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Civil Society Groups Rise To Safeguard Sudan’s Shaky Transition To Democracy

The protests started as an instinctive response to rising commodity prices. But through coordinated civic engagement, they’ve become so much more.

When in December 2018, the people of Sudan thronged the streets to protest a failing economy, they met a resistance that reminded them they were also victims of an autocracy that had succeeded for far too long. So, they cranked up their demands, concerning themselves not only with the unattainable prices of bread and fuel, but also with all that was wrong with the government of the day — all that had been wrong for the past three decades.

Four months later, when long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was finally ousted from power, cries of victory rang through the streets. But the celebrations were short-lived. The people understood that al-Bashir himself wasn’t the problem, but the form of government he led. They could not tolerate a transitional military government and so the protests continued.

The North African country stands on the cusp of change. It is at a juncture where it can either slip back into the tribulations of the past or advance into a bright democratic future. And while there have been many events since al-Bashir’s toppling that compel pessimism, there’s also been a lot of reasons to be hopeful. One is the rise of civil society groups like Alassam’s.

Mohamed Nagi Alassam, 32, spent many years studying to become a physician, but today he only practices “from time to time”. What could be more important than treating the sick and saving lives? Perhaps, rescuing a nation of 46 million people from the grip of despots.

In Aug. 2021, Alassam co-founded Beam Reports with two friends. Events surrounding the revolution made it clear to him that the media scene in Sudan needed something different. He explains that the shortcomings in the sector were a result of deliberate policies by the al-Bashir regime targeted at the media and civil society. A lot of the newsrooms are controlled or partly owned by the military powers or people who benefit from and support the ruling class.

“I always had a critical view of the Sudanese traditional media and I think throughout our history, we had a very opinionated media. So opinion articles have always been very popular and most people buy newspapers just to read these articles,” he says.

On the other hand, little attention has been paid to analytical articles, explanatory news, and investigative and data journalism. This is the vacuum Beam Reports has positioned itself to fill. It hopes to guide people to tell facts from fiction, raise their awareness, and inform them about the complex issues of the day.

The media group has various departments. With Sudalytica, one of the units, it collects and analyses public opinion as a way to generate more grassroots data, which is lacking in the country. It also publishes a lot of social and political analyses.

Finally, it fact-checks under a unit it calls Beam Observatory. The newsroom was founded at a time when the Sudanese authorities pushed disinformation as a way to quell the uprising. 

Desperate to remain in power, the military government, especially under al-Bashir, resorted to questionable ways of suppressing the agitations. It assaulted and teargassed peaceful demonstrators. It shut down an international broadcaster and banned journalists from reporting. It discontinued internet and telecommunications services. It also sponsored a disinformation campaign to portray peaceful protesters as violent rebels and agitate for a military takeover. While all this was happening, Sudan had no local fact-checking organisation — until Beam came. 

“Actually, I think there was a hunger for fact-checking in Sudan because now it’s our most famous department,” Alassam says. “Just the bare idea of fact-checking and introducing it to the Sudanese media is something that we are very proud of.” 

Beam tracked down networks on Facebook and Twitter that spread disinformation in a coordinated manner, many of them linked to the military. It documented its findings and reported hundreds of these accounts to social media companies, after which many of them were taken down.

Some of its extensive research work has focused on the biases of various news broadcasters in how they report the situation in Sudan, the disinformation campaigns that have rocked the revolution, and the views of members of resistance committees, which have been crucial to the democratic transition.

Dr Mohammed Nagi Alassam during a workshop for journalists and disinformation researchers in Nairobi, Dec. 8, 2022. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle

Historically, Sudan has had civil society groups emerge with the establishment of political parties in the 1940s. But their role “was limited to defending the rights of the various parties’ constituent groups, and only occasionally addressing government violations and offering recommendations”, says Sudanese journalist Yousef Bashir. There were state-regulated CSOs, which were granted licences to operate. And there were traditional or faith-based groups that predate Sudan’s independence. CIVICUS, a non-profit committed to strengthening civil society around the world, rates the civil society in the country as repressed.

However, in recent years, the civil society space witnessed the rise of more revolutionary forces, neighbourhood resistance committees, and alliances such as the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), which pushed the rest of the nation into action. 

Trade unions, opposition political parties, advocacy groups, and other members of the Sudanese civil society have been critical to the revolution’s success up to this point. They have been working independently and together to midwife the protesters’ demands: Freedom, Peace and Justice. 

