The Enemies of Sudan’s Democracy Are Lurking Everywhere
The country successfully toppled a dictator. Now it's in an epic battle to secure freedom.
KHARTOUM, Sudan—During the morning shift at Omdurman Teaching Hospital, sick people group under trees in the courtyard, awaiting admission. There are 645 beds and upwards of 1,500 patients each day. Inside, Mohammed Elhag Hamed brought a manila folder over to me. The documents inside formed a paper trail of corruption. They showed how the political appointees who had been running the hospital had put money that should have gone to patient services, into the pockets of those loyal to the National Congress Party, which had ruled the country for three decades under President Omar al-Bashir.
Hamed, an open-faced man in his early fifties, talked me through the documents. They were simultaneously banal and riveting. Banal because of their bureaucratic character: expense logs, personnel lists. Riveting because they were a concrete example of how corruption had been institutionalized across Sudan throughout Bashir’s rule. Hamed found the files on the office computer of his predecessor, the former general manager of the hospital, who evidently believed that Sudan’s kleptocratic dictatorship would never fall.
During his 30-year reign, Bashir seemed invincible. Once host to Osama bin Laden, Bashir weathered U.S. economic sanctions, the listing of Sudan as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court. Throughout, he used a deep and widespread patronage system to maintain power. Money that belonged to the public purse was siphoned off to keep potential enemies beholden to Bashir. But in December last year, Sudanese across the country took to the streets to call for regime change.
Sudanese have a proud history of protest, having overthrown two governments since independence from colonial rule. But previous efforts to oppose Bashir had faltered in the face of his regime’s ruthless intelligence services, who systematically detained and tortured protesters. This time though, was different. The economy was in free fall. Bread prices had tripled overnight. People who could not feed their families felt they had nothing to lose. The protests continued, month after month, with youth and women forming the backbone of a movement that unified under the slogan Tasqut Bas (Just fall, that’s all). On April 11, 2019, the military removed Bashir from power.
Military control of the country was not, however, what the protesters sought. And so for weeks after Bashir’s ouster, they continued to form a sit-in in front of the army’s headquarters. “We didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Egypt, where the people left the streets after Mubarak fell,” one protester explained to me, referring to the 2013 military coup that deposed the newly elected Egyptian president just two years after the uprising that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.
On June 3, the sit-in was attacked. Exact lines of responsibility for what is now referred to as the Khartoum massacre are the subject of an independent investigation, but victims I spoke with told of gang beatings by the government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia carrying sticks, and being shot at by sniper fire from a nearby building. The dead bodies of protesters, weighed down by bricks, were later retrieved from the Nile. Incredibly, the protesters did not give up. On June 30, they reclaimed the streets in a “million-person march,” 30 years to the day since Bashir had taken power in a military coup.
The June 30 march will go down as a defining moment in this period of Sudanese history. The Khartoum massacre showed that the brutality of Bashir’s regime could survive his ouster; June 30 showed that this was something the protesters were unwilling to accept. Subsequent negotiations between the military and an umbrella coalition of civil-society groups, known as the Forces for Freedom and Change, led to a transitional government that would take the country through to democratic elections in 2022. The transitional arrangement does not, however, establish complete civilian control of the government, as the protesters had sought.
A cabinet of technocrats runs the day-to-day bureaucratic administration, but the head of state is an 11-person Sovereignty Council, composed of five military members and six civilians. Its leader is Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan; his deputy is the RSF militia leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, who is notorious for his role in the latter stages of atrocities in Darfur. In the final 18 months before the 2022 elections, the Sovereignty Council will be led by one of its civilian members. The arrangement is a second-best option, but it is what the current balance of power will bear.
