Sudan: military needs to make way for democracy
Sudan’s military government, which carried out a coup in October 2021, has recently made some apparently positive moves such as holding limited talks, releasing some prisoners and ending the state of emergency. International pressure and economic strain have pushed the military to this point, but while the democracy movement is divided, many will not accept anything other than full civilian and democratic rule. Protests are ongoing, as is repression, undermining the image the military tries to present to the international community. Sudan’s international partners must not be fooled by the military’s gestures and must insist on a genuine plan and timetable for a transition to democracy.
It’s now over half a year since Sudan’s military halted the country’s transition to democracy, dismissing the government and arresting the prime minister. Little real progress has been made since.
Military under pressure
In recent weeks, the military government has sat down for talks – of a kind. Official talks were held between the military and selected groups, sponsored by the African Union (AU), the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African regional body.
But democracy groups boycotted the talks, pointing to the participation of pro-military groups and people associated with the authoritarian regime of former president Omar al-Bashir, ousted in a popular uprising in April 2019. There was no one in the dialogue opposed to the military. The AU evidently shared the critique: on 21 June, it said it could not continue ‘these dishonest and opaque discussions’.
Around the same time, there was an informal meeting between the military and the main pro-democracy group, the Forces for Freedom and Change – the first since the October 2021 coup. But others in the divided democracy movement remain suspicious, fearing that any compromise means co-optation.
The military has also freed some high-profile detainees from jail, including several politicians. In June it lifted the state of emergency, in force since the coup.
These limited moves have not been motivated by any sudden conversion by the military to democratic ideals. The pressures are economic: Sudan depends heavily on international aid, but much aid has been cut off since the coup. Inflation is reported to stand at 250 per cent and there are growing food shortages amid surging costs of essentials. On top of the impacts of low rainfall in 2021, Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed up prices, and Sudan is vulnerable: it imported 35 per cent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2021.
The World Food Programme says 20 million people, almost half the population, will face hunger this year. Sudan is among the countries the World Bank says will need support due to shortages of food and agricultural fertilisers. Violence has resurged in Darfur and other regions where resources are most under strain, not least as a result of climate change. In April, at least 200 people were killed in an attack by militants on civilians in Darfur.
Empty promises of transition
The military knows the best way to start much-needed support flowing again is to make it look like some kind of transition is on the cards. This seemed to be its motivation in November 2021, when Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok went from detainee to civilian leader of a hybrid government. Hamdok signed a power-sharing deal with coup leader Lieutenant General Al-Burhan at the urging of Sudan’s foreign partners, including the European Union and the Troika of Norway, the UK and the USA, who saw this as the best bet for salvaging the transition to democracy that began in 2019.
But Hamdok walked away from the arrangement in January 2022 after the military reneged on its promise that he could appoint a cabinet without interference. A further concern was the military’s relaunch of the country’s intelligence service, a feared agent of repression under al-Bashir.
Further belying any hopes of transition, several leading figures in the al-Bashir administration, who once seemed set to face justice for their role in brutal repression and extraordinary corruption, have also been freed from detention and found their way back into senior government jobs.
Resistance and repression
The coup is being met with fierce resistance and ongoing protests. Protesters see their struggle against the military as a continuation of their uprising against al-Bashir, which in 2019 the military spent months violently trying to suppress. Many in the democracy movement were never happy with the transitional arrangement put in place in 2019, which included both civilian and military forces. They never stopped protesting and want not a return to a hybrid government but full civilian and democratic rule.
Neighbourhood resistance committees have been formed, which mobilise localised short-notice street protests and shutdowns and coordinate help for people injured by security force violence, connecting to supportive healthcare workers. This decentralised form of organisation is harder for the military to repress. Protests surged in April, marking the third anniversary of al-Bashir’s ousting, and in May, after six months of military rule.
The military might be trying to say the things the international community wants to hear, but its response to protests betrays its words. In June, the UN’s expert on human rights in Sudan, Adama Dieng, reported that almost 100 people had been killed and over 5,000 injured through excessive state force since the coup. He raised concerns about sexual and gender-based violence, torture and ill-treatment in detention and arbitrary and mass arrests, calling for urgent investigations.
While the military has released some high-profile figures from jail, possibly hoping they will play a civilian role in a puppet government, many less well-known protesters remain stuck in prison. The government is still jailing them and meeting protests with violence. The May protests saw intensified security force violence, including the use of live ammunition, and a wave of arrests of resistance committee members. Journalists are under attack.
