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Nobody Leaves through the Ballot Box: The Historical Irrelevance of General Elections in Sudanese Political Transitions

[Map by UN Department of Field Support – Cartographic Section via [Map by UN Department of Field Support – Cartographic Section via

In almost sixty years of independence, Sudan has witnessed a dozen heads of state come and go and countless presidential and parliamentary elections. Of these presidents and prime ministers, less than a handful was voted into office and not a single one has been voted out. With the current elections widely seen as a farce, a foregone conclusion with Omar al-Bashir set to win and many Sudanese people shifting between apathy and antipathy towards the process, a spotlight has been shone on the electoral process. The traditional opposition has boycotted the elections, some preferring to push for a seemingly never-ending “national dialogue” instead and others refusing to partake in either this “dialogue” or the elections.

Much of the focus on the perceived irrelevance of the current presidential elections in Sudan ignores the broader historical irrelevance of presidential and parliamentary elections in modern Sudanese political transitions. Revisiting the key periods surrounding the handover (or seizure) of executive power, this article seeks to illustrate the relative insignificance of general elections in modern Sudanese political history and highlight, by contrast, the transformative movements that have historically shifted the balance of executive power in the country.

On 1 January 1956, Sudan officially gained independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule, and Ismail al-Azhari became the first Prime Minister of the newly independent state. Azhari, a member of the National Unionist Party (NUP)—the dominant successor to the Ashigga party, which he had previously led—raised the now retired blue, yellow, and green flag. Azhari's time in power would be characterized and ultimately paralyzed by disagreements within Parliament in what came to be a defining feature of the so-called democratic periods in Sudan. Shifting alliances between the NUP, the Umma Party, and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP, the other successor to the Ashigga party) resulted in coalitions being formed, broken, and re-formed. In Revolution and Nationalism in the Sudan, Mohamed Beshir argues that the efforts of these traditional parties were “more directed to intrigues and the struggle for power than solving the country's economic and political problems” and notes that “crossing the floor and changing party allegiance became normal practice” in Parliament.[1]

Disagreements within the parliamentary government led to a vote of no confidence in which Azhari was replaced as Prime Minister by Abdullah Khalil from the rival Umma Party in July 1956. In 1958, the first general elections since independence (the second in Sudanese history) confirmed Khalil's position as Prime Minister of a coalition government led by the Umma Party. Khalil managed to hold on to this title for a further eight months before requesting that the military intervene—that is, orchestrate a coup—after a coalition between the NUP and PDP (widely expected to remove Khalil and the Umma Party from the driving seat) began to form.

Consequently, in November 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud led the first Sudanese military coup and became the third head of state in Sudan. Abboud's rule, which included political repression throughout Sudan and the continuation of a bloody civil war in the south, failed to bring the much sought after and often promised “stability” to Sudan. By 1964 the regime was under increasing pressure and student debates at the University of Khartoum on the conflict in the south turned into a wider criticism of the government's policies. After attempts to forcibly break up a debate resulted in the killing of a student—Ahmed al-Qurashi, a member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP)—by police forces, the SCP took up a call for a general strike in conjunction with political demonstrations. That the SCP had a strong influence in the organized labor movement—the Gezira Tenants’ Association and the Sudanese Workers’ Trade Union Federation (an umbrella group of over sixty trade unions) were both headed by communist party members—whilst the government was the largest employer of industrial labor at the time, enabled the SCP to lead effective strikes, which brought Khartoum to a halt. Shops, communication links, transportation lines, and government machinery were all shut down. When a group of junior military officers refused to fire on protestors, Abboud subsequently stepped down and dissolved his government.

