This article argues that the current military transition in Sudan will lead the country to nowhere unless the people continued their resistance to have a genuine civilian revolution.
A brief narrative on Sudan’s coup
People power is catching the winds in Africa. On 3 March, in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after 20 years in power – a change sparked mainly by the youth movement. A week later, on 11 March, President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan was ousted by the army – a revolt that was also sparked by the youth.
In Sudan, the crisis was triggered by the country’s economic malaise. The military abandoned the man they had helped stay in power for three decades. But the main opposition political parties – the National Consensus Forces Alliance, Nidaa al-Sudan, and Umma – were not in the forefront of the revolt. Why not? For decades, these parties were weakened by a merciless regime that arrested their leaders, incarnated them or drove them into exile. However, if Al-Bashir thought that he had done away with the opposition, he was wrong. This time, it was organised and led by professional associations – teachers, lawyers, doctors, accountants. Lesser parties such as the Reform Now Movement, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Sudan Future Party filled the gap created by the weakened opposition parties. This is an important lesson for the dictators in Africa, as well as or for those who do not belong to the major parties. The millennium generation has taken over. Also, you cannot dismiss smaller political parties and movements in the periphery of the political spectrum because they are able to play an important role when the time comes for change.
It is time now to take a sober appraisal of what has happened and what might happen.
It is going to be a long, long struggle. The Sudanese generals have suspended the 2005 constitution and declared a state of emergency. In addition, they have set up a military council to rule the country for a two-year “transition” period. The main thesis of this paper is that the country is “transiting” to nowhere unless the people are organised for, what I call a long “civilian siege”. Africa needs to learn from the experience of countries such as Myanmar, where the once indomitable Aung San Suu Kyi – who suffered years of oppression and isolation – was finally co-opted by the military regime.
Civil society against Al-Bashir and the military
That the military has taken control of the transition period is not surprising. In the absence of a vanguard political party that can turn such situations into revolutions – for example, in Russia in 1917, China in 1945, and Cuba in 1959 – the military fills the void. This is what happened to the “Arab Spring”. It began as revolts against oppressive regimes and economic crises beginning with Tunisia in 2011. The fire spread rapidly to Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. Massive street demonstrations took place in Bahrain, Morocco, Iraq and Algeria. But, alas, the Arab Spring fizzled out to the consternation of those that had hoped for revolution.
This is the most likely scenario for Sudan. But to this, and what might be done to sustain the fire of the people, we shall come later. It is important first to analyse the ingredients, the embodiments, of the Sudan uprising and what sustained it, and where it is leading.
We have already mentioned the role that professional associations and smaller political parties played in organising the revolts. Since international media outlets were shut down by the government, the people resorted to the social media using their cellphones. These enabled them to send their songs containing revolutionary messages as well as photos and images, thus galvanising the population. These were captured not only in Khartoum, but all over the country; and beyond – to Sudanese in the diaspora and the international audience. Al-Bashir’s attempt to gag the media only inflamed the people. The new communication technologies can be even more effective than the print media.
The revolution, nonetheless, is still in early stages. Civilian opposition leaders have demanded the dissolution of the military council and the creation of a joint military-civil council. But the military remains unflinched, uncompromising. The people, led by Mohamed Naji, a senior leader of the Sudanese Professionals Association, had to harden their demands. Instead of a joint military-civil council, they now wanted the military council to be dissolved and replaced by a civilian council having representatives of the army. Also, this council, the people demanded, should then make way for a four-year transitional civilian government.
This is where matters stand as of writing these words. Learning from previous military regimes not only in Sudan, but in other countries in Africa, the Arab world, and the global South, it is going to be a hard battle to replace the military with a civilian rule. Like what has happened in Egypt, those who oppose the military will be labelled “unpatriotic”.
A significant player is what I call the “the imperial factor”. The global corporate power and the political elite in the West have little time for democracy – even in their own countries in the West, let alone the countries of the global South. They have made alliances with military and authoritarian regimes all over the world – Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among the most obvious examples.
In Sudan, al-Bashir played his cards skilfully by combining ruthless oppression at home while pandering to the wishes of the imperial countries. Darfur is a case in point. Al-Bashir’s war in Darfur led to the deaths of nearly 300,000 people and displaced some 2.7 million. In 2009, he was indicted for genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). [[i]] The West imposed sanctions against Sudan. But when al-Bashir, under pressure from the US, forced bin Laden [[ii]] out of Sudan, President Obama lifted the sanctions. He issued an executive order to the effect that “… the Sudanese government’s ‘positive actions over the last six months’, and ‘…improvements in humanitarian efforts, reduced military hostilities and co-operat[ion] with the United States on anti-terrorism efforts, … the new US strategy for Sudan, … calls for a lifting of sanctions, which will allow Sudan to purchase sorely needed items such as tractors and parts, as well as attract investment”.[[iii]]
The power of music
We touched on the critical role played by the youth, especially women, in fuelling the uprising. The media went viral on one particular photo – a young woman on top of a van addressing the crowds. A very important aspect of the youth culture is music. Songs and lyrics, accompanied by ululation, the beat of drums, shuffling of feet and swaying of hips have a powerful unifying effect. The message of the lyrics was clear: “Tasqut bas!” (just fall, that’s all) was a clear notice to al-Bashir to just quit; we don’t want you. From the heart of the youth, the cellphone footages captured the revolutionary beat of music, laden with political messages.
