A nascent democracy

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readSep 13, 2020

Source : Google photo of people protesting in Sudan

Synopsis: People everywhere want freedom. They want freedom to practice their faith, to choose their government through free and fair election and free to live the way they want. Most of all they want a stake in the development of their country into a free and a fair society where all people are given a chance to prosperity. But many are denied this basic freedom that is a birthright so they protest. This is now happening in Sudan where a fresh wind of change is blowing to clear out the debris of the past misrule and dictators to usher in a new era of hope and aspirations.

Recently a news item came from Sudan that is quite astonishing. It said that the Sudanese government has delinked the state from the fundamentalist hard core Islamists that had ruled Sudan for decades using its harsh Sharia laws to oppress its people. Sudan was called the Islamic republic where the mullahs decided what laws should be implemented and what punishment should be meted out to offenders of sharia code of conduct.

I know it from my own experience when I was stationed in Sudan as the project leader of a UN funded project and had to travel to various parts of Sudan where my staff were working.

There was a war going on in the Darfur region in the west that is still going on and a big war in the south that finally seceded from Sudan to fight it out among themselves leaving nothing but a wasteland of death and destruction there. I had to get permission to go anywhere by road and had to pass through many check points where the military guards often treated my driver harshly while asking for the permission papers. They did not care for the UN although I did have diplomatic immunity but my Sudanese driver to them was a fair game. It was perhaps because of the war in Darfur and in the south.

Near Khartoum we could see an immense camp where thousands of war refugees were sheltered in make shift camps and under appalling conditions but I assumed that there were other camps like this elsewhere in Sudan that is a vast country. The fight in the south that finally seceded from Sudan was due to the oil resources there but it also was due to the fact that they were mostly Christians who did not like to be ruled under the Sharia laws so they fought long and hard to gain their independence. Now they are fighting with each other there is another story that I will skip for the time being.

All over Sudan one could feel an under current of dissatisfaction with the dictatorial Islamic government that treated people harshly and tortured people arrested over petty crimes or misdemeanor. No one was safe from them including the journalists and reporters who dared to write or speak about the terrible conditions, war or the widespread corruption in the country so they were jailed and beaten.

The self appointed president of the country was wanted by the International Criminal Court in Hague for crimes committed against the Sudanese people in violation of their human rights but the African Union protected this man so he could not be arrested anywhere except in Europe that he carefully avoided. People were angry and frustrated so they showed their anger by throwing some bombs in El Obeid where I used to stay. But it did not have the effect they desired so the bad governance continued.

But a wind of change started to blow recently meaning last year and it was spearheaded by a brave woman who spoke freely against the dictator and asked people to join her in the protest peacefully. Thousands joined her and protested throughout many parts of Sudan so the government acted harshly but it continued.

A 22 year old fearless woman started the movement to make Sudan a democracy where all could live without the rule of a despotic ruler and his sharia laws that had stifled its people for so long.

Source : Google photo of an activist leading the protest in Sudan

It’s a stunning image. A crowd of Sudanese protesters — mainly women — necks craned, phones held up to capture the moment, looks toward a young woman standing on top of a car. Her white thobe a sharp contrast against Khartoum’s evening sky, she raises her right arm as she leads the crowd in a chant, all of them echoing her words back to her. “Thowra!” the crowd shouts — Arabic for “revolution.”

For Hala Al-Karib, a Sudanese women’s rights activist with the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, the photo, taken by Lana Haroun, sums up “this moment we have been waiting for for the past 30 years.”

The Washington Post could not confirm the woman’s identity, but Al-Karib said her outfit can tell us a lot about the message she was trying to convey. (BuzzFeed and some Arabic-language news outlets have identified her as Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student.)

Her thobe, a cotton robe, is traditionally worn by professional Sudanese women in the workforce. Al-Karib said, “It’s a symbol of an identity of a working woman — a Sudanese woman that’s capable of doing anything but still appreciates her culture.”

Her large, circular gold earring is called a fedaya, Al-Karib said. “Those are the traditional earrings that my grandmother has, that all Sudanese women have,” she said. “And they pass them to their daughters.”

Video footage published on social media gives us a clearer vision of the woman’s face, showing that she has an older version of the Sudanese flag painted on her right cheek. Al-Karib speculated that she may have drawn inspiration from celebrated heroines from Sudan’s past, such as Mihera bint Abboud, a poet and warrior who led men in a fight against the Turkish-Egyptian invasion in the early 19th century, she said. ( wikipedia)

Behind the sharia rules were the hard core Islamists headed by the mullahs who insisted that their way must continue so they became the power behind the dictator. There were cement monuments of Quran and gun in the public squares everywhere and the mullahs controlled the radio and the TV broadcasts spreading their message of intolerance and fear . They were particularly harsh on the minorities of other faiths like the Syrian Christians, Coptic Christians and Hindus so many of them tried to leave Sudan.

