Sudanese revolutionaries impatient for post-Bashir reforms

·14 min read

In the two years since Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was deposed after months of protests, Sudan's transitional government has tried to enact important legislative reforms, improve the economy and overhaul the political system. How are Sudanese coping?

Some Sudanese are fed up, while others are impatient. It’s a natural reaction after fighting against Omar al-Bashir’s regime, says Amjed Fareed, political activist.

“Those people took to the streets and risked themselves and lost their loved ones, their comrades, their friends, in a promise that things are going to be better,” he says in his office in Khartoum.

Fareed, a medical doctor, was, before the cabinet shuffle in February, the assistant head of staff to transition Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. He played a key role in the protest movement.

The government was established after the fall of Bashir on 11 April 2019 – a transitional government composed of military officers and civilian ministers, with Hamdok, an economist by profession, at the helm.

Sudanese people had taken to the streets in the capital and throughout the country with regularity since December 2018, expressing growing discontent over Bashir’s rule.

Neighbourhood committees call for faster reform

At the grass roots, revolutionary neighbourhood committees, such as the one of which Azaa Surkati is an elected member in the Mamoura section of the capital, continue to push for change, urging a faster pace of reform.

During the uprising, neighbours mobilised and marched as part of the protest movement, but on an individual basis, in an effort to not call attention to their area. Now, unity is the word of the day, as many try to push for the desperately needed reforms within the government.

Whether you are a neighbourhood leader, like Surkati, or a titan of industry, like Zuheir Saeed, the CEO of Saeed Group, a Sudan-based agricultural and mining operation, change and deregulation are necessary to get the country back on its feet.

“We want the country to open up, we want real investors to come,” says Saeed. “We don’t want cowboys and mafia, like what used to happen during the past 30 years,” he says at his business headquarters.

Removing US sanctions will greatly help private industry, says Saeed. His products have been filtering through to neighbouring countries, but had been blocked from real trade due to restrictive sanctions targeting Bashir’s regime over alleged support for terrorist groups.

Now that finance and banking are starting to open up, Saeed contends that Sudan’s system needs an overhaul.

“Some banks may be asked to close down, or to merge with other banks, because during years and years of mismanagement, most of these banks have lost their capital,” he says.

One recent development shows that Sudanese officials are permitting non-Islamic banking as as way to re-enter the global economy.

Sudan’s wealth is in agriculture, says Saeed, who is currently developing an aquaculture farm on the border of Khartoum state with Gezira state.

“We have land, we have water, but we’re missing things like electricity. The total electricity produced in this country is less than 4,000 megawatts – that’s nothing,” he says. “Egypt alone produces more than 100,000 megawatts.”

His idea of the future is connected to major reforms.

“Once economic reform comes in, once you have political stability, once you have a clear vision for the government, civil service reform and the laws around that, the investors will come,” says Saeed.

“We have everything but the right management,” he adds.

Sudan has come a long way

While the memory of the country’s past three dictatorships is perhaps far away for some, retired newspaper editor Mahjoub Mohammed Salih sees the past for what it was quite clearly.

Starting work as a journalist in 1949, he eventually started a newspaper, El Ayam, ‘The Days’, and reported on the path to Sudan’s freedom, independence on 1 January 1956, as well as three coups d’état.

Salih maintains that of all the political upheaval he has seen in his 94 years, the Bashir Islamist regime was the worst of all.

“The 30 years were really horrible because that military dictatorship was very tough with the people – they arrested so many people, put them into jail, badly treated them in jail, even killed them,” he says.

Looking back on his career, Salih says that, while independence was a bright spot, the atrocities committed in Darfur under Bashir’s command were decidedly the worst.

“One cannot forget them. People have been victimised. They have left their homes, went to live outside their country as refugees. Their homes were burnt down, their loved ones were killed in front of them. That was a really hard time,” he says.

The constant crackdowns have eroded the political landscape in Sudan, he says.

“The political parties are in bad shape, civil society is in bad shape, and the country and the economic situation are in tatters,” he adds.

With a weak economy and weak civil society, at least Sudan is slowly improving, he says.

Not everyone is so optimistic, however. Osman Mirghani, the editor-in-chief of El Tayar, a Khartoum-based daily paper, believes that Sudan looks the same as when Bashir ran the country – a strong statement from an editor who was regularly thrown in jail and saw his paper shuttered under the previous regime.

