Sudan’s Islamist Regime: The Rise and Fall of the ‘Civilization Project’
On its 25th anniversary, what exactly has the Islamic Movement of Sudan achieved after hijacking political power illegally on 30 June, 1989? In 2014, al mashruu al-hadari “civilization project” and its grand narrative is obviously dead, admitted a senior government official. And the regime knows it. In the last few years they have completely abandoned the annual celebrations of 30 June, an indirect admission that there was no cause to celebrate.
In his first statement on 30 June 1989, the coup leader and now President Omer Hassan Ahmed Al Bashir, cited the reasons for the coup as corruption, political chaos and incompetence and the fact that the army was not supported in defending South Sudan. However, the coup plotters were in fact acting by instruction from the then all-powerful National Islamic Front (NIF) and the regime they put in place had impressive hidden agendas. Sudan would become a model for the first modern Islamic Khalifate, an ill-conceived counter-narrative to the “New World Order” that came to dominate the world following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The NIF’s civilization project was a truly universal utopia that would start at home and spread to wherever in the world Muslim communities were a majority or repressed minority. It would seek to empower likeminded radical Islamist groups across the world to organize and mobilize for taking power in their respective countries.
For that to happen, Sudan’s Islamists had to lead the way by the complete takeover of all levers of security, political and economic power in the country. Former Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, one of the masterminds of the plan, took on the command of an appropriately named “Ministry of Social Planning” meant to transform the population of Sudan into the image that NIF had conceptualized. This would be done through the injection of high doses of radical Islamist ideology into the curricula of schools, from kindergarten to universities. State controlled mass media, and compulsory training for all workers in the public sector proved quite effective in indoctrinating an increasing number of Sudanese in the Jihadist ideology of the Islamist Movement.
The brainwashing of Sudanese youth was successful. At the peak of its power in the 1990s, the regime sent thousands of young Sudanese volunteers, mostly from the NIF’s own student and youth sector, and thousands more forcibly recruited high school and university students to wage a highly celebrated Jihad campaign in South Sudan. Jihadist propaganda depicted the Southern rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A) as satanic agents of the Church, of US-led Imperialism, and of Zionism, the main obstacles to the realization of the utopia of Sudan’s modern Islamic state.
Today, dissident members of the militant youth sector of the Islamist movement are publicly wondering if 20,000 young NIF “martyrs” in the killing fields of South Sudan were used to empower the inner circles of the Islamist power to indulge in nepotism, corruption, and autocracy.
The project’s downfall
As the regime plunged into moral decay, mass atrocities and theft of public funds became commonplace. The Islamic movement that engineered its ascent to power is today a shadow of its former self. At least four political factions have split away in the last two years and set themselves up as opposition groups after repeated failed attempts to reform the movement from within.
Corruption has become state sanctioned. Today, it is difficult to distinguish between the state and the ruling party. The Islamist Movement which was meant to control both, has been reduced to a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Political chaos spread across the country, the wars that once raged in South Sudan spread to other regions in the country. Sudan’s internal conflict became internationalized. South Sudan seceded. Economically the regime adopted the harshest neoliberal policies, which rendered most of the country’s population poor. To sustain power, the regime committed mass human-rights violations. In 2009 and 2010, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued two arrest warrants against Bashir accusing him of war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide committed by Sudanese forces and their allied militia in Darfur.
Regionally Sudan became a source of instability for neighbouring countries. First it aided allied Egyptian radicals in their failed attempt to assassinate former Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in 1995. Then, only last year they recklessly backed the Seleka rebels to conquer power in neighbouring Central African Republic, an intervention that received little international censure.
Sudan’s mini-imperial ambition of the civilising project also disturbed some western powers. In its hey days, the regime opened Sudan’s borders to a variety of terrorist groups, issuing thousands of Sudanese identity and travel papers to Arab veterans of the first Afghan war. Freelance terrorist groups and individuals such as Abu Nidal and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (Carlos the Jackal) and of course Osama Bin Laden found safe haven in the country. Bin Laden was accompanied by thousands of “Arab Afghans’ who staffed his construction and agro-industrial corporations by day, but in their spare time worked to undermine their respective governments in the region. That trouble making presence was a precursor to al-Qaeda, the “data base” of shared beliefs, resources and capacities, with each unit preserving its national autonomy and yet, contributing to the common goal of reviving the Khalifate of modern times. That was in large part why Sudan became a pariah state. In 1993, Sudan was included in the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism. In October 1997, the U.S. imposed comprehensive economic, trade, and financial sanctions against Sudan.
