Dr. Mukerrem Miftah currently serves as Assistant Professor in the Department of Policy Studies at the Ethiopian Civil Service University. With more than ten years of experience as a professor, researcher, and consultant in both Ethiopia and Turkey, Dr. Mukerrem’s academic interest and research focuses on religion and identity politics especially as it pertains to the Horn of Africa.

Horn Review:

Dr. Mukerrem, thank you for taking the time to speak to Horn Review on the topic ofpolitical transitions and national dialogues as it relates to Sudan.

To set the context, could you speak to Sudan’s promising political transition in 2019, particularly as it relates to the various interest and identity groups therein?

In Sudan several factors facilitated the eventual collapse of the expected political transition; but frankly speaking, the idea of smooth political transition is only available in theory we would never be able to find it in the actual world. In my view, the political transition in Sudan must take into account many important factors. One of them is the issue of ethnic identity. It is important to understand the relevance of ethnic identity, and the long-running ethnopolitical grievances in Sudan’s southwestern regions, Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and the BlueNile Region. It is equally important to understand the motive and claims of the various groups, political, armed, or otherwise, that claim to represent their respective people. Since their independence in 1955, there have always been questions of injustice, exploitation, and oppression in Sudan’s politics. We hear the same complaints of marginalization and exclusion, from root to branch, in Sudan’s political process today. Many of these groups believe that the political elite in Sudan, which assumed power upon independence, has always been unwilling to share power in the country’s economic and political engagements. And in my opinion, these identity crises in Sudan’s political system were snowballing for decades because they were never properly heard and addressed.
Identity politics at its core, from its genesis, growth, maturity, and functioning is entirely linked with the political aspirations, expectations, and plans of the political elite. This group’s success is entirely linked to one particular ethnic group to follow and subscribe to. Identity politics by its very natureessentially brings together society, meaning its political elites and normal citizens. Political elites cannot be politically viable unless and otherwise they specifically instrumentalize those identity markers. Many instances of intergroup conflicts tend to solidify intra-group cohesion by creating an in-group/out-group or us versus them dynamics. This type of rhetoric is powerful in sowing animosity between groups that comes significant through time because
the political elites tend to exploit the animosity to further their aspirations.
Sudan as we know it today, or the Northern part at the time, Islam was the dominant religion and the population largely considered themselves to have an Arab identity. One of the reasons that South Sudan got its independence was partly because of ethnoreligious cleavages which were left unaddressed in Sudan’s political sphere. It is widely known that Sudan’s politicians never entertained the legitimate demands of the people of South Sudan which are mainly composed of distinct Dinka, Luo, Nuer, and other ethnic groups. They primarily practiced Christianity,
specifically Protestantism and Catholicism, as well as other indigenous religious practices.
The successive regimes and military leadership, before Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir’s tenure, who ruled the country were largely ignorant of the conditions, grievances, and expectations of these ethnic groups, i.e. both of the people of the Sudan proper and South Sudan. The political transition in Sudan was headed by the country’s professional associations many of them were academics, and teachers, as well as the various professional associations, like the associations of medical and legal practitioners therein. Even though the upper echelons of the movement were spearheaded by the Sudanese professional associations, there were also partisan political groups, some with significant religious clout, others with significant influence and support from foreign actors like Egypt. Despite what some might think, Sudan has various recognized opposition groups.
An equally important factor is the inability among the existing political parties and associations to for gestrong political alliances; this is largely due to the identitarian and historic reasons I mentioned earlier. Several interest groups aspire for a strong politically viable Sudan. Unfortunately, there has never been an agreement between the groups. The political transition in Sudan failed, in part, because there was little consensus between the various groups claiming to represent the people. I think was one of the factors which led to the demise of the party; Hamdok’s eventual withdrawal from politics – though he was ideally situated to represent these civil society organizations and political parties.

these identity crises in Sudan’s political system were snowballing for decades because they were never properly heard and addressed.

For example, around five political parties claim to represent Darfur, and in many cases, they are yet to arrive at a consensus on the questions they would like to put forth, let alone the answers. The 2021 Juba agreement is one such example; the agreement establishes mechanisms through which claims of discrimination and other such injustices will be addressed. The Sudan People Liberation Front, an organization headed by Abdul Wahid, rejected the agreement.

As an additional example, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a powerful coalition of 10 parties and movements which has the support of the Sudanese Professionals Association, showed a genuine interest in having a meaningful political transition. In my view, the FFC made a tremendous effort to arrive at a solution in their dialogue with the Transitional Military Council spearheaded by Abdel Fattah alBurhan, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Shams al-Din Kabashi. In hindsight, it is clear that all parties had over-ambitious political aspirations, that were often divergent.

