Understanding Sudan

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 25 Apr 2019

Al-Ahram Weekly analyses Sudan’s latest events and their historical background

Sudanese demonstrators
Sudanese demonstrators ride atop a train from Atbara, the birthplace of an uprising that toppled Sudanese former President Omar al-Bashir, as they approach the military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan April 23, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

On 19 December 2018, protests erupted across Sudan, quickly becoming the largest movement against the 30-year rule of president Omar Al-Bashir.

Demonstrations broke out against the hiking prices of food, particularly on bread, which tripled in price and fuel, in addition to rising inflation and a shortage in liquidity.

Protests escalated when demonstrators decided to stage a sit-in in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum, 6 April 2019.

On 11 April, then minister of defence and Al-Bashir’s vice president Awad Ibn Aouf, announced “the overthrow of the regime and taking the president to a safe place”.

Ibn Aouf stepped down less than two days later and was succeeded by Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan, then army inspector-general.


The Former Regime

Al-Bashir reached the helm after leading a military coup supported by the National Islamic Front (NIF), headed by the late Hassan Al-Turabi, on 30 June 1989.

Ever since, Sudan fell under religious-military rule, through an alliance forged between the military, led by Al-Bashir, and the Islamists, headed by Al-Turabi.

The regime worked on the “Islamicisation of society” or “the hegemony of the Sharia state”, as stated by the Sudanese Islamist movement.

The ruling strata was adamant about enforcing Islamic Sharia laws and spreading political Islam customs such as obligatory zakat (alms giving) and the hijab, or head veil, applying Islamic laws to banks, and forbidding romantic songs for a long period of time.

The regime insisted on putting religious slogans on state institutions. The television authority took up “There is no god but Allah” as its motto. Artistic, literary and scientific works produced by Sudanese, residing in or outside of the country, were tightly monitored.

The most significant religious move, however, was escalating the war in the south. Leaders of the NIF described the war as “jihad” against the “infidels” or “Kharijites” and said the war should be waged because Sudan was in the service of Islam.

Is the Sudan regime a product of the Muslim Brotherhood, or is the organisation separate from the ruling NIF?

The two groups are different entities. After the October 1964 Revolution, Al-Turabi refused to pledge allegiance to the Egyptian leadership of the Brotherhood, claiming Sudan’s circumstances were different. Al-Turabi went on to found the NIF which contested the 1965 and 1968 legislative elections, winning seven and three seats respectively.

Throughout Sudan’s “Second Democracy” (1964-1969) the NIF strived for the “Islamic constitution” to prevail as a way of governance.

Al-Turabi didn’t succeed in his quest — despite receiving support from his brother-in-law Sadik Al-Mahdi, leader of the National Umma Party — until January 1977 when National Reconciliation took place between Al-Mahdi and the ruling regime of Gaafar Numeiri (1969-1985).

Once more, Al-Turabi took a different route than the Muslim Brotherhood who remained on the side lines during Numeiri’s rule. Numeiri’s hold of the country reached its zenith with the appointment of Al-Turabi as attorney-general and the application of Islamic Sharia law in September 1983.

By the time of Numeiri’s downfall in 1985, the Islamists had already reached the peak economically through the Faisal Islamic Bank, politically by being at the helm of the regime, and socially through enforcing their ideology on the Sudanese communities.

Al-Turabi’s NIF, during the “Third Democracy” (1985-1989), landed third in the legislative elections and secured more than 50 seats — out of 300 — in parliament. Al-Turabi became prime minister in one of the coalition governments formed by Al-Mahdi.

After the 1989 Bashir-led coup, the NIF became the ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood remained marginal in Sudan’s political life, unlike the status of the organisation in other Arab countries, and despite inspiring the bigger part of Al-Turabi’s ideology.

The Driving Force

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) is one of the prominent forces behind the current popular movement that erupted more than four months ago.

The SPA is an amalgam of non-official professional syndicates comprising physicians, lawyers, journalists, pharmacists and teachers, among others. The association came into being after independent and opposition forces realised it was almost impossible to win any syndicate elections.

It has become evident during the latest protests that the Sudanese public put their faith in the SPA, despite the fact that association leaders remained anonymous until the toppling of Al-Bashir.

