Interview with leading civil society activist in Sudan: Abdel-Eahman El Mahdi

Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, Director of the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), speaks to CIVICUS about escalating restrictions on civil society and the prospect of engaging in a multi-stakeholder national dialogue to address pressing human rights issues in Sudan.

How would you characterise the current environment for civil society in Sudan?

The current degradation and contraction of civil society space in Sudan is unprecedented. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are being routinely closed andSudan interview leaders are increasingly being subjected to harassment and detention by security forces. In January 2015, three CSOs, the Sudanese Writers Union, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha Center, and the National Civic Forum, had their licenses revoked and were informed by national security agents to cease their activities.

The only commonalities between the organisations are that all three were registered under the Ministry of Culture and all three were members of an alliance of NGOs known as the Confederation of Sudanese Civil Society Organizations. Dr. Amin Mekki Medani, a world renowned Human Rights Defenders and President of the Confederation of Sudanese Civil Society Organizations was arrested in December 2014 following his return from a meeting in Addis Ababa that was held under the auspices of an African Union High-Level Implementation Panel headed by former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.

Have relations between civil society and government worsened in the last twelve months, and if so, what are the main causes behind this change?

Over the last twelve months relations between civil society and the Sudanese Government have categorically worsened. This is most aptly reflected in the increasing number of closures of CSOs, the arrest and harassment of civil society leaders, and by the remarks and negative portrayal of NGOs in the media by leading members of the ruling National Congress Party.

The primary reason underlying the deteriorating relations between government and civil society is the recognition from national and international stakeholders that civil society will play an important role in deliberations regarding a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder solution to the problems facing the country.

The government is aware that the national dialogue it launched in January 2014 to address pressing human rights concerns, which has been derailed, might still emerge. Civil society organisations will advocate for a substantial role in the process including how the national dialogue will be structured and working to ensure that the priorities of their constituents are addressed through the dialogue. This represents another cause of concern for the government and one that the government has opted to deal with through closures, harassment and arrests.

What impact has the recent general elections had on the space for civil society in Sudan?

During the lead up to the general elections, we witnessed an unparalleled level of harassment and intimidation of civil society groups and civil society activists. The Irhal campaign (meaning “Leave”) calling for a boycott of the elections led by civil society activists and the opposition parties came under attack and saw many of their meetings disrupted by security officials. Civil society activists were picked up on the streets and disappeared for days on end without their families knowing their whereabouts or whether they had been kidnapped or if they were in the custody of the authorities.

Now that the elections are over, we are seeing a lull in the vicious crackdown on civil society that started almost two years ago and reached its peak in the closing days before the elections. The hope is that this lull will continue and create a gradual opening for civil society in Sudan in the immediate post-election period. The new government will be formed in May and as we have repeatedly heard from the President and other senior members of the ruling National Congress Party, the first issue on its agenda will be the national dialogue. What sort of dialogue we will have (if any) and how inclusive it will be remains to be seen. Given the constitutional amendments (introduced earlier this year in January 2015) that have concentrated even greater power in the hands of the President and the security forces, the general outlook is negative. Consequently, any opening or shrinking of civil society space will be at the discretion of the President, security forces and the prevailing socio-political context.

What does civil society in Sudan most need by way of support or other intervention from the international community?

The international community MUST take vigorous political and diplomatic action to support civil society organisations that come under threat and identify effective measures to continue to provide support to national organisations isolated from the international community including facilitating opportunities for young civil society leaders and activists to participate in leadership programmes and capacity building workshops.

Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, is the managing director of the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), a non-profit NGO working for greater stability, development, and good governance in Sudan by reducing violence, empowering youth and advancing the role of the media and civil society. SUDIA is also a member of the Confederation of Sudanese Civil Society Organizations (CSCSOs), an informal coalition of independent civil society organisations working to safeguard its members and strengthen their capacities in realising a democratic community with good governance in Sudan through innovative approaches to capacity building, advocacy, networking and knowledge.