an op-ed I wrote for Al Jazeera on Sudan’s opposition
“Sudan’s opposition was once able to serve as a balance to the ruling National Congress Party and President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since leading a coup in 1989.
But today, the country’s opposition is a shadow of itself, seen by many as merely a group of parties, politicians and others seeking to further their own causes and personal gain, rather than those of the country and its people.
Sudan’s opposition ranges from traditional political parties resistant to sweeping change, to youth organisations and civic movements, to armed groups intent on overthrowing the government.
Each focuses on its own agenda, at times joining forces but with little success.
The traditional opposition parties, such as the Umma led by former Prime Minister Saddig al-Mahdi and Mohamed Osman al-Merghani’s Democratic Unionist Party still have a large support base.
But they’re being eclipsed by newer, fresher movements. In December 2013, Ghazi Salahuddin, a former stalwart of the ruling National Congress Party, defected to establish the Reform Party. And youth movements such as Sudan Change Now and Girifna are popular and growing.
And yet the traditional opposition has refused to take a hard line against the government.
After last September’s mass protests against austerity measures and price hikes, Bashir reshuffled his cabinet and declared that it was time for national reconciliation. He highlighted four issues on which to focus: “Peace, building a free political society, eliminating poverty and reviving Sudan’s national identity.”
This is a bit rich coming from the same leader who was instrumental in destroying all four during his 25-year tenure.
“Peace is the top priority, no development, political or economic, can be achieved without peace,” Bashir pledged. “We will not exclude any party from this dialogue, even the armed movements, [and] the freedom of people has to be respected.”
All fine and dandy – but did his words hold sway with the parties concerned? That’s a resounding no. The coalition of opposition groups presented a number of pre-conditions to participating in talks: Confidence rebuilding in the government, repealing the civil liberties laws, ending all armed conflicts and forming a transitional government that would establish a conference to draft a constitution, leading eventually to fair elections.
But the Umma and Hassan al-Turabi’s People’s Congress Party (PCP) – the two largest parties in the opposition – agreed to participate in the dialogue with no preconditions. So much for a united opposition.
This month, a coalition made up of 17 political parties, under the umbrella of the National Consensus Forces (NCF), announced their intent to boycott the talks. The chairman of the NCF, old-guard politician Farouk Abo Issa, reiterated in a press conference that the opposition was determined to overthrow the government, and refused to engage in talks unless they led to the dismantling of the regime.
On paper, all this back-and-forth between the opposition and the government might suggest that there could be a foundation from which change might be possible. But in reality, that’s so far from ever bearing fruit that one is forced to wonder: Why the continuing farce of talks and dialogues?
The Sudanese political scene is such a myriad of egos, personality clashes, political tanglings, personal friendships and adversaries that one wonders how in the past these groups played a significant role in two successful popular revolts.
Abdelwahab el-Affendi recently touched on this aspect of Sudanese politics, recalling how “former US President Jimmy Carter… at the opening of Sudanese talks… watched in amazement as SPLA rebels and government representatives warmly greeted each [other] like old friends, leaving him to wonder, as he said, why these people were fighting in the first place”.
This familiarity is more a curse than a blessing. All the main protagonists know each other – and yet continue to play the same cat-and-mouse game. Talks, dialogues – call it what you will – the result is always the same: stalemate. Since 1989, nothing has changed: the same faces, the same unfulfilled and broken promises, the same political lies and fabricated half-truths. It’s no wonder that many aren’t holding out much hope over the national reconciliation talks. Add to that the hesitance of the main opposition parties to take a unified stance against Bashir’s NCP, and their unwillingness to give up personal goals for the good of the country, and progress appears unlikely indeed.
Meanwhile, the arbitrary arrests and detention of activists and youth continue, while the press freedomspromised by the government have been belied by more clampdowns. In March, 11 issues of newspapers were confiscated by authorities, with no reasons given. The situation in Darfur has escalated, with the number of those internally displaced estimated at more than 200,000 since the beginning of the year, with the government renewing its ground and air attacks on the civilian population.
All this is nothing new. In fact, it’s expected of the Khartoum regime. But the old-school opposition’s empty words and non-action is sounding like a broken record. Is it any wonder, then, that armed resistance is (unfortunately) being seen as a viable tool by which the government can be brought to the negotiating table on equal terms? Or that new youth movements are gaining widespread, grass-roots support?
Until the old guard realises that their methods are no longer effective against a regime that has perfected the art of using brutality, violence, corruption and degradation to remain in power, there is no future for Sudan.
To be completely rid of the traditional political parties is unrealistic, and will never happen due to their sheer size and history.
But at the same time, the traditional opposition is not allowing a viable alternative to have a place at the negotiating table. The growing and more popular youth movements need to be part of the change, and older opposition parties need to include their own youth members in the decision-making process.
After all, it was the youth who were behind the protests in the past two years, and the government clampdown on their “leaders” was the clearest signal yet that the regime saw them as the bigger threat.
Sudan’s opposition has been running on the same political hamster wheel since 1989. Now, it’s time for a change.”