Difficult Questions Remain for Peace and Stability in Post-Bashir Sudan

Sudanese men walk around protesters from various women's groups taking part in a march through the streets of Khartoum on May 30, 2019. (ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, at least 13 protestors were shot and killed by the Sudanese army in Khartoum. The military was responding to protests against the interim military council established after the toppling of Omar al-Bashir’s government. The movement that brought about Bashir’s ouster has created a tenuous alliance between the country’s different regional, ethnic, and political groups, including the armed groups in Darfur, Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains. This is the first time such a level of unity has existed since the colonial era in Sudan, and given the history of ethnic, religious, and regional fragmentation that followed and today’s military response, it is important that there be dialogue on the issues that can further impede stability and peace in Sudan.

The most important issue is dealing with what is left of Bashir’s regime. The vast majority of Sudanese agree on the necessity of dismantling the remnants of the government and security institutions that the Islamists established over the past three decades. Today’s attack on protestors will only strengthen this majority view. Dismantling the remnants is something that, if not carried out, will make any transition impossible, however the approaches taken in other countries where those involved in government were effectively banished should be avoided. A distinction should in this regard be drawn between those who were ideologically affiliated with Bashir’s regime or were promoting and implementing its agenda, and those who were working as civil servants carrying out their duties as such. It is the former group that should be banished.

Given how Bashir ruled and the actions of the military today, the majority of Sudanese also agree that the system of governance in post-Bashir Sudan should be based on fundamental freedoms. The Declaration of Freedom and Change, which was signed by the Freedom and Change Forces that led the uprising, and the chants of protesters espouse freedom as a central notion.

Achieving and respecting these declarations of freedom requires a swift and full transition to democracy. Without a democratic system, few Sudanese will trust that the future state will not, at some point, arbitrarily interfere with their choices, or that decisions made on a political or social system will be fully respected. A democratic system will also ease the tensions between various regions and groups—a longstanding issue in Sudan—and will provide a process through which displeasure with the government could be translated into changed policies or a new leader.

Although dismantling Bashir’s deep state and establishing democracy are extremely important, they are not sufficient to maintain unity among the Sudanese and achieve peace and stability. There are issues, including the question of identity, which are related to the nature of the Sudanese state, the recognition of differences, and the way the relationship between the capital and the peripheries—especially war-affected marginalized areas—has been structured.

At the heart of the question of identity is that, despite Sudan’s tremendous ethnic and religious diversity, the Islamic and Arab components of society have largely defined who is considered Sudanese. Those from eastern Sudan, Darfur, the Nubians of northern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and what is now southern Sudan have historically been marginalized as a result. This came to the fore recently as the Transitional Military Council suggested that sources of legislation in the country should include Sharia, and that Arabic should be the official language of the state.

The question of identity also arose in recent negotiations between the Nuba Mountains-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army and representatives from Khartoum-based Sudanese opposition groups who were in the process of forming the Freedom and Change Forces alliance. The former demanded that a clear position on the issues of identity, Sharia, and self-determination be made and included in the founding document of the alliance (the Declaration of Freedom and Change), but the latter could not do so. As a result, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement refused to join the Freedom and Change Forces.

There are also other aspects of identity beyond religion. There is the problem of linking the state to culture (riverine Sudan culture), ethnicity (dominance of the state by certain ethnic groups), and region (dominance of the state by elites from central Sudan). It is necessary that these other aspects be recognized so that it becomes possible to construct or adopt comprehensive political and constitutional measures to address them. A good example is the practice in other countries of using African indigenous languages as a medium of instruction and communication in government institutions. A starting point in Sudan would be to ensure that discussions focus on creating an impartial state that does not adopt a single identity to the exclusion of the other Sudanese identities.

A related issue is the recognition of historical grievances caused by the lack of equal or fair access to social services in the country. While groups in Sudan’s conflict-ridden areas may argue that the distribution of wealth in the country is unequal and that central elites have been extracting the resources of the peripheries for their benefit, it is also accurate to say that all of Sudan outside the center is to different degrees marginalized. Although perhaps politically untenable at this stage, an ongoing consideration in policy discussions should be the consequences of historical grievances and possible remedies and favors for certain regions.

Finally, organizing the relationship between the peripheries and the center will be one of the deepest points of disagreement. Since independence, Sudan has been a highly centralized government. This raises the question of how far efforts to constitutionally mitigate the control of the central government over the peripheries (or ending its domination) should go. Some of the questions informing discussion in this interim period are: to what extent should the periphery states be enabled to determine and control their political, economic, and cultural destinies? Should the country adopt a system that recognizes self-government or autonomy for each region or just for some regions? Should there be a federal system of government? If yes, should it be symmetric federalism or asymmetric federalism? Should the principle of self-determination be recognized and constitutionalized as in Ethiopia, particularly for the Nuba Mountains where the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has formally adopted it as one of the principles to resolve the conflict in the future?

The answer to these questions will depend largely on how the other issues will be addressed or settled. Armed and political groups from the peripheries will argue that federalism with strong and wide powers for peripheries is the most practical system of governance. If that becomes the new system, it should be designed in a way that will empower the peripheries so they could have significant control over local political decisions and economic resources. Some political organizations have been arguing that federalism is costly and could spark or strengthen secessionist tendencies.

In short, for the Sudanese to build on the fragile unity their historic uprising has created and achieve sustainable peace and stability, the aforementioned issues must be addressed. Political wisdom dictates that discussions on them start immediately, to avoid another era of fragmentation. At the very least, there should be an agreement on the mechanism or process through which solutions can be reached for them.

Nasredeen Abdulbari is a doctoral researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center. He was a lecturer in the International and Comparative Law Department, University of Khartoum, as well as a Stoffel Scholar and a Satter Fellow at Harvard Law School.