The end of Abboud's rule was followed by the appointment of Sirr Al-Khatim Al-Khalifa (an independent) as interim Prime Minister. Following elections in 1965 where the Umma Party gained the most seats, Muhammad Ahmad Mahgoub of the Umma Party succeeded Khalifa as Prime Minister whilst Ismail al-Azhari was appointed President by Parliament.[2] Less than a year later, Sadiq al-Mahdi turned 30, making him eligible for the position of Prime Minister. His elite education and background (a graduate in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University and the great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi who led the revolt against Ottoman occupation) made him the preferred leader of the Umma party, the majority of who wished to see Mahgoub resign to make way for al-Mahdi. Resisting this, Mahgoub lasted less than a year as Prime Minister before suffering a vote of no confidence by his own party, and in July 1966, al-Mahdi became the Prime Minister of Sudan. Al-Mahdi managed to hold onto the helm for less than a year before being replaced by Mahgoub in May 1967 after experiencing his own vote of no confidence as a consequence of Azhari withdrawing his support for al-Mahdi's coalition.[3]

Once more, the parliamentary period was ridden with petty disputes, internal struggles for power, and shifting alliances and coalitions. In 1967 the Umma party split into two rival wings whilst the PDP and NUP merged to create the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Moreover in 1965, cognizant of the growing influence of the SCP and its gains in the elections, the parliamentary government moved to ban the party by claiming that it was an atheist party and that the communists were against Islam.[4] This move, a result of a campaign by Hassan al-Turabi of the Muslim Brotherhood, resulted in the expulsion of elected SCP members and—despite the Supreme Court declaring it to be unconstitutional—the decision was upheld.

What is commonly referred to as the second democratic period was therefore seen as somewhat undemocratic by many on the left who were incensed by Azhari and the Umma party's brazen and unconstitutional actions. Consequently, when Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry went on to seize power in 1969 in the second military coup, he found supporters on the left, and the SCP found itself divided on whether to throw its full weight behind Nimeiry, with some dismissing the officers as “petty bourgeoisie” and others praising them as 'revolutionary democrats'. Abdel Khaliq Mahgoub, the General Secretary of the SCP, resisted pressure to dissolve the party and join Nimeiry's Socialist Union, which led to heightened tensions and mutual suspicion between the two.

In July 1971 confrontations reached their peak as communist officers moved to overthrow Nimeiry. For three days, Lieutenant Colonel Babiker al-Nour—in London at the time of the coup—was officially the President of Sudan before interventions by Anwar al-Sadat and Muammar al-Gaddafi helped reinstate Nimeiry.[5] With the exception of this short-lived overthrow that ended in the imprisonment and execution of leading SCP members (including those who had served in Nimeiry's government), Nimeiry managed to hold on to power for sixteen years strong.

By 1985, Nimeiry had exhausted almost every option on the political spectrum and was now in the Islamist camp, having declared himself to be Imam of Sudan, poured millions of dollars worth of alcohol into the Nile and introduced a new Islamic banking sector—effectively a proliferation of Saudi-owned and Brotherhood-run Faisal Islamic banks. More horrific shows of his alleged conversion included the implementation of the notorious September Laws (sharia) in 1983, which introduced amputations for theft and floggings for the consumption of alcohol, and the execution of the seventy-six-year-old Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, leader of the Republican Brotherhood (the socialist rivals to the Muslim Brotherhood) for apostasy due to his vocal opposition of the new laws.

Nonetheless, at this stage Nimeiry had made too many political enemies. The September Laws and division of the south into three regions sparked opposition from southern politicians and rebellion from the newly-created Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM); his confrontation with the communists in 1971 and subsequent repression of trade unions earned him the ire of much of the organized labor movement and the left in general; his reconciliation attempts with the traditional parties (Umma and Unionists) had fallen apart in the late 1970s; and his latest allies, the Muslim Brotherhood, were too strategic to fully back a weak horse. In March 1985, in the midst of a famine (exacerbated by the new banks buying and shoring up large amounts of grain, thereby driving up prices), and in an attempt to justify forced austerity measures, Nimeiry asked on national television: “why do the Sudanese need to eat three meals a day?” before boarding a plane to the United States shortly afterwards. It would be fourteen years before Nimeiry would return to Sudan as a hungry and angry populace marched in opposition to his rule and the forced austerity measures (one of the rallying cries of the 1985 April intifada being “we will not be ruled by the World Bank”).[6] Following sustained popular demonstrations and labor strikes, Nimeiry was ousted in April 1985, and General Sawar al-Dahab became the interim executive and head of the Transitional Military Council.

