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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Sudan’s painful struggle for democracy

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. Welcome to this, my first podcast of 2022. In this edition, we’re looking at the situation in Sudan. This week, Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan’s prime minister, resigned. He was the civilian face of a military-dominated government that has promised to turn Sudan into a democracy. Now, the country’s political future is once again in the balance. Large demonstrations are a regular occurrence on the streets of the capital, Khartoum. The economy is in deep trouble, with inflation rampant, and outside powers fear the emergence of another failed state in Africa. My guests this week are the London-based journalist Yousra Elbagir and Muzan Alneel, a writer based in Sudan who is herself a regular participant in the pro-democracy street protests. So, what lies ahead for Sudan?

To understand the roots of the current conflict, you have to go back to 2019 and the overthrow of Sudan’s longstanding dictator and military ruler, Omar al-Bashir.

News report
I asked the (inaudible) defence minister and the head of the, the chairman of the Supreme Committee. I announce that the head, the former head of the regime has been removed and is in (inaudible) place. I answer the formation of a transitional military council that will manage the matters within, during the period of two years.

Gideon Rachman
Bashir’s overthrow was prompted by mass demonstrations and unrest. In its aftermath, the Sudanese military promised to oversee a transition to civilian rule. But clashes between the military and civilian demonstrators continued even after Bashir’s removal, with at least 100 people murdered on the streets of Khartoum in one incident in June 2019, an event some Sudanese compared to the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989.

News report
This was the peaceful protest that managed to topple one of Africa’s most brutal dictators, Omar al-Bashir. For weeks, Sudan’s youth occupied the capital, Khartoum, but in the end, they were met with blood and bullets.

Gideon Rachman
Shortly afterwards, Abdalla Hamdok, a former UN official and technocrat, was appointed prime minister. His agenda was to calm the country, stabilise the economy and prepare the way for elections, as well as to restore Sudan’s international standing. And he had some successes. Sudan was removed from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that also involved the poverty-stricken country paying the US hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. But in October, Hamdok was overthrown by a military coup, the 17th such coup to take place in Sudan since the country’s independence in 1956.

News report
Just within the past few hours, the head of the armed forces dissolved the joint military civilian government, declared a state of emergency and announced elections for 2023. He spoke after Sudan’s information ministry announced that the prime minister, cabinet members and other civilian government officials have been placed under arrest. Prime minister’s whereabouts unknown.

Gideon Rachman
The military intervention prompted further street protests, which were met with more violence. A month after the coup, Hamdok was reinstated as prime minister and he promised to work with the military to stabilise the country and eventually get to elections. But now he’s resigned, raising new questions about the future. I started the discussion with Yousra Elbagir and Muzan Alneel by asking Muzan about how Hamdok’s resignation had affected the mood in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.

Muzan Alneel
The resignation of Hamdok, when you think about the situation on the ground, it actually had minimal effect. The people on the streets, their main slogan was always no negotiation, no partnership and no legitimacy for the military. That did not change when Hamdok signed his agreement on November 21st with the military, and there was no reason for it to change after he resigned. Actually, he was being called the secretary of the coup by the people since he signed the agreement. I haven’t seen even any changes for the schedule of the protest that are scheduled for the coming weeks or any sign that the resistance committees are a factor in this and change in their approach towards the existing coup government. It’s still the same government for them.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, obviously you have very little sympathy with Hamdok, but how do you interpret his decision to step down? Do you think it was simply a reaction to pressure from the streets? Or do you think he was genuinely trying to broker some kind of agreement and just couldn’t do it?

Muzan Alneel
Well, if we listen to what he said in his resignation speech, he said he resigned because he was not able to get the different political parties to some sort of concession or an agreement of some kind. And he believes that this lack of concession, according to his speech, is what led to the continuous bloodshed. And this is the approach in analysing the political scene and taking decisions that got us to this point, right? It’s that an elitist government that puts concessions between elitist groups and political parties above what the streets are saying. It does not seem like the situation in the streets have factored much in his decision.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, Yousra, taking a few steps back, obviously, a long period of dictatorship and a military rule appeared to have come to a close three years ago with the fall of the al-Bashir government. What’s happened since then with efforts to establish a democracy?