Over three decades of rule, Bashir’s regime decimated the country’s human, financial, and natural resources. Now, the transitional government is tasked with laying the foundations for a new Sudan underpinned by the three pillars of the revolution: freedom, peace, and justice. The transitional arrangement lists a mandate of 16 bullet points, including directives such as “Resolve the economic crisis by stopping economic deterioration” and “Dismantle the June 1989 regime’s structure for consolidation of power (tamkeen), and build a state of laws and institutions.” It is a herculean undertaking, even if they get the full three years of the transition period to work on it—and it’s not at all clear they will. The coming months will likely decide whether Sudanese democracy will die before it’s ever born.
There are many potential ways that Sudan could fail to arrive at its scheduled democratic elections in 2022. The first threat comes from the National Congress Party (NCP) and its supporters. The transitional government recently passed a law that dissolved the NCP, but this does not mean that members of the NCP will exit the political landscape. Former NCP members are prohibited from participating in the new Legislative Council, but they can still do much to undercut the reforms that the transitional government seeks to make. From outside the government, NCP supporters are pushing their messaging out through mosques and social media. The goal seems to be to sway citizens against the transitional government, claiming its members are intent on undermining traditional Sudanese culture by creating a secular state that respects human rights. And from inside the government, concerns of a “deep state” within the bureaucracy have credence; while many bureaucrats no doubt have no love lost for the NCP, there are certainly others who will stonewall change.
Another risk is that established political elites may call for early elections. Under the terms of the transitional arrangement no one in the cabinet or Sovereignty Council can run in the 2022 elections. This means that the established opposition parties, formed before and during Bashir’s reign, have little direct power during the transitional period. The theory behind this arrangement is that the three-year transition will give the younger generation, many of whom only became politically engaged during the revolution, time to prepare for electoral campaigning. The sooner elections are held, the more likely it is that the established political parties will win.
Complicating matters further, the army, RSF, and internal security forces all have competing loyalties, interests, and cultures, opening up the possibility of different parts of the security sector going into battle against each other. Notwithstanding the revolution, the entire security sector remains shrouded in secrecy, with off-the-books financial flows that make accountable governance impossible. As it stands, outside actors ranging from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to the European Union have provided Sudan with financial support for “services” provided by the RSF. Contingents of the RSF militia serve as mercenaries in Yemen, and were enlisted by EU partners to help counter human trafficking operations in Sudan and the surrounding region (though this is reportedly now suspended). Internally, the financial flows are harder to track. The RSF’s involvement in illegal smuggling operations range from gold (from the Darfuri mines that Hemeti owns) to weapons (bought by the neighboring Central African Republic). Until this sector is opened to scrutiny, no civilian-led government will be safe from the threat of a takeover.
Next, there are the as-yet unresolved conflicts throughout the peripheral parts of the country. Reaching peace deals with armed groups from The Blue Nile to Darfur is essential, not only for stability, but also to enable the transitional government to realize the revolution’s goal of building an inclusive state. The transitional government has put the formation of the new Legislative Council on hold while peace agreements are being negotiated so that representatives from the peripheral regions can participate. This is a wise move in the short term, but the Legislative Council’s formation can’t be delayed indefinitely.
Finally, there is the ever-present risk that the people who made the revolution happen will withdraw their support for the transition if they see no meaningful improvements in their daily lives. This makes economic recovery the transitional government’s number one priority in a crowded list of urgent tasks. As one of the leaders of the protest movement put it to me, “The people showed extraordinary bravery and so expect extraordinary results.”
Of course, even if the transitional government does manage to make it through the next three years, there’s no telling it will succeed at its task of transitioning the country to democracy. On a recent trip to Sudan, it quickly became clear just how challenging it is to implement ideals of freedom, peace, and justice against a backdrop of 30 years of dictatorial rule.
Yet the scale of the challenge is precisely what makes Sudan such a vital experiment. Everyone agrees that ousting a dictatorial regime is a positive development. Yet the playbook for how to navigate the weeks and months after a dictator’s overthrow is far from clear. One year since the anti-regime protests began, Sudan provides a window into the struggles of a society seeking to excavate itself from decades of dictatorship.
