveness, possibly on the South African model where ethnic and racial diversity is celebrated, is required. For international actors, the lessons of the past are also important. If the UN and AU are serious about promoting change in Sudan, then pressuring Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Egypt to cease their support for the military is a necessary step. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency is unlikely to change US policy much, but a small shift might be enough.

Sudan is certainly at a critical juncture and not for the first time. This time, even if the forces for a return to the rule of the few are working hard to promote change, the impetus for a move towards a brighter future is stronger than it has been before and this time it might be third time lucky for the people of this long-beleaguered country.

Noah Bassil is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations in the School of Social Sciences at Macquarie University. His work focuses on the structural and systemic legacies of colonialism and neoliberal capitalism as the basis for understanding contemporary politics, in particular Arab and African politics. More recently, while he continues to interrogate the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism, his work builds on previous studies with a view to explaining contemporary forms of racism. This work utilises concepts of historic bloc and hegemony borrowed from Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to explain how racism, amongst other forms of white male privilege, has become a strategic component for sustaining inequality in this period of late neoliberalism.

Jingwei Zhang is a joint Doctoral Candidate at the Department of World History, University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), and the School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University. Mr Zhang’s research aims to establish how colonial legacies have shaped the different paths taken by Sudan and Egypt since independence as well as shaping their bilateral relations. One area of particular interest in Mr Zhang’s research is the disparate ways that Islam has been interwoven into the politics of the two countries, with Egypt taking a more secular path and Sudan adopting Sharia law in the 1980s.

This is an extract from Noah Bassil and Jingwei Zhang’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “The post-Bashir era in Sudan: tragedy or remedy?” It is published with permission.