“The problem is the politicians – they’re very weak, and their capacity, even their personal capacity to rule, is quite limited,” he says, maintaining that they are committing a number of mistakes daily that will enable the military to step into the gap they are creating.

“I think the failure is because the politicians are not capable . . . because they do not have a true vision of what needs to be done, they do not have a strategic approach and plan, and they are not capable of ruling the country,” he adds.

The transitional civilian government has the full support of the Sudanese people, who put them in power. However, they are not ruling as leaders, but as employees, says Mirghani.

“When the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance signed their declaration, they were looking for only one thing: to overthrow Bashir, to remove the dictatorship. What will happen the day after was not considered,” he says, referring to the coalition of civilian and professional associations who banded together to push for Bashir’s ouster.

Economic crises – again

Making Hamdok the transitional prime minister seemed a natural fit – with his economic background. It was hoped that he and the transitional government could restore the severely damaged economy.

But, despite speeches claiming a return to economic normalcy, Sudanese economists are not happy with the lack of action for an economy that is circling the drain.

Inflation in March was running at more than 340 percent, leaving people struggling to buy staple foodstuffs. Earlier this year, the government devalued the Sudanese pound, adjusting it to the parallel, or black market exchange rate, underlining the pressure on the local currency.

This move was made by the government to unify the currency, according to Finance Minister Jibril Ibrahim, who is hoping to attract foreign investment.

Kamel Karar, an economist and former member of the FFC economic committee, says that unifying the market exchange rate has created more difficulties for the people.

“One of my friends, he’s a pharmacist, he said that 10 malaria pills before devaluation cost 90 Sudanese pounds. Today, it’s 900 Sudanese pounds. Every commodity price here has multiplied by 10,” says Karar, a dedicated communist, adding that the prices of other imported goods, including medicine, shot up significantly.

The recent changes to the minimum wage, which went up by 3,000 Sudanese pounds, only benefited the public sector, which represents just 10 percent of the people, says Karar.

Part of the issue was the fracturing of the FFC alliance, one of the groups that helped to push for Bahsir’s ouster. Karar says that the transitional government did not follow the agreed policies.

“After two years of revolution, people are frustrated,” says Karar.

He cites foreign interference involving the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the European Union, as well as the United States.

“For example, the peace process with Israel – this is not the priority of this revolution, and not the priority of the Sudanese people. This is a foreign agenda,” he says, referring to the opening of diplomatic relations with Israel, one of the conditions of getting off the US terror list.

Foreign involvement is inevitable for Sudan if it wants to access the international banking system. The World Bank announced the country had cleared its arrears last month, and that the bank would again be working with Sudan after a nearly 30-year pause.

The Washington-based financial institution has offered access to US$2 billion in grants for poverty reduction and economic recovery. Sudan will also become eligible for external debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative.

Husamuddine Ismail, an economist and member of Sudan’s new Economic Alliance, a group of like-minded individuals from various walks of life who do not agree with the current economic policies, believes that what the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are offering is not tailored to the Sudanese experience.

“For now, the government is pleasing the West – the World Bank and IMF – but making trouble internally. That won’t last – it will create continuous instability,” says Ismail.

“After a strong revolution like the Sudanese revolution, we should change our way of managing the political economy. It’s not always about antagonising someone or appeasing someone – it’s about how to reduce poverty,” he says.

Military meddling

Both he and fellow economist Karar believe in changing the currency. Karar also believes that involving the state in the gold market will help the government manage foreign currency reserves, instead of benefitting smugglers.

“The most dangerous part of that is the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the companies of the Sudanese RSF should officially declare their interests,” he says, adding that he believes they are indirectly controlling 80 percent of the black market economy. The RSF is a paramilitary force that become powerful under Bashir who used it to crack down on opponents.

Anger from Sudanese citizens also stems from the prominent position the military continues to play in the transitional government. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, an army general, currently heads the sovereign council of five military officials and six civilians, with a recent addition of three former rebels.

The military, as in neighbouring Egypt, owns many key businesses, including the sale of cooking gas and mining.

Reuters newswire uncovered in 2019 that Burhan’s deputy, Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, who also heads the RSF, had enriched himself in the gold trade.

Economist Karar questions why military-controlled firms are allowed to operate in post-Bashir Sudan. The lack of transparency, including not declaring their profits in the state budget, fuels speculation.

