The hidden impediment to political change in Sudan

Even if the majority of the Sudanese prefer democracy, they will choose it with subdued enthusiasm.

Bashir waves to traditional performers in Khartoum
Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir waves at traditional performers after he addressed the nation during the country's 61st independence day, on December 31 [Reuters]

There is something conspicuously selfish about the generational behaviour of people. On the atomic level, we, as parents, are willing to give everything to our children and we dedicate our lives to their well-being and happiness.

We are not familiar, in our collective behaviour, however, with an altruistic generation that sacrificed some happiness for future generations.

This applies to politics. Any nascent democracy is in a fragile political state. It is expected that, after decades of authoritarian rule, freedom will be chaotic, and only through generational perseverance can it last.

Yet, the Arab Spring, which started as an inspiration for democracy and freedom, ended up as a deterrent from them. Pondering the situations in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, people under oppression will have much more to fear from revolution than just a shaky democracy.

The resilience of the status quo

Observers have struggled to understand the secret behind the status quo in Sudan, which has lasted for more than a quarter of a century, considering that the Sudanese have revolted in situations in the past much better than this one.

The regime in Sudan is considered – almost unanimously – to be corrupt and oppressive, headed by a pariah president who is accused of crimes against humanity.

The economic situation is deteriorating rapidly after the oil bubble predictably burst with the secession of the South. Inflation is soaring at 29 percent while wages stagnate.

Current account deficit is nearly $4bn, which means the country can hardly find hard currency to finance basic needs.

American sanctions are tightening the noose further, by scaring creditors away from working with Sudan, and the effects are already visible. The country ranks among the bottom in almost every criterion in the Human Development Index or happiness, and there is a mass exodus of talent.

As the political dialogue and peace talks are in a perpetual stalemate, the economy has no real prospects, and power increasingly concentrated around the president and his close aides, hope for a peaceful political change and improvement in living standards are fading.

In short, as things stand, they can only get worse. Hence the question: why are the Sudanese people, who revolted twice against military regimes before, so tolerant towards this one?

The dilemma of the better alternative

Sudan, unlike other countries in the region, has been ruled by democratically-elected coalition governments three times since its independence in 1956.

These governments were short-lived: unstable coalitions kept breaking up and military coups, usually instigated by political parties, further disrupted the political development.

The undemocratic inner-workings of the political parties meant that the old guards discouraged any political advancement for a new cadre.

The people who should make the change will weigh their options and think they will suffer the troubles of the transition, but might not live to enjoy its fruits. There are those who are still fighting for change, but they haven't, yet, sufficiently massed to make it realised.


The democratic experience is associated in the Sudanese collective memory with instability, impotence, under-achievement, and a sense of popular repugnancy caused by the ceaseless and fruitless quarrels of the politicians.

The military regimes, considering their much longer reigns relative to democratic ones, have no better features in any respect, in addition to being oppressive and bloody.

The Sudanese are left with two bad choices: Even if the majority will prefer democracy (some would still prefer military rule), they will choose it with subdued enthusiasm.

Therefore, when its potential price is as high as that of Syria or Libya, no one will revolt for democracy and the repressive status quo will prevail.

The selfish choice

If, by some unforeseen miracle, the political “dialogue” which is ostensibly ongoing in Khartoum does come to an agreement where the regime will gradually surrender most executive power to a transitional government – preparing the country for general, free and fair elections, ushering in a new dawn of democracy – then Sudan will have a difficult road ahead for the near future.

After 27 years of its rule, the bequest of this regime is backbreaking. Senior politicians, being deprived of power for so long and desperate for legacy, will go back to their old quarrels with more intensity.

The younger hopefuls will have no experience in living in a democracy, let alone ruling by it, so they must learn by trial and error, something for which the people’s patience will be very thin.

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The economy is already in tatters, and a serious recovery that is based on production will be agonizingly slow.

But things will improve if only they are given time. Once the old edifice is properly and safely dismantled, then every effort will be useful, thus, an improvement.

State institutions will learn to function independently, the economy will be divorced from its service to the old regime, and with a free press and judiciary, there will be accountability.

If this seems like a promising prospect for the country, the question becomes: why hasn’t it been taken?

One answer, neglected by analysts, is the idea of a selfish choice made by this generation and previous ones. No one wants to take the perilous journey of transition towards democracy.

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Again, on the individual level, many will be willing to give their lives for their country, indeed many did; but for some reason, the collective choice is persistently selfish.

True, the difficulties of transition may not be known to a common person who might, ironically, have a more optimistic idea. But, people generally know that transition means radical change for a status-quo that dominated their lives for 27 years.

The people who should make the change will weigh their options and think they will suffer the troubles of this transition, but might not live to enjoy its fruits. There are those who are still fighting for change, but they haven’t, yet, sufficiently massed to make it realised.

The inevitable breakdown

The situation has been on the decline for some time in Sudan, and the scope and speed of the decline are increasing.

If our generation (I’m 39) doesn’t pressure the regime hard enough to make the necessary handover, and it will not do it voluntarily, the country will then keep deteriorating till it collapses completely.

But the selfless act required from our generation is not confined to forcing the regime out of power. Many people are reluctant to change this regime only because they are afraid it will result in chaos.

The selfless act of our generation, therefore, should be extended to the transitional period by persevering the arduous journey to a stable democracy. Regression to authoritarianism must be absolutely prevented, even if we have to toil with democracy for the rest of our lives. Otherwise, we are just another selfish generation.

Ali Abu Maryam is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London and a teaching fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.