Why Sudan needs a slow transition

Rushing the country into an early election would be a major mistake.

Sudan protests
Sudanese protesters attend a demonstration in front of the defence ministry compound in Khartoum, Sudan on May 6, 2019 [Reuters/Umit Bektas]

Although Sudan has witnessed two previous revolutions since independence, it has not had much luck with democratic transitions.

After the 1964 and 1985 popular uprisings, civil wars continued to rage, material changes were not forthcoming for ordinary families, and no robust economic plans were set in motion. Lasting democratic reforms never materialised.

In both cases, the revolutionary movements were led by mostly urban, professional elites, dominated by men, and were largely ideologically informed. As a result, neither of these uprisings managed to create a nationwide front that was inclusive of all socioeconomic classes and ethnic and religious groups that could withstand pressure from counter-revolutionary forces and ensure that the major societal divides which fuelled violence were mended.

A major takeaway from those two periods was that the weak link in post-uprising political processes was self-interested political parties. Their failures led to the country sliding back into autocratic military rule in 1969 and again in 1989.

Today, Sudan’s revolutionary movement must take care not to repeat the mistakes of the past by rushing into a quick takeover of power.

Decades of authoritarian rule have left a toxic legacy of conflict, state capture, weakened institutions, a decimated opposition, and deep public distrust. It will take a lot of time to overcome all these challenges so the solid foundations of a successful, peaceful civilian transition can be laid.

Building the new country the Sudanese protesters are dreaming of will be a slow, lengthy and fraught process which cannot and should not be expected to end with the first election.  

Dismantling a toxic legacy

Having successfully achieved that which multiple armed groups, outside interests (at various points) and years of bilateral high-level negotiations were unable to – the removal of President Omar al-Bashir – Sudan’s protest movement now faces the formidable task of dismantling his regime and undoing all the wrongs it had done.

One of the major issues protesters will have to face are the consequences of Sudan never undergoing a full-scale intentional nation-building project since independence. Its borders, drawn largely through imperial conquest and bargains, circumscribed an area of almost 2.5 million square kilometres and locked in dozens of tribes and ethnic groups who were supposed to get on with the business of becoming “Sudanese” on their own.

State-building in Sudan followed the typical decolonial story of cultural elites seizing and maintaining power and marginalising those who did not share with them the same identity or socioeconomic class. Naturally, this resulted in social upheaval and conflict that plagues the country to this day.

Subsequent “peace-building” efforts have failed because they too were negotiated by and for the elites. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which ostensibly ended the 22-year civil war was not inclusive, rather it re-entrenched the power of the governing National Congress Party (NCP) and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in relation to other political actors. It intentionally left out Darfur, where the conflict continued raging, and gave little ownership of the process, the document or its prescriptions to civil society.

Domestically, the NCP’s home-grown efforts at structured political dialogue, modelled, no doubt, after the CPA negotiations, came in the form of the failed National Dialogue process and document. Like the CPA, it was so concerned with the “what” that it neglected to mention the “how” – a telling symptom of induced, fast-paced transformation and transition. 

A meaningful political transition in Sudan would have to make the first steps into proper nation-building, which would take time.

Another major challenge before the Sudanese revolution is the problematic relationship between the state and the army shaped by three military coups, 52 years of government headed by generals and decades of conflict.

Having spawned al-Bashir’s regime, the military was naturally given a privileged position in the country, swallowing at times as much as 70 percent of the budget and having a say in both military and civilian affairs. Closely aligned with the ruling party, the top brass was in a position to reap the rewards of absolute power, underscored by a hegemonic idea of the military as a public good.  

Today, for all its seeming legitimacy as the last institution to remain intact through 30 years of pillage and its attempt to reframe itself as the saviour of the nation, the military does not have the best interest of the civilian population at heart. 

Instead, its leadership is very much interested in preserving their privileges and dodging accountability for past crimes committed against civilians. Depoliticising the military and having its top officers break with old habit would undoubtedly take a lot of time.

Another challenge the protest movement is facing today is undoing the legacy of 42 years of Islamist influence. The Islamists, led by Hassan al-Turabi, first infiltrated the government of Jaafar al-Nimeiri in 1977, causing political and social schisms in Sudan, alienating various political factions and bringing about the Sharia laws of 1983, a key instigator of the second civil war (1983-2005).

Over the next decade, they positioned themselves in such a way within the political sphere that they became the heirs apparent of the 1985 revolution, seizing power with the help of the military in 1989. Decades of governance, marked by discrimination, kleptocracy and conflict and underwritten by a distorted form of Islamic thought, ought to take time to dismantle. Not doing so would risk Sudan backsliding into autocracy.

