Joe Waters looks into the political climate, as well as potential forces for change, in Sudan – a country that emerged from dictatorial rule only one year ago. As the civilian government attempts to bring the nation into a new era of peace and prosperity, visions and possibilities intermingle with the cruel realities of the country’s situation: a lack of basic resources, hideous levels of sexual violence, paralysing international sanctions and neglect from major charities, as well as the destabilising presence of the national army. The future looks brighter than it has in decades but, to reach it, Sudan must first face the harsh challenges of the present.
On 11th April 2019, after many months of uprising, the thirty-year reign of President Omar al-Bashir finally came to an end. Five months later, the first civilian cabinet was sworn in, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The new government claims it hopes to “[put] into effect: a transitional programme that lays the foundation of a country capable of fulfilling the aspirations and expectations of its people in a way that recognizes societal collective contribution in the process of decision making; ensuring transparency, accountability and strict commitment to standards of justice and principles of human rights and social justice.”
Their aims certainly seem laudable and those in charge have a good track record. For most of the last decade, Hamdok was the Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, whose staff remember him as “a diplomat, a humble man and a brilliant and disciplined mind.” Of the cabinet ministers Hamdok has appointed, six are women, including Lina al-Sheikh Mahjoub, founder of Impact Hub Khartoum, as Minister of Labour and Social Development, and Intisar Saghiroun, Professor of Archaeology, as Minister of Higher Education. The appointment of those with relevant expertise in positions of power relative to business and higher education is encouraging for the prospects of intellectual and economic reinvigoration in Khartoum. The Civilian Government clearly have positive aspirations and the wherewithal to go some way towards achieving them.
However, the positive intentions of the government are being undermined by many factors. The closest to home is Sudan’s army itself. While those at the head of the army have been replaced, the organisation remains close to those allied to the former administration. During the uprising, the army attempted to resume business as usual after the removal of Omar al-Bashir, before a civilian government could be established (this failed). Subsequently, reports say they have also announced the removal of certain cabinet ministers, independently of the civilian government, in a bid to blunt the power of the new government (these also failed). In addition, American sanctions are limiting the ability of Sudan to recover from dictatorship. America imposed sanctions on the country due to the al-Bashir government’s alleged funding of terrorist organisations. However, despite the change in government and the ceasing of this funding, restrictions on banking have not been lifted even despite other sanctions having been previously removed in 2017). Similarly, major charities such as Oxfam and Wateraid are refusing to do large-scale work in the country due to previous expelling of specific charities by the al-Bashir government (Oxfam were directly expelled) and fears for the safety of their employees.
Again, this seems unwise given that the government have been entirely replaced, since the uprising, and need support to help the many villages battling both starvation and terrible cases of Covid-19. Charities need to rethink their position on Sudan. One of the few charities who currently do work in Sudan is Kids for Kids, whose flagship project is loaning goats to communities in need. Their website details how, “Children are malnourished in every village. Many have had no protein, minerals or vitamins for months on end which not only means lasting damage to them physically, but their IQ is reduced, often irreparably.” Given the existence of large ground water deposits in the country, this is definitely possible to combat. However, to build wells, support and donations are needed. Now is the time to re-orientate Sudan as an farming-based economy rather than relying on oil deposits, that will continue to cause environmental damage and, eventually, run out (especially given the loss of certain oil reserves in the split with South Sudan).
Perhaps the most horrific problem in Sudan is the regular use of tactical violence against women. A UN report reveals how, for example: “In 2018, the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur documented 122 incidents of sexual violence involving 199 victims: 85 women, 105 girls and 9 boys in Central, South, North and West Darfur States.” The report draws attention to the fact that many women are scared to report instances of such violence, so the numbers belie a much more endemic problem. These cases fit squarely within the UN definition of “Conflict Related Sexual Violence.” Sadly, during the 2019 uprising, this phenomenon continued. Crimes such as these need to be shown to be unacceptable. If not, they will continue to proliferate. It would be a step forward for the civilian government to start putting some of the widely known perpetrators on trial. The Middle East Monitor recently reported that “according to the Sudanese news agency, the meeting between the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, and the Governor of Darfur, Abdel-Wahed Yousef, showed that “there is an official political will to fight violence based on gender”.” Given the scale of the problem, though, outside support and supervision will undoubtedly be needed to fully tackle this issue.
All in all, this is a crucial time for Sudan. Prospects for the nation are significantly better than they have been. However, they need support from the international community – both nations and charities. In the past, intervention in the Middle East notionally to bring “democracy” has been doled out by many Western countries. However, can these nations bring themselves to help a nation transition to democracy from a grassroots perspective? If not, the Covid-19 crisis risks causing the population at large to see Sudan’s moves toward democracy as a failed experiment and the impetus for change could slip away. Sudan has many natural resources (the water table, for example) and these need to be harnessed but money and aid are needed to make this happen. This is a situation in which we can all, but particularly those in power, intervene and make a difference in the present moment. Charities such as Kids for Kids, that are working in the region, need support. Governments need to be lobbied to care about the plight of Sudan’s fledgling democracy. The time to act is now. Real change is possible. Let us not squander the opportunity.
Image: Abdalla Hamdok taken by Ola A. al-Sheikh / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)