Despite such a dismal record, how has the regime managed to retain power for 25 years?
The suppression of dissent
The 1989 coup immediately dissolved the elected parliament, banned political parties and trade unions, shut down newspapers and detained political leaders. The regime’s new political entity, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), suspended the constitution of 1985 and subsequently ruled by decrees. The second constitutional decree declared a state of emergency throughout Sudan.
These draconian measures were followed by systematic suppression of dissent designed to crush people’s identity and humanity. Bashir in a public rally in December 1989, threatened: “I vow here before you to purge from our ranks the renegades, the hirelings, enemies of the people and enemies of the armed forces…Anyone who betrays this nation does not deserve the honour of living.”
Putting the president’s words into action, the regime’s security apparatus launched an aggressive “preventive security” campaign. Its agents rounded up thousands of trade union, civil society, and political activists who in Sudan’s post independence history had twice succeeded in toppling military regimes through peaceful civil disobedience campaigns. Detainees were sent to “Ghost Houses”, unofficial detention centres and tortured simply because of what they represented in the regime’s eyes. Al Nadeem Centre, based in Cairo, was among the pioneering human rights groups to document such practices. Between 1993 and 2002, the centre treated 1324 Sudanese victims of torture. Hundreds more victims found counselling and medical treatment in the UK and elsewhere in the world.
By mid 1990s the regime had succeeded in crushing any form of civil and armed resistance in Khartoum. Thousands of civil society activists and opposition politicians left the country, and began the Diaspora resistance.
Al Tamkeen (consolidation of power)
The regime’s initial success was built on an elaborate policy of Al Tamkeen, Arabic for “consolidation of power”. The realization of the policy took various forms. One was appointing NIF members in all sectors of the state. In order to do that they had to get rid of their enemies, real or perceived ones. Such a policy could not have been implemented unless the civil service, the judiciary, the police and the army were filtered out.
The NIF was threatened by Sudan’s then professional army. In the first few months of the coup 500 army officers were dismissed. From 1989 till 2000, the NIF instituted a comprehensive change in the military structure in Sudan. They sacked approximately 4,000 officers of varying ranks. The new regime gradually dismissed thousands of civil servants, teachers, judges, engineers, medical doctors, universities professors, and workers. According to reliable research conducted by the Sudanese journalist Al Sir Sid Ahmed, published in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on 20 May 2001, that the total number of civil servants pensioned off in the 85 years from 1904 to 1989, had not exceeded 32,419, while, in the ten years from 1989 to 1999 the NIF dismissed nearly 73,640 civil servants.
Such mass dismissals were unprecedented in the country’s history. Loyal supporters were installed regardless of their skills, qualifications and experience. The largely merit-based civil service and other state institutions of Sudan were transformed into nepotistic entities.
Economic tamkeen consisted of privatizing state-owned companies at bargain prices to members or supporters of the NIF and their families and tribal clans. Sudan’s well established traditional business families and independent corporations were coerced into allowing NIF-dominated businesses a share of their sectors or risk being forced out of the market if they resisted. Islamist businesses continue to enjoy privileges that created major structural deformities in the market economy: sweeping exemptions from business taxes and customs excises, locked access to state contracts previously acquired only through public bidding, etc. To qualify for such exemptions corporations were required to make significant financial contributions to the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) and other off-budget Jihadist undertakings.
With the business appetite of ruling party officials and regime oligarchs growing to insatiable levels, the regime’s very structure changed radically over the years. From being an inner circle of a disciplined and well structured ideological party (the Islamist Movement) that controls a broad-based ruling party inclusive of other parties and constituencies (today’s National Congress Party – NCP), and through it control the government and the state, the regime metamorphosed into a power and money hungry alliance between Islamists businessmen, security, and tribal clans from the home base of the Islamists ruling elites.
