For the past few months, the news coming out of Khartoum resembles the coverage from almost 20 years ago when war first broke out in Darfur. The predominant narrative continues to portray Sudan as “a country with a long history of war” as breaking news at the top of every hour. The experts analyze the continuities of Sudan’s many overlapping cycles of conflict. Hosted by competing broadcasters they try to bring the average viewer closer to unlocking the enigma of a country that has by all accounts failed to “develop.” Never mind the accuracy.
“Didn’t ‘we’ [Britain] leave them with a viable country, functional state and infrastructure. What more do they want and when will they take responsibility for their own shortcomings?” a British journalist asks on Twitter. Another replies by taking a dig at the entire continent: “Wherever there is trouble, trust it’s in Africa.” This lack of differentiation is still uncommon, Africa’s “politique du ventre” prevails despite the changes in discourse spearheaded by intellectual movements rooted in the global South.
Since the outbreak of hostilities in April, the public debate on Sudan’s misgivings continues to develop in a relevant albeit parochial direction; “My country gave and gave that country aid, still there’s nothing to show for it” another user tweets. Indeed, both the “expert” coverage and the debate it generates through social media mirrors Macbeth’s half-truth instrument of darkness: it is neither a simple fact nor a deliberate lie.
These conflicting narratives make situating Sudan in the global imagination a difficult task to undertake. Attempting to unpack the narratives that shape how Sudanese politics are perceived, how they are constructed, and by whom is no small feat. However, it is a necessary task as Sudan’s internal political process post-2018 revolution was structured and driven in part by these external imaginations of what the Sudanese needed to transition to democracy. Despite the challenge of reconstructing Sudan’s democratization narrative, it is illuminating to try to distill these accounts by asking why some events in the Sudanese political timeline—particularly in the aftermath of Al Bashir’s fall—gained more traction while others were buried or overlooked altogether, and at what cost?
Sudan in the international timeline
Sudan’s return to international attention in recent years begins with the 2018 revolution. The story goes as follows: protests against the worsening economic conditions generated small-scale uprisings in the country’s urban peripheries, particularly in the historic working-class cities of Damazine and Atbara. These activities quickly spread to the capital where their scale and intensity eventually brought about the downfall of Al Bashir’s long-standing Islamist regime in April 2019. Perhaps the major event in the Sudanese timeline most covered by the international media was the sit-in at the military headquarters, an act of civil disobedience that eventually led to the signing of the Constitutional Declaration in August 2019, the initial step towards inducting nonaligned civilian actors into the political arena.
The civic process was inaugurated into the global imaginary through the image of Ala Salah, a young woman wearing a white Tob (Tob is the traditional female attire in Sudan, it consists of a simple, white, body-length piece of cloth draped over clothes for modesty), leading a protest perched on top of a car. Only a month later, in September 2019, following extensive negotiations between the leadership of the revolution and the military council, a transitional civilian government was sworn in. The new government was headed by a veteran international civil servant with expansive development knowledge and international networks. A year later in October 2020, the Juba Peace Agreement was signed in South Sudan to widespread local, regional, and international acclaim. The agreement captured local aspirations by representing the fundamental popular demand in the revolutionary manifesto upon which the subsequent constitutional declaration was drafted: the desperate need to end Sudan’s long history of wars.
A year later, in the early morning of Monday, October 25, 2021, the world woke up to the news of a coup in Khartoum launched by the military sovereign council, the transitional government’s legitimate governing partner. Then, 18 months later on April 14, 2023, war broke out in Khartoum quickly spreading across the country. Coverage outside of the capital remains as limited as ever, even in the wake of atrocities committed in west Darfur, reflecting the world’s failure to engage with Sudan beyond the story of a failed political process to bring about civilian rule.
The period between 2019 and 2023 culminated in major political breakthroughs as well as setbacks for Sudan. However, it must be noted that the official narrative concealed the influence of parallel events that may have contributed to the transition prevailing. This same narrative also facilitated the rise of new elites, who in turn drove the process further off its rails.
There has been a historical tendency to separate matters of the economy from the political process in analysis and reporting on Sudan (and in Africa more generally). Successive military coups, Bashir’s synthesis of Kakistocracy with Kleptocracy, as well as the setbacks of the post-revolutionary period tended to be seen and treated as an ailment of corrupt politics, big men with guns, failed institutions, or a mixture of all of the above. Meanwhile, the debate on revenue (referring here to the public expense budget) in relation to creating a state capable of delivering a viable social contract through which ordinary Sudanese can dictate the terms of citizenship remains either overlooked or treated as separate from economic concerns. The relativity of economic matters to political choice has been deliberately overlooked by experts and elites.
Political economy and foreign policy: a parallel timeline
The multiple overlapping spheres of influence playing out in the Sudanese political landscape were evident in the competing narratives of how to achieve a “viable” transition. The internecine politics that came to define the relations between and across members of the Sudanese political establishment in the post-coup period came to reflect these divisions. To what degree did the actions of external actors reconfigure the political process in Sudan leading to the coup and the political and economic freefall that followed?
