Revolutionary Dilemmas in Sudan

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Here at Democracy in Africa we work hard to bring you the best coverage of African politics available, including new blogs and podcasts. This week we are delighted to share a blog post by the insightful Sudan watcher Willow Berridge, who reflects on what history has to tell us about the current political crisis. This post is her first for a new blog – Sudanalysis – which we recommend you check out.

A few weeks ago, I taught an undergraduate seminar based on Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim’s excellent article ‘The 1971 Coup in Sudan and the Radical War of Liberal Democracy in Africa’.[i] The piece addresses the dilemmas that the Sudan Communist Party (SCP) – at that time the foremost voice of Sudan’s progressive urban elites – faced in the wake of the country’s first post-colonial uprising of 1964. In the years following the famous October Revolution, the party was torn between liberal democracy and radical socialism. The leadership under Abdel Khaliq Mahjub suffered a setback when religiously orientated parties with a strong regional base came to dominate the multiparty democratic system that existed between 1965 and 1969, and used their formal majority in parliament to label the communists as atheist and ban them.

Yet Mahjub in particular feared that, given the narrow social base of the SCP within urban riverain Sudan, any effort to resort to revolutionary means to introduce a radical socialist order would be pre-emptive, and end up empowering ‘opportunists’ within the urban elite. When a faction of the SCP backed the military coup led by Jafa’ar Nimeiri in 1969, Mahjub was reluctant to get involved. He attempted to scale back the participation of his party in the new regime, and reached out to Sadiq al-Mahdi, whose Umma Party had opposed the communists on religious grounds in the parliamentary years. The Oxford-educated Sadiq had been attempting to reform his party along more progressive lines, and Mahjub presumably believed that he might act as a bridge between the urban revolutionaries and the rural masses.

In 1971 Mahjub was executed by Nimeiri, becoming a victim of the military vanguardism he had feared so much. The SCP suffered enormously after its leader’s death, and though it participated in the uprising of 2018-2019 along with the other parties it has never recovered the vigour of its golden era in the 1960s. Its radical mantle has been taken up by the Sudan Professional Association (SPA), a coalition of left-leaning union activists opposed to the Islamist regime of Umar al-Bashir that had dominated Sudan for 30 years.

The SPA is modelled on a similar organization that played a leading role in the October Revolution of 1964, and which itself had ties to the SCP (among other parties). Yet it suffers from a similar problem to the SCP, in that it is at its strongest in the urban riverain centre. Its class composition is limited, by definition, to the professional elites of the major cities. If it is to avoid a narrow and opportunistic politics of revolution, therefore, it will need to work in partnership – just as Mahjub attempted to do – with political factions that have a strong presence outside the urban riverain centre.

But with who? Sadiq al-Mahdi has been a remarkable political survivor and still plays a prominent role in today’s opposition, but at the age of 84 has largely seen his reputation as an up and coming reformer discredited by his failures as prime minister between 1986-1989 and ambivalent opposition to the al-Bashir regime. However, the rise of a newer generation of leaders in his National Umma Party (to give it its new name) and within the other more religious oriented parties might create new possibilities.

Another major political player is the Sudan Congress Party, which emerged out of the professional groups that led the second civilian uprising of 1985. It struggled to launch itself as a political party in the democracy that followed the 1985 Intifada, but re-emerged in 2005 and has been attempting to develop a base in Kordofan in particular. They SPA might also align itself with the rebel groups operating in the marginalized regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The urban leftists of the 1985 Intifada had hoped to form an alliance with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of John Garang – then operating mainly within the now seceded south – which itself espoused a Marxist ideology.

However, their hopes were thwarted when Garang decided he did not trust the 1985 Transitional Military Council enough to come to Khartoum. Today one rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North faction headed by Malik Agar, has already sent an advance delegation to Khartoum. Meanwhile, one of the more prominent figures in the SPA, Muhammad Yousif Ahmad Mustafa, is himself a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North and has spoken of the parallels between the regime’s marginalization of cotton farmers in his own region of central riverain Sudan and its marginalization of the country’s other peripheries.

During the 2019 Intifada, the SPA has already established a formal alliance with most of these political forces via the Declaration of Freedom and Change. If the country is to avoid a return to the opportunistic politics of military intervention and domination by Khartoum elites, they will need to agree a common blueprint for both the transitional period and subsequent democracy.


Willow Berridge is a Lecturer in History at Newcastle University

Her new blog is Sudanalysis



[i] Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, “The 1971 Coup in Sudan and the Radical War of Liberal Democracy in Africa”, Comparative Studies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East 16 (1996), 98-114.

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