Why the Sudanese leader is a hero not a villain for nurturing the progressive forces that removed him
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Finally prolonged popular protests have brought down the 30 years long rule of Sudanese president, Gen. Omar Al Bashir. This was inspiring news for the Ugandan opposition who wish President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 33 years now, suffers a similar fate. Sadly, these wishes are unlikely to yield anything because actions, not wishes, are what really bring down governments. Most likely Sudan may provide Museveni an opportunity to look for ways to manage future uprisings better.
Be that as it may, for those of us interested in a meaningful transition in Khartoum, there are some worrying signs. The Sudanese military, without whose support the protesters would never have removed Bashir, took over power and promised to rule for two years in order to organise a transition to a civilian administration. The protesters are suspicious, and legitimately so, of the army’s intentions. So they have remained on the streets, insisting the military hand power to a civilian government. But who selects this civilian government and how? This is a critical issue activists on social media seem indifferent to.
It is rare in human affairs to have a perfect solution. Hence, in making decision we always have to make a trade off. In this case, the choice facing Sudan is not simply to transfer power to a civilian administration but how to achieve such a goal in a reasonable way. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to risk military rule for two years than plunge the country into the unknown. The protesters on the streets are united by one thing – to see Bashir and the military leave power. Beyond that, there is little ideological or policy harmony among them, leave alone an organisation, for anyone to imagine they can be given power and it does not lead to internal quarrels and recriminations over the spoils.
Secondly, there is no evidence that the protesters represent the will of the Sudanese people as opposed to the wishes and ambitions of a few elites in Khartoum. It is possible there are many people who still identify with Bashir in Sudan, and they may constitute a majority in that country. The fact that urban protests brought down his government does not mean he lacked popular support; it could be that the protesters held the political center of gravity. Therefore, Sudan needs a transition organised by the army that ensures different competing groups organise to demonstrate their political muscle. The fear of the military later changing its mind and seeking to cling to power should not blind us to this reality.
There is a common but mistaken view that the fall of tyranny automatically leads to the triumph of democracy. Unfortunately this view is born of naïve hope rather than historical experience. All too often, the fall of a dictator has led to renewed tyranny (as in Egypt in 2014, DRC in 1997) or to chaos – as was the case of Uganda in 1979, Somalia in 1990, Liberia in 1990 and recently in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gadaffi. Rarely, as in Tunisia and Burkina Faso, have street protests produced a smooth transition of power.
There is hope Sudan is more likely to go the way of Tunisia than Libya or Somalia. The protests against Bashir were organised by that nation’s middleclass made up of professional associations including educated women, not by some primitive and violent groups organising around fanatical religious identity such as Boko Haram and Al Shabab. This is evidence of his contribution to the cultivation of democracy and enlightenment in that country.
I suspect this outcome has largely been because Bashir presided over a rapidly growing economy in Sudan. Between 1989 and 2013, Sudan was the 4th fastest growing economy in the world – at an annual rate of 8.41%. Today with a GDP of $120 billion and only 43 million people, Sudan’s economy is larger than the combined economies of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi with a population of over 100 million souls. This growth led to increased urbanisation, increased education and therefore exposure of the population. It nurtured the professionals that have led the protests. The lesson we draw from this is that a transformative leader has greater potential to precipitate his own downfall than a stagnant predator – Karl Marx called this the gravedigger problem.
One reason transformative leaders are susceptible to causing their own downfall is that development tends to nurture social forces that develop interests that transcend initial growth. These social forces are thus able too convert their new social position into a powerful political force. Stagnant economies do the opposite: they stifle the emergence of social forces like a large and diversified middle class, a large labouring class in cities, and a large and educated population with sufficient exposure to seek greater change. Peasants tending to jiggers in villages are unlikely to lead a mass uprising. As a relief to many frustrated Ugandans, in Museveni’s pursuit of growth, he is nourishing his own enemy.
Therefore, I look at Bashir as a democratiser in that country. A democratising leader need not personally and consciously organise a transition to democracy, however attractive such a proposition is in our religious approach to politics these days. All he needs to do is preside over a state that nurtures the social forces that advance democratic politics. I do not share the religious view that great leaders should be judged by what they intend to consciously do. Rather the greatness of a leader is based on what they produce – whether they intended it or not is irrelevant.
A capitalist does not innovate and invest because he/she wants to serve some noble social objective of creating jobs or paying taxes to the state. Instead he/she innovates and invests purely out of a selfish motive to make money for him/herself and become rich. However, his/her selfish actions produce an outcome with many socially beneficial objectives – such as jobs and paying taxes to the state. This is how capitalism, whose foundational creed is that everyone should seek that which is to their immediate monetary advantage has led to unprecedented prosperity.
This logic applies to Bashir as well. May be he wanted to cling to power forever. That for me is really irrelevant – in the wider scheme of things. To keep power, Bashir’s government pursued policies and programs that nurtured enlightened social forces, which have toppled him and have potential to bequeath Sudan a democratic government.