Over the last month we have been watching events in Sudan as the Sudanese people began rising up against the government of the man who has held onto power for three decades, General Omar el-Bashir.
When the Egyptians rose up in 2011 and Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office there were only limited protests in neighbouring Sudan against their own long-term ruler. But it has now happened. There is now an interim “transitional military council” in place. Protests and mobilization continue. Last Sunday there was a “million man” march. The coalition of opposition forces (“Forces of freedom and change”) remain firm in their demand for a civilian government. The demand is simply that the role of the military is to protect the borders of the country and not have a role in domestic policy-making.
Omar el-Bashir took power in 1989 in a so-called “salvation revolution” that ended an interim democratic period that had started in 1985. During that interim period the role of the military was far more limited. It was, however, a provisional period and it was far more open to civilian participation and democratic debate about the future of the country. But it was a brief window that allowed in some freshness into the political atmosphere; only for it to end in 1989. From 1969 until 1985 Sudan was under the military rule of Ja’far Nimeiri. In other words, over a nearly fifty year period (1969 to now) the Sudanese have seen forty five/six years of military rule. Which of course means the largest share of the country’s budget has been spent on the army and arms. (Less than five percent currently goes to education and health.) Indeed, for most of its history since independence in 1956 the military has been the dominant force in the country. So here we have another case of an army that has a country (not a country having an army).
The only exception has been the years 1985 to 1989 (already mentioned). So the dominant force in Sudan and its main political tradition is thus the men in uniform setting the agenda for the country. Within each military period there were brief moments of relative openness and prospects for some improvement in some major aspect of national affairs. Thus during the rule of Nimeiri (1969 to 1984) the country reached a successful peace agreement in 1972 that ended the North-South civil war and saw the longest period of peace between North and South. But the civil war also restarted under Nimeiri after his declaration of the infamous “September laws” in 1983.
Under Bashir the period around the Referendum in 2005 and the creation of the new state of South Sudan saw some openness for multiple political forces to operate in the North.
Sudan was always a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country. A small elite in the North believed themselves to be Arab and since they were Arab Muslims and had inherited political power (from the British) the entire country should be Arabized. Then another political force appeared that promoted the idea of a civilizational project in which Arabic dominance had to be joined by an Islamic religious and civilizing project. A country with multiplicity at its core had to be drained of all difference and turned into a monolithic Arab, Islamic state. This ideology was a major factor in the war in Darfur. The people in that region are Muslim but not Arab and were systematically subjected to the will and whims of the so-called Arab elite in the capital Khartoum. The Southern Sudan opposition at its inception never fought for a separate state (the SPLM was never the SSPLM) but wanted to be part of a single, united Sudan where their religions and languages would be respected equally alongside Arabic and Islam. But by the time of the Referendum their feelings had been soundly mobilized – including by outside forces – against a united Sudan.
So on the watch of Omar el-Bashir who came to power as a sympathizer with the Islamists and for the definitive implementation of Shariah law his military went into an ethnic war – genocidal? – in Darfur which was in fact a case of Muslims killing Muslims. His rule also saw the division of the country between North and South.
Sudan began to drill oil and export it in XXXX. Even this did not add to its economic resources to allow for it to deal with its economic challenges as a poor, agricultural country. The current cycle of protests began in December last year because of price hikes on basic foodstuffs. (The economic conditions are behind Bashir shifting support to the Saudi’s including sending soldiers to fight in Yemen.)
So on every count the 30-year rule of Bashir and the military with their supporters have been a failure. The “Islamic civilizational” project achieved nothing and its master-mind, Hasan al-Turabi, fell out with Bashir and left the corridors of power in 1999. “Shariah” became a totally empty term – shifting around every few years in the country’s constitution as circumstances dictated. Today nobody in Sudan will respond to these slogans except as reminders of opportunism, mismanagement, and non-stop war. People know that when they see representatives of the military or state speak of Islam they know only 30 years of “forcing people into paradise,” as a one-time supporter of the project put it. The call of the current opposition for a “civilian government” means far more than an end to military rule but for its end and everything that it stood for. The military and its supporters will, I am sure, pull some version of “Shariah” of its box of tricks when it becomes necessary.
The brave internal opposition is joined by millions of Sudanese outside the country. The one thing the 30 years of Bashir has done is supply the Gulf states, the US and Europe and (Malaysia) with talent. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers can be found in big numbers outside the country contributing to the societies they live in. Think of Mo Ibrahim (billionaire engineer), of countless medical professionals even in Scandinavian countries, lawyers in Qatar, teachers in Saudi, and many in every part of the UK. The “Islamic civilizational project” could not keep people in their own country and it effectively killed the arts in the country and so the works of suspect writers, poets and artists were effectively banned. One of the most significant works of modern Arabic literature, Season of Migration to the North, was taken off the shelves of university libraries. And one of the continent’s most famous artists, Ibrahim el-Salahi, is better known in the West than in Sudan. One of his most famous works is entitled “The Inevitable”, completed in 19XX. He had begun it during Nimeiri’s time when he was imprisoned. Do take a look at it; it was exhibited at The Tate Museum in London recently as part of a retrospective of his work; the first at this museum for an African artist. He has been a pioneer in bringing together African and Arabic in his art. I encourage you to see his work when (on the web) or if you to see African art at galleries in Europe. “The Inevitable” has finally happened in Sudan; the people have spoken and acted against tyranny. Now they have to take it through to the end and put the military back into the barracks for good.
“The original Muslim community was united first by faith and mutual solidarity, and only secondarily by coercive power. Many modern Islamists seem to seek coercive power first and faith as its derivative.” (El-Affandi cited in De Waal 50)