Sudan’s democratic transition at a crossroads

The transition government cannot ignore domestic needs and crises to focus on pursuing international recognition.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron welcome Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok for a dinner with leaders of African states and international organisations on the eve of a summit on aid for Africa, at Elysee Palace in Paris on May 17, 2021. [File: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes]

Two years ago, mass protests in Sudan led to the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir and the establishment of a part-military, part-civilian transitional government. Today, this “chimera” government is still struggling to demonstrate to the people of Sudan that it can undo the damage done by al-Bashir’s oppressive regime, kickstart the country’s moribund economy, and set a course towards genuine democratic governance.

Some six months into Abdalla Hamdok’s premiership, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Sudan has been plunged into recession ever since. As poverty rates shot up, the civilian wing of the government found itself unable to respond effectively to this global public health emergency. The government’s Sisyphean task to stabilise the country has been made even more difficult by a series of foreign relations crises.

Right now, the country is caught up in the tug of war between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and is simultaneously dealing with the fallout from the unrest in Tigray. Nominal peace with Israel, in exchange for the removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, has seen Sudan pay a heavy price.

In the meantime, the country has faced a myriad of domestic crises – floods, locusts and conflicts as well as many obstacles created by a tenaciously recalcitrant security sector. And through all this, the government has failed to demonstrate to the public that it has a concrete plan and a detailed policy programme to get Sudan out of the multi-faceted crisis it is in.

Since his inauguration in September 2019, Prime Minister Hamdok’s main focus has been rebuilding Sudan’s standing on the international stage and he undoubtedly made significant progress in this arena. Just months into his tenure, Hamdok paid official visits to both Brussels and Washington, the first for a Sudanese statesman in decades.

Moreover, during the International Conference on Sudan in Paris in May, International Monetary Fund member countries agreed to clear Sudan’s arrears to the institution so it can get relief on $50bn external debt. However, as Sudanese economist Hafiz Ibrahim recently quipped, “Debt relief has only to do with the books and dollars of the creditors”. Indeed, debt relief and international acceptance as measures of success mean little for those who are unable to buy basics like food and fuel.

The Sudanese political elite should carefully study the unfolding Afghan crisis and understand that prioritising international support over domestic needs and becoming overdependent on the international community can lay the path for the resurgence of fundamentalists triumphantly eulogising the failure of liberal democracy.

Waning public support

Due to gains made after the revolution not trickling down to the masses, there has been a tangible sense of utter despair on the streets of Sudan for some time.

The delay in the formation of parliament, Hamdok’s perceived weakness in pressuring the military to fully commit to the transitional process, rising unemployment and deepening poverty, coupled with the public’s persistent lack of faith in the national political process have brought Sudan closer to breaking point.

Since last year, young people, frustrated by the lack of options and betterment in their lives, have been protesting across the country. Some even blocked the main arteries of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, to show the government and the public the depth of their anguish.

These protests came amid discussions among resistance committees – the backbone of the 2018 revolution – and others in civil society about whether a new revolution is needed or whether reform of the current setup would suffice, to stave off a resurgence of the Islamists. This ongoing discussion is, perhaps, the only thing buying the government time and keeping protests at a manageable level.

The military component of the government, for its part, has grudgingly undertaken some public relations duties and paid lip service to the call to swiftly complete the democratic transition. They, however, have not yet shown that they are willing to genuinely commit to a process that would see their share of the national budget, and consequently, their share of power, dwindle sharply. While there have been some perceptible positive changes in some areas of Sudan’s political and social sphere, there have not been any significant changes in who holds the majority of financial capital, even after the ill-gotten gains of some former regime leaders have been confiscated.

However, slow progress is not the only reason behind the public’s growing criticism of and distrust in the civilian government. Hamdok’s apparent reluctance to communicate and build a relationship with the public also contributed to the situation. Indeed, throughout the ups and downs of the transition, the prime minister has been rarely seen or heard from beyond a small circle of advisers and staff. Unlike most revolutionary governments in history, Sudan’s has not attempted to present itself as a critical component in or protector of the revolution, or make its leader into a revolutionary icon.

Hamdok had, upon his appointment, more public support than any Sudanese leader, probably in history. Now, after having spent months not engaging the public on either his plans or their pain, he is facing unprecedented public anger. Indeed, at public protests held on June 3 and June 30 to commemorate the second anniversary of the Khartoum massacre and the largest demonstration of the revolution respectively, crowds repeatedly called for Hamdok’s resignation.

The civilians in government have not spent enough time reminding everyone that al-Bashir’s military regime sowed the seeds for the current painful period, creating a sentiment that the prime minister is to blame. For some, therefore, the revolution is not yet over or worse, is yet to happen.

Broadly speaking, the civilian wing of the government has, so far, failed in its attempts to meet four key goals: consolidating domestic consensus, coordinating between different partners in governance, adequately filling capacity gaps and communicating effectively with the public. Now, sustained public dismay at the pace of change may alter the policy direction of this administration.  The recent outrage in the streets, underscored by a spiralling foreign exchange rate and sharp rises in inflation – incidentally the same dynamics that contributed to al-Bashir’s fall – has pushed Hamdok to consider a change in tack.

Turning over a new page?

Hamdok is up against a tidal wave of opposition: from the public, the military, members of the former regime, as well as a wide range of Islamists who continue to inject themselves into the political process in different forms. Then there are the political party elites and rebel movement leadership. Continuing to dole out favours and positions to all of these as a basis for nation-building is an untenable policy.

Thus, on June 22, Hamdok announced a new initiative to “unify the factions guiding Sudan through the fragile transition”. In a public statement, he first crucially recognised that the transition is in crisis and then outlined a proposal to put it back on track.

Hamdok said his initiative is aimed at reforming the military and ensuring that armed groups, including the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), are fully integrated into the armed forces. He also announced that through this initiative, dismantling the remnants of al-Bashir’s regime, tackling the economic crisis, and forming a transitional legislative body, will be his government’s new priorities.

Though some senior international officials lauded Hamdok’s initiative, the media paid relatively little attention to the move and most Sudan observers could not figure out what to make of it. Indeed, to most, the prime minister’s new priorities sounded like little more than a nebulous rehash of the priorities his government declared during its heyday in September 2019: forming parliament, fixing the economy, engendering peace and dismantling al-Bashir’s regime.

Yet, supporters see this new initiative as a civilian coup, to retake the state, and realign the trajectory of the transition. So far, the most significant change in direction the initiative brought is perhaps in security sector reform.

With his new initiative, Hamdok not only put pressure on the military wing of the government to bring the country back from the precipice of civil war, but he also put the burden of any security sector reform squarely where it belongs: with armed groups, official or otherwise.

He publicly challenged dominant military actors to reign in their members and their ambitions. This was undoubtedly a departure from Hamdok’s previous strategy. And while it is ambitious, and could prove effective, it could also backfire spectacularly.

The armed groups could well step back and let chaos fill the vacuum before swooping in to take control again. One thing Hamdok should bear in mind is that well-intentioned proposals and calls that are not followed up by well-defined and well-communicated plans of action, are unlikely to succeed.

In Sudan, after 30 years of dictatorship, the young democracy is understandably still fragile. Many still believe that the military – not an elected civilian leadership – is better suited to draw the nation’s path. Furthermore, many are convinced that Islam provides the necessary blueprint for governance and that there is little need for democratisation.

It remains to be seen whether Hamdok’s initiative will be successful in turning Sudan’s transition around. But with fewer than two years to go until planned elections, he is running out of time.

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