Hopes Quashed: The Sudan Uprisings

John Young has lots of guts and stamina to probe every nook, cranny and hidden crevice of the multiplex conflicts, strife, wars and struggle for power in a country, the Sudan, that lacks the necessary ingredients to call itself a viable nation-state. Young provides exacting detail demonstrating the deep fractures that disenable peace processes and turn the Sudan into a state approximating anarchy. Plunging into the literature on the Sudan, my head is barely above water, filled with factoids, dates, armies, militias, acronyms, civil society groups and too much detail. How can I make sense of all of this?

The excruciatingly poor, remote and landlocked Darfur region in the Western Sudan crisis erupted in 2003, killing 200,000 or more people. It is now placed on a recent list of shame along with Rwanda and Srebrenica. The Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement rebel groups began fighting the al-Bashir government for neglecting its economic needs. They accused them of oppressing the neglected Darfur’s (Western Sudan) non-Arab population. The al-Bashir government, in return, used its violent instrument of choice, the repellant Janjaweed, to commit acts of genocide (including much rape). The civil war between North and South Sudan cost the lives of 1.5 million and drove millions from their homes. One descends into the dark void. Can anyone emerge waving a white flag?

Young has lived and worked in the Sudan as teacher and journalist since 1986. He has also participated in consultations regarding the peace process in Sudan, monitored the conflict in southern Sudan and various other security matters. The author of three books, Peasant revolution in Ethiopia: Tigray People’s liberation front, 1975-1991 [1998], The fate of Sudan: origins and consequences of a flawed peace process (2012) and South Sudan’s civil war: violence, insurgency and failed peacemaking (2019).

Most recently, he has authored a report, Sudan uprising: popular compromises, and revolution betrayed (2020), published by Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan project with support from the US Department of State as well as support from Canada, Norway, Switzerland and Demark. Both the National Endowment for Democracy (United States) and the United States Institute for Peace have also provided support.

Young’s Report, then, is a helpful guide to begin sorting out what’s has been happening in the Sudan over the last fifty years since independence was achieved in 1956, then a loose confederation of tribal, racial and regional identities. Since I am not an expert on Sudanese history or strife, I will try to highlight those aspects of Sudan uprisings that catch my interest. A short 70 pages, the Report analyzes Sudan’s history of rebellion, the National Islamic Front and National Congress Party in power, the regional context on the eve of the collapse of the al-Bashir regime, internal developments preceding the 2018-2019 uprising and the dynamics of the uprising. It’s quite the dispiriting story and mostly does not end well. Young uses “failed” and “flawed” to describe Sudan’s state of affairs. How does he bear this endless suffering? What words must he speak before the unspeakable? Put bluntly, Young states unequivocally, the regime of al-Bashir was too brutal and the resistance too disorganized.

In South Sudan’s civil war: violence, insurgency and failed understanding, Young makes is clear that the British wanted to maintain hegemony in the Sudan. Ironically, in the mid-nineteenth century the British effort to end the trade in ivory and slaves abruptly ended the South Sudan’s economy. Later, in the early twenty-first century, US pressured the regime to adopt policy positions suitable to Bush’s “war on terror” in 2003. This increased markedly Sudan’s instability and inability to meet its diverse citizens’ economic needs or uphold human rights. The Sudan has been kicked around like a football by external forces and no wonder the leaders retreat to the ignoble murderous defense of their power.

And the fact that the Sudan has 19 different ethnic groups (with 597 ethnic sub-groups), speaking around 100 languages and dialects makes it hard for tribes to imagine something called “nation.”. The majority of Sudanese are Arabs; the largest tribes are the Dinka and Nuer, who are pastoralists. Forms of social organization differ. They range from the kingships of the Shilluk, Zande and Anuak to the stateless Nuer. Now, some highlights.

“Similar to uprisings in 1964 and 1985, a major cause of the 2018-2019 uprising was an extended period of economic decline and uneven development that fostered insurgencies in Sudan’s peripheries. The economic crisis was exacerbated by the cost of combating these insurgencies, a vastly inflated security sector, endemic corruption, and US sanctions. The economic crisis and the regime’s attempt to foster Islamist values served to bring large numbers of youth, notably including women, onto the streets, in contrast to the uprisings in 1964 and 1985, when trade unions played a leading role.”

