Sudanese are back on the street once more in an attempt to salvage what remains of their revolution in 2019 that brought down long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir. But they clearly underestimated the staying power of the rapacious regime and a thoroughly politicised and over-bureaucratised army that has supported al-Bashir’s brutal dictatorship for three decades. Even in 2019, the military moved swiftly to overthrow al-Bashir when he had been thoroughly weakened by the protests and his hold on power became untenable. But when it became clear that the protesters were unwilling to accept any military man as replacement for the ousted al-Bashir, the army used brute force, wide-scale murder, diplomacy and deception to cajole civilian leaders to agree to a three-year transitional government of both civilian and military leaders to 2022 when elections will be conducted. But the military never hid its intention to remain firmly in charge of the government. Like a leader of the revolution lamented in 2019 to the arrangement:
“We still have not achieved what we are fighting for… Al-Bashir is not there, but the regime itself is still there. Objective one has not been achieved. Objective two has not been achieved, which is a civilian government. It’s like having a diversion in the middle of your journey.”
The Sudanese people grudgingly accepted the arrangement while looking forward to the promised elections in 2022, moved forward by a year to 2023. But by last month however, the military had had enough. After months of tension between the military and civilian leadership, the top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on October 25, dissolved the cabinet and the make-shift joint military-civilian Sovereign Council that has been in place since the revolution in 2019 to manage the transition, declared a state of emergency and clamped all the civilian leadership, including the hapless prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, into detention. Abdel-Fattah Burhan declared that the military would now be in charge until elections can be held in July 2023.
It is not surprising that Sudan’s military was able to arrest and reverse the country’s revolution. Its ability to suffocate the country’s democratic movement is taken from the playbook of intransigent and politicised militaries that have enabled and hijacked revolutions the world over. But even in Africa, it has many examples to learn from. Since 2010, Africa has witnessed a spate of social uprising or revolutions as some would call them. But in virtually all the places where those revolutions have taken place, bar Tunisia, the revolutions have come full circle with the militaries thwarting the revolution and stepping in to reassert control. Egypt is a classical example.
Having successfully overthrown long-term ruler, Hosni Mubarak and elected a civilian ruler, Muhammed Morsi, Egyptians thought they had successfully caged the military-industrial complex that had ruled the country from inception. Although Morsi took care to retire the top echelon of the military that may threaten his rule and the country’s democracy, and promoted a relatively junior officer, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to army chief, it did not take long for the military industrial complex to rear its head again. At the earliest opportunity, El-Sisi threw Morsi out and re-established the control of the military. This time, the military made sure it gave no room for dissent and dealt with dissenters summarily. Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood that had existed in and operated on the fringes of Egyptian society from time was outlawed, its leaders and key members killed or imprisoned. Sadly, Morsi died in detention.
The staying power of the militaries and their ability to successfully stifle dissent and hijack revolutions especially in significantly Arab societies, is, in large part, due to an over-investment in the coercive apparatuses of those states by dictators and leaders who often rely on them to keep power and control over their societies. That also explains why democratization efforts have largely failed in those societies, except in Tunisia, which has a slightly different model. No wonder the prominent Africanist scholars, Michael Bratton and Nicholas van de Walle argued that the strength and disposition of the military were among the most significant determinants of the fate of democratic transitions on the African continent.
Eva Belin demonstrated in her work that nowhere else in the world do militaries enjoy such exceedingly robust expenditure at the expense of the society than in Middle Eastern and North African countries. These countries are also the biggest purchasers of arms and ammunition and have the highest percentage of their populations engaged in one arm of the security service or the other. Such robust investments continue even as those countries grapple with economic malaise, high unemployment rates and increasing poverty. Take, for instance, the year 2000. MENA countries on average, spent 6.7 percent of their GNP on defence expenditure “compared to a global average of 3.8 percent, 2.2 percent in NATO countries, 2.8 percent in non-NATO European countries, 3.3 percent in East Asia and Australasia, 4 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, and 1.6 percent in the Caribbean and in Central and Latin America.” Ditto with the percentage of citizens under arms. The average for these countries is 16.2 per thousand while other parts of the world have significantly lower percentages.
This is coupled with having very weak civil societies and associational lives, the control of the commanding heights of the economy by the state, high poverty and low literacy rates and with a culture argued to be somewhat inhospitable to democracy.
Two years ago, Sudanese protesters had hoped their revolution may not go the way of Egypt or Algeria. I have argued that maybe, the reason why revolutions in Africa are easily reversed is because they are not driven by any ideology other than discontent with the government in power. Revolutions that succeed are inevitably driven by a strong ideology that binds revolutionaries together and make them forge ahead even in the face of mortal danger, until their goals are achieved.
For now, after the deaths of hundreds or even thousands in the hands of killer soldiers, and after a brief hiatus of two years, Sudan is back to where it started in 2019.