Five days before the coup that brought the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir to an end on April 11, 2019, Muzan Alneel found herself among tens of thousands of protesters surging through the streets of Khartoum. A mechanical engineer in her early thirties, she was part of nationwide demonstrations pressing for an end to decades of repression, misrule, civil war and national isolation.
That day something extraordinary happened. Parts of the crowd broke through security lines and made it to the military headquarters building. It was a sign that the forces protecting Bashir’s regime were wavering. Within days, generals mounted a coup and one of the world’s most entrenched dictatorships was over.
Since then, under a hybrid military-civilian transition, Sudan has set about trying to repair both its deep domestic wounds and its international relations. Multi-party elections are supposed to take place in late 2022.
Yet, perhaps inevitably, revolutionary euphoria has faded among Sudan’s public. The loose coalition of forces that helped topple Bashir has fractured as economic hardship bites and as the treacherous nature of the transition becomes apparent.
“Many people who had genuine hope for positive change from this government are probably pretty disappointed by now,” says Ms Alneel, speaking 20 months after the events that brought down the dictator.
Ms Alneel worries that people’s immediate needs for health, education and jobs have been neglected as pressure from the street recedes and as the government reverts to what she considers failed economic recipes.
“What do we have right now? An economy falling apart and a government pressing for more neoliberal policies,” she says, referring to planned privatisations and the gradual removal of subsidies. “This solution is killing people; there’s an economic famine in Sudan.”
The disappointment felt by Ms Alneel and millions like her is hardly surprising given the size of the political and economic challenge.
“I knew that I was not coming to an easy job,” Abdalla Hamdok told the Financial Times in an October 2020 interview, a little over a year after he was sworn in as prime minister. A former UN economist more used to technocratic problem-solving than hardscrabble politics, Mr Hamdok has already survived a clumsy assassination attempt and must now navigate a path between high public expectations and economic reality.
The civilian prime minister must also share decision-making authority with people closely associated with the Bashir regime.
Chief among those are General Abdel Fattah Burhan, chairman of the sovereign council that is overseeing the transition, and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, whose break with Bashir in April 2019 was a turning point of the revolution. Better known as “Hemeti”, Lt Gen Hamdan, a former camel trader and warlord, is a militia commander and vice-chair of the sovereign council. Many consider him to be the most powerful man in the country.
“For the military to accept civilian power is going to take time,” says Mo Ibrahim, a prominent Sudanese-British businessman whose foundation promotes good governance in Africa. “But we will not have democracy unless we have civilian control over the military.”
Nabil Adib, a prominent human rights lawyer, says the constitutional arrangements have been messy. He regrets the failure to nominate a parliament as stipulated in the draft constitution. He also blames the Forces of Freedom and Change, the broad coalition that organised the street protests, for what he says is unnecessary squabbling.
“We were all together under the slogan of bringing down the old regime,” he says. “But it was also about establishing institutions and laws that can bring democracy to Sudan. What is going on now is some sort of populism rather than democratic leadership.”
Yet Mr Adib says there have been real achievements. He points to a more liberal atmosphere after the removal of some Islamist laws, including bans on apostasy and women travelling alone. “We must acknowledge that there is now freedom of expression and freedom of organisation, even if it is not everything we hoped for,” he says.
Osman Mirghani, a journalist, is more critical, blaming Mr Hamdok for what he calls indecisiveness. “Most of the power is still in the hands of the military,” he says. “This is not only because the military seized power but because the civilians [in government] are weak and cannot handle it.”
Despite such criticism, Mr Hamdok has put a brave face on progress. The removal in October of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism was “a game changer”, he says, that will allow Khartoum to renegotiate $60bn in debt arrears and unblock multilateral funding and foreign investment flows.
Foreign businesses are already exploring opportunities, he says, highlighting a recent memorandum of understanding with General Electric to provide power to 600,000 households and to explore investments in rural healthcare. Says Mr Hamdok: “It has been almost three decades since we have seen such important companies engage with Sudan.”
The transitional government’s most immediate problem is the ruinous state of the economy, only worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. After decades of mismanagement and the loss of three quarters of its oil reserves when South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, Sudan had already fallen from middle-income to low-income status.
But things have deteriorated further in recent months. Inflation is running at a calamitous 250 per cent and the central bank continues to print money to cover spending shortfalls. Basic food and transport is beyond the reach of many Sudanese. Bakers have taken to reducing the size of loaves rather than putting up prices.
The government accuses profiteers and saboteurs, some of whom it says are linked to the old Islamist regime, of trying to vandalise the economy and derail transition. Dollars are virtually unobtainable and the Sudanese pound is in free fall. Many businesses have closed.
Osama Daoud Abdellatif, chairman of the DAL Group, Sudan’s biggest conglomerate, says that the economic storm is battering even his business. “We are affected like every part of the economy by this huge devaluation and hyperinflation. Losses in exchange wipe out most of your profits.”
Still, Mr Daoud says that the country, endowed with large water reserves, good agricultural land and natural resources from gold to livestock, can turn things around. “We have everything. I don’t know why we are not a very rich country already,” he says. “A lot of companies are excited about coming back to Sudan. I think you will see a lot happening.”
Before that, there is the hard grind of economic stabilisation. In October, Sudan signed up to an IMF staff-monitored programme, a prerequisite for debt relief. The government has committed to curb spending and to rebuild foreign reserves that have sunk to less than one week of import cover.
In a move that will only further sap its popular support, the government has begun to remove fuel subsidies, which cost at least $2bn a year, pushing up transport and other prices further.
Mo Ibrahim says the government should do a better job explaining that those subsidies mostly benefit the small proportion of the population that owns cars and generators.
Amjed Farid, Mr Hamdok’s assistant chief of staff, says the idea is to soften the blow with direct cash payments to the most vulnerable citizens. The plan is to introduce a temporary basic income of about $5 per head per month for a substantial portion of the population, though many worry the safety net will arrive too late.
“It is natural in all revolutions that things get worse before they get better,” says Mr Farid.
As well as dealing with the economic crisis, the new government has sought to end decades of civil war. In October, it signed the so-called Juba peace agreement with the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of rebel groups, though two powerful fighting forces have refused to sign.
“That process itself has been very distracting,” says Mr Ibrahim. “It took much energy out of the government, but some reasonable progress has been made and probably we’re almost there.”
One of the problems, he says, is that former rebel groups want both a seat at the table and compensation for their people, neither of which is easy. “The government doesn’t have the money and it can’t meet all the political demands,” he says. It will take years to overcome the legacy of civil conflict, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and millions displaced, many of them still in refugee camps.
Then there is the problem faced by all revolutions: how to deal with the past. A Sudanese court has already convicted Bashir of corruption, handing him a two-year sentence. But domestic courts have not yet dealt with his alleged war crimes in Darfur, for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Much of the military is reluctant to see him tried by the ICC in a process likely to uncover the crimes of others. Few expect the former leader to be handed over.
Mr Adib, the human rights lawyer, says that is a mistake. Sudan, he says, should wash its hands of the Bashir problem. “He is complaining about mosquitoes in prison,” he says of the former dictator now imprisoned in Khartoum. “I guess there are no mosquitoes in The Hague. Let him go there.”