Sudan: there’s no democracy without civil society
A framework agreement struck between Sudan’s military junta and some civilian groups in December 2022 is the latest plan that’s supposed to bring democracy to the country. But many in the democracy movement are sceptical and protests continue. It’s hard to trust the military, which has gone back on previous agreements, and many of the international partners involved in the process have little interest in democracy. If broad consensus is to be reached, it must be around a much more ambitious agreement that delivers on demands for genuine democracy and enables civil society to play its full role in building democratic processes.
Protests demanding the return of democracy continue in Sudan. On 21 February, hundreds took to the streets of the capital, Khartoum. They rejected an agreement struck last December between Sudan’s military junta and some civilian groups that’s supposed to lead to a two-year civilian-led transition to elections. Many remain opposed, objecting to the lack of broad consensus over the agreement and its dearth of detail, not least the absence of any mechanism to hold the military to account for its many human rights abuses.
A revolution betrayed
Accountability matters because the military has committed an appalling catalogue of human rights crimes in response to years of struggle for democracy.
Protests that began in December 2018 were immediately met with brutal violence, but they led to the ousting of longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Al-Bashir was forced out in a military coup, but mass protests continued against the junta that replaced him. People wanted more than a change of president: they demanded democratic civilian rule. The army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) responded with large-scale lethal violence.
The worst day came on 3 June 2019, when a mass sit-in outside military headquarters was ended by the military opening fire on protesters indiscriminately. The number of fatalities was disputed because the military was reported to have thrown bodies into the Nile, but it seems clear somewhere over 100 people died that day. Sexual violence was used as a weapon: over 70 women were raped in the attack.
The military must have thought it had won, but the protest movement regrouped. Continuing protest momentum and diplomatic pressure, including from the African Union (AU), forced the military to concede. In July 2019 an agreement was reached between the junta and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of groups demanding democracy. The following month a mostly civilian Sovereignty Council took over with Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister.
But hopes for a peaceful transition were thwarted. In October 2021, the army’s leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, dissolved the Sovereignty Council and arrested Hamdok. This came just as full handover of the transitional government to civilians was due.
The coup brought mass protests and a campaign of civil disobedience organised by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a key FFC member, with businesses, offices and schools closed. States that had been working with the transitional government urged Hamdok’s reinstatement, seeing him as the only person capable of reconciling the contrasting demands of the military and various strands of the democracy movement.
That approach seemed rewarded when Hamdok returned as prime minister the following month, signing a power-sharing deal with the military. Hamdok argued he could salvage the transition, but his move was rejected by many pro-democracy groups, including the FFC. The SPA called for further mass protests.
The deal quickly fell apart as the military went back on its promises. Hamdok resigned in January 2022 due to the military’s continued interference, including in cabinet appointments. The military was back in full command.
Protests continued, as did state violence. The military has repeatedly used live ammunition. The junta has also vilified protesters, applied internet shutdowns and arrested journalists. Last June, then-United Nations (UN) Expert on human rights in Sudan, Adama Dieng, reported that almost 100 people had been killed and over 5,000 injured through excessive force since the October 2021 coup. Dieng raised concerns about sexual and gender-based violence, torture and arbitrary arrests.
Mixed reactions to the deal
The deal signed in December promises a two-year civilian-led transition to democracy. Wider consultations, involving more groups than those that signed the agreement, began in January, with the stated aim of developing a roadmap for transition.
The larger part of the FFC, which has split in two, was involved in negotiations and has endorsed the deal. But civil society is divided and there are many pro-democracy groups and political parties that have not backed it.
Recent protests have been led by resistance committees, a network of neighbourhood-based groups. They’ve dismissed the agreement as an elite stitch-up that merely buys the military more time. They see politicians backing the deal as self-interested and manoeuvring for a share of power. Having seen the military go back on previous deals they don’t believe it’s negotiating in good faith. They suspect a hybrid government with continuing military influence will result, contrary to the demands of the 2019 revolution for a radical redistribution of power.
On the other side of the debate are the many states and international organisations that have played a role in brokering the various talks and processes that have led to this point. They include the ‘troika’ grouping of Norway, the UK and USA, the ‘quad’, in which the UK and USA work with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the European Union (EU) and the UN, AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African regional body. These have all invested in compromise and are keen to promote the agreement as the best available, including by urging political parties and civil society groups that haven’t signed up to the deal to back it.
