Sudanese democracy should not be US-made

Sudan needs a democratic transformation, but it has to be one based on its unique needs, not those of the US.

Thousands of protesters wave Sudanese flags in Khartoum, April 2019
Thousands of protesters wave Sudanese flags, hold banners and chant slogans during a demonstration in front of the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan on April 18, 2019 [File: Reuters/Umit Bektas]

There are few peoples in the world who have been as devoted to achieving democracy as the Sudanese people. Although their quest for democracy has been unrelenting, stable democratic governance has so far eluded Sudan, not least because of foreign pressures.

In the latest historic episode of revolutionary upheaval, which brought down President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the political transition failed to keep the country on a democratic path.

Subsequently, a bloody war broke out between two generals that has sown chaos and destruction. At present, survival is the main priority for the Sudanese people, but once the conflict is over, discussions about the governance and political future of the country will again come to the fore and there must be a clear vision of what that would look like.

A democratic transformation is critical to resolving Sudan’s many problems, but it must meet the needs of the Sudanese people and not be shaped by outside powers. The United States, in particular, which has tried to influence the post-Bashir transition, not only has a long track record of failure in democracy promotion in Sudan and its neighbourhood, but is also itself failing domestically on key democratic indicators.

Failed US democracy promotion

For decades now, the US has been promoting its understanding of democracy across the Global South, including in Sudan. American diplomats, think tanks and NGOs have all worked to press foreign governments to hold elections, maintain freedom of speech and uphold human rights.

That drive has largely failed to produce any tangible results for two reasons.

First, democracy in the US itself has been on the decline. All three pillars of US democracy promotion have seen backsliding in the US. In the past decade, claims of foreign interference, allegations of “stolen” elections, and political upheaval have raised fears that elections can no longer guarantee the orderly transition of power in the country.

Free speech has also been under attack. During the COVID pandemic and then the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, many people have been deplatformed, defamed, and fired for taking positions that do not conform to official narratives. Book bans are on the rise across the country, as is the censorship of critical voices on social media.

The US has also seen a spotty human rights record domestically, which was reflected in a 2023 UN report highlighting the US’s failure to abide by many of its obligations under the UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights. On the international arena, the US has continued to support Israel’s mass murder of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, despite growing evidence that it is committing war crimes and possibly genocide.

Second, US democracy promotion has been conditioned and shaped by US economic and political interests. Washington demands that countries agree to the Western-controlled IMF and World Bank overseeing their national economies as part of their democratic transitions. It also requires that the foreign policies of countries in the Global South align with its own.

But governments which submit to these demands do so often at the expense of the interests of their own citizens. This contradicts the very idea of democracy which is premised on national sovereignty.

Indeed, the US’s rendering of democracy is foremost designed to ensure US domination, which is why countries in the Global South would be ill-advised to follow its diktats.

Sudan’s quest for democracy

The narrow US and Western model of democracy does not have a good track record in Sudan. Every time it has been applied during a period of political openness following the overthrow of a military regime, it has unsurprisingly failed to solve Sudan’s daunting problems and has been quickly displaced.

In the 2000s, US democracy promotion efforts in Sudan intensified, as the country’s second civil war was drawing to a close. The regional peace process – heavily influenced by the US – produced the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of al-Bashir and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The two sides were pressured to agree to a democratic transformation either in a united Sudan or in the resulting components should the southern Sudanese opt for secession in a referendum.

Despite the enormous political capital that the US invested in this project, the peace agreement and process served to consolidate al-Bashir’s government.

In the following decade, the failure of the Sudanese regime to respond to the demands of the politically and economically marginalised peoples deepened poverty and fed conflicts in the peripheries of Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile, and eastern Sudan.

Sudan’s underdeveloped and distorted market could not meet the needs of the impoverished population even in the core, much less adequately respond to the economic grievances of the periphery

That the state needed to take a leading role in overcoming the country’s poverty was not perceived as a priority by Khartoum and by many in the opposition elite whose understanding of democracy was largely restricted to replacing the dictator of the day.

The political opposition was weakened by the suppression of the trade union movement and its replacement with professional groups who were concerned with political reforms rather than addressing the economic discontent of the majority and carrying out the badly needed economic restructuring of the country.

This goes far to explaining the failure of the post-2019 transition. Although the transitional government of Abdalla Hamdok came to power as a result of the overthrow of al-Bashir’s regime in 2019 and claimed democratic bona fides, it was beholden to the military, framed its economic and foreign policies to meet the demands of the US, and largely ignored the pleas of the revolutionary street that brought it to power.

Believing that the market was key to ending Sudan’s economic crisis, the government pursued IMF austerity policies which further lowered living standards and led to the loss of public support.

The Hamdok cabinet was largely made up of bureaucrats with world views steeped in neoliberalism who had few concerns about Sudan becoming a client state of the US. As a result, the US successfully pressured it to reverse its longstanding refusal to recognise apartheid Israel. It also pushed Khartoum to pay $335m for acts of terrorism allegedly supported by al-Bashir’s regime in order to have the debilitating sanctions against the country lifted.

However, despite these expressions of fidelity, the US government did not come to the rescue of the Hamdok government when the military overthrew it in October 2022. While claiming to be supporting “democratic efforts” in Sudan, the US had no qualms about undermining the most pro-American government in Sudan’s history.

As I argue in my book The Poisoned Chalice of US Democracy: Studies from the Horn of Africa, the biggest obstacle to achieving democracy in Sudan has been a limited vision and devotion to constitutional politics by the opposition which has produced governments and parliaments dominated by elites opposed to the transformative change needed.

Ironically the greatest democratic achievements in Sudan’s postcolonial history were not made during the brief periods of democratic government, but during the early period of the Jaafar Nimeiri’s dictatorship (1969-85). In the early 1970s, Nimeiri managed to bring the country’s first civil war to a peaceful end, granting southern Sudan regional autonomy.

He weakened Sudan’s traditional elites and promoted efforts to construct a Sudanese identity not tied to Arabism or Islam. He pushed for greater public control of the economy and a non-aligned foreign policy.

This period of Sudanese history is important to consider as the Sudanese people ponder the future of their country.

It is vital that they not just debate how to remove the generals and end the war, but also consider what kind of democratic path they want their country to embark on that is not shaped by US pressures.

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