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  • Sarbani Bag and Jonathan Wijayaratne

Snakes and Ladders: Sudan’s Long Way to Democracy



Sudan’s movement towards democracy has been a long and arduous journey that has yet to find light at the end of the tunnel. The fight for democracy began in 2019 when citizens, having joined forces with the military, managed to overthrow the powerful dictator Omar Al-Bashir amidst mass protests. While this was probably one of the greatest moments of victory for Sudanese democracy, it simultaneously became one of the steppingstones to the country’s recent instability.

After a compromise was reached between the military and civilians, the military took control of the government, before partially handing the power over to a civilian-led government in August 2019, with Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister. However, as time passed by, another failed coup attempt arose in September 2021 which was supposedly staged by Al-Bashir loyalists. The military leaders began to blame the civilian leaders for Sudan’s dire economic situation while the civilian leaders accused the opposition of threatening the democratic transition. The government dissolved, leading to large-scale protests for democracy and a civilian government. On 25 October 2021, the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, took over through a successful third coup. The military once again detained the civilian leaders and decided to appoint a puppet government instead, announcing the possibility of elections to be held in July 2023.


A genocidal regime


The most recent coup comes within a series of dramatic events in Sudan. The country has been a dictatorship for most of its recent history. Omar al-Bashir rose to power in 1989, after he led a military coup against the democratically elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. His 30-year rule saw the Second Sudanese Civil War which resulted in the secession of South Sudan, as well as the war in Darfur.


In both cases, one of the main issues was the cultural differences between an Arab Muslim north, dominating the government based in Khartoum, and a Christian and animist south. In the western Darfur region, rebel groups fought against the government, claiming it was oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. And indeed, in retaliation, Khartoum has proceeded to an ethnic cleansing campaign. From 2003 onwards, in an effort to eliminate the rebellious forces, Bashir’s government has ordered the systematic killing of Darfuri citizens, with the help of militias. The semi-nomadic Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes were targeted by this genocide, where rape and chemicals were weapons used to decimate their population, in a context of Arab racism. According to a UN estimate, 300,000 people died, while nearly 3 million were displaced.


Bashir was later indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC, for many years the government refused to extradite Bashir to the Hague. This changed in 2019 after the dictator’s ousting, when an agreement was reached for the transfer, after he would have gone through domestic trials.


Why the military won’t let go of power


Following the 2019 overthrow of Bashir, a somewhat unstable civilian-military coalition was agreed upon to transition Sudan into a democracy by 2023. Arguably the main reason for the army to remain in power and not to transfer competences to civilians is that they too have committed war crimes. Staying at the top is the only way to stave off accountability.


One such crime was the 3 June 2019 massacre, when soldiers raped 70 people and killed more than 128 during a civilian sit-in protest in Khartoum. As part of the 39-month transitional agreement, a commission was launched to investigate the massacre, under the authority of then-Prime Minister Hamdok. Were the commission to complete its task, the military’s rule would have been untenable. Consequently, they carried out yet another coup in October 2021 which was partly catalyzed by internal divisions within the ruling civilian Forces of Freedom and Change coalition. Those decreased the latter’s popularity, creating an opportunity for the military to take over.


A civilian struggle


While there are undeniable divisions amongst the democratic forces, the anti-democratic faction has its own internal divisions. Alongside military officials are Islamists, former rebel leaders and members of militias, all with competing interests. The Hamdok-led ruling coalition, which has since the coup been partially reinstated to give the world an illusion of stability, has fooled workers into joining parties and armed forces that predated the 2019 protests, making it more of a restoration than a revolution. Hamdok and the Forces of Freedom and Change have given up on most of their progressive agenda and taken on the old informal political routine.


The fact is, a revolution does not suit the aims of the upper and middle classes. The current political establishment and institutions benefit them as well as the army, due to high levels of corruption and the centralisation of riches. But as military rule is becoming more and more unpopular, the workers’ and youth’s voices raise, shedding lights of hope. The younger generations, who have experienced democracy only for a couple years, have an ideal for which they made clear they will sacrifice. So, instead of settling down for compromises, aiming to grab power entirely can allow them to push this revolution further, despite the possible high costs.



International Implications


Sudan’s political situation has drawn the attention of the great imperialist powers. After the expulsion of Al-Bashir, Sudan was able to re-establish its relationship with the West and to benefit from Western foreign investments and aid. The US, in particular, contributed approximately $430 million in 2021 and 2022. The EU also plans to be involved by working on the prevention of violence against protestors. The US has been committed to holding economic influence over Sudan through these relations as it competes for influence with other global players. Approximately thirty percent of the world’s shipping containers travel through the Red Sea, which is the shortest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and Eastern US As a result, Sudan’s location has piqued the interest of these imperialist powers seeking to protect their economic and strategic interests.


The majority of these imperialist powers have demonstrated a clear stance against the coup. The coup resulted in a suspension of the foreign aid programme provided by the US and the EU has threatened to suspend financial support if the military does not restore the power of civilian leaders. The African Union also suspended Sudan’s membership. This coup worries the EU, as the political instability may affect the oil supply and create more refugees. The US and other Western powers released a joint statement welcoming Hamdok’s reinstatement and further pushing for a political transition to a full-civilian rule.


On the contrary, other countries encourage military rule instead. Russia appears to benefit from the coup, possibly granting it access to Port Sudan. Not to forget Egypt, as it appreciates having a neighbor with a similar governance model to its own. Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE also supported Al-Burhan to an extent in the past, they signed a statement encouraging the military leaders to return to the transitional agreement.


Although the path to democracy appears to be an unsteady one, it is a valuable movement for the citizens of Sudan. It is through democracy that the concerns of the people will be heard and prioritized. Sudan is one of a long list of vulnerable countries devastated by colonialism that are once again pawns in the game of the great powers. It is time to put people’s lives before the struggle for hegemony and capital.

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