The uncertain road ahead for Sudan's democracy

Sudanese women march in Khartoum to mark International Day for Eliminating Violence against Women, in the first such rally held in the northeast African country in decades, on November 25, 2019.
6 min read
10 January, 2022

Sudan’s fragile democratic transition took another rocky twist after Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced his resignation on 2 January, less than two months after he was reinstated following a military coup.

With the military still seeking to maintain power in Sudan and continued protests indicating that the people’s democratic aspirations remain unfulfilled, 2022 may prove a decisive year for the country’s transition.

In a televised address, Hamdok said the country was at a "dangerous turning point that threatens its whole survival".

Hamdok added that he had aimed to stop the country from "sliding towards disaster", but "despite everything that has been done to reach a consensus... it has not happened".

"The moment he signed that deal with the military, he lost all support from the street"

“The resignation wasn’t a surprise,” Dallia, a Sudanese activist, told The New Arab. “The moment he signed that deal with the military, he lost all support from the street. Even if he’d thought he could achieve or attain more, he didn’t. In the end, he was nothing more than a figurehead.”

In October 2021, Commander-In-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a coup in Sudan, putting Hamdok under house arrest and dissolving the power-sharing transitional government.

Sudan’s civil society decried the attempted takeover. Mass protests dubbed ‘Marches of the Millions’ occurred in the capital Khartoum on 30 October, with some demonstrators chanting “The revolution will go on!” while mass strikes across all sectors, from education to finance, aimed to put financial pressure on the military.

The international community also entered the fray, with the United States and European Union (EU) denouncing the military’s takeover while the World Bank halted financial aid to Sudan.

Facing such overwhelming domestic and international pressure, the military was forced to backtrack and accepted another power-sharing agreement on 21 November 2021, which re-instated Hamdok as prime minister.

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Slated as a last-ditch move to save Sudan’s democracy, Sudanese opposition members say the agreement cost Hamdok further support from the street, which opposed the military, and said it legitimised the military’s attempted takeover.

“Hamdok’s decision to pull that incredulous agreement with the military was a tactical mistake,” Mai, another Sudanese activist, told The New Arab.

“He thought he could salvage or save something of the hard-won achievements of the last two years, but of course it backfired. He underestimated the reaction of the street while overestimating his assumption that he was so needed by the army.”

Indeed, Hamdok’s resignation has indicated that Sudan is not out of perilous waters yet. Even after the power-sharing agreement, the UN warned in December that the country was “undergoing its greatest crisis to date” following the attempted coup.

“The citizens appear unwilling to give in because at the moment they just don't trust the military. It is a complicated situation in Sudan and things don't seem to be getting any better especially when the crisis is not just political but also economic,” Isaac Kaledzi, an African journalist based in Ghana, told The New Arab.

“Hamdok’s resignation simply means the political crisis in Sudan is getting worse day after day. He first decided to return to the post after the coup to end the protests and stop the killings,” he added.

Sudan protests -- getty
Hamdok’s resignation has indicated that Sudan is not out of perilous waters yet. [Getty]

“Since there wasn't much clarity over that arrangement the protests continued. It is now clear the military only brought him in stop the protests and it wasn't a show of genuine desire to have the transition led by a civilian.”

Aside from an overbearing risk of authoritarianism, Sudan’s grave economic conditions have threatened its transition, which has further inflamed the civil disobedience movement.

The country has faced soaring inflation and hard currency shortages, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the country’s financial crisis.

Despite the US revoking Sudan’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism following Khartoum’s normalisation with Israel in October 2020, foreign investment into the country has still been scarce.

Crucially, military figures have used these economic woes to scapegoat the civilian leadership for allegedly ‘mismanaging’ the country. Kaledzi said improving the economy is vital for stabilising Sudan’s transition.

"The military doesn't seem to be committed to giving civilians the power to lead the transition, and with the protests continuing, the crisis could worsen unless one party gives in"

And with renewed uncertainty within the transitional government following Hamdok’s resignation, the military has another chance to cling onto power.

“The military doesn't seem to be committed to giving civilians the power to lead the transition, and with the protests continuing, the crisis could worsen unless one party gives in,” said Kaledzi.

“The soldiers have said they are still committed to the earlier plan towards elections, but elections can only be held when conditions are favourable, and reforms take place. It doesn't look like any of these are happening amid the protests, so it is likely things could get worst if the soldiers don't take their hands off the process.”

Sudan’s revolution, which ended the 30-year-rule of dictator Omar Bashir, revealed how protestors alone can non-violently topple a rigid dictatorship and move towards democratic rule.

But while Sudan’s democratic success could play a crucial role in encouraging similar movements elsewhere in the region, its faltering could also deal a death blow for hopes of democratic reform.

“The military has been left maskless and they are not afraid to bare their fangs,” warned Mai, the Sudanese activist. “This includes the militias that have aligned themselves with the military.”

Additionally, nearly three years after revolutionary civilian movements overthrew former dictator Omar Bashir in April 2019, activists have warned that the democratic movement is now fracturing.

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“The political parties in the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) are floundering, aware of the fact that they have been blamed by the people for these failures. They have lost their credibility, and also lack the means and the personal abilities to harness and mediate the powerful energy of the street,” said Mai.

“The situation is so polarised given the total breakdown of trust between all stakeholders. The street sees both the FFC and the army as part of the ‘national problem.’ And many in the Resistance Committees (RC) are refusing to deal or negotiate with either party. For now, Sudan is literally choke held in a political deadlock,” she added.

Sudanese activist Dallia says the RC should be given a seat at the negotiating table and treated as a viable political entity to secure a government representative of the people. She also suggested that individual sanctions on military figures should be adopted and urged more action rather than just words from the international community.

On 8 January, Volker Perthes, the UN envoy for Sudan, said the UN will pursue talks to end the stalemate and seek a “sustainable path forward towards democracy and peace” in the country.

Moreover, amid concerns that the United States has not done enough to support Sudan’s democracy advocates, and that countries like Egypt and the UAE have previously aligned themselves with the military, there needs to be robust international action to ensure the country’s transition progresses smoothly.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey