Charges of genocide and crimes against humanity couldn’t topple him, but a rise in the price of bread eventually spelt the endby Nesrine Malik / March 3, 2020 / Leave a comment
A year after the Sudanese revolution, and the ghosts of the dead haunt the city. Since the dramatic toppling of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, and the violent clearing of the main Khartoum protest site that followed, an eerie normality has settled in. Locations indelibly marked with the memory of bloodshed look prosaic. Fragments of protest murals and graffiti endure, but the rest have either been painted over or faded by the elements. Snippets of wedding song are carried on a breeze that not long ago brought the sounds of protest chants and the wails of mourners. There is a profound sense of dislocation.
The revolution began in late 2018, as economic collapse led to long queues for petrol, severe restrictions on cash withdrawals, and—what proved to be the last straw—a rise in bread prices. By early 2019, the protests that had spread across the country found a focal point at a colossal sit-in at the government’s military headquarters. Attempts to suppress the uprising forcefully only inflamed it further. Given the number of people who remained on the streets even after Bashir’s security forces shot at protestors and the death toll rose, it became clear that there were only two paths to resolution—massacre or Bashir’s departure from office.
On 11th April last year, the regime blinked. Bashir’s skill had always laid in reshuffling his inner circle into a configuration that was steadfast, supporting him through a merciless civil war in Darfur, the secession of the south, and his indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. But faced with the scale of the protests, Bashir’s coterie finally pushed him out. It was self-preservation rather than patriotism. The hope was that this would appease protesters and preserve the government power structure, continuing a Bashirism without Bashir. But it quickly became clear that the Sudanese people would not wear another military or para-military regime. After the violent dispersal of the sit-in, the new government conceded to a civilian coalition and elections to be held in late 2022.
Post-revolution transition periods are odd spaces—a sense of loss mixes with one of relief and tentative exploration of new freedoms. Most jarring is the sense of justice denied. The toll of the dead and the missing is in the thousands, but as a country moves from an authoritarian regime to a period of transition, priorities take on a brutal pragmatism. First must come stability, the holding of the centre. The faltering economy must be propped up and spiralling inflation arrested. No scores can yet be settled, the climate is too febrile. And so those who risked their lives must accept a measure of appeasement. But going about one’s business while those who raped and killed protestors and dumped their bodies in the river Nile are still in their positions feels like an abdication.
The stench of complicity is everywhere. But that is nothing new. The story of Bashir’s improbably long tenure is not just one of dictatorship and oppression, it is one of complicity. The aiding and abetting of the bourgeoisie, the affluent, and the ethnically privileged.
The torture years
Back in 1989, Sudan’s elected but chronically incompetent civilian government was overthrown in a military coup led by an army brigadier, Omar al-Bashir. The coup was backed by Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the Islamic National Front, a party of shrewd intellectuals and activists who had a history of piggybacking on to gormless military leaders to gain access to power. The new regime’s first target was the middle class: white-collar workers, civil society and union leaders, as well as members of the military establishment itself, were targeted and purged.
These were Sudan’s torture years. A primary school student in Khartoum at the time, I grew up very quickly. Phone calls in the middle of the night s-ignalled the detention of a family member. Life-saving medication was shuttled to friends and relatives in jail, only to be sent back if the guard on duty was impervious to pleas or a bribe. A black money-market law was passed, sentencing anyone caught with foreign currency to death. Six months after the coup, the execution of three young men for possession of US dollars shocked the country into submission. The day after one of the deaths was confirmed, a pupil at my school collapsed in hysterical tears during morning assembly and had to be carried out. We strained to hear as the teachers spoke in hushed tones—the man killed was the student’s relative. A failed counter coup in 1990 claimed even more lives when the rebelling officers were executed. Among them was my father’s cousin.
