Sudan and the Nile Spring: Raptures of Hope and the Uncertain Road Ahead

April 19, 2019

Sudan is going through uncertain and also promising times. The horizon looks bright and pregnant with hope. The military council and Sudanese people have to be cautious, decisive and maintain peace.
A Sudanese protester flashes the victory sign painted in the colours of the national flag during a rally outside the army complex in Sudan's capital Khartoum on April 18, 2019. Getty Images

Sudan is going through decisive and uncertain times: on Thursday April 11, 2019 the military toppled the regime of Omar Al-Bashir and installed a military council to govern the Eastern African nation; within 24 hours of the coup d’ etat, the head of the military council Ahmed Awad ibn Ouf resigned and handed power to Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan; more interestingly, the protestors – the masses who occasioned the April 11th revolution – continue to occupy public spaces demanding a civilian transitory council to govern the nation till democratic elections take place. These are indeed interesting times for Sudan as a nation.

Public protests and the brutality of security agencies have been the norm for the last four months – the first protest taking place in the small town of Atbara in late December 2018. For four months, sporadic and incessant protests have been occurring in Sudan – and they were peaceful; women and youth being at the forefront. The regime of Omar Al-Bashir came to an end after 30 years of war (with the South), massacres, unfulfilled promises and a rule with a fist hand. The country’s economy has been ailing for a long time – inflation skyrocketing. And when the protests that began in small towns like Atbara spread to Khartoum, it was apparent that the regime of Omar Al-Bashir lost all political legitimacy and public confidence.

Sudan’s history of revolutions – and power usurping military

Since gaining independence from Great Britain, Sudan had two revolutions and subsequent military take-overs that squashed any hopes of full civilian-democratic governance on both occasions. It is understandable that the protestors were not only satisfied with the toppling of Omar Al-Bashir’s regime but also rejected any form of military take-over or tutelage during the transition period. Moments after the coup d’etat against Al-Bashir, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) – the largest and most efficient organizer of protests in the capital city Khartoum – called on people to ‘‘guard the revolution’’ and reject the newly announced military council.

When the protests that began in small towns like Atbara spread Khartoum, it was apparent that the regime of Omar Al-Bashir lost all political legitimacy and public confidence in Sudan.

Sudan’s first revolution is the October 1964 revolution. This revolution toppled the regime of General Ibrahim Abboud, the nation’s first “strong-man.” After gaining independence, Sudan had two challenges: a powerful military structure/class that was inherited from colonial Britain (and that was unwilling to yield power to a civilian government); and what was perceived as the ‘‘southern problem’’ – the south of the country being a Christian majority that wanted to secede compared to the Arabanized African Muslims of the north. Hence General Abboud waged a costly war against the rebels in the southern parts of Sudan.

The weak economy could not sustain the military campaigns in the south – professionals and student unions were against the war. University students held discussions on the so called ‘‘Southern problem’’ and opposed the military regime initiatives in the south. Thousands of internally displaced refugees arrived from southern Sudan into Khartoum. Anti-military regime demonstrations organized by student unions intensified and put pressure on the government. Demonstrations quickly spread to Omdurman, Juba and Port Sudan. General Abboud dissolved his military government on 26 October 1964, forming a transitory military council of which he was the chairman and retained the position as Head of State. Student demonstrations and public protests continued and intensified, and General Abboud resigned on 15 November 1964 – bringing down Sudan’s first military leader.

Sudan’s second revolution occurred in 1985 and ultimately catapulted Omar Al-Bashir to power in the 1989 military coup. The then (1985) president Jaafar Nimeiry had come to power earlier in the 1969 coup d’etat against a civilian government. The ‘‘Southern problem’’ was unsolved and the military regime had blood on its hand after numerous wars in the South throughout the 70s and early 80s. President Nimeiry sensing a dwindling political legitimacy invited Islamist political parties to his government so as to strengthen his position. In 1983, he declared Sharia as the basis of the Sudanese legal system – further alienating the Christian majority south. The secession war in the south intensified and economically burdened the military regime in Khartoum.

In 1985 discontent with the government climaxed. High inflation coupled with a rising food, transport and gasoline prices, ignited anti-government protests in Khartoum. The anti-government protests spread throughout the country as President Nimeiry was away on a state visit to the U.S. Student unions and civil societies joined the anti-government protests and the whole country was paralysed and came to a stand-still. On 6 April, 1985, the then defence minister Swar Al-Dahad ousted president Nimeiry in yet another military coup d’etat. Sudan entered an uncertain period politically as the economy continued its underperforming. A civilian government was elected headed by Ahmad Ali Al-Mirghani, which was short-lived until Omar Al-Bashir ousted it in yet another military coup d’etat on 30 June 1989.

Sudan’s Nile Spring – and lessons from the 2011 Arab Spring

The protests in Sudan began in late December 2018 and are still ongoing. Protests were based on issues that are structural in terms of governance, the economy, civil liberties and human rights issues. The demands of protestors transcended the ousting of Omar Al-Bashir. The country has deep rooted issues and failure to tackle them will be detrimental to the very existence of Sudan as a nation and as a functioning Asabiyyah – society. After 30 years of military-police rule, a civil war and a subsequent secession of the South (South Sudan voted for independence in 2011) and genocide in the western Darfur region, clearly Sudan has to ameliorate its governance system and exorcise itself of the ‘‘demons’’ of impunity and corruption. For Sudan, at this time in history, a cathartic soul searching odyssey is inevitable.

