Recent protests in the wake of an increase in fuel prices have left dozens of people killed and hundreds arrested in Sudan. Reports indicate that the government of President Omar al-Bashir, in power nearly a quarter century since a 1989 military coup, shut down the Internet. Major newspapers also shuttered, keeping the country in relative international obscurity.
These protests cannot be understood without placing them in the context of Sudan’s political and legal history since its 1956 independence. Considering the demonstrations not as isolated events, but as part of a decades-long struggle for peace, leads to three insights into what may lie ahead for this troubled country.
First, Sudan is not new to intifada, even under Bashir. A wave of protests in 2010 and 2011 (after similar hikes in fuel and food prices) led to a number of deaths and detentions, particularly of vocal opposition and youth leaders. But this year many more everyday people, including middle- and working-class citizens and those who are simply hungry and angry, are involved. While Bashir remains the country’s top authority, the recent unrest has exposed cracks within his regime and among opposition factions. Bashir’s grip on power is far from secure; the Sudanese people have twice toppled autocratic governments and ushered in democratic administrations, in 1964 and 1985. As recent events in Egypt suggest, this Sudanese Spring may not be the country’s last one, independent of what comes of Bashir.
In 1956 the Sudanese became the first sub-Saharan Africans to gain national independence from the British. But Sudan’s fate as one of the world’s most fragile states was sealed; its first civil war began in 1955, months before independence. It would last until 1972. A later civil war, Africa’s longest, began in 1983 and ended in 2005. Nearly a quarter of Sudan’s population has been killed or displaced as a result of these wars and related violence and humanitarian crises in Darfur in western Sudan, Kassala in eastern Sudan, and Kordofan along the new border with South Sudan.
Second, pay attention to Sudan’s legal community. Lawyers and judges are among the strongest elements of an independent civil society, often at the front lines of the fight for political freedoms. This has been true in many Western countries and across the global South from Egypt and Pakistan to Chile (under Pinochet), China, and Burma. In these places lawyers, judges, and legal activists have put their lives at risk for the cause of justice. Sudan is no exception. The Sudanese legal profession, closely aligned with trade, women’s, and students’ unions, helped to lead the country’s nonviolent street revolutions of 1964 and 1985 — both of which brought about democratic, albeit short-lived, governments.
But over the last two decades Bashir has worked hard to construct a legal profession in his own image. His government built hundreds of new courts and a dozen new law schools. The Sudanese Supreme Court employs over 100 judges, many of them in short-term (one-year) appointments under the watchful gaze of a security apparatus that monitors judges who get out of line. The glut of new law graduates and lawyers means that very few have stable incomes, and even fewer specialize in a single area of law, like divorce, criminal defense, or contract. With a few notable exceptions, young lawyers I met in Sudan struggle to make ends meet by taking any case that comes through the door, leaving little ability to accept pro bono cases involving rights-based litigation against oppressive government laws. A few vocal lawyers and law professors have the precious time or energy to devote to matters of political freedom, but many of these are at or beyond retirement age. A new generation of human rights lawyers is gradually emerging; they will need sufficient time and additional resources.
Third, if and when political transition occurs in Sudan, Bashir’s legacy will be entrenched in the country’s legal system. That is, the strength and nature of legal institutions will determine the extent of democratic consolidation. Like Bashir, President Jafaar al-Nimeiri, Bashir’s predecessor who ruled with an iron fist from 1969 to 1985, went to great lengths to revise Sudan’s legal codes as he attempted to leave an imprint on the country’s future. During Nimeiri’s reign, the basis of the country’s legal system flip-flopped among the extremes of British common law, Egyptian civil law, and Islamic law, depending on Nimeiri’s political mood and approach to authority. The Sudanese "have seen it all," a senior judicial official explained to me. Particularly during the 1990s, Bashir was unwavering in his efforts to consolidate his rule under a vision of Islamic law, filling benches with ideological supporters and pushing out judges trained in the rich diversity of laws and codes that constitute Sudan’s history. Bashir’s government also branded calls to change its laws as apostasy, a crime it decreed would be punishable by death. This legal system Bashir carefully built up over the last two decades may survive long past his rule, regardless of how much longer his National Congress Party maintains the helms of power. (Bashir mentioned retirement plans for 2015, though cracks in his rule may alter this time frame.) Future leaderships in Khartoum, and the foreign lawyers and investors seeking to work with them, will have to contend with a domestic legal system manipulated for generations by the machinations of politics.
Bashir is the first head of state to survive major political transition in Khartoum, and he did it twice — the first was in 2005 (the end of the civil war) and the second was in 2011 (the secession of South Sudan). Each transition bought his government a little more time, as people waited in hope for change to come. Meanwhile, civil society groups in Sudan have come under increasing surveillance. Many of the funds from Sudan’s rapid economic growth during the last decade, largely from oil wealth and foreign investment, have been used to finance a sophisticated national-security apparatus unknown in Sudanese history. This infrastructure may not disappear with Bashir’s departure.
However, Sudan’s protests suggest that the Sudanese are impatient with, and exhausted by, one-party rule, particularly if that party cannot keep the economy under control. It was a combination of widespread rejection of Nimeiri’s sudden turn to fierce ideological rule and his government’s inability to maintain a stable economy that helped drive the 1985 intifada against him. But the democratic government that replaced Nimeiri lasted just four years — a blip on Sudan’s historical radar — until Bashir seized power in 1989. Many of the same conditions that led to Nimeiri’s demise are once again rearing their heads in Sudan: 40 percent inflation, increasing prices of basic commodities, and a decades-ruling president as yet unwilling to relinquish power. While Bashir has proven himself able to withstand public protest in the past, his people are raising their hopes and intensifying their struggles toward a peaceful future.
Mark Fathi Massoud is a Sudanese-American author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His recent book, Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan (Cambridge University Press, 2013) is based on 15 months of research in Sudan.