Sudan: Power To The People?

After the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan looks set – albeit tentatively – to be heading towards civilian rule for the first time in nearly thirty years.

On 21 April, the leaders of the various groups of protesters unveiled their plans for a civilian body to take over from the interim military council. Ahmed al-Rabia, a leader for the Sudanese Professionals Association, announced that they are “demanding that this civilian council, which will have representatives of the army, replace the military council.” The blueprint for this civilian council is that it should be made up of 40% women, with a Defence Minister as the only military representative. Many international actors and organizations were initially alarmed by the rapid coup on 11 April. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for “calm and utmost restraint by all,” and was joined by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in calling for a “swift move to an inclusive, representative, civilian leadership.” The African Union condemned the coup, stating their “conviction that the military take-over is not the appropriate response to the challenges facing Sudan and the aspirations of its people.” However, in recent days the conciliations offered by the military council have been promising. The council arrested several members of the al-Bashir regime, sacked several others from their posts, lifted the night-time curfew, and vowed to free all political prisoners. They also announced through spokesman Major General Shams Ad-din Shanto that the council is “ready to implement” a civilian government agreed to by opposition parties, and that protesters will choose a new Prime Minister. The key point of contention is the proposed timetable for elections and a civilian government. The military council plans on a transitional period of two years, with the military retaining control throughout. Protesters, however, want an immediate civilian transitional government, which could rule for anywhere between 1 and 4 years before elections.

The movement from a military council to a civilian one is currently of paramount importance. The military coup which ousted al-Bashir in response to the protests may have done so with the best of intentions, but rule in Sudan should be in the hands of the people. As Ahmed Adam, a Sudanese lawyer and research associate at SOAS University London explains, the military council is “reluctant to hand over power” and seems to “lack solid political will to respond to the demands of protesters on the ground.” The reluctance of the military is worrisome; while it now seems unlikely they will impose a brutal crackdown on protesters, the potential for this to occur is still there. Despite the compromises and seeming goodwill that currently exists between the military and the protesters, the situation is highly volatile. The people have high expectations for the democratization of their country, and have every right to their stake in a new civilian transitional government. The military council has behaved laudably so far, but must give way to the demands of the people beyond token measures. The military should also be very much aware that any crackdown on protesters would not resolve the economic crisis which brought them out in the first place.

The first protests began back on 19 December, against the tripling of the price of bread. This quickly became a rallying point for protests against the al-Bashir regime, which culminated in his removal by a military coup on 11 April. The coup leader, Ibn Auf, lasted only 24 hours as leader of the interim council, as the protesters saw him as being too close to the previous regime. He had been head of military intelligence during the Darfur conflict, and had sanctions imposed on him by the United States in 2007. The new and current head of the council is General Burhan, who is seen as a much less controversial – but no less military – figure.

The future of Sudan currently has the potential to be a brightly democratic one, provided the military council accepts it has fulfilled its role and hands power to the people. The gradual dismantling of al-Bashir’s regime paves the way not only for a democratic government for the first time in nearly thirty years, but also the possibility of trying the 17 previously untouchable Sudanese officials who were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2009 for genocide, human rights abuses, and war crimes in Darfur. Before Sudan can reach either of these potential junctures, a transitional timetable must be agreed on by protesters and the military. This will be the most difficult issue to overcome should both sides remain reluctant to compromise.

Henry Whitelaw