Yousra Elbagir
I think “appeared” is the key word here because I think that there’s a huge difference between what is presented and what actually is happening on the ground. So even though resilient, consistent protests from late December 2018 until April 2019 are what led to the climate in which Bashir was ousted, it was his former cronies that overthrew him. So essentially his former inspector general, his former henchman Hemeti and other members of his security apparatus of his government came together in the presidential palace, had a long meeting and at the end of that meeting decided that he was no longer worth the trouble. And that’s why protesters who occupied the space in front of the military headquarters and the presidential guesthouse that Bashir was staying in refused to leave even after Bashir was ousted. And so what we saw was essentially an attempt to hijack the revolution that was being called for by protesters by Bashir’s former henchmen. And these are the same people who are now leading the party. After nearly two months of protesters sat in front of the military headquarters living in a protest camp, the security forces, led by this very again same men who are in Bashir’s security apparatus, brutally and violently dispersed this camp. Security forces killed more than 100 people, beat, arrested, men and women were raped to disperse what they felt was the biggest threat to the continuation of state power. And there was an internet shutdown after that. So the day that followed, there was a complete internet blackout so that these images, this evidence wouldn’t be presented for the world to see. But these images did make it online, and what we saw was horrifying. But that didn’t stop people protesting again. So even against the backdrop of a deadlock of negotiations between a transitional military authority and a coalition of civilian opposition that essentially had been out of government and out of the political arena for the entire, you know, nearly 30 years that Bashir ruled, against that backdrop of a deadlock, people went out in protest again and again. And on June 30th, completely analogue, no ability to organise online, hundreds of thousands of people, some say millions, took to the street across Sudan and called for civilian authority. And that’s what led to the power-sharing agreement that we saw in August 2019 that led to the appointment of former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. And so the civilian arm of government that we saw come into play over the last two years was essentially the work of consistent protests. It was a reluctant concession made by the military. And so when we saw the coup happen on October 25th, just, you know, less than a month when they were meant to hand over the transitional authority to the civilian arm of the government, it was no surprise, but it also felt like the civilians that were given the responsibility to usher in this transition had failed, essentially.

Gideon Rachman
And you then have this period of about three months where Hamdok is brought back and appears to be trying to kind of hold the ring, and he’s now gone. Where do you think that leaves the democratic forces in Sudan? Do you think they now have have any reason to hope that the military will actually have some kind of transition to civilian rule? Or do you think we’re now looking again at another period of military rule?

Yousra Elbagir
I think that what is possible or what we think is possible is hard to dictate because it hasn’t actually ever been executed in a way that people are trying to imagine now. So I think people are gonna consistently protest regardless of support from the international community. What we do know is that they’re not willing to settle for the status quo. And one thing I wanna highlight is that in Hamdok’s resignation speech, he cited the Juba peace agreement, an agreement that was held by the UN secretary-general as a historic achievement. He hailed It is one of the sort of main successes of his premiership that, you know, he, to quote him, he said, “It silenced the sound of the rifle and restored hope to millions of refugees.” And I think that this is a really important thing to look at because I think it’s clear, based on all the evidence provided, that the Juba peace agreement, more than anything else, served to embolden the military to carry out the coup on October 25th against the wishes of the people and against the advice of the US government, against the advice of the international community because what it did under the banner of this proposed peace and stability, it cultivated the survivalist relationship between the army and political elites from restive regions like Darfur, who are traditionally alienated by Bashir. And it meant that these leaders who are given formal federal and state political power for the first time were the first people to come out in support of the coup. And these are the people who have stood by the military, as the military have essentially said that they are gonna take over the transitional process. And while this has happened, while Hamdok has been talking about stability and that he signed this agreement in order to bring in stability, at least 130 people have been killed in West Darfur. Dozens have been wounded. Thousands have been displaced. And this is intercommunal violence that has been exacerbated by this grand and empty gesture of peace that that the Juba peace agreement ended up being. And so it’s clashes over land between different communities, but broadly a competition over political representation that was inflamed by what we are now told to believe was essentially the success of the civilian government and the transitional period. So again, I think that what we are being told democracy looks like in Sudan is completely contradictory to what’s happening on the ground, to people in Darfur, to people in the regions that are most in need of stability in the country. I mean, last week, the WFP announced it would be suspending operations across North Darfur after attacks on three of its warehouses, and that’s gonna leave close to 2m people in 2022 without the support that they need.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, Muzan, you said that the schedule of protests is going to continue, that protesters regard the resignation of the prime minister is more or less an irrelevance. But can you gauge and also I’d be interested in your own view, are they protesting because they think these are basic principles that need defending? Or do they actually still hold out hope that they can have a democratic transition of the kind that they aspire to?