One can dream of a Hollywood script: The people overthrow the dictator, every remnant of his regime disappears, and democracy takes hold overnight. But in the real world there is a prolonged period of navigating a gray zone. For those tasked with leading the transitional period, this means an ever-present trade-off between advancing the reforms required to move Sudan toward democracy and actually behaving in a way that reflects the democratic ideals they hope to bring about. It would be easy for the transitional government, and gratifying for many ordinary Sudanese, to see a mass purgeof all those associated with the former regime. But such an approach would just continue the cycle that has dogged Sudan since its independence. As Mohiedeen al-Fadih, a Sudanese teacher and poet, put it to me: “The problem with the previous revolutions is that they were not revolutions. They were just changes in the regime.”
Dismantling the Structures of Corruption and Surveillance
Strong trade unions were the driving force behind the popular protests that had ousted former Sudanese dictators, in 1964 and again in 1985. Omar al-Bashir and his National Islamic Front, later rebranded the National Congress Party (NCP), were well aware of this when they took power in a 1989 military coup.
One of Bashir’s first acts as president was to dismantle all existing trade unions. Professional associations of doctors, journalists, and teachers were deemed illegal. In their place, the NCP installed a new trade union system, primarily organized around public enterprises. Instead of a union of doctors across the country who could mobilize for their professional goals, each public hospital had a union that drew in everyone from the janitor to the lead surgeon.
Being part of an enterprise union meant being beholden to the NCP, and loyalty brought the kind of preferential treatment documented in Hamed’s manila folder. The six junior doctors on Omdurman Teaching Hospital’s list of NCP members received U.S. dollar payments of $340 monthly, while their non-NCP counterparts received a stipend in Sudanese pounds, equating to $40 a month. Political payments came from public money. In just one example, Hamed had traced a hospital check of 195,000 Sudanese pounds (roughly $4,500) for “laboratory needs” that were never ordered nor received.
To run the system, the NCP positioned political appointees, such as Hamed’s predecessor, to manage each facility, and embedded agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service throughout. The professional unions, illegal during Bashir’s rule, managed to keep operating underground. But their members routinely paid for this in retaliatory acts ranging from cut salaries to detention and torture.
Over the course of 30 years, the NCP institutionalized this system of control and surveillance in every public hospital, school, financial institution, and government ministry in the country. Workers of different ages and classes have told me countless times during my decade of covering Sudan: “The regime knows when we go to the bathroom.” The fact that the NCP had neither the desire nor the resources to surveil every individual at all times was fundamentally irrelevant. Once it became an article of faith that the NCP had eyes everywhere, no one felt free anywhere.
Faced with this legacy, the Forces for Freedom and Change, the coalition of civil-society groups behind the protest movement, pushed the transitional government to outlaw the NCP enterprise unions. But, as members of Sudan’s new cabinet earnestly explained to me, the transitional government is trying to avoid replicating the actions of the regime it has replaced, and many believe that politicized mass firings would stir uncomfortable memories. Moreover, they say, international labor law provides protections to the existing unions, notwithstanding their history.
The transitional government’s way through this thicket has been to schedule new elections for the leadership positions in the existing enterprise unions. And, in the three-month buildup to these elections, civil-society representatives have been added to the unions’ steering committees. In addition, the government is drafting a new law to legalize the professional unions that continued to operate underground during Bashir’s rule.
Journalists from one of the underground professional associations that I spoke with were heartened by the prospect of legalization, but unimpressed by the transitional government’s approach to reforming the existing trade unions. According to journalist Ahmed Ahmed, the NCP’s trade union issued 8,000 press cards, which credential people to work as journalists. Of those, he says, “a charitable 1,500” are actually journalists; the remainder are agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service, placed there by the NCP. Yet all 8,000 card-carrying members of the union will be able to vote in the upcoming elections. Even with civil society now represented on the steering committee of the trade unions, Ahmed fears that NCP members will have the numbers to vote themselves back in, and so the elections will simply legitimate the NCP-controlled system.
