When I first visited Sudan in 2019 it was just after the popular uprising that had overthrown the brutal regime of Omar Al-Shariff and his National Congress Party. Yes it was the military who had taken over, but there were genuine hopes that things would get better. Three years later citizens are asking “Why is Sudan such a mess”.
To read why Lebanon is such a mess click here.
A background to Sudan
Home to numerous ancient cultures and Kingdoms, these all fell into decline until the scramble for Africa led Sudan to being a British colony, although officially at least it was held in Condominium with Egypt.
Following the Nasserite uprising in Egypt the independence of Sudan became an issue, with it finally being granted statehood in 1958.
To read about Nasserism sick here.
Sadly the last 75 years have proved neither stable, nor prosperous for the Sudanese people, with military dictatorships, a dominance by the minority Arabs and being in an almost constant state of civil war.
Why is Sudan such a mess – the al-Bashir years
Omar al-Bashir first came to power in a bloodless military coup in 1989. Reasons for the takeover were multifaceted, but initially at least were relatively popular with large swaths of the population.
What many did not realize at the time though was that Omar al-Bashir was far from a moderniser and things were about to get a lot stricter in the country. Alcohol was banned, sharia law was introduced and a racial Arabisation policy was introduced.
This was for all intents a disaster for the country with policies such as the granting of sanctuary to Osama Bin-Laden turning the country into a pariah state. Sanctions,w hich still cripple the country followed as did the war with the south, which eventually led to their independence 2011, as well as the loss of their oil and the dire financial implications that came with that.
War though was not to be restricted to the Christians of the south, with their also being the Darfur conflict, or genocide depending on your take on things. Prior to the conflict conditions there had been compared with apartheid and the war leading to as many as 200,00 deaths.
And the irony of course with Darfur was that it was Muslim against Muslim, light skin against dark skinned Africans. A point driven home by a Roman Catholic Priest we met in Khartoum who stated “Everyone thought it was about religion, but it was always about skin colour and race”. A point that seems not to have reached the Black Lives Matter brigade……
The 2019 Sudanese Coup and its aftermath
Much has had happened in Egypt when the protests reached a certain level the military stepped in and took over in order to keep “stability” in the country. Democratic reforms were promised and the overall mood was one of hope, with formerly illegal political parties again operating openly.
Yes there were still problems, such as a dire shortage of oil, failing currency and of course the multiple insurgencies facing the country.
In 2020 the military government transitioned to a partly civilian one, peace was achieved in Darfur and things were looking up in the country. And then there was another coup.
The 2021 Sudanese Coup
Less than a year of the hybrid military and civilian government the army decided they really did not want to share and again took over the country. On October 25th the Civilian prime-minister Abdalla Hamdok was placed under house arrest a state of emergency was declared and the inevitable civil unrest erupted.
One the next month up ro 2 million Sudanese protested as more and more politicians were arrested and professors numbering into the thousands were either killed or injured.
Reasons for the coup given by the military featured the usual tropes of “stability”and future elections with President and Army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan stating that government would be run by technocrats until elections were held in July 2023. Whether these happen, or not is yet to seen.
Protests against the military have continued, but as one market trader put to us “The protests are pointless and achieve nothing, they just interrupt life”.
Crisis in Sudan – lawlessness and instability
One enormous thing that has though changed in the country is that despite the military coup, the central government are controlling less and less of the country. Almost every Sudanese border is a no-go zone, Darfur is again on the brink of a major conflict, there re rebels in the east and even tribes formerly loyal to the regime now running their areas like personal fiefdoms.
We found this out when trying to visit the technically unclaimed land of Bir Tawil. In 2019 we managed this, even though it did lead to our brief detention. This detention was done by the Ababda tribe, who not only control numerous gold mines in the area, but also have essentially their own militia, which is equipped with modern Kalashnikovs, in stark contrast to the ancient AK-47’s sported by the Sudanese military.
What got us out of our detention was a simple call to our partners in the Khartoum government who politely told the tribe we were to be released. With the salient point being that despite the strange status of Bir Tawil the Sudanese military still held court.
To read about the strange tale of Bir Tawil click here.
In 2022 things could not have been more different. The tribe not only stated that if we went to the area we would “be shot”, but that the 200, or so kilometers of land between Abu Hamad and Bir Tawil were also”Ababda land”. A point sadly confirmed by the government, who despite granting us permits to visit the area stating that they “could not protect us if something were to happen”, thus confirming not only the impotence of the military, but also that Sudan is not functioning as a centralised state.
Why is Sudan such a mess and do the Sudanese want to happen?
Of course no two people are the same and fo course different people want different things, but one constant we at least found in the population is that everyone is sick and tired and wants “change”. The problem is that no one really knows what that change needs to be.
A point perfectly encapsulated by our local fixer Abdul who told us “We need change, the last regime lost half of country and the economy is in chaos. The problem is we do not know what we want. We have tried democracy three times and it never ended well. Personally I am a communist, but I do not see how it could work here in the in the modern world”.
To read about the Sudanese Communist Party click here.
He did though have one idea, although alas one that is unlikely to be introduced which he shared at Abu Hamad train station “Out train network was built by the British, but look at it now, not looked after. In fact we wish the British would come back”, And he was far from the only person to share this view, as much as it might sadden woke people to hear.
Alas recolonisation is not an option for Sudan and the answers to why Sudan is such a mess will have to be found by the Sudanese people themselves.