Sudan’s political polarisation

The African nation celebrated 66 years of independence from British rule on 1 January, but it has been stuck in an endless cycle of coups, dictatorships, revolutions and transitions.

Sudan has been in the throes of an unstable revolutionary process since 2018. An unprecedented level of popular organisation and mobilisation is emerging from the pro-democracy street movement, which has sustained unrelenting protests since the 25 October coup.

Neighbourhood-level organisations called resistance committees have morphed from protest mobilisers central to the street movement into potential political actors, carving out a different promise of politics. Community-led initiatives made up of the youth, women and student groups are the backbone of the pro-democracy movement, which has protested throughout post-coup repression. Organising has evolved from 2019 to reflect the political reality of the day. 

Magdi El Gizouli, a Sudanese fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, says a less formal type of politics is emerging from those who won’t mediate through political parties where “decision-making is a top-down process and everything boils down to a leader. [They’re] creating horizontal structures that link across class … and listen to each other. That’s essentially an egalitarian way of making decisions.”

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Resistance committees formed to organise protests and gradually branched into organising carnivals, common kitchens and vaccination campaigns with integrity and cohesiveness. 

“They’ve gone beyond organising that and into organising health service, organising emergency services for the injured. They’re learning a lot more about how to organise through that struggle,” says El Gizouli. 

He says the mobilisation of the informal sector displayed in the face of intermittent to no internet connection, repressive military means and indiscriminate killings offers a great example to activists in the rest of the region on circumventing restrictions. 

“These young men and women are offering other people in the region another way of organising. They have tested that way of organising and it works,” he says. “They are an example to young unemployed, badly employed, precariously employed men and women in the region of a formula for doing politics that bypasses the political class problem, and I think that’s a very powerful thing to deliver.”

Temporary victory

In early January, former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned after being reinstated by the military on 21 November, after a deal was brokered. Kholood Khair is a Sudanese political analyst and managing partner of independent Sudanese think-tank Insight Strategy Partners, which does policy research on governance, economic reform, peace and security, and transitional priorities. She says Hamdok’s resignation was expected because he came to realise that the 14-point agreement he signed, much to the ire of the pro-democracy movement, was essentially a flimsy document codifying the coup but not allowing him much power. 

Hamdok lost a lot of popular support after he signed the deal because the pro-democracy movement recognised that it served to legitimise the generals and gave them a “fig leaf” of civilian partnership. Nothing changed except that military repression became more elaborate and excessively violent. 

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Khair says this is a temporary victory for the military, who are enjoying an undoubted Islamo-military consolidation. “The generals now bear the entire burden [of] the economy, security and governance. This allows more people to unite against them now that Hamdok and his Cabinet are out of the picture.” 

The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors estimates the death figure at over 60, with countless injuries. The military has employed new tactics, including blocking bridges with shipping containers, barricading towns and hospitals, and storming homes wearing civilian clothes, detaining young men suspected to be resistance committee members.

“Any revolutionary situation is a situation of conflict. What they’re trying to do is arrest conflict in favour of the people in power … [who] hold power by military means, not by consensus,” says El Gizouli.

At the expense of the youth

Switching back to joint military-civilian rule remains a possibility that will come at a cost.

“It’s not going to deliver … a democracy … They might manage to cut a deal but this would have to be at the expense of these young people who are protesting in the streets,” says El Gizouli, adding that the tenacity displayed shows that the street movement won’t die anytime soon, unless it is bought out, silenced or divided. 

Only 3.3% of the population is over the age of 65 years and 41% is under 15, so the only political reality the youth have experienced is an Islamo-military rule under ousted Omar al-Bashir. The youth are choosing their fate and rejecting totalitarian autocratic regimes and power agreements supported by militias because they have seen what it comes with.

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“It brings economic decline, endless wars, the interference of regional actors usually for the worst. It brings kleptocratic government structures that strip land and public assets and put them in the hands of loyalists, a deterioration of public services especially in education and public health. It brings about … a culture of unfairness at the heart of government that permeates every economic, social and political part of life,” says Khair.

El Gizouli says the youth and the older generation are worlds apart in terms of political thinking, but warns that the older generation needs to stop brokering deals that don’t put the will of the Sudanese at the centre.

“All these men will die after 10 years. And it is … quite disastrous to see them designing a future for a generation of people who would have to live with the consequences … for the next good half of their lives,” he says.

‘A poisoned chalice’

In the current impasse, anyone who takes on the position of prime minister would open themselves up to limited power and reputational risk, and they would be confronted with the same issues that Hamdok faced. “It’s not an enticing prospect, it’s more of a poisoned chalice … Anyone who has real political ambitions wouldn’t want to be part of this coup regime even if they think they can capitalise on the electoral process,” says Khair. 

She says political parties in the country have become fragmented, and are ossified in the way that they do politics.

“They’ve been … responding to what the military has done rather than try and set the stage for how the civilians should move forward. And that’s something the resistance committees want to do … They have had to change the way in which they work … from a mobilising force to a much more political force that puts forward a road map … The political parties have not been able to fill that gap because they work top-down [and are] elite-led without much consensus or coalition-building.”

Resistance committees have called on benefactors to refrain from restoring relief programmes such as the World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, to avoid legitimising the generals and giving them access to funding to buy bullets for repression rather than investing in nation-building.

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Although Sudan shed itself of its international pariah status, its economy has taken a hit worsened by the coup. The country lost crucial aid, debt relief and budgetary support after the coup. Recently, the ministry of finance announced that it would not be able to pay government salaries or support wheat and household commodities subsidies.

Many in Sudan cannot see the country moving beyond the impasse without involving the military. Minister of Cabinet Affairs Khaled Omar Yousif said recently: “Rather than being viewed as a threat to the democratic transition, we genuinely believe that the military has a role to play.”

Security sector reform, economic accountability and transitional justice should be at the heart of negotiations, says Khair, who doesn’t see how the military is expected to steward the country towards a democratic government.

“That lack of imagination in being able to imagine a new political setup in Sudan has effectively hamstrung the extent to which the international community has been able to support the pro-democracy movement, which is the only constituency that would be able to see through democratic transformation because that’s within their interests, and what they have been fighting for.”

Lack of faith

There is no reason to believe the military will act in good faith. It has disrespected and undermined the 2019 constitutional document that put the power-sharing government in place.

“There is no guarantee that if … civilians joined the military in another power-sharing deal that there wouldn’t then be a coup further down the line. So there is a lot of lack of faith in anything the military might do for obvious reasons,” says El Gizouli. 

Khair says the international community should be eager to support a process that breaks the mould, not one that reinvents a crooked wheel and legitimises the military as credible actors towards democracy when there is evidence to the contrary. 

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“The United Nations has started a mediation initiative, which has been met with rejection from the resistance committees. This is because, while the UN says that this process should be Sudanese-led, they have positioned the process to take Sudan back to the 2019 constitutional order, the very same constitutional order that gave Sudan the coup and the resulting impasse,” she says. 

Sudan was without a government for months in 2019. There is no constitutional basis to define a political process or appoint a new prime minister, and it would take at least 18 months to put election processes and mechanisms in place. Elections are currently planned for 2023 and it remains to be seen if an amicable solution can be reached without a puppet minister or general overseeing the process.

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