By Gill Lusk

April 06, 2020 Khartoum Today

Gill Lusk writes about how Sudan’s astonishing Revolution has now
taken a new form: rebuilding a country devastated by 30 years of
Islamist dictatorship is just as challenging as overthrowing the old
regime.

The country may be under curfew but this is a long way from the
repression of 30 years of rule by the National Islamic Front-National
Congress Party (NIF-NCP). Indeed, this is a limitation on freedom
designed to protect life, not threaten it. For once, the world is
united in its struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Vast public celebrations are merely postponed, not prohibited for
political reasons. People still celebrate the first anniversary of the
overthrow of the hated Keizan regime, which coincides with the 35th
anniversary of the overthrow of the “May Regime” in April 1985.

Women played an active and vital role in Sudan’s Revolution of 2019.
The Keizan had ruthlessly built on existing social customs and largely
banished females to the shadows. How fitting – how revolutionary –
that so many women should emerge to defy the Islamist rulers they
sought to overthrow.

It reminded me of how many women rushed out on to the streets to
demonstrate during the momentous Intifadah which overthrew the late
President Ja’afar Nimeiri in 1985. However, by 2019, times had
changed, notwithstanding the attempts of the NCP to return the country
to an invented past. The women didn’t only protest, they didn’t only
supply other protesters with food and shelter, they went far beyond
their traditional roles and organised the sit-in alongside the men.
They sang, recited poetry, made speeches – and marched towards
security forces who were firing live ammunition. The Revolution may
have now changed in form but the women’s actions have changed Sudan
for ever. No one freed them: they liberated themselves.

Indeed, the whole Revolution was self-assembled. Although politicians
and, especially, trades and professional unions, all played a part,
the momentum and organisation –and the extraordinary energy of it all
– came from the mainly young and often female protestors. Who would
ever have imagined a sit-in lasting some six months, which ended only
because security forces – who have still to be named – decided to
massacre scores of youngsters in their sleep on 3 June?

Some try to blur memories of such assaults by claiming they were
committed by rogue soldiers. Yet on 5 March, the United States-based
organisation Physicians for Human Rights published a report that
includes details of the planning of a blood-bath that survivors, and
the medics who treated them, will certainly never forget.

“Peaceful!”

The brutality of the security forces contrasted starkly with the
non-violence of the protestors. Where did this tenacious adhesion to
“silmiya” (peaceful) come from? There was no tradition of Gandhian
pacifist resistance in Sudan. Moreover, for nigh on 30 years, the
NIF-NCP had subjected individuals and whole communities alike to
killing, torture, rape and other violent abuse. In Darfur, the
International Criminal Court and the US government had declared this
to constitute genocide, while government attacks on civilians in the
Nuba Mountains were genocide in everything but international name. The
people of South Sudan had been through the same nightmare until they
won independence in 2011.

It is hard to imagine such vast protests unfolding without serious
violence in Britain or anywhere else in the world. In fact, it is hard
to imagine such a coherent and cohesive revolution in any other
country (although many regimes in Africa and the Arab world have been
shaking in their shoes).

A decade earlier, demonstrations for democracy had ousted
dictatorships in both Mali and Burkina Faso. Both of these
neighbouring Sahel countries are now suffering violent conflict
generated almost entirely by jihadist militia. Both countries
previously had no such Islamist tradition. Their citizens mostly
practised a highly tolerant and peaceful form of Islam, often
Sufi-inspired. The war stems in part from Da’esh fighters fleeing
Syria and Iraq but also from militias once active in Sudan, including
in Darfur, migrating westwards and causing havoc in states from
Cameroon to Nigeria via Niger and the Central African Republic. Some
of these fighters are Sudanese, many not, but thousands received
training, and political and financial backing, from the NIF-NCP, the
money often originating in Islamist networks in the Gulf and
elsewhere.