Muzan Alneel
Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. People are standing for a democratic transition, but one that can actually provide them with what was the first slogans of the revolution, which was freedom, peace and justice. It was not possible realistically to provide that within the previous agreement, and that’s part of the lessons learnt from 2019. As Yousra just explained, after a massacre by the state forces, the military, the Rapid Support, the police and other factors of the state forces on June 3rd 2019, and after the people marched in hundreds of thousands all over the country in rejection of the military rule and before that took on the biggest political strike in the continent also in rejection of the military rule, after all of that took place it was the regional neighbours and the international community that decided to give the rule to the military or basically reward them for a massacre with part of the government. What people also saw over those past two years of the so-called civilian democratic transition period is that it is not realistically do-able to have the military be part of the power that is supposed to end military rule. It’s just, it doesn’t work that way. They were also able to see that we could not get back the investments that the military took over that currently and for years before that, the Ministry of Finance and the treasury had no control over and the revenue never came back to serve the people. We could not take them from under the hands of the military because the power was with the military. We also saw that the civilian government or the civilian fraction (sic) or parts or half of the government became totally dependent on international support and international funding and on aid that the scheme also condition with a lot of policies that made the situation worse for people. Hamdok in his resignation speech, actually, he talked a lot about his achievements in terms of bringing Sudan back to the international community and removing Sudan from the list of countries supporting terrorism and so on. However, on the ground that did not make people’s lives easier. Life got more expensive. Healthcare became more scarce and harder to find. Medications are not available. People are taking their kids out of school. So what people manage to see is that also those promises of the international community are empty, totally empty. They do not deliver anything, and they come in forms of messaging and propaganda to support the government that have been failing them over two years. And that’s why right now you can see that the international mediators and representatives of the United Nations and so on are basically ridiculed by the Sudanese public. There is a photo going around the Sudanese social media of the special representatives of the UN secretary-general in Sudan putting him in military uniform because that’s how people see those organisations now, they’re serving the interests of the military. Therefore, people are in the streets. They’re defending their slogans. They’re also pushed by a lot of lessons learnt about what kind of a failure internationally mediated agreements between those already in power can be. And they’re also in the streets due to some anger. There’s a lot of anger that the people have kept for two years, for justice not reached, for the victims of the massacre of the June 3rd. So you have all of those factors coming together, and it’s just the most realistic thing. And the most rational thing for Sudanese protesters to remain in the streets and even to develop new tools for them to be able to push towards the civilian rule that they’re asking for.

Gideon Rachman
Yousra, I mean, you had obviously a lot of kind of scepticism and anger towards really all international attempts at mediation. I mean, if you had to try to summarise it, I mean, who are the main actors internationally and what are they trying to achieve in particular. I guess the United States, which has, you know, at least rhetorically called for a transition to civilian rule.

Yousra Elbagir
I mean, the actors that are in play are the actors that were also in play during Bashir’s rule. So you’ve got obviously the United States, but you’ve also got the UAE, Saudi Arabia and more recently, Israel. And it’s interesting because I think that the US has essentially suspended the aid that was promised, and this has also hampered Sudan’s eligibility for the $50bn of debt relief. So in that sense, there is a tangible consequence for the coup. But again, these are impacts just like the 20 years of sanctions. These are impacts that are going to affect the average Sudanese person and will not hit the military elite, whose financial interests are well protected and well-established. And also, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have kind of washed their hands of the problem and kind of taken a step back at the time where the coup leaders were banking on their support. And I think what is frustrating is that there was a lot hanging on on Hamdok as this beacon of civilian authority, when Hamdok for the people in Sudan always represented compromise, always represented a concession that had been made in order for some sort of movement to happen. And that movement really never came in a tangible way where people felt that there was food on their table, that they could afford to buy bread, that they could afford to buy fertiliser, that they could actually sustain their living. So I mean, I think what we’ve seen over the last few years, over the last two years has been, you know, a lot of symbolic political theatre, but really no substantial enduring change. And that goes for the peace process that that did not bring stability to people in Darfur. It goes to the economic reforms that did not benefit the average Sudani person who who needs to survive and to live and to, for their wages, to actually sustain their families. It’s all these sort of very centralised grand gestures that really don’t mean anything to the people who are out there risking their lives to bring an end to military rule.

