Sudan and the democratic experience: A glimpse into the past and lessons for the future

Author: Ahmed Khair

Photo credit: Husameldeen Awad

As we debate the future of democratization in Sudan, it is important to remember that recent developments do not occur within a historical vacuum, nor are they unique to Sudan. The emergence of “big men” politicians who hold an iron grip on power and seek to empower themselves and their inner circles rather than institutions is inherent in the culture of African political systems. The modus operandi of Omer Al-Bashir, his party and inner circle is akin to the regimes of Moussa Traoré, Hasting Banda, Houphouët- Boigny and Muammar Ghadafi. The steps taken by the regime to mitigate public criticism against its rule have also been witnessed before, take for instance Bashir’s actions to distance himself from the party in response to civilian mobilization, it mirrors actions taken by Kwame Nkrummah in response to similar criticism being leveled against him. Protests led by students, professional associations and civil society groups, as in Sudan, against such regimes is also a common occurrence. In addition, military coup leaders’ assurances of a “return to civilian rule” and legitimations of their coups by claiming it aimed at “ensuring the cohesion of the state and its security apparatus” have also been echoed countless times. I say this not to detract from the achievements of the Sudanese revolution, but merely to frame it within a Sudanese and African historical context and in doing so hope that the mistakes made by oppositions parties in previous popular movements are not repeated.

As I am writing this, the opposition forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change are negotiating the transfer of power to a civilian led government, however, these groups should remember that the Sudanese political landscape is characterized by weak opposition party infrastructures, a formidable deep state, economic impediments, poor legal frameworks, partial international support for the revolution and a military that rules from the forefront. All these taken together will, and have historically, worked to undermine the continuity of democratization in the state.

Political parties have been active in Sudan since its independence in 1956, however, they have faced a cyclical existence. During the democratic periods (1956-58, 1964-69 and 1985-89), the party machinery was more established even though significant party divisions and quarrelling prevailed. When military regimes came to power they proactively sought to dismantle existing party infrastructures, for instance, political parties were banned following the 1969 military take over. The military coup that ushered in the Bashir regime is no exception, since coming to power they have sought to undo the power that political parties wielded through a multitude of political repression tools. Under their regime high-profile party members and leaders were arrested, tortured, banned and forced into exile. It is also important to note that, as with other hegemonic authoritarian regimes, consecutive military regimes in the state have not only dismantled party infrastructures through overt coercive means but they have also done so by instituting an assortment of legal barriers, such as in 1971 when only candidates approved by the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU) were allowed to contest elections. The Sudanese opposition should be cognizant of this history and consider that when elections or an immediate transfer of power to civilian rule is ushered under such conditions the government that follows is one that is unprepared to deal with the complex task of governance and rather engages in widespread political squabbling. Although such squabbles are part of the process of party formation, fragmentation and reformation which may result in more dynamic parties, it risks the loss of public confidence in democratic institutions where it persists for an extended period of time. Furthermore, where opposition parties are in disarray in terms of their party infrastructure and fail to form a united then electoral outcomes may not favor them as was the case with opposition parties against Boigny’s rule in 1990.

Although the transitional council maintains that members of the previous ruling regime/party have been arrested and are being held accountable for the crimes they committed, nevertheless, it is important to remember that these individuals and the party are not necessarily analogous. The National Congress Party still maintains offices, research repositories, vehicles, rallying equipment and funds which all taken together constitute the machinery of the party. More importantly there still remain individuals in strategic positions who can utilize this machinery to ensure that the party maintains its grip on power and by extension their interests through an electoral victory following the transitional period. Even where an electoral victory is avoided the deep state can still work to undermine a civilian led transitional council or a subsequent elected government to the extent where citizens begin to experience disillusionment with the “democratic experience” as occurred in Egypt when the deep state persistently undermined the democratically elected governments efforts at governing by inducing gas shortages, power cuts and reductions in police presence. All this contributed to a retraction in support for democracy from 70% in 2011 to 40% in 2013, such public sentiments against democracy made it easier for Abdel Fatah El- Sisi to replace the democratically elected government.

In addition, the deep state still maintains formidable networks of individuals who are working independently to further their own agenda. This network is composed of individuals entrenched in the armed forces, police, government ministries, embassies and international organizations. Going forward the role the deep state could play in undermining democracy should not be taken lightly, they may, as occurred during the Morsi administration, undermine public institutions, or as in the case of Mobutu undermine elections following the transitional period by establishing political parties to manipulate events and cause schisms. In addition, they may also play a role in shaping negative international perceptions of events in Sudan. However, opposition groups should maintain a tentative approach in combatting the deep state. It is imperative that what constitutes the “deep state” be clearly defined and limited to those individuals who are actively engaging in policy sabotage. The Bashir regime made the mistake of casting too wide a net on the deep state when they first usurped to power in 1989. They sought to purge all individuals in government institutions not allied to them and in doing so they inadvertently weakened these institutions. A prime example of this is Dr. Abdallah Hamdok who was removed by the Bashir regime when they first came to power due to his leftist fidelities. Following his removal, he went on to become a renowned economist and the Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. In 2018, the regime in an effort to resuscitate the ailing economy appointed Hamdok as Finance Minister, however, he declined to accept their request. This occurred because a comprehensive removal of the deep state without consideration of the capacity individuals bring to their respective institutions can and will serve to undermine the state since, in practice, it would mean replacing individuals possessing organizational capacity with those holding knowledge based technical capacity and risk weakening what are already weak institutions. 

