Sudan anti-putsch protests
"We have to keep fighting"

The military in Sudan has never waged war against a neighbour, but it has already staged 17 coups. Tens of thousands of people are risking their lives to oust the military by peaceful means. About a revolution that is far from over. Bernd Dorries reports from Khartoum

Of course Islam Yousef returned to the streets again when the military putsched. Just as she has repeatedly taken to the streets in recent years to fight against military rule and for more democracy. When the officers staged another coup in October, she was on her way to take her final exam at university. Shortly afterwards she joined the throng of demonstrators. The second time, on 25 October, she came straight from the office to join the hundreds of thousands demonstrating against the Sudanese military. And at least 44 of them paid for the struggle for a new country with their lives.

This has been the situation in Sudan for three years now. While some citizens across Europe and the U.S. seem a little tired of democracy, the majority in Sudan are not. Since 2018, hardly a week goes by without demonstrations for more democracy. And people are willing to pay the ultimate price. They have achieved great success, forcing the perpetual dictator Omar al-Bashir out of office and into prison. But they have also suffered setbacks, like in October, when the military staged another coup, arresting the civilian prime minister and ousting the government. "It's a long struggle," says Yousef.

Over the past few years, the Suddeutsche Zeitung has met frequently with Islam Yousef in Khartoum, or spoken to her on the phone, following her struggle for a different country. Yousef is 29 years old and has just finished her studies; despite that, she has already represented people who have suffered at the hands of the military regime in court. In May 2019, she stood in the middle of the large protest camp in front of the military headquarters, where hundreds of groups, parties and initiatives had set up their stalls: a celebration of democracy that was to be gunned down by the army a short time later. Afterwards, Yousef said the sentence she has said so often in recent: "We have to keep fighting, keep fighting."

Almost three years later, she is sitting in an office in Khartoum; the sun is about to set outside, bathing everything in an orange glow. "Back then I thought it was just about going out on the streets again and again, fighting and fighting, on and on. Today I know it's about so much more, about good leadership, about knowledge, about parties choosing good ministers. About so much."

The military has already putsched 17 times

 

She sounds exhausted, deprived of some of her illusions. Sometimes it is like that, sometimes she does consider moving to another country. Sometimes the opposite is the case, then she is sure that one day, they will overcome. Even if it is many years from now. Yousef and the many other activists in Sudan are tough fighters, but they also question themselves; they examine their actions at close quarters, as well as in a historical context.

Injured during protests against military coup in Sudan (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Injured at a demonstration against the military coup in Khartoum. "While some citizens across Europe and the U.S. seem a little tired of democracy, the majority in Sudan are not," writes Bernd Dorries. "Since 2018, hardly a week goes by without demonstrations for more democracy. And people are willing to pay the ultimate price. They have achieved great success, forcing the perpetual dictator Omar al-Bashir out of office and into prison. But they have also suffered setbacks, like in October, when the military staged another coup, arresting the civilian prime minister and ousting the government"

Sudan is a country that would not have existed without colonialism, haphazardly thrown together by the British. It is an entity with borders perceived by some as a prison, because they never joined the country voluntarily: there are the Sudanese of Arab origin from the north, who set the tone in politics and the economy, and those of African origin, who are either disadvantaged, or equally cruelly persecuted – as in the Darfur region.

The country has been independent for 65 years, during which time it has struggled to find a form of government that is fair to as many of its citizens as possible. The military has never waged war against any of its neighbours, but it has putsched 17 times. Three revolutions have seen the citizens fighting for the right to govern themselves. The two previous revolutions failed because most people did not find the civilian alternative any better.

And now, at the third attempt? "We Sudanese are not very patient," says Yousef. Looking back at Sudan as it was before 2019, her movement has achieved a lot. From an internationally outlawed terrorist state that harboured Osama bin Laden, it has become a country whose debts have been written off, that Europe and the U.S. have removed from the sanctions list. Peace has been made with some rebel groups in the country. Even the local currency temporarily stabilised to such an extent that Islam Yousef dared for the first time to issue an invoice in Sudanese pounds instead of U.S. dollars. "We have achieved a lot, but not everyone feels the impact in their daily life. Many things are getting more expensive and jobs are scarce."