I want to go a bit deeper into this because some of us from the “academia” miss out in not fully appreciating the power of music.
Way back during the struggles against the British occupation of Sudan, Obeid Abdul Nur, an educator and a poet, mobilised the masses with his poem entitled “Umm Dhafayir” (The Lady with Pleated Hair) written in 1924. The poem urged Sudanese to fight the British occupation. The words emphasised the importance of their homeland, their nation. Nur’s stimulating words inspired people’s movements, which provided the necessary political content to his lyrics.
The October 1964 revolution overthrew Ibrahim Abboud’s military regime. It led to the establishment of a constitutional government, revival of the freedom of the press, and, among other things, the independence of the judiciary and the university. One person, who became a cult hero, was the singer Mohammed Wardi. His lyrics emphasised the power of the people to bring about political change. His song “Ya Sha’aban Lahabak Thouritak” (Oh People Your Flame is Your Revolution) indeed added fire to the flame of the people.
Twenty years later, in 1985, another popular uprising, led by workers and students, overthrew the entrenched power of the military under Gaafar Nimeiry. Wardi’s lyrics again played an inspirational role this time. With his songs he urged people to stand up and control their own destiny. Wardi died in 2012, but his spirit lives on.
Political activists like me and academics have a role, of course, but we cannot match the power of music. In Uganda, where I come from, the poems of Bobi Wine (his real name is Robert Kyagulanyi) have inspired the youth. Over 60 percent of Ugandans are under the age of 30. His music and lyrics – such as Ghetto, Ebibuuzo and Obululu – have potent and insightful political messages. Obululu opens with: “Freedom comes to those who fight, not those who cry.” [[iv]]
The revolt by the common people of Sudan has certainly moved a step further to the possibility of revolution, liberation from a succession of military dictatorships and their foreign backers. The African Union (AU) has given the military 15 days to hand over power to civilians. We have gone well beyond the time limit. It is good that the AU has supported the people’s revolt, but it has no teeth.
Will there be any help from beyond the AU, from beyond Africa? We have already seen that all that the Western powers are concerned about is the protection of their economic and strategic interests. They have no interest in democracy. Moreover, “people power” is an anathema to the corporate and political elite that rule the West. As for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group, they have enough problems of their own internally and regionally. Also, unlike Western imperial countries, they are generally opposed to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries – unless invited, like Russia in the case of Syria, for example.
Some people have suggested that the ICC might help the people of Sudan. However, the ICC is largely in the control of the West; it is unable to bring to justice individuals in the West that have committed crimes in, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. It has so far indicted only African leaders, among them al-Bashir in 2009. But when al-Bashir expelled bin Laden out of Sudan, as we related above, President Obama lifted the sanctions against Sudan, praising al-Bashir’s “positive actions” and “improvements in humanitarian efforts.”
The people of Sudan must fight their own battles – “pull their own chestnuts out of the fire”, as the English say. Of course, it is easier said than done.
Assuming it is going to be a long, hard battle, I can humbly suggest the following from our struggles against colonialism and neo-colonialism in Uganda.
1. For sure, the 11 March ouster of al-Bashir does open a new chapter in Sudan’s history. But people who led the struggle – not the opposition political parties, but professional organisations and the youth – should have no illusion that a “democratic” future is assured. The military will defend its power and wealth. People should not be surprised if the military get support from countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and, of course, the West.
2. If Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the West do interfere (indeed, they probably are doing so covertly – stealthily – already), then very soon their propaganda machine might point fingers at Iran for interference.The people of Sudan must keep out Iran too. They might learn from the experience of the people of Yemen and Syria.
3. A complicating factor in Sudan is the religious and regional divisions among the people – like in most of our countries in the South. The leaders must go beyond these – what I call “secondary contradictions” – and unite to fight against their principal enemy “embodied” in the military, but behind the military, the power and resources of western corporate—imperialist forces.
4. The people managed to control the public space, but they lack resources. But “resources” must not be seen purely in terms of money and military hardware.The leaders used their political skills as a “resource” – including the inspiring power of song and music. The spirit of Wardi is still alive. His song “Ya Sha’aban Lahabak Thouritak” is still flaming.
5. Most importantly, and this comes from our experience in Uganda, there has to be a vanguard party that can mobilise the people to bury their internal (religious, regional, sectarian) differences to fight the Euro-American Empire and its local agents. This is the biggest challenge the people of Sudan face. The leadership will (has to) come from the youth and women.
* Professor Yash Tandon is from Uganda and has worked at many different levels as an academic, a teacher, a political thinker, a rural development worker, a civil society activist, and an institution builder.
[ii] Founder of al-Qaeda, the pan-Islamic militant organisation
[iv] I have analysed Bobi’s songs and their political impact in some detail in my book Common People’s Uganda (Kenya: Zand Graphics, 2019)