Gideon Rachman
Muzan, can you give us a sense of, aside from the politics, what it’s like just trying to live in Sudan now? Because I gather the economic situation is very parlous at the moment.

Muzan Alneel
Definitely the economic situation has been horrible for a while and has been getting worse every day. Over one year we’ve had an increase of cost of living of over 150 per cent. That’s calculated in USDs, not in the Sudanese pound, which people are making their money in regardless what its value at the time. So this is a situation that has been deteriorating for a while and it has been deteriorating at the same time that Hamdok’s government was praised by the international community for their economic policies and for their economic reforms. Those economic policies were forced on the Sudanese people by the international community. It was also forced by promises for new loans and foreign aid, and it’s very important to remember that the amount of aid that comes into the country, it’s not the majority of it that goes to the people. Most of it actually goes into creating organisations and hiring and creating the bureaucracy of the new regime. That’s where most of aid money goes. So this is the situation that we saw. There was no support for health or for education although subsidies for commodities, for strategic commodities, which includes bread and fuel, were removed with the message that this amount of money will be taken to fund the health services and the education. In reality, we just saw that it was similar to any other World Bank programme that subsidies for the people will go away because they’re for some reason too expensive. The government cannot pay for its people to eat bread. But we were supposed to pay reparations to the United States of America, the richest country in the world. Honestly, the international community’s approach toward Sudan was classist and racist at best, and that’s if I’m being polite, and economically they have killed a lot of people even more than the military have killed with weapons. More people have died out of hunger, out of not having the basic health services that are needed. That is the situation of trying to live in Sudan. People are quitting jobs because they can no longer afford the transportation from their homes to their workplaces and because they already had to move to the peripheries of the city because they can no longer afford to live next to where they work. It’s a deteriorating situation that was praised for so long by the international community that couldn’t care less for anything than opening a new space for investments.

Gideon Rachman
Sticking with the international theme for a moment, Yousra, what do you think the main outside actors and let’s say, the US and the EU, the western ones? What do you think their endgame is and how much do you think their view is coloured by fear of another failed state? Of, you know, Libya is just next door, there was, you know, an attempt at the democratic revolution there and it’s a very unstable place, do you think they fear another Libya?

Yousra Elbagir
Honestly, it feels like they’re looking for a quick fix. I think they are banking on Hamdok to be that you sort of optical illusion that things were gonna go well and that he could ensure that peace, at least on the outset, was being heralded in Sudan. Senator Chris Coons had proposed in an addition to the National Defense Authorization Act, that targeted sanctions would be put in place against members of the military elite that had been guilty of carrying out atrocities in Khartoum against protesters. The bill has passed, but I checked and I could not see that addition to the document, so it feels like this very sort of fleeting, momentary attention, you know, when there’s violence everyone’s like, oh, condemning the violence, but no substantial effort to bring about longstanding peace, longstanding stability economically, politically, socially. It feels like just another empty, you know, statement of concern here or there. And I think that the military have managed to satiate that appetite for an illusion of peace by their approach to the crackdown. So what you see with the crackdown is that instead of mass violence that we saw with the massacre in the centre of Sudan, in the capital, it’s the sort of incremental approach. So every time there’s a protest, three, five, seven protesters are killed, but you’ll find that hundreds are injured. I’ll, you know, speak to doctors and they’re telling me it’s gunshot wounds to the head, to the chest, to the neck, shoot-to-kill tactics. You know, we’ve been told that there are photos of snipers on the roofs. Doctors have shown me evidence based on the trajectory of bullets, the angle in which bullets are hitting people. So you’re seeing incredibly brutal tactics that not only hark back to Bashir’s time, but are used by the same security apparatus that Bashir himself installed. So I don’t know what it’s going to take. This is the thing that’s concerning. What will it take for the international community to intervene in a substantial way because people are dying consistently and these aren’t, you know, these are young people, these are the people who essentially we would want to see in government. We would want to see build the Sudan that people are imagining and they’re dying. And no one seems to care, to be honest, not in not in a way that matters.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
That was Yousra Elbagir, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening, and I hope you’ll be able to join us again next week.

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