Furthermore, Sudan faces a range of economic, security and human development issues that were the primary pushing force behind demands for regime change. There are more than 130,000 young people a year who enter a labor market that can only provide them with 30,000 positions. External debt has soared from $18 billion in 1995 to $56 billion in 2018, in addition, the depletion in foreign currency reserves has caused the emergence of a parallel black market. As of 2018, the Human Development Index, a measure of health, education and standard of living, for Sudan was 0.502, ranking it at 167th place out of 189 countries. Seeing that Sudan is not an established democracy, and that these issues cannot be solved over short-term, the continuous socio-economic stagnation under a civilian led transitional government may cause a loss of public confidence in democratic institutions which could in turn legitimate actions undermining these institutions, such as a coup by the armed forces as occurred in 1989. Such military take overs may perhaps not happen as part of a grand armed forces scheme but rather as a result of the ideological mindset permeating the military establishment that necessitates an intervention when governance structures are not adequately functioning. In addition, these conditions may also cause party fragmentation and overall instability in the party structures which in turn also affects public sentiments.

As far as international support for the revolution is concerned, the removal of the previous regime is untimely to some major Gulf states, European states and the United States of America. International support is rooted in state interest, In the case of Gulf states, Sudan has been providing significant support to the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in their war against Yemen. These states may fear that a civilian government could reverse its support for their war efforts, such fears from armed forces have been quelled as they have already indicated a continuation of the previous governments policy as it pertains to the Saudi Arabia, UAE and Sudan relations whilst the Sudanese opposition groups have not done so. The Saudi and UAE governments have already taken steps to solidify this policy, the recent pledge of financial aid to Sudan from the Saudi and UAE governments is a prime example. This aid package may serve to undermine democratization processes by helping alleviate some of the pressure on the military government which in turn may act as a catalyst for economic legitimation of their coup. European states on the other hand are concerned with migration from the Horn of Africa region and as they learned from the Ghadaffi and Hosni Mubarak experience any form of government instability may create more gateways for migrant movements. Sudan as a country of origin and transit for both refugees and migrants in the Horn of Africa region plays a central role in stifling movements in the region, the EU provided substantial support through their externalization programs to the former government of Sudan and recent events may cause a setback to these programs and as such cause hesitation on the part of Europeans to support a transitional civilian administration whose policy trajectories remain unknown. In the case of Sudan and the United States, Sudan has over the past couple of years moved away from being a pariah state to normalizing its relations with the US. This shift is occurring due to Sudanese support in the fight against terrorism by providing the US government with comprehensive intelligence sharing. Secondly, the government of the United States was more willing to accommodate the former government of Sudan due to their geo-strategic interests since the US is attempting to vie for influence of their own to combat the Russian and Chinese influence on the state, as such, the change in government for them also may cause pushbacks to their interests. Some observers may perhaps point to recent calls by the US State Department for the military to step aside and make way for a civilian led transition as evidence of US support for the revolution, however, they must not forget that such statements in the realms of foreign policy are not always indicative of the state’s actual policy. In Egypt, as the US was making strongly worded statements for Egypt to make reforms, Secretary of State, Kerry, was sent to the country to deliver the opposite message. It is important that Sudanese opposition groups be cognizant that these states play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of the revolution, thus, they should use the transitional period to frame and elaborate on the approach they will take regarding the aforementioned issues.

In conclusion, in a country with a history of a military ruling from the forefront conditions of political party disarray, insecurity, socio-economic stagnation which could come as a result of deep state intrusion, poor party infrastructures, inadequate legal systems and limited international support can lead to public dissatisfaction with democratization and civilian administrations and legitimate military coups.  As things stand, opposition groups in Sudan should be strategizing on the basis that the armed forces intend to stay in power or come back to power. They should, rather than seeking an immediate transfer of power to a civilian government and risking these conditions coming to fruition, work towards mitigating them. This may mean considering accepting the military council as a transitional government or forming a mixed transitional council headed by the armed forced and composed of both military and civilian representatives. Representatives in the latter case would of course have to be selected on the basis of scientific polling since the revolution does not legitimate an opposition led government nor one led by the military, and such polling would be facilitated by international organizations. Opposition parties should take a subordinate role during the transitional period so that the dire socio-economic and security conditions prevailing in Sudan can be attributed to the failures of a military government rather than a civilian led government and in doing so maintain public support for democracy and retain pressure on the military establishment against consolidating its rule. Opposition groups should also focus on legal reforms aimed at creating the legal frameworks which create conditions conducive for the rule of law to reign supreme, ensure transparent and free elections are held following the transitional period and creating an apolitical military establishment. In addition, they should work towards systematically breaking down the deep state, this means strategically entrenching members of their group in public institutions during the transitional period to ensure that when they do take power they are not susceptible to threats from the deep state. Furthermore, the opposition should seek to form networks and relationships with international institutions, foreign embassies and by extension governments, diaspora networks and think tanks, in doing so they can control international perceptions of the democratization process within Sudan. Lastly, it is imperative that opposition groups form a united front against the armed forces and ensure that differences between them are solved prior to a transition to a civilian government so the armed forces cannot exploit party fragmentations to legitimate any subsequent coups. Perhaps if the aforementioned steps are taken then a democratically elected government has a chance of governing for longer than 5 years in Sudan.

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