Although al-Bashir and al-Turabi had a public falling-out in 1999, the Islamists remained a formidable force at the heart of government, which once again can see them play a major role in the post-revolution chaos.

Instead of rushing – as its Egyptian neighbour did – into elections, which benefited the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood, Sudan needs time to develop its political sphere, which has been severely depleted by authoritarian rule.

A quick look at the state of the Sudanese opposition illustrates this well. Over the years, the regime has managed to co-opt, buy off or fragment the majority of Sudan’s opposition groups, which today hold little sway with younger, politically savvy, locally entrenched yet increasingly globally connected Sudanese people. 

In this new political landscape, doing politics the old way – putting self and party ahead of the people – is unlikely to garner any more support. Yet the temporary unity of the political scene which allowed for al-Bashir’s removal may not last long, as cracks are already showing. Parties like the Umma, headed by political veteran and octogenarian Sadiq alMahdi, are already trying to position themselves within the political space the revolution opened up in order to benefit as much as possible from the transition period – at the expense of the non-partisan Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), which led the demonstrations.

With newer iterations of various, fragmented domestic interest groups and political parties – untested in the business of representing people’s welfare rather than ideology, untrained in the art of political negotiation, and ill-equipped to address Sudan’s grave developmental issues – a gradual pace of change stands as the surest bulwark against a hapless and doomed transition.

The country also needs time to recover after 30 years of unions being dominated by the regime and independent ones being banned. Indeed, Sudan has had a strong history of unions and these have been integral to both the 1964 and 1985 uprisings and the democratic ideas that fuelled them. Professional unions in Sudan like the SPA are led by the belief in representing people rather than ideology. 

As the political landscape in Sudan transforms, the Sudanese public will also have to change its attitudes. Decades of authoritarian rule and conflict have broken the public’s trust in the state, its institutions, and political processes, and left it democratically inexperienced. The Sudanese people at large, and especially the youth, will have to learn to do politics and build a relationship of trust, first with political forces and then, eventually, with the state.

The leadership of the protest movement, civil society and the broad segments of the Sudanese public that they represent need time to develop their governance styles, manifestos, consultation mechanisms and communication strategies.

This will be neither a smooth nor short-term process, but it is essential for ensuring a successful transition.

Already on the right track

The good news is that for now, the protest movement seems to be on the right track. Over the past few months, it has managed to maintain a nation-wide front.

Previous protests in 2013 and yearly from 2016 did not draw as much widespread support. Today’s protesters come from all over the country and from all social classes, geographic areas, ages and a variety of political and religious persuasions. 

At the same time, the protest movement has demonstrated countless times its resolve to stand its ground. Its members understand their power lies in continuing their sit-ins and have pledged that they will only go home once their demands for real change have been fully achieved. 

In doing so, they are providing the type of broad civic support that strengthens the political leverage of the SPA in its negotiations with the military.

Crucially, the protesters seem to have learned from the previous Sudanese uprisings. Their revolution feels different. Protests chants don’t just call for the “fall of the regime” but for the building of a new country.

For the first time after a Sudanese uprising, efforts are focused on building not merely a government but a nation – one that will be as inclusive as possible.

Protesters have been holding civic education circles, taking surveys and consultations about the makeup of the transition government, in real time, and outlining what a social contract could look like to those gathered around.

This, they contend, has to guarantee rights for all Sudanese citizens, be inclusive of women and youth and, unlike previous iterations of democratic rule that ultimately failed, work to dismantle some of the structures that precipitated war, conflict, armed and otherwise, and wide-scale systemic discrimination.

Could this then be third time lucky? Sudan’s first real and complete revolution?

The same historical trajectory is currently being followed: an uprising, followed by military transition, then swift elections and a weak democratic government that paves the way for more autocratic military rule.

But the hope is that the protest movement and the SPA have learned well from the past and are working to set up a transition hewn through collaborative, widespread, and organic organising. The hope is that they have gleaned from their neighbours’ experiences that doing so slowly and carefully is a far better portent of sustainable democratic change than a quick-fix political settlement which would not reach the very people that have struggled for change and are rarely included in democratic transformation.

Swift transitions pushed for by entrenched political elites and impatiently planned by the military will only bring about a faulty transition – rushed, brittle, alienating and elitist. And that will surely not lead to the political, social and economic transformation Sudanese people have dreamed of and fought for.

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