Sudan’s brave women have been the pillar of the Arab Spring style popular protests which successfully ended Omar al-Bashir’s 30 year iron-fisted rule. Women should now be at the centre of charting a new democratic, human rights and gender equality-based future for Sudan.
The iconic photo of Alaa Salah, the 22-year-old engineering and architecture student, taken by Lana Haroun, which showed her addressing protestors from the top of a car, in front of the presidential compound and army headquarters in Kharthoum, in one image captures the leading role of women in the opposition to military rule of al-Bashir.
In one of the images that went viral on social media, Salah called out: “In the name of religion, they killed us”, and the crowd of protesters called back “Revolution”. More than 70 percent of the protesters in the past years opposing the autocratic rule of al-Bashir have been women. Salah has revealed on her Twitter page that she has received death threats. She posted: “I will not bow down. My voice cannot be suppressed. Will hold Al-Bashir responsible if anything happens to me. #JusticeWillPrevail”.
Sudan’s is a terribly patriarchal society, which has marginalised, exploited and repressed women in relationships, economy and politics. The marginalisation of women’s talent, ideas and energy has in turn undermined the country’s development, productivity and social cohesion. Sudan’s public order laws strictly controls women’s freedom of association, behaviour and dress. Forced marriage routines are routine, with girls as young as 10-years old being forced into marriage, without their consent.
In the latest round of protests against al-Bashir’s leadership, saw protests hold sit-ins at the Sudan army general command in Khartoum, the capital, since April 6. Protestors have galvanised under the slogan “freedom, peace and justice”. Government security forces have killed dozens of protestors, arresting and torturing hundreds.
The new round of protests started in December last year over the sharp increase in the price of bread. The bread protests were symbolic of the collapse of the economy: the currency had collapsed, inflation was out of control, government salaries unpaid and subsidies to keep the prices of basic food affordable for ordinary citizens were withdrawn.
In mid-March, security forces killed more than 60 protesters after firing at demonstrators with rifles and shotguns. Sudan’s military should return to the barracks, and civilians should be in charge of cobbling together a democratic dispensation. Civil society organisations, including women’s, student and youth organisations, and professional associations, were at the heart of the successful protests to force al-Bashir out.
An interim government of national unity, with representatives of all political parties, regions and civil society should be stitched together, which excludes the military. Women should play leading roles in such a transition government; and in governments beyond. Sudan has an opportunity to establish a new democratic future based on respect for human rights, rule of law and ethnic and religious equality. A pillar of a new democratic dispensation must be equal rights for women in all aspects of political, cultural and economic life.
The military has been trying to not only control the transition from al-Bashir’s dictatorship, but clearly, to remain in power, whether directly or indirectly in the post-al- Bashir era. Sudan’s vice-president and defence minister, Awad Ibn Auf, on 11 April dissolved Sudan’s government, suspended its constitution, and announced that a military council would take over for a two-year transitional period, with him in charge.
However, protesters refused to accept the Awad Ibn Auf-led military council. Ibn Auf was head of military intelligence during the brutal repression in the Darfur region. Very soon, the military changed course and presented Lt General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman, the current general inspector of the armed forces, to replace Awad Ibn Auf.
Al-Bashir launched his repressive regime when he with the help of hardline Islamists ousted the late Hassan al-Turabi in 1989 and then set up an Islamic military dictatorship. Over time, he ousted his Islamic hardliners and created a security state, with him at the top, and the military ruling alongside him. Al-Bashir is facing charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, dating back to 2002, for brutalising ordinary citizens in Darfur. Holding al-Bashir and his allies accountable for abuses is a crucial step in establishing rule of law, human rights and
Omar Zein al-Abdeen, one of the top generals in the Al-Bashir regime, has voiced the military’s objection to sending Al-Bashir to The Hague for trial, saying it would leave an “an ugly mark” on the country, and insisted that the former strongman is put on trial at home. Al-Bashir should face trial at the ICC for his crimes against the people of Sudan.
A new government must established a special tribunal to investigate human rights violations, abuse and violence during al-Bashir’s 30-year rule. Those found responsible should be held accountable. Reparations should be given to those who suffered under al-Bashir.
Unless the military stand down, an inclusive government of all political groups, regions, ethnic groups and religions, are formed, Sudan faces further violent break-up. All political detainees should be immediately released. The African Union, regional and continental organisations, should for once stand with the ordinary people of Sudan, and not with the military leaders.
William Gumede is Executive Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org) and author of South Africa in BRICS, Tafelberg.