The two most important political processes that signaled the post-Bashir era were first, the swearing-in of a civilian transitional government in October 2019, followed by the signing of the Juba Peace agreement the following year. Civilian rule and the induction of rebel groups into constitutional governance through a peace agreement were seen as a turning point in Sudan’s otherwise militarized political history. The new government headed by an economist promised to fix the economy as a means of reconstituting Sudan’s corrupt polity.
Two parallel approaches were presented as the means to achieve this goal: the first was the garden-variety austerity measure of removing subsidies on wheat and fuel and floating the currency to cut back on state spending and bring inflation under control. The second process was the attempt to streamline the military’s parallel economy within the state under the single oversight of the Ministry of Finance. Sudan’s military runs a parallel economy to the official state one, by trading in illicit activities: gold exports, proceeds from oil, and political funds from the Gulf. It also gets a huge cut from the official budget.
The latter, in particular, was considered an ongoing source of despotism. Political financing to buy support or mitigate opposition was the preferred method of consolidating power for Bashir. The deeply flawed steering of the process by the military wing of the transitional government and later the outcome of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement encapsulates the failure of the civilian technocratic government to disband the economic and political project of the Islamist military establishment.
To facilitate Sudan’s economic revival and political reform, a donor conference was convened by “Friends of Sudan” as early as June 2020, and support for the country’s transition was pledged through the sum of USD1.8 billion, although only one-quarter of which actually materialized. About USD700 million was approved for a cash transfer program targeting Sudan’s vulnerable families most affected by the removal of subsidies. This financial support, meager as it was, was tied to a strict set of political and economic conditions. Like a knot, each stage required costly concessions to reach the subsequent one. For instance, Sudan needed to restore its relationship with the international community to access its credit market for much-needed investment for development and political stability. Access to credit required debt re-servicing, or at least relief, which US imposed sanctions made impossible to access.
The attempt to unlock these barriers began with the establishment of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) in June 2020. Its declared mandate was to assist with Sudan’s political transition to democratic rule through a nexus of activities, one being “the mobilization of economic and development funds through collaboration with IFS,” listed under strategic priorities of “support for international resource mobilization and national socio-economic reforms.” Under this directive an economic restructuring package, which removed fuel subsidies and floated the currency, was approved in August 2020, generating a huge increase in living costs for the public. In the meantime, the promised aid package was still awaiting further approvals.
Induction into the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) required first removing Sudan from the US sanction list. This came with its own set of political conditions, mainly for the country to normalize its relationship with Israel and compensate victims of the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania for a total of $335 million. Sudan eventually signed the Abraham records in January 2021, a month after it was removed from the US sanctions list in December 2020. Three months later in March 2021, Sudan finalized a $335 million payout for victims of terrorist bombings, however, it was only granted approval to join HIPIC in June 2021.
Sudan’s most vulnerable groups, who were most affected by the August 2020 economic reforms, have yet to receive any financial support as promised—their aid package was suspended along with other support mechanisms in the aftermath of the 2021 coup. The Tripartite Mechanism launched on June 22 by UNITAMS, the AU, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the final intervention launched to course-correct the transition after the 2021 coup, met the same fate as its predecessors. The limits of reconciling warlords as the sole means to restoring a transition to democracy, no matter how technically proficient, is one of a deprived political imagination.
The above timeline traces the pitfalls of external intervention in Sudanese politics. The international community’s approach to transition in Sudan was informed by an outdated set of ideas: ethnic politics for peace-making and more borrowing power for development. Meanwhile, the political possibilities that emerged out of the civic movement were overlooked for the benefit of tried and failed processes. After the war broke out, which all Sudanese people saw coming, the US Congress sought to question State Department staff about their failure to shore up the Sudan office. The question they asked: “How did we get here” was less perplexing than the experts’ inability to provide a meaningful answer.
Stifled and overlooked imaginaries: A local timeline of events
The timeline of events on the ground in Sudan tells another story. The multitude of ideas and activities that have percolated the Sudanese political landscape speaks of a will to imagine an alternative right and means to existence. Sudan’s 2018 revolutionary imaginary, fluid and expansive, was brought into being through the uprising’s main slogan: “Freedom, Peace and Justice.” In all of their iterations, these three words came to mean different things for different groups subject to violence and marginalization by the state in different ways.
Between 2018 and April 2023 Sudan was transformed into a political laboratory where the resistance committees, the formalized political institutions of the civic movement, and adjunct grassroots forums that emerged in response to various needs, defined and operationalized the use of these terms, first as ideas and then as political practice. The political vision produced by the revolution fueled a movement that has remained active and responsive to the emerging needs of the Sudanese people even after failed external intervention further emboldened armed factions into launching a civil war to consolidate their power.