Most of those killed during protests have been shot dead. Detainees are often held incommunicado and far from home. Beatings in detention are routine. Children are among those being held. Security forces have reportedly attacked health facilities. There is broad impunity for these many human rights violations.
Women are in the firing line, and have been ever since they played a remarkable leading role in the 2019 revolution. After the revolution, women activists used the greater democratic space to demand advances in women’s rights, long denied as al-Bashir shored up his support by applying a hardline interpretation of Islam. In April 2021, campaigning paid off when Sudan finally ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – the key international treaty on women’s rights – albeit with some crucial exceptions. But the coup halted further progress.
Refusing to return to subjugation, women are once again leading the resistance. As a result, they are being targeted, including through sexual violence. There are also reports that some of the al-Bahir regime’s restrictive measures that targeted women, such as dress codes, are returning.
Voices from the frontline
Nazik Kabalo is a woman human rights defender from Sudan with 15 years of experience in human rights advocacy, research and monitoring.
Following the revolution, the deal reached between military and civilians never satisfied the protest movement, which includes a high proportion of young people and women. They have never stopped protesting, not even during the transitional period, from August 2019 to October 2021. So when the coup happened, people were instantly in the streets, even before an official announcement of the coup was made.
Since 2018, protesters have demanded real democracy and civilian rule. We have had military governments 90 per cent of the time since we became independent: 59 years out of 64. After the regime fell on 11 April 2019, people started a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters. This continued for two months and ended with the Khartoum Massacre on 3 June 2019, with attacks perpetrated by militias and security forces. Two hundred people were killed and at least 60 women were gang raped. In August a deal was reached the military, despite the massacre that literally happened outside their headquarters! This was a stab in the heart for many democracy groups.
Right now, the protest movement wants to make sure civilians are the ones ruling the country. Military leaders should go back to guarding the borders and shouldn’t have anything to do with the running of the government anymore. The 2019 deal didn’t work, which means our only option is demanding radical change that puts power in people’s hands. Resistance committees have a slogan of ‘three nos’: no partnership, no negotiation or compromise, and no legitimacy.
A process of dialogue and negotiations led by some political parties is currently taking place, but resistance committees refuse to engage. Unfortunately, this has not been welcomed by some international actors, but it comes as a direct result of recent Sudanese experience.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Nazik. Read the full interview here.
Need for real progress
If the current process results in a hybrid form of government, international partners will likely be satisfied. Distracted by the Ukraine crisis, they will be keen to show some results from their diplomacy. Movements for democracy would likely be divided between those prepared to try compromising and those for whom the military’s track record offers little reason for trust.
But the military should know its continuing rule is not assured. It should remember that today’s price rises and shortages are similar to those that provided the initial spark for the protests that ultimately ousted al-Bashir. This could happen again, and it would be wise for the military to start moving towards democracy before it loses control of the process.
Sudan’s international partners should hold a high line and demand not just civilian window-dressing around continuing military rule but genuine and transparent dialogue with multiple democracy groups that leads to an agreed roadmap and timeline for free and fair elections, in which military figures should be barred from standing. The UN must step up its scrutiny, including by holding regular sessions of the UN Human Rights Council to keep the issue on the agenda.
The international community must also insist on a process to deliver justice for the families of all those killed, and for all who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence, torture, detention and other human rights violations – not just since the coup, but also during the military’s violent response to the 2019 uprising, for which justice has been systematically denied. Women’s voices must be strongly heard in all negotiations. Attacks on women’s rights must end and there should be no regression on the advances made since the 2019 revolution.
The removal of al-Bashir by a popular uprising brought hopes for democracy, across Africa and beyond. That hope isn’t entirely extinguished, but to keep it alive, Sudan’s democracy campaigners need genuine international backing. The answers must come from Sudan’s people, and the international community must play its part to help create the conditions in which they can have their say.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Sudan’s military government should immediately stop all violence and other abuses towards protesters and commit to holding perpetrators to account.
The government should launch a genuine social dialogue, with widespread involvement of diverse democracy groups and women’s participation, to develop a time-bound plan for transition to democracy.
Sudan’s donors and international partners should ensure that a transition timeline is in place before granting any concessions to the current government.
Cover photo by Nazik Kabalo