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Who’s Really in Control? The Prospects for Civilian Government in Sudan

27 Jul 2022
By Associate Professor Anne L. Bartlett
A protest outside West Darfur University.
Source: UN Photo, Flickr,

There is a difference between those who appear to hold power in Sudan and those who actually control the country. Though the international community seems to believe that civil society, protesters, and resistance committees can take on well-resourced deep state cabal, this is a dangerous mistake.

On 4 July 2022, facing increased resistance on the streets, protesters’ deaths, and an economic meltdown on his hands, the Chief of the Army and coup leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, took to the capital Khartoum’s TV screens to announce that the military would be stepping back from power in Sudan.

Good news, seemingly. Especially when one considers that Burhan was the destroyer-in-chief of the country’s fledgling democratic transition, in the wake of the 2019 revolution.

The revolution, which filled the streets of Khartoum at the end of 2018 and continued well into 2019, was the culmination of years of abuse by the Islamist regime. This included war in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains, and an extractive economy that diverted money around the Central Bank, while depriving citizens of the most basic of services.

The improbable power-sharing relationship that resulted between the military and civilians was always likely to reach a sticky end. In October 2021, this is exactly what happened when Burhan launched a coup, dissolved the Transitional Government, and brought the military back.

Protests did not dissipate however. Every week, people took to the streets, leading to the latest announcement that the army would step back.

Is Burhan’s withdrawal a sign he has recognised the error of his ways or is there something more sinister at play?

Power Versus Control

Sudan’s governance, since independence, has a “Groundhog Day” feel to it. Over and over, the same sorts of political repertoires play out among Khartoum’s political elites and military, with the Sudanese population apparently powerless to stop them.

There is a reason for this. Sudan is not controlled by an incumbent government, ministers, or politicians alone: it is controlled by a deep state in the true sense of those words. The deep state is a shadowy set of interests, linked to an even more shadowy set of proxy actors, foreign governments, and those who collude to support illegal financial flows and undemocratic impulses in the country.

Such interests are part of a remarkably coherent group. Since independence and after, this group of political and military actors are not at all adverse to governing cheek by jowl or even mounting coups to save one another.

Post-independence, such interests have created a revolving door of elite and authoritarian rulers where politicians and their army friends alternate to control the country. Those at the top intermarry, put each other in jail to feign displeasure, and distribute the resources of the country among themselves. Even when “democracy” is declared, it is transitory and unstable. Since independence, there have only been 11 years of democracy and most of those years were characterised by chaos.

By 1983, Islamists started to influence the country under the leadership of the late Hassan al-Turabi, and in 1989 when General Omar al-Bashir came to power, the situation only got worse. In addition to the perversion of Islam into a system that brutalised the population and created a foundation for Al Qaeda and other terrorists, the Islamists built a dense structure of interests under the auspices of National Islamic Front (NIF). This structure combined actual financial capital and business interests, educational privilege, symbolic capital via networks, and finally, utilised religious dogma to sanction state sponsored inequality.

All of these interests have continued to grow over the last 30 years, backed by support from Russia, China, Iran, Gulf governments such as Qatar and the UAE, as well as regional players.

Resistance as a Precursor to Government?

Since the revolution in 2019, the largest groundswell of opposition to this situation has come in the form of resistance committees – neighbourhood groups with large youth contingents who are now networked together into collectives, each publishing their charters and situation statements on a regular basis. While most committees are still in central Sudan and around Khartoum, there are also resistance committees in the war-torn areas of Darfur, Blue Nile, and Kordofan. They are active, driven, and they certainly know what they do not want: military government.

Resistance committees have been lauded by the international community as the real source of democracy in Sudan and as the grassroots solution to Sudan’s crisis. Their charters call for bottom-up decision-making, post-colonial governance, the overturn of IMF structural adjustment policies, and the creation of an industrial economy. Commentators invoke Marx and the class consciousness of the people as a way to claim an alternative, if somewhat utopian, future.

The international community’s romance of civil society and resistance is however little match for a dangerous, heavily armed, well financed, and internationally-backed deep state cabal which owns just about everything in the country and keeps money outside.

Since the military took power and while the population took to the streets protesting for change, another move has been underway. This one is far more insidious and involves reinstating the heavy hitters of the deep state. The NIF, which was banned after the revolution, now rides again. Omar al Bashir, wanted by the ICC, has left prison and is now in hospital, and after Burhan’s coup, Islamists have been released from jail.

Even if these brave young people are able to say “no” to the military and have them step back, what comes after? Besides their charters, how exactly are they going to bring about change in a country where foreign currency is in short supply, inflation stands at 263 percent and where the likes of Russia and the UAE are enabling gold to leave the country from conflict areas, while suppling dangerous mercenaries like the Wagner Group to keep the population in check if anyone disagrees?

Reality Check Needed …

Reading some of the reports about civil society in Sudan, one might be forgiven for thinking that commentators have taken leave of their senses. If Abdullah Hamdok, the Transitional Government Prime Minister – a highly trained and experienced technocrat from UNECA, with years of experience under his belt – couldn’t make a difference, what chance do youths from the streets of Khartoum have? Even if labour unions and long-standing politicians try to help the resistance committees, the track record isn’t good.

If the international community wants to back civilians, it should start with some concrete steps. These would include efforts to weaken and stymie conflict-gold exports that bypass the Central Bank. It would also include a hit list and extremely heavy-duty sanctions, per Ukraine, on Sudan’s Islamists and military actors. It would also mean forensic accounting to seize assets outside the country.

It might mean a look at the leadership potential within the resistance committees and an attempt to start working with select individuals to develop them now. It could mean supporting the university sector to bypass Islamist education with support of world-leading universities outside. Or, working with people in the region to utilise Sudan’s longstanding agricultural expertise to strengthen food/grain production and community farming. Under Nimeiri, Sudan was, after all, touted as Africa’s breadbasket.

The solution to this situation is not more peace talks, neither is it the fairy story of civil society in a country controlled by dangerous extremists.

Sudan’s state has been the object of control by so many, for so long. Perhaps the time has come to make the state a less attractive option for authoritarians, elites, and their foreign friends. That starts by nailing down assets, depriving them of money, and making the abuse of the population a more costly and dangerous option. Only then might they start to think twice and refrain from their current activities.

Anne L. Bartlett is Associate Professor of International Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at UNSW, Sydney. She has worked on Sudan and the wider region for more than two decades. Over this time, she researched armed insurgency in Darfur, population displacement and the effects of humanitarian intervention on the population. She was the chair of the United Nations hearing on the Darfur crisis, UN commission on Human Rights, 60th Session, Geneva, Switzerland, April 2004. She was President of the Sudan Studies Association from 2015-2017 and is currently President of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (AFSAAP). She is also Associate Editor of ARAS (The Australasian Review of African Studies).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.