This metamorphosis of the regime explains how it had managed to waste an estimated 60 billion dollars Sudan had collected from oil revenue from 1999 to 2011. Sizable portions of these public funds have funded unwinnable wars, including paying for countless proxy militias. They have also been used to line pockets of regime oligarchs. Meanwhile, major infrastructural projects, dams, highways, and bridges touted as major achievements, were predominantly realized in the least populated and productive northern riverain states. This was obviously based on calculations of political survival rather than economic feasibility. The regime borrowed heavily from China and its other allies to fund this building spree of recent years, the economic returns of which have yet to be demonstrated.
South Sudan and the Peace Agreement
The NIF has always considered the SPLM as a separatists and a racist movement that targeted Arabic and Islamic culture. They are seen as agents to the West and Israel and party to a conspiracy against Islam and the Arabs – a message that constantly propagated through the regime’s mass media. For the Islamist hardliners and those most wedded to the idea of a model Islamic state, South Sudan was an obstacle and hindrance that needed to be dominated by force at best or severed for the greater good of establishing Islamic reign. When repeated waves of Jihadist campaigns fell short of defeating the SPLA, and the war became unwinnable for either party, the Islamists must have conceded the secession of South Sudan as the cost of continuing their civilizing project in the North. The rest is history as this course of action ultimately paved the way for southern autonomy in 2005 and independence in 2011.
Other factors were at play as well. Former Special Representative to the UN Secretary General in South Sudan Hilde Johnson in her book, “Waging Peace in Sudan”, recognizes that key factors in ending the southern war in Sudan were contentious international pressure, and the events of 11 September 2001 that provided Khartoum with a “strong motivation to be seen as cooperative”.The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) also provided an opportunity for the National Congress Party (NCP) to gain new legitimacy and to consolidate its power for an expanded period stretching to the present.
The CPA could have allowed Sudan to shed its pariah state image, but this was not to happen. As the regime was negotiating an end to the largest civil war in Africa, Sudan cracked down on a small, un-strategic rebellion that ignited in Darfur in 2003. The government’s disproportionate response cost 300,000 Darfuri lives by UN estimates and sent over two million displaced to camps where they continue to live to this day. The campaign contributed to the swelling of rebel ranks by thousands. The regime’s crimes in Darfur earned Bashir and other officials of the regime ICC indictments and arrest warrants, and kept Sudan firmly wedded to its pariah status quo.
Post secession, the loss of 75% of its oil revenues exacerbated the economic difficulties. Also, conflicts that the CPA managed to placate were reignited once again. In May 2011 tensions in the disputed area of Abyei brought the newly independent South Sudan to the brink of a border conflict with Sudan. CPA unfinished business also reignited war in South Kordofan in June 2011, and then Blue Nile in September 2011. Today, seven of Sudan’s 18 states are under emergency laws, and scenes of deadly wars of untold proportions.
Economically, in June 2014, Sudan total external debt stood at $43.8 billion compared to $12.9 billion in 1989. In the last 25 years the external debt increased by 240 percent. Sudan was declared ineligible to use the International Monetary Fund (IMF) resources, in 1993, the IMF suspended Sudan’s voting rights. In 1989 the official exchange rate was Ls 4.4 to $1. In 2014, the official exchange rate reached Ls 5,700 (or 5.7 SDG) to $1. The 1989 coup forced many donors, especially in the West, to suspend official assistance to Sudan. Meanwhile, Sudan’s liberalization program in the 1990s was probably the only one in the world that applied the toughest part of the IMF prescriptions according to economic observers. This led to high levels of inequality in the country. In the latest Human Development Index (HDI) report Sudan is ranked at 171 out of 187 countries, compared to 2008, when the country was ranked at 147. In reality, Sudan spent less than 2 percent of its GDP on health and education, the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa. The overall, Sudan Gross National Product plummeted to minus 10 percent in 2012, following the secession of South Sudan.