The motivations of those involved vary, and not all of them have an interest in democracy. What many of the states involved want could more accurately be described as stability – a predictable government with less violence. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a democratic government. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with another country with close military ties, Egypt, don’t countenance democracy at home and so don’t encourage it abroad. For those opposed, it’s a cause for concern that political figures seen as aligned to Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among those backing the deal.
And then there’s Russia’s influence. The shadowy Wagner group, the Russian network controlled by a staunch Vladmir Putin ally, is active in Sudan and accused of working closely with the military. Its Sudan subsidiary, Meroe Gold, has just been sanctioned by the EU on the grounds of serious human rights abuses, including killings and torture. There’s evidence Russia has been giving the junta military and political support in return for billions of dollars’ worth of gold, helping Russia ride out economic sanctions and continue its war against Ukraine.
Sudan’s people are the ones missing out here, struggling to get by while precious national resources are being diverted elsewhere. Economic conditions are dire and food shortages rife. Inflation stands at over 87 per cent – and peaked at more than 263 per cent last year. International partners suspended the aid on which the country relies and froze debt cancellation processes. Rather than any belief in democracy, this external economic pressure, along with continuing protests, may be what brought the military to the negotiating table.
Key points of concern
Continuing scepticism appears well grounded. As in neighbouring Egypt, the military has either ruled Sudan directly or been the power behind the presidency for almost all of the country’s post-independence history. If the agreement results in a weak government, it would suit the military and could pave the way for another coup. Even if al-Burhan is sincere in wanting to hand over, others, including RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, may be jostling for top position.
The narrow current buy-in, with many refusing to back the agreement, is an obvious threat to its success. Army leaders, including al-Burhan, have raised the idea of pulling out of the deal if more groups don’t support it. But many of those holding out have good reasons and want to see a more detailed and ambitious plan that addresses some of the key questions about military power.
Among these is the military’s economic power. Much like in Myanmar, Sudan’s military is economically powerful. It’s said to control major companies and to have taken over many businesses once owned by al-Bashir and his inner circle.
Under the agreement the military are supposed to hand over control of state enterprises to the finance industry – but there’s no detail on how this might happen. Many find it hard to imagine the military is simply going to give up its economic power – and the political control that goes with it. As part of Sudan’s economic recovery strategy, there should be a clear plan to democratise and diffuse economic power.
Another key area that needs to be addressed is women’s rights. Part of the reason the 2019 protests were able to resist military repression was because of the leading role women played in them. This made clear both the broad social support the protests enjoyed and the radical break from the past they demanded, since women’s rights were heavily repressed under al-Bashir.
The early days of transitional government brought some advances in women’s rights. Restrictive laws were repealed. But women remained grossly under-represented in political structures and as the military reasserted control, women protesters were targeted and women’s rights became more restricted again. There should be no way forward without increasing respect for women’s rights and involving women fully in political structures.
Perhaps the most intractable issue will be the military’s continuing role and the connected question of accountability over its crimes. The more the military is involved, the less accountable government is.
The military has committed an appalling catalogue of human rights crimes in response to years of struggle for democracy.
Al-Burhan has said politics should be the domain of civilians. The military has said its only role will be to participate in a security and defence council. But it’s hard to see how that will happen without reform of army structures – and al-Burhan has made clear he believes the military should be safe from any reform.
People have suffered immense violence at the military’s hands. Dagalo has offered a general apology for the violence, but people want those who committed and ordered crimes to face justice. There’s nothing at present to suggest this is going to happen.
With continuing impunity, there’s no guarantee violations will end. The military has said peaceful protests will be allowed – but teargas and stun grenades were used against the protests that greeted the December agreement.
No democracy without civil society
International organisations and states that have pushed for a transitional process mustn’t see their job as done. They need to stay engaged, and not just with the military and political elites involved in the agreement.
Protest has continually shifted the military’s calculus, when it tried to hang onto power in 2019 and when it realised its 2021 coup wasn’t going to go unopposed. The protest movement has made military rule unsustainable. It must be taken seriously. The process so far has been top-down. Now those backing the current process, including states and international organisations, must listen to and be guided by diverse civil society voices, including local-level resistance committees.
Civil society is needed to build democracy from the ground up. It’s needed to engage critically with the process, push for ambition, resist backsliding and hold those in power to account. There’s no path to democracy in Sudan without an enabled and diverse civil society.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States and international organisations involved in the current transition process must push for the development of transitional justice mechanisms that ensure accountability for human rights crimes.
The military and international partners should open up transition processes to the fullest civil society participation and commit to listening to and respecting their views.
Progress in realising women’s rights and fostering women’s political participation must be a strong focus of the transition process.
Cover photo by AFP via Getty Images