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Sudan’s Dilemma: Democratic Aspirations and Military Rule

Anne Okello

Tunisia and Egypt demonstrated in 2011 that pro-democracy protests by civilians have been successful in challenging incompetent regimes and gaining the concession of long-time dictators (Alkurd 2019; Bashri 2021; Bolatito 2019). Sudan finally had its ‘Arab Spring’ moment with the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 after months of persistent mass action. After al-Bashir’s ouster, Sudanese continued to demand their involvement in governance through the institution of a civilian government and for peace and justice through the trial of the perpetrators of violence against protesters (Berridge et al. 2022). Sudan’s brief glimpse of a democratic transition was dashed in 2021 by a military takeover that dissolved the transitional civilian government. Notwithstanding, democratic participation is an emerging issue in Sudan.


Democracy is commonly associated with being representative, accountable, and pluralistic (Bashri 2021). Democratic governance often guarantees civil and political rights and legislative and judicial oversight over the executive. Prodemocracy uprisings have been linked with the citizenry’s awakened desire to decisively replace authoritarian regimes with inclusive and democratic governments. At times, as Ake (1993) points out, democracy and its tenets are often modified to fit a country’s realities against its political arrangements and cultural context. Citizens conceptualize democracy based on its substantive outcomes rather than its procedural outcomes. Democracy is therefore thought to be successful when a regime delivers good politics and healthy economies.


This paper utilizes Afrobarometer data to explore Sudanese perceptions and opinions on democracy, military rule, governance, the rule of law, and their lived socio-economic and political realities. Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts face-to-face interviews on nationally representative samples. So far, eight rounds of surveys have been completed since 1999. Sudan was last surveyed between February and April 2021. A sample size of 1800 yielded national-level results with a margin of sampling error of +/-2.3 percentage points, at a 95% confidence level. Afrobarometer conducted previous surveys in Sudan in 2013, 2015 and 2018. This paper argues that despite rising scepticism towards democracy, it remains the preferred system of governance among Sudanese, who demand political participation.


Background of Sudan

Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has experienced its fair share of precarious political events. In 1964 and 1985, mass demonstrations toppled previous military regimes after five and eleven days, respectively (Berridge, 2019). The 1964 uprising, also dubbed the October Revolution, was triggered by clashes between students and police at the University of Khartoum and the general citizen disdain for being ruled by President Abboud’s authoritarian government. The 1985 protests were set off by President Nimeiry’s decree of a hike in basic food prices, similar to the 2018- 2019 protests. Also, as was the case in 2018-2019, the 1985 protests began in the periphery town of Atbara and spread to Khartoum (Berridge, 2016). Also similarly to 1964 and 1985 when the Professional Front and Union Alliance spearheaded the uprisings, the 2018-2019 demonstrations were greatly shaped by the Sudan Professional Alliance, underlining the essence of such professional bodies (Berridge 2019).


In 1989, the country’s already weak socio-political and economic standing was exacerbated by the military coup led by Omar al-Bashir that deposed a democratically elected government and dissolved political parties and major professional associations (Berridge 2016). In the subsequent 1996 general elections, vying unopposed, al-Bashir was elected president. He was backed by the National Islamic Front (NIF), which later evolved into the National Congress Party (NCP). During the 1989 coup, the National Islamic Front (NIF) leveraged rising public anti-government sentiments due to Prime Minister al-Mahdi’s inability to resolve civil war and economic crisis. The National Islamic Front (NIF) was also a proponent of the Islamisation of Sudan. During the insurgency, al-Bashir, through the National Islamic Front (NIF), cited claims of saving the country from “political parties”.


Al-Bashir re-instated the registration of political parties in 1999. Notwithstanding, his administration constantly undermined and suppressed political opposition. The National Congress Party (NCP) was widely criticized for corruption and backing human rights violations in Darfur by militia and paramilitary forces. The 2018-2019 revolution initially challenged alBashir’s legitimacy and targeted replacing him with a democratically elected ruler. However, the protests later evolved to calls for an end to al-Bashir’s regime, including deposing the National Congress Party (NCP), which was deemed equally oppressive (Bolatito 2019).


Sudanese attitudes about democratic government

What do ordinary Sudanese think about democracy, given this history? On average, more than seven in 10 Sudanese reject the idea of a one-party rule (74%, in 2021, up from 70% in 2013). Similarly, as of 2021, Sudanese widely (80%) endorse choosing leaders through open, regular, and honest elections, a point increase from 2018 (79%), though slightly below the 2013 average (83%). In a similar light, the 2021 survey found that over half of Sudanese (54%) prefer to have many political parties for people to have real choices of who governs them compared to 41% who deem political parties to be divisive.


Sudanese have persistently rejected one-man rule. As of 2021, more than one in seven (71%) Sudanese oppose the notion of a strongman, a seven-point increase from the 2013 level (64%). Additionally, two-thirds of Sudanese (66%) favour the constitutional limit of a president serving a maximum of two terms in office. Before the 2018-2019 protests, this opposition was expressed through sporadic attempts to topple al-Bashir. However, these efforts were repeatedly quelled by the al-Bashir regime by invoking heavy military crackdowns (Bolatito 2019).

In 2021, over half (52%) of Sudanese valued government accountability over government efficiency, a seven-point increase from the 2013 (45%) level. In contrast to the past, Sudanese hope for legal restrictions on executive control. In 2018, two-thirds of interviewees (64%) said that the president must always obey the law and courts, compared to 46% in 2015 and 2013. Similarly, over half of Sudanese (55%) support checks by parliament on how the executive spends taxpayers’ money, a twelve-point increase from the 2013 level (43%). In addition, the proportion of Sudanese who support media freedom has increased. About half of respondents endorsed the media being free to publish any views or ideas without government control, up from the 2013 average (49%).


