Although much of the political landscape has changed in the past 25 years, many of the faces have not. Many of these political figures who are currently in their 70s and 80s, have remained at the helm of Sudanese politics from the various civil wars, successive peace agreements to the oil boom. These political figures seem unable to relinquish the power they command.
For the President, the threat of an ICC indictment hangs perilously over his head whereas for the opposition leaders it would seem like one last chance at glory; too good to pass on. This has more than anything had a disastrous effect on their parties. They are not beyond knowing the value of new blood. Not long ago al-Sadig al-Mahdi said that he would step down as head of the Umma Party; he remains its head even in exile in Egypt.
In 2013 President Bashir promised not to run for the 2015 elections, but then reversed his decision a year later. The decision was heralded by former political foe Hassan al-Turabi leader of the Popular Congress Party – further blurring the lines between parties.
Threats of incarceration and egos aside, the failure of these parties, whether in power or opposition, to cultivate a younger more invigorated generation with fresh ideas has left the old guard without anyone to take the reins. In addition, the uncertain security environment has not allowed any room for anyone outside the traditional parties to emerge as an alternative leaving Sudan’s political future dangerously uncertain.
The current fate of Sudan’s neighbours inspires little hope. Despite steps taken by the opposition and the armed forces in Paris and Addis, no one wants to see a Syria-scenario in Sudan. In September 2014 the National Consensus Forces – an alliance between the political and armed opposition groups – announced a ‘Sudan Call’ for the government to withdraw from power, and under a transitional authority to ensure policies that would increase freedom put in place. While the unity of armed groups under the Consensus Forces is a positive step away from the compartmentalisation of Sudan’s issues, it is not unlike the demand of opposition groups in Syria – so much so that al-Mahdi one of the chief architects and signatory of the ‘Sudan Call’ has warned against a Syria scenario arising from continued conflict.
But Sudan’s parties are older and well established and the proliferation of arms has yet to engulfed larger cities so Sudan will not become Syria anytime soon. In a more amiable environment Sudanese political parties have in a dynastic fashion sowed the seeds of their own demise which will through the absence of even their nominal representation pave the way for autocracy and a true manifestation of one-party politics.
This is a closer reality.
While there are those who would contest the use of the phrase one-party-rule in relation to Sudan today, one must consider not merely the number of political parties but their efficacy on the political stage.
The government needs opposition groups to present a picture of plurality and the opposition groups need the government as a rallying point to cling onto remaining constituencies. But behind the smokescreen the government has been able to co-opt its key threats into the government, sons of political rivals, erstwhile opposition groups or even armed groups – while the opposition has been publically losing ground. It is easier for the government to buy its enemies by keeping control of economy, opportunities and the military.
Beyond the political arena
The NCP’s rule has gradually dissolved the ability of political affiliation to be non-determinant on opportunity and everyday life made it increasingly difficult to remain neutral. Therefore membership or at least an affiliation to the NCP also becomes a means of survival.
The curtailment of the freedoms of assembly and association and successive clamp-downs on press freedoms mean that activists and other civil society actors are also unable to attract support as they once could in the university halls, trade unions or the press. The Islamist organisation which birthed the current ruling party is aware of the influence of organised groups, has attempted to restrict the power of these groups. Now in power that strategy is a policy.
The coming together of activists and protestors in the September 2013 demonstrations while significant garnered no political mass. There was no Tahrir Square-style coming together of different groups and the old guard was conspicuous in their absence. At a 2013 Chatham house talk al-Mahdi gave the impression that major parties were not interested in joining a national protest seeking instead to try other avenues. By staying back and not joining forces with activists and protestors these increasing diminishing parties are able to ensure that they will be the only avenue for opposition.
For more than twenty years, no event has had as much effect on Sudanese activists as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Although opposition parties and individuals alike were very much sidelined by the CPA, it did manage to open up unprecedented spaces for freedoms, enshrining in constitution rights that had been long-denied. However along with its other failures it did not lend any permanence to the space that had been carved out and after the session of the South in 2011 when the CPA no longer held any value for Khartoum, the roles of the NCP and the opposition were fossilised as we see them now: the NCP in centre stage and other parties whether in government or not, consistently 20 feet from power.
The National dialogue process which lasted a year resulted in further polarisation of the government and opposition parties. This constant yo-yoing will give neither group credibility to go forward. However it has shown – much to the opposition’s dismay that the government still very much calls the shots in what is increasingly a zero-sum game.
The main problem for the opposition is that while the NCP has evolved from a party of university Islamists on the fringes of society to have pervasive influence over politics, military and society, the ‘opposition’ parties have remained relatively the same, fossilised in leadership and paralysed by in-fighting and quickly losing the momentum to keep going. While party leaders should not bare the entire brunt of this trend, it is they and only they – whether residing in London, Cairo or elsewhere – who can put in place the mechanisms to keep the party wheels rolling in their absence; or to reinvigorate the party faithful in times of great stress instead of courting external support.
In any case those hoping for external interference in Sudanese affairs would be very disappointed; the international community has shown very little appetite for intervention, let alone a military one. Opposition would certainly be more credible and effective if they were seen to be able to keep those within their ranks faithful to the party. These parties still have a significant role to play in Sudanese politics but they will need to look internally first.