Rebuilding Human Talent
Replicating a system instituted under British colonialism, Sudanese governments have long invested educational resources in the capital, Khartoum, at the expense of investments in the peripheral parts of the country. The nation’s overall literacy rate is just 61 percent. And for those lucky enough to get an education, their career advancement often boiled down to two choices: join the NCP, or leave the country. This reality is reflected in the cadre of bureaucrats that the transitional government has to draw on to implement its reforms.
The transitional government’s Ministry of Justice, now led by Nasredeen Abdulbari, is a case in point. After coming first in his law class at the University of Khartoum, Abdulbari undertook his master’s at Harvard, and was working on his doctoral dissertation at Georgetown University Law Center when he was nominated to become the minister of justice. Now back in Khartoum, he is responsible for the complete reformation of the Sudanese legal system. In a moment when anyone from the current generation who has held a leadership position in government is associated with the NCP, Abdulbari’s total lack of government experience is an asset.
On his first day at the Ministry of Justice, Abdulbari called in the heads of all the various portfolios. Like others I spoke with in the transitional leadership, he was eager to convey a forward-looking spirit, signaling his willingness to work with anyone who wanted to support the transition to democracy. Most of his staff, he has concluded, were never NCP ideologues; they just needed a job. Yet in a ministry of 1,600 bureaucrats, none of the relevant staff speaks English well enough to respond to the incoming emails they are receiving with offers of help from Western governments and donors eager to see democracy succeed in the region.
There are, of course, plenty of Sudanese lawyers who speak excellent English. But most of them were either part of the NCP’s ruling elite, or are still part of Sudan’s 5-million-strong diaspora. Those outside these two groups belong to a third set of professionals who have spent years fighting the NCP from inside Sudan. They want to see democracy, but are understandably wary of participating in a transitional regime that includes military members who served under the NCP, including Hemeti.
Changing Laws, Changing Mindsets
“Changing the law is the easy part,” Faisail Saleh, Sudan’s new minister of culture and information, told me with a weary smile. “How to change the mindset—that is the challenge.” Saleh is one of those who stayed to fight the NCP from inside Sudan. Forging a career as an independent journalist in a place where independent journalism was treated as an attack on the state, he has been detained more times than he can count. He is deeply uncomfortable with the military’s involvement in the transitional government. “And yet,” he said, “they are here.” With an oft-heard acknowledgment that neither the military nor civil society have enough power to control the country alone, Saleh agreed to join the transitional government.
Seemingly overnight, the laws Saleh spent his career suffering under are being rewritten. But investing the legal reforms with real meaning will be a much longer process. Consider the prevailing culture of government secrecy. “The mindset [among government bureaucrats] is that you are forbidden to share any information, unless you are expressly told you are allowed to,” Saleh explained. This was a default I was well familiar with. Trying to get even a rudimentary piece of public information out of a government official, especially in remote parts of Sudan, has long been nearly impossible. “You can ask them the most straightforward question, and still they won’t answer,” Saleh reflected. Moreover, he added, the cultural change has to happen on both sides. “We don’t have a tradition of investigative journalism. No one is used to thinking that they have a right to information.”
Like other members of the transitional cabinet, Saleh is also struggling with how to balance advancing the goals of the transition while maintaining a firm commitment to avoid repeating the behaviors of the previous regime. Members of the transitional cabinet have been under attack from political Islamists and other supporters of the NCP. During Friday sermons, extremist imams routinely decry the transitional government as atheists who are not simply opposed to the former regime, but who are opposed to Islam. They write op-eds in local papers and spread their vitriol across social media. Activists have called on Saleh to stop the flow of anti-transition messaging. “They want me to take control of the media. That is what they are used to the minister of information doing,” he explained. In a moment of incredible fragility, reducing the volume of those who support the NCP seems tempting. “But I can’t. It would contradict all the principles we were fighting for all these years,” he said.