In the 1986 elections the Umma party gained the most seats, and Sadiq al-Mahdi became Prime Minister once again.[7] The third parliamentary period lasted for less than four years, and in June 1989 the military emerged from the barracks once more. Tanks rolled out onto the streets of Khartoum at dawn, this time led by Brigadier Omar al-Bashir. Bashir's government has since surprised all in its sustainability, surviving coup attempts, mass protests, and internal party disputes—the three mechanisms that have traditionally ended presidencies in Sudan. When Hassan al-Turabi, the self-confessed architect of the coup, tried to limit Bashir's power in 1999, it was Turabi who found himself out in the cold.

The current government has seen (or rather facilitated) increasing political repression throughout Sudan, the intensification of old conflicts and the creation of new ones in the peripheries, the secession of roughly a third of the country, and the expansion of the notorious and widely reviled security apparatus: the National Intelligence and Security Services. Incredulity at holding visibly unfair presidential elections under such circumstances is well-founded; the indirect elevation of general elections as a mechanism by which executive power can be removed in Sudan “under the right circumstances” is less so.

In almost sixty years, Sudan has rotated somewhat steadily (for lack of a better term) between coups and popular uprisings, with a cluster of no-confidence votes thrown in. Throughout these years the country has witnessed countless general elections—Nimeiry alone ran in at least three presidential elections. Despite the inconsequential nature of the results, the electoral process has remained a significant part of the Sudanese political system. The first general elections in 1953 were hailed as a success by observers in terms of process (allegations of colonial interference and widespread bribery notwithstanding) and paved the way for independence. However, this fixation on the process, coupled with a desire to prove to an external audience Sudan’s “readiness” for self-governance continues to manifest itself in Sudanese general elections to varying degrees, and is arguably one of the main reasons visibly immaterial elections continue to be held. For incumbent dictators, elections have served as prime time theatre, an opportunity to demonstrate one’s authority and control (at least over the polling stations). Yet the initial rush to register for the 2010 general election also indicated a lingering belief amongst many Sudanese that free(r) elections could potentially act as vehicles for transformative change, whilst the subsequent boycott as the government and observers pushed through with the process in the face of systematic malpractices suggested a collective acquiescence that the process had little to do with choosing an executive.

In countries with intermittent (if at all) democratic periods such as Sudan, the value and importance of general elections arguably lies less in their ability to elect a leader into a vacant seat, and more in their ability to remove one. The irrelevance of general elections in Sudan's modern political history is therefore illustrated first and foremost by their incapability to remove an executive, and secondly by the widespread view that those they elect are practically “lame ducks”—it is no coincidence that the most iconic Sudanese poets and musicians wrote and sang for and against Nimeiry and Abboud.[8] Moreover, unlike most of Sudan's neighboring dictatorships whereby presidents have often—at least until 2011—left office in a coffin, no Sudanese head of state has ever died in office. More militant Sudanese can thus take solace in the fact that whilst no executive has ever exited through the ballot box, the overwhelming majority have been forcibly removed—be it by coup, popular uprising, or parliamentary votes of no-confidence. Concerning Bashir's exit, the questions asked by many Sudanese have thus centered not on "when will he die?" and much less on the results of the current elections, but rather on whether it will be a coup, a popular uprising, or an internal power struggle that ends his—and more importantly—his party's rule. The unprecedented resilience of the National Congress Party thus far suggests a potential for the emergence of a new mechanism by which power will be revoked; the post-colonial history of Sudan strongly suggests that this will be without the executive's consent.

[1] Mohamed Beshir, Revolution and Nationalism in the Sudan (New York: Collings, 1974), 203, 226.

[2] These elections did not include the south and the southern seats were left vacant until by-elections were held in 1967.

[3] Robert O. Collins, A History of Modern Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[4] Gabriel Warburg, Islam, Nationalism and Communism in a Traditional Society: The Case of Sudan, (London: Routledge, 1978).

[5] M.S. Al-Gaddal, mo'alam fi tareekh al-hizb al-shuway'i al-sudani (Beirut: Dar al Farabi, 1999).

[6] John K. Walton and David Seddon, Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[7] Once again, voting was suspended in the southern regions.

[8] See Mohammed Wardi, Sayed Khalifa, Mahgoub Sharif (the song “ana galby masaken shabiya” popularised in the Arab World by Mohammed Mounir was written by Sharif against Nimeiry during the latter's rule). 

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