In March, the information ministry indicated that Sudan’s largest military companies, Defense Industrial Systems, would gradually cede its civilian operations to the finance ministry.

For activist Fareed, who has participated in the inner workings of the government, the military dilemma is simple: rules and boundaries need to be set.

“This will not happen unless we clearly set the role of the army and military forces in the public sphere,” he says, adding that this cannot happen until consensus is achieved on a constitution that clearly delineates each role in government.

Adding to the problems associated with the army are the para-governmental militias, such as the RSF, and the rebel groups.

“The army and military forces have to be part of the state structure…with the minister of defence created as another civil service or state structure,” says Fareed, expressing concern that the military operate independently of the government. The army needs to be brought under the control of a civilian administration.

“This would be the cardinal thing for the success of the transitional period,” he adds.

Other security services such as intelligence and the police force would be included in the sweeping changes needed, too, given that they have carte blanche to arrest and kill, without clear oversight.

“Implementing the law is key, not working as a social guard on people’s behaviour,” he says.

Last month, Khartoum State Police Director Lt. Gen. Issa Adam Ismail called for the repealed Public Order Law to be reinstated to “combat crime”.

The law enforced strict moral codes and was seen as a way of controlling women and young people. Ismail was reassigned after the Khartoum Public Prosecutor’s office warned that action would be taken against any official who attempted to enforce the abandoned law.

Newspaper editor Mirghani says that building a new state means new thinking, not playing it safe for the people in power.

“The way the new government are thinking, the way they are ruling the country, is exactly the way that was used by Bashir. Copy-paste,” says Mirghani. “They are lacking vision.”

Justice for those killed

A change in behaviour and norms could also be a step towards justice, which is one of the points the revolutionary neighbourhood committees like Azaa Surkati’s in Mamoura want to achieve.

“The first vow we took is retribution for the blood of the martyrs,” she says, including those who died in the protests, and others who have been disappeared, especially after the breakup of the 3 June 2019 sit-in that left at least 127 people dead.

“We’re not seeking revenge. We want to make changes for the youth and future generations … we want to make sure that what happened to the martyrs, such as torture and sadistic brutality, won’t happen again.”

There were a number of people from her Mamoura neighbourhood who were killed by security forces during the demonstrations, including Abbas Farah, who is called the ‘martyr of the barricades’.

Farah, wearing a yellow t-shirt, was shot multiple times when the security forces broke up the sit-in on 3 June 2019. Bleeding profusely, he walked towards the barricades and fell on the barbed wire, where he died. The video went viral and encouraged others to come out on the streets after the crackdown on that particular protest.

“It started with the slogan, ‘freedom, peace, and justice’,” Surkati says, repeating one of the main slogans of the protest movement that toppled Bashir.

Justice is moving very slowly, she says – some cases are going to trial, but there are many that have not even been filed.

“And still the judiciary has not been completely cleaned of the kezan,” she says, referring to the nickname of members of the Bashir regime – kezan, or ubiquitous metal cups found throughout the country. “The justice we have is unfinished.

“Our hope was a government change that was so radical, but maybe we have raised the bar too high. And of course, that’s wrong to think that in such a beat-up country like Sudan. We can’t lie – we don’t have a base to build on – kezan have destroyed the country in all sectors,” Surkati says.

“Even our national character was destroyed. I’m not saying I’m dissatisfied, I’m one of the people who has hope in the government."

The movement that overthrew Bashir has matured, says Surkati. “Regardless of how long it takes, we continue to pressure the judiciary, and perhaps this will change. We kind of feel like marches aren’t getting the results we need,” she adds.

The activist underlines the importance of understanding the country’s legal and judicial system so that those who helped overthrow the previous regime can see the changes they want.

Sudan continues to struggle under a slow transition, upheavals in the Darfur region, and ongoing strikes and demonstrations.

France is hosting an international meeting on 17 May to support the democratic transition in the country, call for debt relief, and officially encourage the return of investors to a new, sanctions-free country.

Newspaper editor Mirghani believes that this current transitional government could be one of the final opportunities for Sudan. Major changes must be made while the country and the international community remain supportive of the government.

“We’re not talking about the old regime, the Bashir regime, we’re talking about the complete system. Not just the political system, the way of thinking, of ruling the country, the approach of the government,” says Mirghani.

"Everybody will be desperate if we lose this chance-- this is the last chance," he adds.