The scale of crimes conducted or supported by the NCP over the course of Bashir’s rule defies the limits of human imagination. More than 2 million Sudanese died during the civil wars the regime fought in what is now South Sudan. Year after year, children of the Nuba Mountains spent their childhoods hiding under rocks to avoid the bombs sent to destroy their people. Violence in Darfur sent some 2.7 million Sudanese fleeing from their homes as women and girls were raped, boys and men slaughtered. And these are just the highest-profile examples in a 30-year record of terror unleashed against the Sudanese people. Faced with the totality of these crimes, the notion of justice, at least within the confines of criminal law, seems implausible, almost insulting. Yet Bashir himself now sits in a Sudanese prison cell, and the transitional government must decide what to do with him.
In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges including genocide, for the atrocities he oversaw in Darfur. The charges cover only a segment of the crimes he oversaw during his time as president, but for those who survived those atrocities, they represent a rare and tangible sign that the world saw their suffering. Outside of Darfur, many Sudanese have been swayed by the campaign Bashir coordinated with other states across Africa to frame the ICC as an anti-African court—a charge the court made itself vulnerable to with a docket focused squarely on Africans. Bashir’s family continue to push this argument today. “It is a court that wishes to recolonize Africa,” Bashir’s brother, Mohamed Hassan al-Bashir, insisted to me.
For now, Bashir is facing trial by the Sudanese judiciary on corruption charges, with the possibility of a 10-year maximum jail term. Proceedings to date have involved Bashir testifying from inside a metal cage. A verdict is set to be delivered on Dec. 14. Darfuris see the charges as a sideshow, and the European Union is pushing for the transitional government to extradite him to The Hague to stand trial for international crimes. For the transitional government, it is far from clear how the Sudanese judiciary would handle the allegations that go beyond the corruption charges Bashir currently faces. While previous law reforms introduced international crimes into Sudanese penal law, there is no judicial experience with running such trials. And, perhaps more than any other public institution, the judiciary is filled with NCP loyalists whose independence is widely refuted.
Given everything else on its plate, sending Bashir to The Hague may well be the path of least resistance for the transitional government, notwithstanding the backlash they will surely face from both NCP supporters and many other Sudanese. Perhaps counterintuitively, the calculation for the military members of the Sovereignty Council may come out the same. Hemeti and to a lesser extent Burhan are directly implicated in the Darfur atrocities, but their actions are not the focus of the ICC prosecution’s case. Meanwhile, if Bashir sees no path out for himself in a Sudanese trial, nothing is more sure than that Hemeti, now the most powerful man in Sudan, is the person Bashir would be most eager to point the finger at.
Regardless of how the transitional government decides to handle the situation, the question of what to do with Bashir is just a tiny piece of the bigger transitional justice issues facing the country. In the short term, an investigation is underway into the Khartoum massacre. Given that so many of the killings took place right in front of the army headquarters, and that Hemeti’s forces were widely witnessed brutally attacking the protesters, the investigation is certain to destabilize the transitional arrangement regardless of what conclusion it reaches about where ultimate responsibility lies. And in the medium to long term, the entire society must begin the process of recovering from the fear, mistrust, and outright trauma that come from 30 years of dictatorship.
Navigating the Gray Zone
The electricity was out in much of Khartoum on the night I met with Amjad Farid. We sat outside to catch the light of the moon as he reflected on the tumultuous year that had been. Farid had just stepped down after 10 months as the spokesperson of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella organization of the various professional unions that had operated underground during Bashir’s rule. While the SPA had begun to coalese in 2012, their efforts gained steam in 2018. Farid was involved in what ended up being a pivotal decision in December 2018, as the economic stress on the streets reached a tipping point, to turn the SPA’s campaign for a minimum wage into a call for regime change. In the months that followed, the SPA was key in establishing the Forces for Freedom and Change, which became the leading civil-society negotiator in the eventual arrangements for a transitional government. He is, in other words, someone who has given a lot of thought to the future of his country.
The unmistakable takeaway from two hours of conversation with him was a visceral sense of the stakes of this moment for the Sudanese people. Farid articulated sentiments I had heard piecemeal throughout my trip. People struggled to identify a concrete aspect of their lives that had really changed since the revolution. The economy remains poor; daily life is hard. What they all gestured toward though, was something akin to a sense of dignity. As one storekeeper put it to me, “Now, I can hold my head up.”
The Sudanese people never wanted to be ruled by Bashir. As his toxic impact on his own citizens and the broader region became clear, the Western world alternated between ineffectual efforts at condemnation and offers of appeasement. Meanwhile, ordinary Sudanese bore the brunt of his actions. In overthrowing him, their message was clear: This regime does not represent who we are.
The rub, of course, is that the transitional arrangement they have ended up with is not the representation they sought either. With military members of the former regime in the Sovereignty Council, the outcome is a decidedly second-best arrangement. But, echoing literally scores of conversations I had had over the previous ten days, Farid’s view was that after three decades of dictatorship, it would be unrealistic to expect a first-best to be on offer. “Are there still pockets of the old regime? Yes. But we are fighting against this,” he said.
Like so many others I spoke with, Farid is clear-eyed about the risks of the current arrangement. And yet, this remains the moonshot of a generation. The likelihood of success is very slim, but the opportunity to try is not going to come along again for decades into the future, and so it is worth investing everything into trying to make it work.
Everyone in Sudan, including those who support the former regime, wants the United States to lift Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. There may well be unrealistic expectations of what lifting the designation will do for the Sudanese economy, and the U.S. should prepare a raft policies to help stimulate Sudan’s economic recovery. But that doesn’t change the fact that the desire for removal gives the United States a point of leverage which, if used smartly, could help those seeking democracy. The designation was meant as a response to the actions of the regime that the Sudanese people overthrew; there is no question that they deserve its removal. In other words, now is not the time for the United States to impose a host of conditions that will just draw out the timeline for that removal. But the United States could agree to lift the designation upon condition that the Sudanese government provide an audit of its security sector and, in particular, the RSF. Such a condition has the benefit of being genuinely tied to reducing the threat of terrorist activity in Sudan, while simultaneously empowering those inside Sudan who seek democracy.
Formally speaking, the RSF is under the control of the transitional government. In reality, the militia answer only to Hemeti, the sole member of the transitional arrangement with a grasp on the range of financial operations that the RSF is involved in. Opening up this black box would give the United States some assurance that finances flowing to Sudan’s security sector are being used for public security, instead of being diverted to criminal and terrorist enterprises. Just as importantly, it would go a long way toward helping those inside Sudan who are committed to bringing democracy to their country. Democracy requires that the state’s security sector be controlled by the rule of law, not by an unaccountable military-business operation. Hemeti himself says he is committed to the goals of the revolution. This would be an opportunity for him to prove it.
Having the United States require an audit is not a magic bullet, and there is every reason to doubt how accurate any resulting audit would be. But the end product is not ultimately the point; the very process of having to conduct an audit would empower reformers to ask questions that they need to ask, and give them a fighting chance of getting some answers. Whether it is the request for an audit or something else, the guiding question that should drive the policies of all external actors who want to support the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people is the following: Will this policy empower those who seek reform?
Bordering seven nations, including Libya, Egypt, and South Sudan, and with terrorist groups from Boko Haram to al-Shabab all hovering in the vicinity, there is no shortage of local examples to foretell just how bad Sudan’s future could look if the transitional arrangement fails. But it is a mistake to assume that failure is inevitable. With intense engagement and close management from all who want to see a democratic Sudan emerge from the transitional period, there is a path forward. It will require the patience to stick with a transition that will take two steps forward and then sometimes three steps back. It will require trying out options that are outside the standard toolkit and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And most of all, it will require deference to the agency of those who lost daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers to get their country to this point.
“While the whole world was looking at normalization [of relations with Bashir’s government], the Sudanese people succeeded in singlehandedly overthrowing the former regime,” Farid told me, with a mix of pride and frustration. “What more does the international community want from the Sudanese people?”
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.