Concourse in lieu of nation
It is impossible to cover the extent of political expressions and activities that came out of the revolution in one article. For the purposes of comparing the local and foreign imaginaries aimed at setting Sudan on a path toward a democratic transition, I have selected several key moments. The most significant event in the post-revolutionary period was the April to June 2019 sit-in at the military headquarters in downtown Khartoum. The sit-in represented more than a mosaic of an idealized nation, where ethnic categories were integrated through the slogan of “All the country is Darfur” or where class and gender hierarchies suddenly dissipated for the sake of a more equitable existence. The 10-week concourse of an otherwise highly segregated society was in itself an exercise in political cohesion. In its most raw form, free from state mediation, people of distinct backgrounds substituted the exclusive logic of nationalism with active membership in a more inclusive political commune, facilitated by neighborhood-based committees. The development of a shared language of resistance across disparate grievances was the first concrete step toward imagining a new meaning for an otherwise abstract and alien call for democracy. The popular support for the transition was infused with all kinds of localized imaginings of “Freedom- Peace and Justice” and with them, a new discourse of rights was born.
Striking as political currency
The extent of the sit-in in terms of shaping the popular political imaginary can only be gauged through subsequent events. The evolution of resistance in demand for democratization led to a multi-sector countrywide strike of professionals and the working class. In large part driven by externally supported processes, the importance of labor-based identities in shaping political struggle has since been subdued. The labor question was thrown to the wayside for the sake of “peace-making,” thus reducing its role in the state and accountable governance-building.
The first general strike after the revolution took place between May 28 and 29 2019 coinciding with the ongoing negotiations between the military council and the leadership of the revolution handing over power to a civilian government. The birthplace, and later control center, of the strike was the 2019 military headquarters’ sit-in, and later after its violent dispersal, its driver. At the time, the general strike was used by the civic community as a means of exerting pressure to wriggle transitional concessions out of the military sovereign council leading to substantial gains.
The role the general strike played in shaping the direction and dynamics of the negotiations in favor of civic politics over military control was an indication of the leverage grassroots action had over the political landscape. The Sudanese public reconstituted the strike as a space and tool that granted them the power to engage the state and the political establishment with a set of demands toward a transition, one that sprung from the collective imagination of a democratic future based on the principles established at the sit-in. Since then, the right to political association as a foundational democratic principle has been severely curtailed, replaced with ineffective mechanisms and expert-driven political processes that only served to widen the gulf between the people and government.
The strike was again utilized as a means of demanding political reform in June 2020 during Darfur’s Nertiti sit-in. This action brought into sharp focus the crisis of despotic governance shaped by extractive accumulation in the center and coercive production in the periphery. Mostly made up of women, the sit-in’s demands addressed the elephant in Khartoum’s rooms of power by calling on the government to fulfill the obligation to protect its citizens by disarming militias and controlling the proliferation of weapons in Darfur. They further called on the state to protect livelihoods by intervening to secure the agricultural season and put an end to cattle raiding by addressing the land disputes driving armed tensions between farmers and pastoralists.
The gendered aspect of Sudan’s peripheral poverty and its intersection with the militarization of the economy resonated with a population facing economic crisis. Public support for the sit-in forged new political connections between previously disconnected regions through a shared political agenda. By openly articulating the militarized aspect of their political crisis, members of the Nertiti sit-in, backed by the pro-democracy movement, addressed what the political establishment and its international enablers spent years avoiding due to their fear of disrupting the ongoing political process.
A new polity
The drafting of two charters signaled a marked development in the popular political turn. In the aftermath of the October 2021 coup, frustrated with the failure of all parties involved in the political process to bring about any meaningful change, the resistance committees set out to outline their collective political vision in a consolidated document. This produced two charters in 2022 and an updated version of the Revolutionary Charter of the People’s Power in January 2023. The divergence between these various charters reflects different approaches to political thinking and doing, despite a unified political position. In their introductions, both documents underscore the political character and inscription of the document undertaken with the aim of launching a countrywide political process to consolidate a national vision around the state, governance, the economy, and power transfer mechanism and politics.
This grassroots exercise grew the political muscle of the excluded majority, who in recentering the practice of governance around people’s demands, reimagined an alternative polity that set out to rival the official state-driven political processes of peace-making (Juba Peace Agreement) and state-building (Constitutional Declaration). The fundamental principles of the charter of “No Partnership, No Negotiation and No Legitimacy” highlighted the crisis of doing politics through cutting deals and sought to address its root causes. More importantly, it signaled a break with the technocratic principles of the 2020 civic transition under the auspices of the international community. The political imaginaries of the popular movement, as constituted in the charters, placed a premium on the centrality of politics over technocracy in Sudan’s democratic transition.
The war that began in mid-April 2023 speaks to the political impasse in both the process and the version that has emerged at the state level. Its longer history is rooted in a culture and politics that continues to reify a single political story. The choice of narrative, and the process of its consolidation, is as the post-revolutionary period showed us, brutal. Between 2019 and 2021, two separate political processes were developing simultaneously in Sudan, one exclusive and elitist at the state level, influenced by external actors and their ideas and processes of transition, and the other grassroots, driven by localized imperatives for achieving peace, freedom, and justice for all. The predominance of the externally imposed timeline over the local in the global political imagination is emblematic of the persistence of colonial legacies. African discourses continue to be developed externally and in separation from politics on the ground (and any form of local accountability) with major consequences for the shape and content of the democratic process.
While the reconciliation of external and local imaginaries remains a distant hope, the demand for giving the local timeline the recognition it deserves goes a long way in changing the fate of the Sudanese people.