The regime gave its coup an idealistic name, the “Salvation Revolution,” but it was followed by a cynical campaign called “Al Tamkeen,” meaning consolidation or empowerment. The organs of civil society were systematically dismantled and purged of those ideologically opposed to the new government. Jobs disappeared, as entire institutions were shut down or had their staff replaced by incompetent loyalists. Bank floors emptied, academic departments lost teaching staff, appellants turned up in court to find that their lawyers had been detained. The charges were vague and arbitrary, all amounting to not being one of the government’s “people”: members of the Islamic National Front and their associates.
Few Sudanese who lived through these years do not have a war story. There were “ghost houses,” properties in residential areas that were dedicated to torture and intimidation, across the country. A scion of Sudan’s legal field once told me that he refused a government invitation to a legal conference that was effectively a pledge of loyalty. He was dragged out of his office and taken to a ghost house for several weeks. During that time, his diabetes medication was denied and he lost half his bodyweight. In between immersions in ice cold water, he was given only plain boiled fava beans to eat. When the guards were displeased, they spilled the beans on the floor and tied the prisoners’ hands behind their backs, forcing them to bend down and eat off the floor. Days after he was released, he shuttered his legal practice. The message was clear: no one would thrive under Bashir’s government if they didn’t submit. Those who could left the country in a massive exodus that was less of a brain drain than a haemorrhage.
Many others were not so lucky, and faced destitution or death. But as Sudan became a theatre for the Islamist government’s political adventurism, many from the old affluent classes lay low, and tried to maintain their interests without stepping on the toes of an increasingly mafia-like government.
Soon, there was a new elite in town replacing the old secular one. It even had an aesthetic—a sort of sheikh-businessman hybrid that was overtly pious. Beards became de rigueur, prompting a sarcastic taxonomy. Fuller beards were called “For My Children,” the smaller, more sheepish ones nicknamed “Let Me Live.”
The regime’s “people” were rewarded with tenure at universities, and positions in the media, the civil service and the diplomatic corps. The army became subordinated to the will of the Islamists and it too, became politicised. There was no more vocational military man, only government loyalists. Some of the ruling party members and their associates began to stealthily accumulate wealth, but for the most part, this was a period during which the government ruled by fear and suppression, rather than co-option. There simply wasn’t enough money to purchase consent.
The recklessness of the Islamists had landed the country on a terror blacklist and resulted in strict economic sanctions. It became a playground for wealthy Arab Islamists in exile. Osama bin Laden found refuge in Sudan when he was ejected from Saudi Arabia and paid the Sudanese government for vast swathes of farmland. The ruling party, riven with internal conflicts, succumbed to a feud between its Islamist and military wings. It was one that Bashir only decisively sealed in his favour by turning on his original sponsor, Hasan al-Turabi, who then spent the rest of his life in and out of political detention until his death in 2016.
Slowly, the government’s extended network became more of a source of strength. Allies were installed in sinecures that on paper were not paid significant amounts, but included top-ups awarded for political loyalty via payroll schemes. The Sudanese central electricity board, for example, ran multiple and arbitrary incentives and bonuses for its employees.
Likewise the tax system became a hustle, a shakedown. Any transaction that required a government-issued stamp, signature, or form, came with fees that became more and more creative. At one point the government was charging a “martyr fee” on top of everyday charges, supposedly to support the families of soldiers who had died in clashes around the country. This mix of slush funds, and schemes of extortion to finance the regime helped to keep the Salvation Revolution afloat, but the core survival strategy was the crushing of all dissent with brute force, often under the guise of a politically instrumentalised sharia law.
The cappuccino class
The iron fist strategy lasted until Sudan struck oil. In 1999, the country began exporting, and as the money flowed, the government acquired the resources to build ever-larger patronage networks. Without this injection of cash, Bashir’s regime would probably not have survived another 20 years. Oil money made the government’s life much easier, allowing it to pivot from high-tension, resource-draining oppression towards governance through slick co-option instead. The rise of what BBC journalist James Copnall called “the cappuccino-sipping middle classes” gave Bashir’s government a second wind. They went luxury shopping on holidays to visit relatives in the Gulf, drove expensive Japanese cars, and drank their coffees in glossy scene-y cafes across Khartoum.