Sudan’s economic downturn accelerated after the South voted to secede. After the new nation was established as South Sudan, all the oil fields and most agriculturally productive lands were lost to Khartoum. Sudan had lost ¾ of its oil productions that translated also to 90% of its exports and 40% of its budget expenditure. Government expenditure in social services dwindled. The economy showed no signs of improving. Youth unemployment and inflation skyrocketed. Since the 2015 elections Al-Bashir reshuffled his cabinet four times. In one dramatic incident in which foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour was sacked, he declared in parliament questionings that his ministry run out of money in its day-to-day operations. Soon, basic goods and services became too expensive for the majority. Bread and electricity were unaffordable, and protests that took place in small villages and towns were brutally suppressed by the local security services. Then in late December the situation was unbearable and mass demonstrations commenced after the Atbara protests.

After 30 years of military-police rule, a civil war and a subsequent secession of the South and genocide in the western Darfur region, clearly Sudan has to ameliorate its governance system and exorcise itself of the ‘‘demons’’ of impunity and corruption.

The impunity and brutality of security forces throughout Al-Bashir’s 30 years reign was another issue that the masses both implicitly and explicitly disapproved of. The Darfur crisis is globally renowned. In a span of a year more than 70,000 civilians lost their lives and nearly 1.8 million people were uprooted out of their homes. On the eve of the 11 April coup, most protesters were chanting ‘‘we are all Darfur’’ in solidarity with the peoples of western Sudan. Over the years Sudan had morphed into a police state: freedom of expression in the form of criticising the regime was unimaginable. During the early stages of the protests, police and plain cloth security services shoot live bullets at protesters. Hit squads run the streets and harassed protesters. Some protestors were taken from their homes never to be seen again. A BBC forensic investigation revealed a torture chamber in Khartoum where arrested protesters were held. All what was the norm in Al-Bashir’s 30 years rule was displayed and applied to the protesters. The sheer brutality of the regime (that was supposedly reserved for the Darfurians) shocked the masses – and fuelled the protests across the country.

In nearby Algeria protesters deposed the regime of Abdullaziz Bouteflika and demanded an overhaul of the whole regime and governance system. In neighbouring Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, a young and charismatic leader was reforming the brutal police state that Ethiopia was for a long time. All these regional developments motivated the hopes of the protesters. Furthermore, there were clear lessons from the 2011 Arap Spring: counter-revolution and old-guards would always pounce back at the gains of the revolution – as happened in Egypt with General Sisi. Regime change was not the long-term solution envisioned by the protesters – a good lesson from the Arab spring. The whole system must structurally change; this was why protesters continued their demonstrations even after Al-Bashir was toppled and General Awad Ibn Ouf took over power. They were not interested anymore in a power transfer or circulation amongst the military class.

With lessons learnt from the Arab Spring, the people of Sudan know that the whole system must structurally change; this was why protesters continued their demonstrations even after Al-Bashir was toppled and General Awad Ibn Ouf took over power. 

The uncertain road ahead for Sudan and its People

So far the protesters have the upper hand in post-Al-Bashir Sudan: they defied the curfew imposed by the military. The current military council has made some concessions, but fails to appease the protesters. Organizers and civil societies are adamant that only a civilian led transition can chart the path ahead for Sudan. All political prisoners have been released – this is a good sign from the current military council. However, protesters are still on the streets – the military council has to listen to their demands. The road ahead is uncertain and Sudan has to collectively take careful steps – a Libya or Syria scenario has to be avoided at all costs.

First, the military council has to dismantle, restructure and reform the security and intelligence apparatus that is left behind of Al-Bashir’s regime. The notorious and brutal National Intelligence and Security service (NISS) and the Rapid Support Forces (formerly the Janjaweed militia) has to be brought under a civilian administration. The military council has appointed a new leadership for these organs but this is not enough; its former heads have to face accountability for the crimes and brutalities committed over the years and during the protests. These security organs have to be reorganized and operate with new mantras – of service to the people and respecting human dignity. There days of operating as rogue militias must come to an end.

Second, the military council has to include protest organizers, civil societies, women, minorities and the youth into its transitory council. Post-Al-Bashir civic and political spaces have to be expanded and be inclusive for all segments of society – Sudan’s body-politics needs a breathing span to relieve itself and normalise. Women and youth played a crucial role in the protests all over the country. The image of Alaa Salah (symbolizing the Nubian warrior queens ‘‘Kandakat’’) captured the imagination of many protesters; she represents a living lady liberty in blood and flesh, not as a statue. Moreover, minorities on the margins of Sudanese society also have to be included into the transitory process. Today, Sudan ‘‘soul’’ and very existence is at stake, only a tapestry ruling council composed of its diversity will salvage the nation.

Finally, in terms of geopolitics, the military council has to chart for itself a clear, decisive and strategic path. Over the years the MENA regions has witnessed rapid geopolitical realignments. Sudan has to tread a balanced path. Regional and global powers see a window of opportunity in the military transition period. Direct influence and indirect impact through civil societies, political parties and even employing violent actors by different power axis will be inevitable. The military council has to up its geopolitical antenna and put first the interests of the Sudanese masses – and the protesters demands. The African Union and IGAD are also watching closely the situation in Sudan. The AU cautioned the military council on the demands of the protesters. Sudan is going through uncertain and also promising times. The horizon looks bright and pregnant with hope. The military council and Sudanese people have to be cautious, decisive and maintain peace.


Abdirashid Diriye Kalmoy is a graduate student at Ibn Haldun University, Turkey. His research interests cover politics, ethnic identities, nationalism and postcolonial nation-state formations in the Horn of Africa.