Also evident in the 2018-2019 revolution was the surge in the political awareness of Sudanese of the country’s democratic reality, and the awakened intentions to re-establish its tenets. This rising political consciousness is captured in the extent to which Sudanese define the governance of their country as a democracy. In 2021, one in seven Sudanese (70%) described their country as “a democracy with major problems” or “not a democracy”, a sharp increase from 59% in 2013. According to the latest (2022) Arab Barometer data, over half (53%) of Sudanese prefer democracy, an eleven-point increase from 2018 (42%). In parallel, as of 2021 Afrobarometer data, half of the population (50%) were reported to support democracy, a slight decline from 2018 (62%), notably undertaken before the fall of al-Bashir. Across socio-demographic groups, support for democracy was higher among men (52%) than among women (47%). Support for democracy was higher among the young (50% of 18-35 year olds) compared to the elderly (43% of those above 56 years). The median age of Sudan citizens is nineteen years, meaning that well over half of the population has only experienced al-Bashir’s leadership. This data affirms the zeal of the youth for change, given their relentlessness in leading the 2018-2019 protests in the streets and on social media, which enabled the dissent to spread more rapidly (Berridge 2019; Bolatito 2019).


The aftermath of the 2018-2019 uprising

After the fall of al-Bashir, the Sudanese Defence Minister took charge, declaring the establishment of a two-year transitional government administered by the military, a three-month state of emergency and a curfew. Nonetheless, the protestors were not dissuaded by these measures. They remained in the streets, calling for al-Bashir’s prosecution, accountability for the protesters who were killed and the institution of a transitional civilian government (Bolatito 2019). In her 2022 draft, Longba’am-Alli demonstrates that, non-violent protests, when accompanied by explicit goals, result in varying levels of success.


The persistence and determination in protests can be linked to lessons learnt from past Sudanese experiences. The 1964 and 1985 uprisings were squandered by the military who prioritised their interests rather than enabling democratic transitions (Bassil & Zhang, 2021). Given continued military influence in the political space, continued demonstrations can also be garnered to fear that the country will backslide into a military regime, diminishing the gains and consequences of the 2018-2019 revolution. On average, in 2021, over half of Sudanese (55%) “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” military rule, a four-point increase from the 2013 level (51%).


Subsequent negotiations led to the institution of a transitional government, consisting of the people, represented by the Freedom for Change Movement (FFC) and the military. In August 2019, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) transferred power to the Sovereignty Council headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdock after a detailed powersharing agreement.


The Sudanese glimpse of democracy was however halted in October 2021 by a military coup. The military leader, General Al-Burhan, deemed the seizure and dissolution of the civilian government a “corrective step” and promised the military’s exit from politics after the 2023 elections. General Al-Burhan dissolved the government and arrested Prime Minister Hamdock, highlighting recurrent efforts by the military to reverse democratisation (Omer, 2022). Thereafter, General Al-Burhan announced a new ruling council that excluded the civilian coalition. Nonetheless, civilian protests were re-ignited, almost three years after al-Bashir’s fall, demonstrating the continued Sudanese desire for civic involvement.


The 2021 coup rescinded the lifting of sanctions dimming hopes of debt relief and economic normalisation. Therefore, unemployment remains high while the Sudanese pound plummets against the dollar. Inflation has spiked to over 400%. Global challenges, including climate change have resulted in drought and food shortages. The Russia-Ukraine war has affected Sudan’s wheat supply, driving up the price of wheat products further, given that the country sources most of the commodity (59%) from Russia and Ukraine.


While Sudanese persistently expressed their discontent with the economy in the 2018- 2019/2021 revolts, the country’s economic crisis can be linked to al-Bashir undermining agriculture in favour of the oil industry which however depleted close to three-quarters of its assets in the 2011 separation with South Sudan (LeRiche & Arnold, 2013). The Sudanese legacy in economic desperation can also be associated with decades of civil war, sanctions and international isolation that impeded the country’s access to aid. The 2021 coup, which occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, worsened the situation and widened inequalities as banks closed, making cash scarce, donors cut off aid, food supply was erratic, and prices rose (Devi, 2021).


The October 2021 coup significantly paralysed the 2018-2019 pro-democracy efforts, despite the initial success in overthrowing al-Bashir. But it has not changed Sudanese preferences for democracy. As of early 2021, over half of Sudanese (55%) disapprove of military rule, and even larger majorities reject one-party rule (74%) and one-man rule (71%). Curiously, only half of the population (50%) supports democratic rule, a 12-point decrease from the 2018 level (62%).

More research is needed to ascertain the declining support for democracy. Nonetheless, the mixed public perception can be associated with the country’s past with authoritarian regimes. The undermining of Sudanese democracy can be traced back to the country’s fifty-two-year military rule, which failed to introduce consistent mass participation in governance. Secondly, the roots of Sudan’s democratic movement are based on their dissatisfaction with decades of suppression which planted seeds of high expectations that can easily turn to disappointment against the country’s structural constraints and its complicated political economy. Thirdly, we can posit that given the country’s prevailing economic conditions, Sudanese are yet to disentangle political democratization and their economic well-being.


Once again, Sudan is at a critical juncture. However, the country needs complex solutions to undo decades of political and socioeconomic turmoil (Isbell & Elawad, 2019). Notwithstanding, it is evident that the citizenry is keen on involvement in the future organization of government. While the general elections are set for 2023, the question remains whether the military will yield power and return to the barracks. Can the Sudan military be trusted for a smooth democratic transition, albeit with bated optimism? The military has exhibited its continued disconnect to cater to the people’s will, its challenges in detangling from its past influence and its intention to protect its future interests. Notwithstanding, what is undeniable is that ordinary Sudanese are committed to their hope for change and genuine national inclusion.

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