During these years, the government went on a killing spree, committing atrocities across the country, but most savagely in Darfur after 2003. Reports of war crimes, human rights abuses, rape, ethnic targeting of unarmed civilians and mass killings emerged, earning Bashir a triple indictment from the ICC and high-profile condemnation worldwide. Yet none of it decisively weakened the grip of the government at home, where the regime’s survival was now underwritten by this newly-prosperous class, one that had never enjoyed such affluence before.
With more money, the government could be generous. Expats began to leave lucrative jobs in the Gulf and return to Sudan. Many who had fled persecution quietly came home and slotted into jobs in the private sector and newly-created oil companies. Opposition outfits overseas packed up, and some high-profile opposition leaders not only came back but took on ministerial positions, under the pretence of bringing about change from within. Memories of detentions and torture faded under the bright lights of Khartoum’s new restaurants and wedding halls.
The 2000s were a time of hectic reputation-laundering on the part of those who had raised the banner of opposition. In some instances, former political prisoners sat cheek by jowl with those who ordered their imprisonment—even with those who had murdered their loved ones. Offering a good living proved a more powerful stabiliser for Bashir than harsh security measures.
The religious piety could be dispensed with now that there was a new glue to hold the government and its people together—money. A grasping culture developed, with much conspicuous consumption and a construction boom in luxury homes. The rise of this class also intersected with ethnicity, to create a riverine garrison of traditionally powerful Arab tribes, who hoarded privilege as the rest of the country burned.
Sudan had several tribal fissures within the north, as well as between the broadly Arabic-speaking Muslim north, and Christian and animist south. Bashir was almost continually locked in conflict with the south of the country in a war that had raged for half a century, as well as with Darfur in the west. Estimates for the death toll in Darfur range from 100,000 to 450,000. But while ethnic conflagration was peaking in Darfur, in Khartoum the cappuccino was flowing. The elites were not about to interrupt the orgy of acquisition by challenging the government whose patronage was making them rich.
Alongside the rising middle class came a more unfamiliar breed—mini-oligarchs who amassed dynastic wealth through business partnerships with the government in infrastructure, healthcare or consumer goods. Those families with older money, predating the government, now also developed a cosy relationship with it—there was simply too much at stake. Residual frustrations were mostly about the government failing to keep up its end of the bargain to the bourgeoisie by over-taxing and over-regulating. In a memo of a meeting between one of Sudan’s leading businessmen and US officials—which saw light thanks to Wikileaks—the businessman vented his frustration at members of a government that he knew intimately, having attended the same schools and mixed in the same social circles. “Sudanese business leaders are constantly forced to cough up money for the regime,” the US official wrote in a cable to Washington, “without having any control over what the money will actually be used for.”
The two decades of conflict between the north and south of Sudan had eventually given rise to a peace agreement, and a referendum in which the south voted overwhelmingly for independence, a result Bashir was forced to accept. In 2011, the oil-producing south of the country seceded into a new independent state, South Sudan—and economic disaster struck. An oil revenue-sharing deal between the two nations was agreed, but production dwindled as infighting consumed South Sudan and the taps to the north were turned off.
The Khartoum elite was not immediately shaken out of its stupor of consumption, or turned against the regime. Instead, this class became more protectionist and inward-looking, stashing money in hard assets such as -property rather than taking a chance on entrepreneurial ventures that might grow the economy. As scarcity came to be felt, it initially only triggered new fears among the elite of those excluded from the bonanza—the tribes and ethnicities of Sudan’s peripheries, and the poor in general.
Bashir exploited the ethnic and class divides by casting the conflicts around the country as ones that would eventually creep to the capital and its satellites if he were ever removed from power. When, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the country’s poor began to riot, the original rhetoric of the Salvation Revolution—a sort of religious socialism—morphed into a form of class-based sneering towards those beneath the complacent middle classes. Bashir labelled protestors against rapidly deteriorating living conditions as “misfits” and “thugs,” framing them as hordes at the gate who would destroy prosperity and stability. It worked. The rioting poor were shot in the streets; the sort of civil opposition organisations that were later so prominent when the regime eventually fell were scarcely visible, and offered scant solidarity. And while regimes tumbled in Sudan’s northern neighbours, Egypt and Libya, in 2011 Bashir had little difficulty holding on to power. The ICC indictment became co-opted in a narrative of defiance against America and the west, boosting Bashir’s populist credentials.
