Sudan: “This time it’s different”

The masses calling for democracy, pluralism and an end to corruption have learned the lessons from recent failed uprisings.

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The masses calling for democracy, pluralism and an end to corruption have also learned the lessons from recent failed uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the latest violence in the streets of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, is just the latest miserable episode in a familiar and depressing cycle in the region: peaceful protesters, yearning for freedom, being savagely beaten and killed by ruthless militia. After all, there were 14 coups between Sudanese independence in 1956 and the one that brought the unlamented Field Marshal Omar Bashir to power in 1989.

You might also expect the 50,000 people of Sudanese origin living in the UK to be downcast about events in Khartoum. They have watched as thousands of unarmed civilians have been attacked by soldiers who have invaded hospitals, raped women, looted private homes and businesses, and dumped bodies in the Nile.

Yet, they know that this time it is different. For a start, thanks to the internet and social media, young people in Sudan have a greater awareness of the outside world than their more isolated parents’ generation. The masses calling for democracy, pluralism and an end to corruption have also learned the lessons from recent failed uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. They grasp the importance of having unity and a clear message. Moreover, unlike some of the older generation of opposition politicians, they will not be bought off by the disingenuous promises of the men in uniform.

Today’s protesters understand their place in a changing society, where Sudan’s women and minorities – religious and ethnic – deserve a voice. Their leaders have proposed a coherent and responsible approach to moving from military to civilian power over the next three years. Their concerns cannot be stuffed back in the bottle, even after the savagery unleashed on them by the Transitional Military Council which ousted Bashir in April.

Nor will they be manipulated by the Jekyll-and-Hyde leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti. Having initially mingled with the crowds in April, Hemeti then led his forces on an unprovoked killing spree on 3 June, murdering more than one hundred civilians. His militia continue to patrol the streets, preying on unarmed citizens.

When I visited Darfur in 2004, at the height of the killing, I saw Hemeti’s handiwork for myself. Back then, Hemeti commanded the murderous Janjaweed militia, since rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces and absorbed into the repressive Sudanese security apparatus. Together with the Sudanese armed forces, the Janjaweed systematically destroyed Darfur’s villages inhabited by non-Arab tribes, killing more than 300,000 men and boys and raping thousands of women and girls.

I met people whom the Janjaweed had literally branded as slaves because they were ethnically black African rather than Arab. Since then, as a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan and South Sudan, I have seen evidence from reputable groups like Human Rights Watch, cataloguing Hemeti’s legacy of terror, and the ethnic cleansing in Darfur which continues to this day, although it rarely makes headlines.

The Sudanese authorities have announced that former president Bashir has been charged with corruption. But there will be no peace for millions of Sudanese without justice. Ten years ago, Bashir was indicted for genocide in Darfur by the International Criminal Court. I have met Sadiq al-Mahdi, the head of the opposition National Umma Party, and he is clear Bashir must be handed over to The Hague. There will be no credible new beginnings in Sudan while the stink of impunity hangs in the air.

Sudanese society has changed, but has the international community also evolved? Will we offer empty, appeasing words urging “all sides” to desist from using violence, thereby ignoring the fact that only one side has weapons? Will we work with our allies to use our collective leverage to apply sustained pressure on the Transitional Military Council and its foreign backers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt? Or will we continue to cling to better-the-devil-we-know diplomacy, in the name of short-term regional stability?

The Sudan emerging from the bloodshed offers the international community a chance to turn over a new leaf in its troubled relationship with the Middle East and North Africa, marred as it is by our sanctimonious lectures about human rights which are so at odds with our actions. We now have an opportunity to be less beholden to the tyrants who buy our weapons and launder their money through our financial systems. The bravery of Sudan’s protesters should be matched by a new honesty and boldness on our behalf. They deserve nothing less.

Baron Alton of Liverpool is a former Liberal Democrat member of parliament who has sat in the Lords as a crossbench peer since 1997.