Mullahs criticized their European dresses and asked them to dress according to Sharia rules. I met with them at their club in El Obeid and found them to be delightful people but who lived in Sudan in fear of losing their culture and identity and who saw no future for them in a country ruled so harshly by the fundamentalist Moslems.

Then came the news that the dictator had been toppled and arrested by the progressive officers of the army who had seen the deterioration of their country, the economy and its isolation from the rest of the world due to gross human right’s violations that got the attention of the International court in Hague.

Since then the army led government has announced its separation from the Islamists thus separating the State and the religions. They have also promised to hold free and fair elections in the future so I can now see the glimmer of hope in that awful country where people suffer from poverty, lack of freedom and widespread corruption.

The same thing happened in Egypt where the Islamists tried to take over the government and even elected a fundamentalist president who was hell bent on implementing the Sharia laws but was over thrown by the Army officers who saw the danger of their country going the way of Sudan and world isolation. Now the Islamists are mostly behind bars awaiting trials while others have gone hiding or making trouble in the Sinai but Egypt is safe for now where people can breathe easier now. The current government may hold a free and fair election in the future when the time is ripe.

The wind of change started to blow with the death of a fruit vendor in Tunis who burned himself to death because he was not allowed to sell a few fruits to earn a meager living for his family by the harsh dictator who ruled Tunisia. This led to widespread protests in Tunisia and soon in other countries where people also wanted their freedom. The changes came in Tunisia and Egypt and now in Sudan that President Obama hailed as the start of a whirlwind phenomenon that will sweep aside all the tyrants and dictators and bring freedom and democracy everywhere. He chose Cairo to make his first presidential address to give it the importance it deserved.

When you cross the Nile in Khartoum , you will be in Omdurman where a violent Islamist called Mahdi set up his army of illiterate but fanatic horde of rebels who called Mahdi their leader and vowed to die for him to get rid of the British occupation of Sudan. Gen. Gordon was a benevolent governor of Sudan who tried to rule without nepotism and corruption but was eventually overwhelmed by the rebels who killed him in his own palace near the Nile. He had asked for assistance from London but it came too late for him. When Gen. Kitchener arrived with troops later, he took terrible revenge for the murder of Gen. Gordon and dug out Mahdi’s bones that his troops crushed and scattered to jackals. Later Mahdi followers collected the bones again and put up a grand mausoleum in Omdurman that any one can see from a distance.

Source : Google photo of Gen. Kitchener

Mahdi had died but his successor Khalifa and his hordes were hunted down in the battle of Omdurman where thousands lay dead. They could not fight with the English troops equipped with modern weapons so died in large numbers. Kitchener stood on a hill watching the battle and later declared that “ I think we have given them a good dusting” . The Khalifa and his associates were hunted down near El Obeid and killed after which the British stayed in Sudan for another one hundred years or so. Only a decrepit railway and rotting telegraph poles still remain to remind you that the British were here.

But Gen. Kitchener and his later successors failed to curb the fundamentalists who had no love for democracy and a free society so they continued to regroup after their “dusting” and made life very hard for everybody who did not share their beliefs.

Sudan was once ruled by a Pharaoh who ruled Sudan as well as Egypt but that was a long long time ago. Over the centuries , it remained an impoverished country with very few roads or any infrastructure although there was some oil revenue coming from the wells in the south. This too stopped when the South seceded from Sudan to form their own country.

So Sudan is now deprived of its oil revenue and has remained impoverished just like before. The dictator and his sharia laws did not gain him many friends overseas so the foreign direct investment remained minimal and what was invested can be seen in the derelict factories near Meroe that the desert has started to engulf.

South of El Obeid one can see the plastic bins that the Italians had brought in for a project that failed leaving the decrepit bins in tatters. The corruption stopped a water line project to bring water to El Obeid from a distance but the pipes stopped at a distance of only 12 kms. One can still see the rusty steel pipes by the side of the road that the Yogoslavs left behind. Any other country would have long completed the last 12 kms but not Sudan.

Source : Google map of Sudan . South Sudan is now separate

There are numerous examples of this sort of abandoned or failed projects of the past in a country that still has only two paved roads , one that connects El Obeid to Khartoum and the other connecting Port Sudan with Khartoum.

A third road that was started by a company headed by the infamous Osama Bin Laden connects only Kosti to Khartoum and may have reached Ed Damer in the north by now. The south and the west still has no roads where my vehicles used to get bogged down in the deep mud during the rainy season.

Khartoum itself is a depressing city that is utterly treeless and its rigid grid like layout with dusty roads , shabby hotels and shabbier private homes do not add to the attraction in any way possible.

But poor or not, everyone longs for freedom when people can elect a representative government that will give priority to its people’s welfare first. May be that change has come to Sudan after years of stagnation. May be now for the first time people will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and get busy rebuilding their tattered economy, their infrastructure and be able to fulfill their hopes and aspirations.

I hope so and wish them well.

Please also read the chapter on Sudan in my biography here to know more about Sudan. https://storyofalifetimeofanil.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/chapter-thirteen-land-of-mahdi-sudan-1991-to-1994/

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