The Steering Committee of the Sudanese Bar association began its work on a transitional constitution draft amidst political turmoil that seized the country in the aftermath of the military power grab of October 25, 2021, and more recently, following the resignation of prime minister Abdulla Hamdok.
Prior to the launch of this effort, multiple initiatives were launched but were ended almost as soon as they were announced. Of these, two in particular aroused controversy due to their association with members of the religious clergy. The first was launched by the renowned Sufi religious leader, Al-Tayeb Al-Jed who, supported by the ousted President Omar Al-Bashir and army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, called for the army to be the supreme authority in Sudan—a call that resulted in a wave of condemnation among democratic forces in the country. The second was launched by cleric Mohammed Al-Jaali, and although supported by pro-democracy parties and opposition groups, he failed to gain public consensus as meetings hit a dead end.
Civil Society Steps In
Civil society in Sudan has been active in the public sphere since 1945 when Sudanese intellectuals began to establish political parties. The leaders of this nascent civil society, however, broadly followed one of the two major political sects of the country: the Ansar sect, which sponsors the Umma Party, and the Khatmiyya sect, which sponsors the Democratic Unionist Party. This led political forces that emerged later to be formed either on the basis of religion, in the case of, for example, the Republican Party and the Muslim Brotherhood Group, or on the basis of ideology, as was seen with the Communist Party.1 Consequently, the role of civil society was limited to defending the rights of the various parties’ constituent groups, and only occasionally addressing government violations and offering recommendations. However, this would soon change.
The Steering Committee of the Sudan Bar Association launched its most recent initiative by organizing a workshop in which all of the forces supporting the transition participated. The participants proposed recommendations and amendments that resulted in the draft transitional constitution. The proposed text stipulated distancing the military from politics with the aim of establishing a full democratic civilian government based on the supremacy of the Constitution and the law, the independence of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities, and freedom of the press, religion, and education. It also proposed solutions to controversial issues such as bringing justice to victims of state violence, subjecting the military to civilian authority, and banning the army’s commercial activities.
Given that the draft was proposed by an independent civil society organization and was the result of an inclusive public dialogue, it was immediately welcomed with international support.
Challenges to Come
From the outset of the nationwide protests in Sudan in December 2018, discourse regarding justice, war, peace, human rights, injustice against women, the civil state, the removal of the military from political affairs, and the separation of religion and state, encouraged civil society groups to expose ongoing abuses and transgressions.
The Sudanese Doctors' committees, for instance, brought to light the number of victims killed and injured in protests, and Sudan’s Emergency Lawyers took on defending those affected by state violence as pro-bono cases.
However, since the aim of civil society has always been to create conditions that foster and protect democracy, the Bar Association took it upon itself to launch the transitional constitution initiative. This was applauded by various civil and political actors, as well as by army leaders who agreed it would be the basis to restoring civilian rule, despite questions and doubts that surrounded the agreement and called for dismantling the Steering Committee.
As for the army, domestic discontent with the declining political and economic situation, which allowed for the impunity of the coup’s leaders who still retained their military positions, as well as the weight of international isolation, were strong motivations to accept the draft constitution.
The political forces, in turn, approved the draft because it is their mission to constantly search for peaceful mechanisms that can be turned into political action with the necessary legal legitimacy.
The draft constitution takes into account the interests of many segments of Sudanese society, as it contains articles on citizenship, the freedom of union organization, and a 40 percent gender quota in state positions. It also addresses the economic situation, the establishment of peace, the return of 3.7 million displaced people to their areas, and the resolution of the crisis in eastern Sudan.
Following the announcement of the transitional constitution, the Sudanese Army and representatives of the Forces of Freedom and Change Alliance, as well as other political organizations, signed a preliminary agreement that will pave the way for further improvements on the issues of justice, peace, and military reform. The document is a step forward in reaching a final agreement that will lead to fully democratic civilian rule, capable of protecting itself against any future attacks.
The initiative of the Steering Committee of the Sudanese Bar Association has enabled Sudanese civil society groups to move away from begging the authorities to do what is right, through the creation of a democratic framework of government. Still, civil society can hold signatories accountable by using the pressure tools of protests and strikes in case deviations from the framework occur.
Yousef Bashir is a Sudanese journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @youseifbasher3.
1. Al-Nour Hamad, The Creators' Escapes (مهارب المبدعين). Madarik Publishing House. Second edition, 2013.