Civil And Political Forces

Many of Sudan’s political forces signed the Declaration of Freedom and Change on 2 January. Four major opposition forces — the SPA, the Sudan Call, the National Consensus Forces (NCF) and the Unionist Alliance — signed the declaration, made up of nine guiding principles, in Khartoum.

The NCF was founded in 2009 and comprises 17 parties, prime among which is the National Umma Party, led by Al-Mahdi whose government was overthrown by Al-Bashir.

Other NCF parties include the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), the Sudanese Communist Party and the Popular Congress Party, founded in 2000 by Al-Turabi.

There are a number of armed movements functioning in Sudan, such as the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army in Darfur, the Beja Congress in the east. The SPLM-N’s armed wing comprises the people of Nubia mountains and south of the Blue Nile, nearby South Sudan.

There are other non-Islamic tribal-based armed groups that were formed by Al-Bashir. These are mostly concentrated in the west, particularly in Darfur. Currently, they are named rapid support forces and are led by Mohamed Hassan Hamdan Daglo, aka Hemeti, who was recently appointed vice president of the transitional military council.

In addition to civil movements, there is the ruling Islamist force to which belong most of the heads of administrative, judicial and censorship authorities.

Ethnic, Cultural And Religious Diversity

Generally, the Sudanese take pride in their diverse composition. In addition to the Arabic language, there are hundreds of African languages spoken by millions of Sudanese. Islam, followed by Christianity, are the most popular religions, but there are other traditional African creeds in Sudan.

Ethnically, there are Hamites, half-Hamites and Nilotics. There are also tribal and sectarian divisions and groups in the country: Al-Ansar in the west and around the White Nile, and Al-Khatmeya in the north and east.

Instead of being an enriching element to Sudanese society, this diversity has been the cause of conflicts for the past century, fuelled by the question of identity: Whom do we (the Sudanese) belong to?

The Arab elites believed they were Arab, while non-Arab Muslim elements insisted they were African. This was the reason the civil war erupted between the south and north, then in Darfur between the Arabs and Nilotics, and since 2012 in Nubia mountains and south of the Blue Nile.

Civil Wars

The country suffered a series of civil wars, the bloodiest of which took place in the south from 1955 to 1972, and from May 1983 to January 2005, when the Naivasha Agreement was signed giving the southerners the right to self-determination, and resulting in the secession of South Sudan in 2011.

Other civil wars erupted in Darfur and regions around South Sudan. According to Sudanese sociological studies, these wars broke out because the elites, who belong to the Arab Muslim community comprising 40-50 per cent of the population, marginalised the rest of the Sudanese population that belonged to other ethnic and religious groups.

The Black Book:Imbalance of Power and Wealth in the Sudan was released in tandem with the war in Darfur that broke out in 2003 by the Justice and Equality Movement. The manuscript, published in two parts, details a pattern of disproportionate political control by the people of northern Sudan who dominated 90 per cent of elitist jobs since the country got rid of British colonialism in 1956.

Other studies estimated that the northerners controlled about the same percentage of the national wealth for purposes of private assets or spending on developmental projects.

The International Criminal Court

Former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Moreno Ocampo issued an arrest warrant against Al-Bashir in 2009, accusing the toppled president of masterminding war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Ocampo’s list of wanted criminals from Sudan included 55 names, such as Ahmed Haroun, whom Al-Bashir delegated to run the ruling National Congress Party, former minister of defence Ibn Aouf, leaders of Janjaweed militias — currently operating under the name of the Rapid Support Forces — and a number of field operatives in Darfur’s armed opposition.

Challenges Ahead

Prime among current challenges are restructuring the civil service sector and the armed forces to become national institutions away from the grip of Islamists who are expected to resist any attempt at harming their interests.

Another challenge is collecting the vast number of weapons spread across many regions, particularly those that witnessed civil wars. To achieve this goal, facing off with the Rapid Support Forces is inevitable.

Obviously, there is the economic challenge. Sudan’s foreign currency sources are limited and it doesn’t have an international partner that is interested in investing heavily in the country to tip the scales in favour of Sudan’s economy.

Creating an environment conducive to democratic change, gathering diverse Sudanese elements under the state’s umbrella without marginalising any of society’s components and putting the corrupt and criminals on trial, are some of the challenges Sudan has to overcome.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Understanding Sudan

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