This points to the fact that the Keizan have not gone away. The
ideology persists and so do its few but dedicated followers, even if
they have taken a huge defeat in Sudan. When people express alarm at
the idea of Sudan fragmenting, this is one of the danger zones,
perhaps THE most dangerous. The NIF-NCP was long-practised in dividing
citizens along ethnic, religious, political or regional lines. That is
an easy strategy amid the pressures of historical political and
economic disadvantage and prejudice. The victims are hundreds of
thousands of innocent civilians. The conflict in South Sudan since
2013 may serve as a warning of how politicians can exploit poverty and
ethnic rivalries to create a situation that is hard to escape from.

The need for politics

Large numbers of Sudan’s protestors, who mainly grew up under the
regime headed by Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir, have been outspoken not
only in in their criticism of politicians (nothing new in that!) but
also in their rejection of conventional politics as a whole. Their
aversion to professional politics is understandable after 30 years of
a totalitarianism that might not have happened were it nor for the
ineffectual conniving by many politicians which preceded 1989’s NIF
coup d’état.

The wonderful qualities of the Thawra – solidarity, energy,
non-violence, inclusiveness, equality, tolerance, democracy – are all
desperately needed in the “New Sudan”. Furthermore, they are all
needed for the act of building a state of “Freedom, Peace, Justice” as
the revolutionaries demanded. Nevertheless, they are necessary but not
sufficient. A state needs structures; a government needs structures;
politics itself needs structures. Until humans come up with a better
solution for democracy, that means political parties.

The globe’s first modern parties grew up as the followings of
particular leaders but usually metamorphosed gradually through shared
interests to an emphasis on shared ideas of how society should be
organised. Those ideas may well be based on interests too, for
instance, business or land-owning interests on the right or a greater
emphasis on the public good on the left. However, parties should not
be dominated by their leadership. To achieve democracy for society,
those parties themselves need by definition to be internally
democratic. That is precisely where the scepticism of Sudan’s
revolutionaries finds its mark.

Sudan’s main traditional parties (the National Umma Party, Sudan
Communist Party and Democratic Unionist Party) have not always been a
model of internal democracy. Young people have been lobbying for this
in the Umma and to a lesser extent in the DUP but a root-and-branch
review of ideas and policies is needed in all the country’s parties if
they are to avoid repeating the failures of previous democratic
periods and a corresponding return to dictatorship.

The same is true for the armed groups and their civilian wings. Their
internal lack of democracy should be seen in the context of 30 years
of war against a brutal regime and some are far more internally
accountable than others. Like the other parties, though, they all need
to review their situations in the searching light of the New Sudan.
The talks in Juba between the Sudan Revolutionary Front and the Forces
for Freedom and Change and the transitional government are reportedly
going well, with plenty of discussion, and also agreements, of real
substance. Nonetheless, there is also posturing and politicking by
some delegates on all sides. Post-revolutionary Sudan deserves better.
People are eager for a fairer society.

The Revolution was so world-shatteringly successful in part because
the protestors did not politick or posture. Anyone who sought personal
advantage was quickly neutralised – peacefully, of course, by open,
democratic debate about differences and grievances. That is the
development that needs to be maintained if Sudan is again to take its
rightful place in the panoply of nations. That also means rebuilding a
shattered economy that has been largely privatised into Islamist
hands. It also means according citizens of the marginalised areas
their full role in society, and dismantling the “deep state” so
efficiently built by the Keizan. It is a massive task but so was
removing the “immovable” regime. The Revolution was an exercise in
honesty, conviction and patience. All are amply needed now to liberate
the country fully and complete a Revolution which was a model for the
whole world.

Gill Lusk.

Gill Lusk lived and worked in Sudan from 1975 to 1987. She taught
English in Nyala and El Kamlin, then worked as a staff writer at
“Sudanow” before becoming a freelance journalist in Khartoum. In
1987-2016, she was Deputy, and later Associate, Editor of “Africa
Confidential” in London. She chairs the Society for the Study of the
Sudans, United Kingdom (SSSUK). She writes in a personal capacity