It’s been almost 30 years since the largely bloodless coup that brought current Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, into power. But however peaceful his ascent, the same cannot be said for his reign, and the current protests that have swept the nation are a testament to this.
It’s 11 days since the start of the protests in the northern Sudanese town of Atbara – Amnesty International reported the death toll during the first five days to be 37. While the unrest and anger show no signs of abating, the historical context is critical to understanding the difficulty in achieving the protestors’ wishes for not only Bashir’s removal, but a change in Sudan’s fortunes.
Sudan’s complex history – tribally, religiously and socially – make it different to many of its Arab and north African counterparts. My family’s story of fortune and diasporic displacement is in part a reflection of these dynamics, but our story is not unique, and can often be drawn back to a name many Sudanese are familiar with: Hassan al-Turabi.
Although Bashir led the military coup that brought him to power in 1989, the real godfather of the current system is Turabi, the head of the National Islamic Front (NIF) at the time. Turabi, the leader of Sudan’s political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, had a deeply ideological mission to prosecute: the Arabisation and Islamisation of Sudan, at all costs. It was this politicised, frankly, un-Sudanese approach to Islam and the lack of safety and future it portended that, less than two years later, would drive my parents and I out of our homeland.
My parents were city folk: part of the educated and professional class, my father an engineering lecturer with a PhD from London’s Imperial College and a my mother a successful city-based architect, both graduates of the University of Khartoum. They were part of an active and vibrant segment of society: products of a system that for a brief period of time, worked. It was this very segment of society that, once in power, the NIF immediately and systematically targeted and dismantled, understanding the threat that they posed. The middle classes – the doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers – were critical to the downfall of Sudan’s previous military leader, General Jaafar Numeiri. Turabi and Bashir wouldn’t let that happen again.
Leaders of unions, public service employees, academic staff – anyone who refused to dance to the NIF tune – was fired, threatened, disappeared. The intellectual class was disastrously drained from the nation, leaving an enfeebled public service, health sector and education system.
This brain drain led to the diaspora that I am a part of – young people who grew up outside Sudan to parents who were brought up in a country that is unrecognisable to the one that we see today. Many of us are also the people you’ll find on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, amplifying voices on the ground as much as possible, relaying information from our family WhatsApp groups, hashtagging in both our mother tongues. For many of us – for myself at least – this is personal: the current regime has squandered Sudan’s wealth and potential. It is responsible for the deaths of an unknowable number of its citizens and ultimately, destroyed the country we could have grown up safely in, and known as home.
But this story isn’t about the diaspora. This is about the nation that many of us still do call home, no matter how tenuous the physical link. Although the trigger for the current spate of protests were bread prices, the underlying frustration that has fuelled people’s anger is deeper, and much longer in the making. For many in Sudan, its current situation is virtually unliveable, with cash and fuel shortages galore, astronomical and unpredictable inflation, and basic services that sometimes do more harm than good. People don’t chant “we either live free or die like real men” and mean it, unless they’re truly desperate.
But Bashir stepping down would not be the end to the woes of the Sudanese people. The oil revenue money that hasn’t gone into social development has gone into national security, armed forces and weaponry. Bashir’s regime – split from Turabi in the early 2000s – no longer has a particularly Islamist agenda. It seems largely interested in holding on to power alone, and has the firepower to have done so effectively for almost three decades.
The question is therefore, two-fold.
Is it possible to topple Bashir? Possibly. Although the social infrastructure of previous successful popular uprisings, like the unions and professional classes, are no longer as active as in the 1980s, the grassroots movement is still powerful, especially when many feel like there is no where else to turn. Buoyed by the diaspora’s involvement and the freedom of communication through social media, Bashir’s resignation is a definite possibility.
The second and more pertinent question, however, is much more difficult to answer. How do the Sudanese people dismantle the current infrastructure of what is ostensibly a police state, and what will it take to rebuild the nation into one that can enable it to truly realise its potential?
That will take more than one article to answer, unfortunately. But unless given deep and thoughtful consideration from across Sudan’s diverse tribal, social and religious groups, the land of my birth will fall back into the same cycle it has seen since independence. Hopefully we can learn from our mistakes.