Friday, 6 August 2010

Back to the... Future: Sudan in a 1990 Postscript

I was seven in 1989. I knew nothing of
Sudan, of Sadiq al Mahdi, of Bashir, even of Turabi, for I was probably playing football, watching the A-Team and listening to RunDMC. So it comes as no surprise that I do not have a memory of this time period and this void shapes the way I see the NIF/NCP: How did the new government change the civil service upon gaining control? Were people able to keep their jobs under the new NIF regime? How did they change education to suit their political and economic needs? I would ask myself throughout my research. But through my interviews, I learnt that those first few years were anything but coherent and straight-forward. Peoples’ memories were conflicting and their personal recollections painted a picture of confusion and muddling before the new government came out with its line.

This morning I have been re-reading Mansour Khalid’s book “The Government They Deserve” and the post-script is fascinating. Published in 1990, the author had just finished his book on the political elite of the country and had not expected what was to come: namely the coup of 1989 and the coming of the NIF. In Khalid’s postscript, you can really see the intense frustration with the ‘democratic’ government of Sadiq al Mahdi. People did not know what to expect from the Brigadier Bashir in those early days. Bearing in mind that Mansour Khalid was a bit of a political outsider and so his critique of Sadiq’s government is partly ideological and personal, it is nevertheless a fascinating look at the political climate at that time. Here is a (long) excerpt from the 1990 postscript:

“The future of the new government is as yet uncertain, but it will certainly have to face a number of grave problems. The coup has opened up as many questions as it supposedly answered. Foremost amongst there will be the transition back to civilian rule; an issue that was simply disregarded by the junta in their initial declarations. It is clearly not too soon to be thinking in these terms, if the lessons of the past have been learned at all, then it will have been noted by the new military regime that former Sudanese military and quasi-military governments have equally had their problems, and that engineering a satisfactory transfer of power to civil authorities has been a bugbear of all such governments. Those such as Abboud’s or Nimeiri’s, which hung on to power for too long, were eventually toppled overnight amidst popular jubilation.

What makes the present situation worse is the total administrative bankruptcy and the exhaustion of many of the institutions and organs of civil government. Worn out by corruption and disillusioned with the pathetic posturing of recent years, the people who might take the leading role in the future of civil governments, according to the new leader, had to persuaded to assume such responsibility. The 21-man strong civilian cabinet, announced on 9 Jule by General Bashir, reveals that the General was not persuasive enough. Trade Unionists and many senior civil servants who were approached to join the government refused, though a good number of them may have heaved a sigh of relief when Sadiq was removed. Incongruously while disillusionment with Sadiq’s government was universal, representatives of popular organizations continued to persuade themselves that the Sadiq-led democracy was there to stay as if all lewd and indecorous methods in which sectarian party politics were exercised were of no relevance to the way the governed judged their government.

To no-one’s surprise, therefore, the dissolution of parties and trade unions was the first step taken by the military. What follows, however, is harder to analyse. As like as not, the military may be tempted to cut corners and establish a one-party system notwithstanding the fiascos of similar top-down political organizations in the region including the Sudanese experience of the SSU. They, like some of their ilk, may also consider installing a so-called guided democracy or be wise enough to carefully prepare the ground for a return to genuine democracy in the light General Obasanjo and General Babangida in Nigeria. Sudan, to be sure, will have to devise its own democracy, but such democracy will neither be realized through a top-down politicization process, not through the edicts of self-proclaimed national rulers who wish to dictate the fate of the nation. The new regime, nonetheless, may be hoping to achieve what the TMC had failed to achieve, that is to complete the unfinished April agenda which was frustrated by the trickery of self seeking politicians, unhandy trade unionists and self-exalting army generals. But to realize that agenda the new regime needs the support of a broadly-based constituency as well as a programme of political action; not only slogans and decrees. It is not yet clear how the regime can achieve this end given the standoffish, if not hostile, attitude towards it by all organizations encompassing the national forces” (Khalid, 1990, 436).

Although it has little to do with Education, the current chapter of my thesis (which makes this diversion naughty), I found this postscript so interesting and helpful in understanding the 2010 election. In my discussions with voters, I was repeatedly told that Bashir is not as bad as what came before. I had always dismissed these sentiments, arguing that you cannot compare a three year term with a twenty year term. But maybe I am too hard on these voters. I was not around in the late eighties. Maybe the kind of frustration that Mansour Khalid writes about in this book were very strongly felt, maybe those memories cannot be dismissed offhand.

I believe the weight of history has clouded the way outsiders see this regime. We tend to imagine that the imprisonment of Turabi was a well recognized cover-up perceived by the Sudanese public at large and we perhaps romanticise the democratic period that preceded it, but re-reading literature from that period removes this weight of history. Things are a lot more complicated than we imagine, as we jump without the benefit of memories of our own. We have to take in account the late 80s if we want to understand the present period, and/or the future.


  1. Salaam Laura,
    I was searching Google and I come a cross your blogs about Sudan. I am from Sudan and I live in US. I find your blog interesting and informative. I wanted to let you know I did enjoy reading some of your blogs. Keep the Good work.

  2. Thanks Ali for your comment. Do you have a blog too? I am always looking for other blogs about sudan. Let me know!