Exactly four months after former President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan was pushed out of power, and a few weeks after the military rulers and civilians signed a peace deal to thrash out the political transition, ordinary Sudanese continue to pay a heavy price. The latest known casualties were four activists brutally killed by paramilitary forces in the city of Omdurman. The victims were participating in a million-man-march in protest against the killing of five school children – who were themselves demonstrating against rising costs of living in the city of Al-Obeid, North Kordofan.
Aside from the four children killed, 60 others were wounded in the same incident. While the month of June registered some of the heaviest casualties from the Rapid Response Forces, the trigger-happy paramilitary organisation responsible for the worst of the violence, it is hard to provide exact figures — and there is no sign yet that the violence will stop, despite the agreement of a new deal between the military and protestors on 4 August.
And yet, ordinary Sudanese continue to protest. Their resilience must be commended. In the face of heightened military brutality and even during periods where the protest leaders and general populace stood to lose everything, the protest leaders have been steadfast with their demands at the negotiating table while protests have continued almost every day. The human costs have been heavy, and so are the economic and social costs borne by citizens, but what is emerging from the dynamics in Sudan is that those leading the protests and those participating in it are setting a precedent for the African continent.
Sudanese people used their power to oust an autocratic leader, and they are using the same to ensure that there is a transfer of power to civilian authorities. This doggedness demonstrates what they have learnt from their own history, and from other recent experiences in Africa — that the military cannot be trusted with power to govern.
Take Zimbabwe as an example. The military ousted former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017, a move largely welcomed by Zimbabweans, but it is clear that the military still controls civilian affairs. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, for instance, President Emerson Mnangagwa appointed Major General Sibusiso Moyo as Foreign Affairs Minister — the very same person who announced on TV that the military had taken over.
A similar script was written for Sudan when Defense Minister and Al-Bashir ally General Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced Al-Bashir has been ousted, promised civilian rule and elections, and informed Sudan and the world that he was head of the military tribunal. General Awad, many would remember, was a key actor in the commission of war crimes in Darfur under Al Bashir’s rule. The international community has now fully understood why celebrations were quickly cut short on April 11 2019 when Al Bashir was finally ousted.
But Sudan has not allowed the revolution to be co-opted. The message is clear: the core of the Bashir establishment must be replaced by civilian authorities for democracy to take root in Sudan.
From Zimbabwe to Egypt, where expectations were also high after a long serving leader was ousted. About six years after taking power through a coup in Egypt, President Sisi’s human rights record is arguably worse than that of former President Hosni Mubarak. In February this year, Egyptians ‘voted’ for constitutional amendments that will further empower the president, enabling him to extend his term in office until 2034.
This is the outcome that Sudanese protesters are trying to avoid. Their courage, determination and resilience demonstrates that they have learnt major lessons from their history and from the cosmetic transitions experienced in other countries.
More especially, the Sudanese are setting a precedent for other African countries grappling with the problem of leaders overstaying their welcome.
President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea is the world’s longest serving non-royal leader, taking power through a coup d’état in 1979. The presidents from Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, Rwanda and Uganda have served a combined total of 188 years in power. Since Cameroon’s Paul Biya came to power in 1982, France has had five Presidents and the UK seven Prime Ministers. With the exception of Eritrea, elections are organised in these countries regularly, but their leaders have mastered the art of rigging them and hanging on to power. In Uganda, members of Parliament have voted to lift the age limit of 75 years for Presidential candidates, paving the way for President Museveni to stand again for elections in 2021.
Africans, and particularly African youth, are fed up with this normalisation of dictatorships, failed promises and human rights violations. In the coming years we are likely to see more peaceful uprisings in these countries which will aim to force political transitions.
The Sudanese experience speaks to a new phenomenon that is likely to emerge on the continent. People power may become the preferred strategy used to drive dictators from office. When this happens, the military, diaspora and regional organisations will be expected to play a role in ensuring the transitions happen. The ongoing protests in Sudan also resonate with a global movement wherein from Hongkong to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, citizens are using protests to either call for the respect for human rights, economic, social and political reforms or for a change of governments who have lost touch with their people.
At this time in history, when Africa is indeed rising, the resilient Sudanese are sending a resounding message to their fellow Africans that when their moment arrives, they should not just celebrate changes in political leadership orchestrated by the military; and they should not trust military leaders to lead transitions. Protests must be sustained until there is a complete transfer of power to civilian authorities, and the military should stick with its primary role within the state and steer clear of politics.
Regional and continental institutions can help too. The African Union (AU) stepped up in Sudan, and by suspending Sudan demonstrated it still had some backbone. Often criticised for failing to adequately respond to crises situation on the continent, the role the AU played in distancing itself from the attempts by the military council to hang on to power, and in brokering negotiations between the military council and the protest leaders, has been commended by many in Sudan and across the continent. In 2017, West Africa’s regional community Ecowas played a similar role in ensuring that Gambia went through its own political transition after former President Yahya Jammeh lost elections but attempted to stay on.
Africans are rising across the continent to demand change and political reforms. They can and must learn from Sudan.
David Kode is the Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS