A Season of Hope in Sudan

The sight of the former president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, sitting caged inside a courtroom in Khartoum on Monday had an absurdly theatrical aspect to it. For nearly 30 years Mr. al-Bashir pranced arrogantly about, overcoming political opposition and surviving global condemnation after his 2009 indictment for war crimes. The old man in his white gallabia and floppy turban seemed unperturbed, hardly aware of the bars around him. Understandably, perhaps.

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, the generals who served and eventually replaced the dictator, made it clear that while he faced charges for corruption and money laundering, Mr. al-Bashir will not be handed over to the International Criminal Court or stand trial for human rights abuses or war crimes.

Whether justice will be delivered, only time will tell. In a sense, what Mr. al-Bashir’s trial really tells us is that Sudan now must come to terms with its new reality and understand the magnitude of the opportunity that lies before it. Sudanese need to think about how we can achieve the full potential that this moment in history offers.

The power-sharing agreement signed on Saturday between the transitional military council and the Forces for Freedom and Change, the opposition civilian coalition, is a huge step forward. A Sovereign Council, which includes six civilians and five generals, will run the country till elections are held in 2022. The military and the civilians will rotate the chairmanship of the council.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan was sworn in as president of the Sovereign Council. He will lead it for 21 months. And Abdalla Hamdouk, an economist who worked for the United Nations for several years, was appointed as prime minister of the transitional government.

The agreement is only the first step on a precarious route. Mr. al-Bashir spent years accumulating allies and collaborators in the political system. Among the most powerful is Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy head of the transitional military council, a close ally of the ousted dictator and the commander of the notorious Rapid Support Forces, which led a brutal crackdown on protesters in central Khartoum on June 3, killing more than 100 people.

The violence of General Dagalo’s forces was a stark reminder of the brutality that has terrified Darfur over the last decade and a half. The R.S.F. was created as part of a strategy that Sudan’s rulers used for decades: arming ethnic militias that exist separately from the traditional armed forces. The informal nature of these militias made it easier to deny culpability for their actions. In the 1980s they were the Murahaleen, who preyed on civilians in the borderlands with the South. In Darfur, they were the Janjaweed, which later coalesced into the R.S.F. That General Dagalo signed the power-sharing agreement on behalf of the military junta is a clear reminder of the dangers that remain.

ImageSudanese people celebrating the power-sharing agreement between the opposition and the military council, in Khartoum, Sudan, last week.
CreditEPA, via Shutterstock

The challenge facing Sudan today is how to move in the opposite direction, to bring the country together around the goal of rebuilding the nation. Despite the perception of Sudan as a failed state condemned to continual civil conflict and economic stagnation, the country has produced gifted artists, scientists, engineers and professionals.

The difficulty has always been to overcome allegiances of a regional, ethnic or religious nature. Familial and tribal obligations have always weighed heavily in Sudan — but the sense of injustice that informed the protests and brought people together to defeat Mr. al-Bashir, regardless of background, offers hope. The future lies with the young, who formed the bulk of the protesters. For far too long the country has been run by old men.

Many of Sudan’s old guard feel they deserve a part in current proceedings, but Sudanese politics has long been plagued by petty squabbles and personal differences. A return to this would undermine the momentum for change. For now, they need to step aside and allow the country to achieve what has so long been denied.

The discovery in June of more than a $100 million stashed in Mr. al-Bashir’s presidential palace, and his reported admission of receiving $25 million from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, convey some sense of the scale of corruption and foreign influence.

After the transitional military council replaced Mr. al-Bashir, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stepped up support for the generals — approving $3 billion in aid in late April — in exchange for their continued loyalty.

Sudanese don’t appreciate their involvement in the war in Yemen but General Burhan, now the head of the Sovereign Council, and General Dagalo have been directly involved in overseeing and providing Sudanese troops and R.S.F. men to fight the Saudi-led war.

Sudan’s relationship to the oil-rich Gulf monarchies has always been a tortured one. The collapse of the economy following the secession of South Sudan in 2011 left the country vulnerable and susceptible to Gulf money.

Yet despite numerous internal and external challenges, the transitional government looks promising, including the addition of a Coptic woman. The prime minister, Mr. Hamdouk, has significant global professional experience and represents a return to the kind of vocational pragmatism Sudan needs. His elevation signals the end of a time when loyalty to the president and religious piety were more important than qualifications or experience.

Time is not on our side. When popular uprisings previously dislodged unpopular military regimes — in October 1964 and April 1985 — civilian rule lasted no more than five years before the military took over again. That remains a possibility, despite the world being a more transparent place today. General Dagalo’s efforts to present a reasoned face in interviews with major western media outlets demonstrate his awareness that the world is watching.

There is a case for cautious optimism. The outpouring of artistic expression during the protests, the murals that sprang up around the walls of Khartoum and the spontaneous concerts channeled decades of frustration into creative energy. Sudan is not Egypt, Libya or Syria. It is smaller, more rural in nature and more humble. So long as they are given a chance, young Sudanese have an opportunity to seize the moment and transform the country.

Three decades of Mr. al-Bashir’s rule saw an exodus of millions of Sudanese. Even a small amount of success would bring many of them back. Failure to reform the system of governance and economy would crush the hopes of hundreds of thousands of young people, many of whom would be tempted to seek their fortunes abroad. This would put the country on the road of no return, heading toward possible disintegration, economic and political instability, regional conflict and the untold suffering of millions. It is not a road any of us should want to take.

Jamal Mahjoub is the author of “A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory.” He writes novels using the pseudonym Parker Bilal.

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