Although the Force for Freedom and Change showed initiative and willingness to engage the military government, the slit gap between the two entities has widened, so much so that “no negotiation, no partnership, no compromise’ seems to be their new position.

I believe the worsening economic conditions helped galvanize the protest movements which led
to the eventual ousting of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in late 2018.

The second relevant factor, apart from identity, is Sudan’s economic conditions, especially in the time that followed the secession of South Sudan. For over four decades crude oil export was the base of Sudan’s national economy, so, predictably, the economic shockwaves were significant after the succession of South Sudan in 2011. Despite attaining independence, South Sudan was also unable to forge a stable economy due to dependence on this national petroleum, which further exacerbated competition and inter-ethnic clashes.
The Sudan Republic was ultimately unable to bring about a substitute foundational economic source that would help fuel the national economy, especially given crushing western sanctions. I believe the worsening economic conditions helped galvanize the protest movements which led to the eventual ousting of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in late 2018. When it comes to Sudan and despite the absence of alternative economic source for the national economy, there are issues of identity as I have pointed out before raised by different ethnopolitical groups which, through time, gave rise to various armed groups, each fighting each other that further weakened the economy.
One of the core factors, that many tend to ignore, is the internal balance of power, particularly the influence, reach, and role of the military in Sudan. Understanding the actual operational capabilities, and long-term interests of Sudan’s military is critically important, so if one is keen to understand the power of existing networks, the history of the military in Sudan your strategy for a more meaningful political dialogue political transition could be much more nuanced otherwise its all going to be about exploitation.
The military was in power for decades since 1958/9; they wielded the power of the state, local and international economic investments, as well as paramilitary security structures that are ‘on call’. The military’s root to branch control of the state allowed them to amass huge financial resource that was, in turn, used to establish and fortify their networks; with the Egyptian military complex, for example.
Formulating a smooth political transition or finding a lasting solution for Sudan’s political future has to start with understanding the depth and intensity of the Sudanese military complex. The civilian stakeholders, organized and spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals Association, expected the military’s immediate exit out of the Sudanese political sphere; which, in my view, is unrealistic.
Recognizing the power and ambitions of the militaryin Sudan paves the way for more political strategies to come out. What kind of strategy do the civilian leaders need to adopt to take gradual steps towards democratization? Because experience shows us that over-ambitious aspirations cause imbalances and friction among the elite which trickles down to the population. However, elite consensus can be achieved through a measured and realistic approach.
To add a layer of complexity, the United States and Western Europe took away foreign aid and trade investment for three decades due to accusations that the nation harbored a top Al Qaeda leader. However, the military’s stature and the economic vibrancy, and Sudan’s geopolitical circumstances essentially make it an Arab state. Sudan’s ties with Arab states in humanitarian aid, education, development assistance, and trade investment came as a lifeline.
The largest humanitarian donor to Sudan is Saudi Arabia; the Saudi government assisted greatly with well digging, capacity building for women, education infrastructure, and such. And the United Arab Emirates also consistently helped Sudan stay afloat. So in some ways, we observe a dictatorial sort of monarchy by the leader of the National Congress Party. Bashir was allowed to lead as a monarch through the positive reinforcement of the 3 different
forms of aid and investment from Arab allies. If this was not the case, and with dwindling oil resources, Sudan would not exist as we know it.
Setting aside rampant corruption, power grabs, and dictatorship proclivities, I believe that it is within Sudan’s grasp to be a viable nation-state. On one hand, if it is not just about custodianship of the whole country, accepting the military as it is for the sake of gradual democracy is contradictory as people are ‘institutional animals’. On the other hand, however, the military controls the nation’s sociopolitical and economic affairs; it is likely to further entrench itself into power, further dimming the prospects of an eventual democracy. This marriage between the economic institutions/ activities and the military is not limited to Africa. We observe the same phenomenon in the Middle East, along with vast networks for arms and military equipment sales, human trafficking rings. In the Horn, the Eritrean government is also accused of this.

The military’s root to branch control of the state allowed them to amass huge financial resource that was, in turn, used to establish and fortify their networks; with the Egyptian military complex, for example.

Another important example is the experience of Egypt. We know that there was a democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Morsi, but eventually, domestic dissent neighboring Isreal felt that the Islamist political groups would eventually become a national threat, they subsequently supported the Egyptian military leading to the eventual coup. The United States also played a significant role; as did the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who supported the military by giving billions of dollars in financial support but also millions of dollars in military support, engineering, and intelligence. We observe the same trend in Sudan. It is fair to assume that, while openly praising
democratic values and human rights, certain Arab states prefer to have strong regional allies that do not resemble a democracy. An important lesson from the Middle East, since the Arab revolution in 2011, is that the popular desire for a democratically ruled society is not sending significant signals to monarchs in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Monarchs who do not want democracy a popular democratic system of government based on popularity.