Certainly, this statement accentuates several things of importance: the citizenry in the Sudan has been unhappy and dissatisfied with their governance for a long time and the youth and women have been key players within civil society. Do we have a rough equivalent to civil society vs. the state that emerged in Eastern Europe?

“With the support of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, the military expected that, after it had deposed al-Bashir, it could form a transitional government on its own, but the brutality of the RSF [Rapid Support Forces] suppression of the sit-in in Khartoum on June 3 June 2019 [around 200 were murdered] lost the junta domestic and international legitimacy, and it was compelled to sign a power-sharing agreement with the FFC [Forces for Freedom and Change] on 17 July 2019. Fearing further attacks on civilians, weakened by internal divisions, and under international pressure, the FFC accepted an agreement that involved abandoning its central demand for a civil administration.”

Here, Young uses the word “brutality” one of many times in his analysis. I also notice that civil society cannot muster the power and authority to help topple the regime. This reminds me of the inability of an aroused civil society (with lots of youth using social media and out in the streets) in the Arab Spring of 2011 to overthrow a dictatorship like Abdel el-Sisi in Egypt. In the Sudan, how much “influence” did the youth actually have with the FFC?

“Youth made up the core of the uprising, and their challenge to the junta was mainly manifested in the sit-ins that they organized. But when the brutal RSF attack on the Khartoum sit-in on 3 June 2019 effectively ended the sit-ins, the youth lost much of their influence over the FFC, had no say on the political agreements reached between it and the generals, have no representation on the transitional government, and cannot be expected to exert much influence during the 39-month transitional period.”

Perhaps we could compare the impotence of Sudanese youth to other youth uprisings in a place like South Africa or the US during the anti-Viet Nam war protests. Under what circumstances does “youth protest” get translated into policy and changes initiated? The Sudan, it seems to me, has an undeveloped culture of deliberative forms of democracy. Up against brutal militaries, the youth have strong moral force, but little else. Fighting is better than talking in the Sudan.

“This report concludes that because the opposition was unable to impose its objective of a genuine civil administration and, given the preponderance of the military in the transitional government, it is very unlikely that this government will be able to eliminate the deep and corrupting influences of the NCP and the military in the state and society, much less overcome systemic inequities that have afflicted Sudan since its independence. Unless the civil and armed opposition can overcome the power of the military, the 2019 uprising will suffer the same fate as those in 1964 and 1985, when hopes for a radical transformation of Sudanese society were quashed.”

The military cannot function as an autonomous agent. They must be under the control of elected institutions. Otherwise, one is in danger of descending into a Hobbesian “war of all against all.”

One of the interesting things Young does in his report, packed tightly with details hugging each other, is to select provocative statements to headline each section. In his “Introduction” he writes: “Because the NIF never governed with the consent of the Sudanese people, violence was always integral to the pursuit of its domestic and foreign policies.” Indeed, the NIF was a nasty piece of work, doing things like facilitating an attack against Hosni Mubarak in June 1995. This phrase—“Sudan has an illustrious history of civilians overthrowing military dictatorships and a dismal record of their replacements”–articulates a central theme in Young’s books. For those with visions of the liberal cosmopolitan order bubbling in their minds, the case of the Sudan may be soberly instructive.

The section of the report, “The NIF/NCP in power,” observes that: “There is a long history of Sudanese opposition parties and civil society opposing oppressive governments, but never before had they confronted a government as ruthless as that of the NIF/NCP.” Knowing the Sudanese peoples’ proclivity to rebel, Young informs us that the NIF regime restricted political parities, ruthlessly contained dissent, replaced trade unions with submissive company unions, and a security apparatus that was seeded in government structures. The lifeworld basis for an active and dynamic civil society is damaged almost beyond repair.

In the section, “Regional context on the eve of the collapse of the al-Bashir regime,” Young choses this statement: “Over the years regional conflicts and configurations of power significantly shaped Sudan’s politics, including the 2018-2019 uprising.” One gets dizzy reading the malevolent doings of the NCP, including murdering hundreds of unarmed Muslim Brotherhood protestors in Cairo in July 2013.

The “Conclusion” carries this disheartening observation: “Attempts to overcome endemic corruption will be undermined, because the security organs are a primary source and beneficiary of such corruption.” Young’s work indicates, for me, that like Israel, oppression and brutal acts in the Sudan can seem to just go on forever. Young believes that if outside forces could give up their superiority, North and South Sudan might just get themselves out of their mess.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.