It took a few years for the coffers to empty, but empty they did. As the oil petered out, so did the money required to grease Bashir’s patronage networks. Whatever funds were left in the government’s war chest also ebbed away, feeding corruption. And gradually, the middle classes relocated their anger.
By 2018-9, the economy was in dire straits. Years of sanctions combined with the final draining of the foreign currency coffers reversed the fortunes of the bourgeoisie. They now had to wait in queues for petrol, faced a battle to withdraw their salaries from banks operating under heavy government restrictions, and endured skyrocketing inflation. Adequate healthcare was impossible to secure without serious wealth, and some who had only recently been affluent succumbed to trivial medical conditions. They could not afford food, let alone cappuccinos.
And—as so often in the history of revolutions—it was the price of bread that finally lit the fuse. The BBC’s Copnall had presciently asked as early as 2015 “whether the hitherto quiescent Khartoum bourgeoisie will make apparent its dissatisfaction at its bowed circumstances.” His question was answered in 2019 when the middle classes finally joined the ranks of the destitute.
These new protestors claimed that their concerns were not about bread, or anything as vulgar as hunger, preferring to speak in the nobler language of justice. In truth, however, with penury and destitution haunting ever-more of society, class distinctions were losing some of their purchase. There was no longer much for anyone to gain from playing along with the government, and nothing much left to lose from taking to the streets against it.
The spine of Bashir’s story is that of first oppressing, and then co-opting the middle classes. The victimisation of ethnically marginalised Sudanese was underwritten by their indifference. No government survives three decades on oppression alone.
For now, the years of quietism have been forgotten in the euphoria and temporary cross-class and tribe solidarity of the revolution. Thus far Bashir has only been taken to court for minor corruption allegations, and is serving a scandalously short sentence in what is effectively a nursing home. A transitional government pledge to hand him over to the ICC was made as part of a peace agreement with rebel groups, but soon became diluted by sophistry around the meaning of “submitting” to the court, seemingly with the purpose of preventing a trial outside the country. There are too many individuals associated with Bashir still in power. It is likely that plans to hand him over to the Hague will be drowned in delays and obfuscations, and responsibility for the lives lost during his reign will never be apportioned.
There are some promising signs of meaningful change: military government has been diluted by senior civilian appointments, including the position of prime minister; there is a marked relaxation of media censorship and public order laws; there is a timetable for an electoral process that could, potentially, rid the government of stubborn military elements, should they choose to respect the results. And there is even the beginning of a judicial reckoning against those who tortured and killed political prisoners.
Yet the uneasy transitional government partnership is dogged by a lack of accountability. Within it, the army, security forces, and a militia of mercenaries jostle for power, but cannot be held responsible for the blood they spilled under the old regime.
Alongside that lingering injustice hangs another that will not speak its name: the long and silent collusion of the middle class, who for so long turned a blind eye to their fellow citizens, and only mobilised when the ruin wrought by the regime came to their door. It was this collusion that enabled the Bashir regime to spill the blood of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese in war, and preside over many more slow and grinding deaths from poverty, as it hoarded resources for itself and its chosen caste.
Counterintuitively, the success of the 2019 revolution could now hinge on the continuation of economic depression. If the transitional government can engineer enough prosperity to begin to restore the status of the middle class before the elections set for 2022, there is a risk that the co-option of the Bashir era could be renewed and repeated, and the revolutionary effort fractured. The strength of a country’s dictatorship lies in the weakness of a country’s ties. The hard lessons of the Bashir era must be learned—the enduring political transformation, for which so many gave their lives, will only come to fruition through the fostering and maintaining of Sudan’s ethnic and class solidarities.