In the last few days, tens of thousands of people have returned to the streets of the main cities of Sudan again to ask for “freedom, peace and justice“, the battle cry for the protesters who chased Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
The big difference – explains David E Kiwuwa, Associate Professor of International Studies of the University of Nottingham – is that this time they are marching against the Sovereign Civil-Military Council, asking for a greater role for civilians in the country’s transition towards democracy and a faster reform.
A year ago the Sudanese people were announcing the fall of Bashir, the country’s longtime strong man. A mass revolt led by the Sudan Association of Professionals and the Resistance Committees had managed to precipitate the President. A series of grievances stopped the protests. These included endemic corruption, a struggling economy, human rights abuses and a failed health system.
Why then did the protests return to the street so early after leaving them free from a triumphant euphoria?
The answer – Kiwuwa states – is that the balance of power in the transition period following the fall of a despot is always difficult. This was evident in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. When reformers are relatively weak and those determined to protect the status quo are strong, substantial changes will be shown lethargic and long-winded. Sometimes the process will be blocked and even reversed in some cases. Consolidated elites will be reluctant to change because this poses a threat to their interests. The events in Sudan indicate this tension.
Following the expulsion of Omar El Bashir, a civil-military sovereign council led by a civilian Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and composed of six civilians and five military officers, was established. His immediate challenge was to guarantee security and stability, negotiate peace with the Darfur rebels and repair Sudan’s battered economy.
And after a year? To begin with, Kiwuwa says, the systematic persecution of opponents has stopped and arbitrary arrests by the security office have largely ceased. The censorship of the press has almost stopped. The law on public order has been repealed. This law was known to give the police disproportionate arrest and punishment powers even for moral and religious offenses. In rebuilding institutional trust, Kiwuwa said, the Police Chief and his Deputy were also fired after protesters called for further measures against officials related to Bashir.
In addition, serious efforts have been made to meet another grassroots protest request: the end of the incessant conflicts in Sudan. Peace efforts have been pursued with the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front. These efforts resulted in a preliminary peace agreement, including the withdrawal of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
More recently, recalls the University of Nottingham professor, an anti-corruption body has been set up to trace poorly procured wealth and provide responsibility. The confiscation of nearly $ 4 billion worth of property by Bashir, his family and colleagues is signaling a move in the right direction.
In addition, the transitional government has actively sought to change Sudan’s position in the world. This was not of primary importance for the protest movement, which focused more on the issues of bread and butter. However, the transitional government acted to repair the fences in the hope that it would distribute dividends to the country.
It has actively lobbied the United States government to remove it from the list of states accused of sponsoring terrorism. Washington is still considering this request. In the meantime, it has removed the country from a blacklist of states that endanger religious freedom. It also lifted sanctions against 157 Sudanese companies. For the first time in 23 years, the two countries have exchanged ambassadors. For its part, Sudan has reduced by two thirds the number of troops it has in Yemen.
But the expectations of last year’s popular uprising have not been met. The reason for this is that substantive reforms have been slow.
An area of clear frustration – says Kiwuwa – has been the slow pace with which civilian control is taking place, whose mark on the country’s political body is not yet evident. Instead, the military elite continues to have de facto control and influence, putting civilians aside and often pushing for greater compromises from civilian partners.
Examples of this include the fact that a legislative transition council has yet to be installed. This would have provided some counterweight to the military-dominated sovereign council. The legislation is therefore done ad hoc. Furthermore, civilian governors were not appointed to replace military ones in the various provinces, which would mean another departure from military governance. The lack of urgency in trying Bashir is also frustrating for people. It appears to be a marginal priority and in some cases deliberately frustrating.
Nor have the country’s economic problems been addressed. According to Kiwuwa, people continue to queue for three to six hours to buy bread or fill their tanks at gas stations. The reliability of electricity is still inaccurate, with power outages the norm. Access to domestic gas is also a problem.
The economy has contracted and oil revenues have collapsed due to falling oil prices and low production capacity. This has affected public spending and the investments needed to start the economic recovery. COVID-19 has done even more damage.
Sudan has competing power structures that inhibit coherent and far-reaching reforms. Reformers must constantly negotiate and make strategic calculations on what changes can be made and how quickly.
This game of political skill is beginning to make itself felt. Clearly the civilian half of the transitional government has struggled to assert or exploit its moral authority or “popular legitimacy” in the face of military intransigence.
But Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdor remains popular. In an attempt to appease the protesters, he recently admitted that the transitional authority had to “correct the track for revolution“.
But does it have the leverage to correct this diversion from the expectations of the road? This answer could unfortunately be, not to a large extent.
For now, the reality with which protesters and the civilian elite have to deal is that after a long and destructive authoritarian legacy, the change will not come easily. Nor can it be accelerated. Rather it is a product of patience and above all perseverance.
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