The Central Committee Of Sudan Doctors (CCSD), formed in 2016 as an alternative to the pro-government Sudanese Doctors Union (SDU), organised the longest physicians’ strike in the country’s history between Dec. 2018 and July 2019.

The SPA, an alliance of various trade unions, crystallised in July 2018. It joined forces with other political and advocacy groups under the umbrella of Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), which has actively negotiated the transition to democracy with the military authorities on behalf of the people. 

The CCSD has extensively documented cases of extrajudicial killings and injuries suffered by protesters from state crackdown. Emergency Lawyers, a non-profit, defends victims of power abuses free of charge. And the Bar Association recently got stakeholders to develop a draft transitional constitution that represents the people’s wishes and will finally keep the military away from politics.

There are many other CSOs too, some of them recently established. 

Adeela, a youth organisation that came to the scene in 2018, uses culture and art to promote peaceful co-existence, social justice, human rights, and democracy. One of its projects, Revolutions-N, documented how the participation of women influenced the December protests and how the revolution has shaped their lives. Ayin, a network of Sudanese journalists, publishes in-depth articles on developments in the troubled country. Through an app called Sudan Protest Monitor, it additionally tracks the demonstrations and the number of people killed and injured. There is also the Sudanese Centre for Policy Studies, an initiative birthed last August striving to improve military-civilian relations, promote democratisation, and facilitate economic reforms.

But even with al-Bashir gone, running an independent and active civil society organisation in Sudan is not a walk in the park. For Beam Reports, one of the reasons it registered as a business is the stringent restrictions placed on the non-profit sector.

The group takes a lot of steps to keep its staff safe. Alassam limits his public association with the brand so as not to smear it with his activism baggage. On its website, Beam Reports states its location simply as Khartoum and has not installed a signpost at its office to limit risks of attacks. It does not include author bylines in its publications to protect its writers. At first, this was not the case. Everyone was properly credited and the website featured pictures of employees. But the military coup of Oct. 2021 changed the climate. Their work in bringing down disinformation networks on social media has also raised a lot of dust.

“Writing about these issues will always be critical and somehow dangerous,” Alassam says, adding that he hopes the measures are only temporary. “We always assess the situation, and we also have these discussions with our staff and co-founders. But, of course, the priority will always be the safety of our staff and the sustainability of our operations.”

“I always liked Vox very much and wanted to do something like that. I would say they are like the model of explanatory news media. With the simplicity of how they produce their content, even if you are someone who is not very aware of what’s going on, just reading their material or watching their videos, you will understand the whole idea.”

Mohammed Nagi Alassam.

The challenges nonetheless, Alassam says he’s excited about the future of Beam and Sudanese civil society.

“We have new initiatives. We had the first journalists syndicate in a very long time established like two or three months ago. Also, the union movement, in general, is flourishing. We are seeing a lot of new unions and trade unions emerging and being populated. So the civil society is in a very good shape right now in Sudan and I think it will only get better and better in future.”

He argues that following the revolution, the focus should be on nurturing these grassroots movements and civil society newcomers. They are the ones who can take credit for whatever progress the country has made in the last few years and, Alassam believes, the future of democracy in Sudan depends on their coordination and survival. The future he envisions does not only need activists and mobilisers and journalists. “It needs policy research centres, it needs think tanks, it needs civil society organisations, it needs capacity building [and] it’s a lot of effort.”

But Sudan cannot do it all by itself. If its flower of democracy fully blooms, it will not only affect the Sudanese, but it could inspire uprisings across the Arab world. To prevent this, other countries have shown an interest in how the events play out and are influencing the dynamics in their own way.

Alassam calls them dictator-friends of the local regime “who do not want to see democracy flourish in their backyard” lest it threatens their own rule. Because of these complications, Sudan needs all the help it can get so that the wishes of the people are not sabotaged.

International institutions like the United Nations, African Union, and Arab League have been accused of playing marginal, instead of active, roles during the transition period or trying not to hurt the military and political elites. But Alassam beckons on them to do better, to listen to the Sudanese people, to appreciate how much they have sacrificed in the cause of democracy, and to not settle for less.

“They should not think that if there is security, democracy can go to hell. If they want to see a stable Sudan, they should have democracy as their priority and not settle for any dictatorship whatsoever.”

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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