The mode of survival
The regime’s survival is heavily dependent on “securitization of politics” as the Sudanese writer Hieder Ibrahim put it, which transforms any political concern into a security matter. The security services in Sudan always employ conspiracy theories to explain any movement, discussion and protest as a form of foreign interference. The security mindset tends to ignore any personal political or humanitarian motivations. They misinterpret the causes, which leads to mistaken diagnosis that is followed by treatment which is always based on suppression and prohibition.
The various security outfits are paid generously and protected by law from any persecution. Politically the NCP successfully expanded a massive network of alliances, which will make old colonial powers jealous. The party has cemented its relationships with people of the old and new business class, some Sufi sects and tribal leaders. The patronage system also extended to include a number of political parties that joined the government at various stages. The regime replaced students, workers, and professional associations and youth organizations with those who pledged unwavering allegiance to the Islamist movement and the regime.
Meanwhile, mainstream opposition parties are weak, and further weakened by the regime through repression and co-optation. Youth groups are scattered and diverse, and to some extent politically naive. Independent civil societies are vulnerable and at the mercy of state bureaucracy, the security and donors. The Sudanese in the Diaspora remain active and reactive to the political events in their country through protests but pose no direct threat to the regime’s survival.
The armed groups affiliated with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) remain contained in very limited areas within South Kordofan, Southern Blue Nile and Darfur. The possibility of the Sudan SRF attacking the centre of power in Khartoum is potential but would be a suicidal mission. They have successfully repelled the regime’s increasingly fierce dry season offensives. But they have yet to come up with a coherent and persuasive political program that would appeal to populations in central northern Sudan conditioned by two decades of regime’s propaganda to view rebels as alien savages. Without evidence of effective political discourse and responsible governance practices to back it, the SRF rebels stand little chance of gaining support for their cause among inhabitants of the heartlands of Sudan. The end result is growing polarization and separation among war affected populations that spells further breakdown of the country.
A youth Leader, from Sudan Change Now told SDFG: “The past twenty five years have witnessed the bloodiest chapters in Sudan’s history.” Indeed the promise of an Islamic utopia has turned into an Islamic dystopia. Most of the promises of the 1989 coup, in relation to economic, governance, peace and corruption achieved the opposite. Since 1989, it was well documented that the regime has never tolerated any anti-regime peaceful demonstrations. The regime’s only response to the insurgencies raging in marginalized regions has been outright brutal military response with the intention of crushing entire populations into collective submission. The predictable result is further fragmentation as new generations come of age under a cloud of aerial bombing and deadly ground attacks. In central northern urban centres that are closer to Khartoum, the regime also resorted to naked force in response to peaceful protests, killing more than 200 protesters in September 2013, mostly teenagers.
With the rise in the tide of vocal and quiet protests, the regime attempted in 2014 to reinvent itself through the national dialogue processes. But fear of change turned the call for national dialogue into an empty slogan rather than a real and genuine political process meant to extract the country from the quagmires into which the Islamists had driven it. All the lofty promises of making peace and lifting restrictions on basic freedoms that were announced in January and April 2014 were clearly abandoned. Old habits die hard, the regime maintains its control on freedom of expression, and association. This includes confiscating record numbers of newspapers for any hint of criticism, and in the latest attack on civil society, closing down on 24 June, Salmmah Women’sResourceCentre, one of the last independent women groups. Despite the promises to release all “political detainees” arbitrary arrest continues observed Human Rights Watch. While, the regime maintains its indiscriminate bombardments in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, a recent Amnesty Intentional report described the intense bombardments as war crimes.
Ultimately, the starkest evidence of the utter failure of the civilising project is the regime’s loss of religious and moral legitimacy in the eyes of some dissidents from the Islamic movement who were among the veteran architects of that project and have dedicated their entire lives to it. This demise of the project notwithstanding, propaganda for it continues to this day in the curricula of public education in Sudan and in its government-controlled mass media, by bureaucratic fiat and self-propulsion. Salafist and radical Islamist groups have cropped up that the regime cynically tolerates while reporting on their activities to intelligence agencies across the world. A regime that continues to terrorize entire populations at home has thus worked hard to earn the label of a trusted ally in the fight against international terrorism, another weapon in its survival toolkit.