Trade minister in solitary confinement

 

Many in the country were unhappy with the new government that was installed after the victory over al-Bashir. A compromise between civilians and the military. The prime minister and cabinet consisted of technocrats, politicians and democracy movement activists. They were overseen by the Sovereign Council, in which the military – led by de facto head of state General Abdel Fattah Burhan and militia leader Mohammed Hamdan Daglo – had a majority, but representatives of the revolution could also be found.

It also included activists who had been flushed straight from the streets into offices and ministries. "You can't appoint people with no qualifications, just because they are on the right side," says Yousef. She took part in a programme for Young Leaders organised by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation years ago, and learned how difficult it is to build a qualified elite in a country where the military has ruled for decades. "We thought in the beginning we could learn together," Yousef says of the activists who came to power, yet did not always do better than the regime which preceded them.

A transitional parliament provided for agreement on civil-military power. The army nominated its MPs, the civilians failed to, which is why there is still no assembly. There is strife in the democratic opposition, the tone has become harsher in recent months, and civilians in the government have threatened the military. One can understand that, says Yousef, after all, there are murderers and criminals among them. But where does it lead? "You can't tell the military every day on Facebook that you will put them in jail." On 25 October, they staged a coup. Those who had got on their nerves were thrown into prison.

He was locked up in prison, in a solitary cell, for a month, says Madani Abbas Madani. A few days ago, the military released him from solitary confinement. Now he is back in his office, apparently in good spirits. He still feels a little weak, Madani says. He does not want to say much more about it. How was he treated? "They didn't ask me a single question," Madani says. They didn't have to, because they knew what Madani had done when he was minister of trade, appointed after the fall of al-Bashir.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (photo: Marwan Ali/AP/dpa/picture alliance)
Sudan's strongman and 'de facto' head of state General Abdel Fattah Burhan: the military has never waged war against any of its neighbours, but it has putsched 17 times. Three revolutions have seen the citizens fighting for the right to govern themselves. The two previous revolutions failed because most people did not find the civilian alternative any better. The army has never had the task of protecting the country from outside attack or going to war for other reasons. It has always served the respective ruler, usually someone from its ranks, and above all, enriched itself. Exactly how great its wealth is remains a mystery

 

The army does not serve the people, but its own interests

 

Before that, Madani worked in the civil rights movement. In government, he wanted to help the citizens achieve their rights, which the coup plotters did not like. "They are afraid the opposition will put them on trial for human rights violations. But mostly they fear for the political economy." The army and militias in Sudan have never had the task of protecting the country from outside attack or going to war for other reasons. They have always served the respective ruler, usually a member of their ranks. The army does not serve the people, but their own interests, the preservation of power and the increase of their wealth. Just how great this wealth is remains an estimate.

Madani wanted to change that. As minister, he set out to track down the many companies in which the military has a stake, and for which profits it does not even pay taxes, with structures that have never been made public. "We had to delve into Ministry of Finance records and into the business register. Some companies are registered directly to the military, some to their generals." Some companies produce weapons, some drugs, some assemble cars.

Madani says he drew up a list of 250 companies, which he discussed with the prime minister and the generals. The goal: to bring the companies back into state ownership or turn them into joint-stock companies. A public-private partnership and other models were also conceivable, he said. "In the meetings, the military said: OK, no problem, we don't need the companies, we'll give them back. But all they gave away was a gold mine that was making losses."

Madani can only tell this story because the military was forced – partly as a result of international pressure – into a compromise with members of the civilian government who had previously held office. General Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok agreed that many things would return to the way they were before the coup, that the prime minister would be allowed to return to office and appoint ministers. However, the soldiers had used the intervening time to fill many of the posts with their favourites, which is why Hamdok is losing support among his supporters and is even considered a traitor by some. "We don't negotiate with the military," says ex-minister Madani. "Any transition can only be led by civilians. This is the call of the street; we cannot ignore it."

It is the call of the tens of thousands of protesters who are again taking to the streets every week, for whom the concessions are not enough. They believe the military will not give up power willingly. Elections are supposed to take place in 2023. It is possible that members of the militia or even the generals could stand for office.

The struggle will continue, says Islam Yousef. It will continue in the streets, but also in the institutions. It is about training political leaders, about putting the right people in the right place next time. There is no lack of political parties in Sudan, says Yousef, but there are few competent ones. She is always being asked, she says, why she doesn't start her own movement. "I am thinking about it," she says.

Bernd Dorries

© Suddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2021

More on this topic