Sudan: Looking to the Past and Future with Gwi Yeop Son

Gwi -Yeop Son is the Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at the United Nations Development Coordination Office. Ms. Son has 26 years of diverse international development experience, during which she has remained focused on those left furthest behind and has continuously leveraged humanitarian-peace-development nexus practice, organizational and technological innovation and strategic partnerships. Most recently, Ms. Son completed a two-year assignment as the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and Designated Official in July 2020 in Sudan. During this period, Ms. Son supported three simultaneous transitions: the transition from the 30-year dictatorship to a people-led democracy, the transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding in the conflict-affected region of Darfur, and the transition from humanitarian-centered UN action to SDG-centered sustainable development as underscored by the humanitarian-peace-development nexus. Ms. Son was instrumental in organizing the Berlin Partnership Conference that mobilized over USD 1.8 billion for Sudan, reversing the funding trend from humanitarian to development, contributing to political and socio-economic stability while protecting the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable.
Enya Kamadolli '26 interviewed Ms. Gwi-Yeop Son on October 23, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ms. Gwi-Yeop Son. 

Could you talk about the unique conditions that enabled the 2019 revolution in Sudan to truly be successful in ousting Bashir? 

The initial trigger was a spike in the price of bread, a critical staple food in the country. Inflation led students in Eastern Sudan to begin protesting. Their protests soon escalated to the expression of general grievances about the state of the country. The compounding factors of no bread, no education, and no hope meant the movement spread rapidly amongst the youth. The bread price increase was the final straw required to unleash the full wrath of their discontent after 30 years of oppression under the Bashir regime. People mobilized very quickly throughout the whole nation, especially in the capital, Khartoum. The demographic mobilizing was mainly young students and other professional groups and civil society organizations, including women's organizations, doctor’s associations, etc. The revolutionaries’ collective was coined the Forces of Freedom and Change, and they resisted the regime as a unified front. One of the unique characteristics of Sudan that enabled the revolutionary movement to gain steam rapidly was their rich culture of grassroots movements. Sudan is a very socially interconnected. This is what kept the grassroots movement unified and coherent despite this being a large-scale mobilization. During the 2019 revolution, the Sudanese people were able to leverage the power of neighborhood movements, establishing resistance committees that became a defining feature of the Forces of Freedom and Change’s strength. Ultimately, the revolutionaries claimed that they toppled the Bashir regime, which is certainly a fair claim. However, the actual overthrowing of the Bashir regime was done by the armed forces working in tandem with the Rapid Support Forces. While the regime was cracking under popular pressure, the military forces were the ones that took the final actions required to fully overthrow Bashir. 

Do you think the grassroots movement in Sudan is still as alive and strong as it was in 2019, when Bashir was ousted? Is it more mollified by the current forces in power than it was back then? Or are the people still actively voicing their discontent?  

On a personal level, I do indeed still believe in the overall strength of their grassroots movement. I hope that they will be able to stand up again, and that they are able to accrue the power needed to find a feasible alternative to the two men who are destroying Sudan in their fight for unilateral control (i.e., SAF's Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF's Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo). But in reality, the grassroots movement, namely the Forces of Freedom and Change, has become critically fractured. The fracturing of the movement created a vacuum that the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leveraged to strengthen their respective positions. If the street movement –the grassroots movement– was able to stay coherent and unified, they would have stayed formidable. But once they could not even come to a consensus amongst themselves on who deserved to sit at the mediation table with the military, they lost their power.

Do you think that fracturing of the grassroots movement happened along ethnic lines or rural-urban cleavages? What specifically catalyzed the fracturing? 

It happened along class divides. Elitism was visibly present within some of the key leaders of the Street Movement. In the beginning, the ordinary people’s voices and their grievances were the power behind the Force of Freedom and Change. But as time went on, the leaders became more vocally elitist in their actions and declarations, crowding out the voices and aspirations of ordinary citizens in Sudan and alienating those in leadership that were not members of the elite. Of course, there are also many ways that ethnic divides crease Sudan’s social fabric, and naturally the urban-rural divide and the center-periphery divide have also contributed to social discontent. However, in this particular case, the main factor that contributed to the fracturing of the movement can be isolated to elitism amongst certain FFC leaders, who began to fall into the patterns of politicians vying for control rather than representatives who put the needs of the people first. 

Do you think either of the two major military groups in power attempt to cater to the needs of the people, or at least create a successful facade of doing so? 

They are both primarily interested in their own self-preservation and advancement. The Rapid Support Forces are mainly interested in advancing their economic interests, and the Sudan Army Forces want to maintain their power and authority at all costs. If either were really interested in serving the interests of the people, they would not be waging war in Khartoum, which is the home of millions of people. There are currently 19 million children that have been denied their right to an education because of the conflict. That’s almost every single child, Six million people are on the brink of famine. It is blatantly apparent that neither group cares about the people, because if they did, they would not carry out such a brutal war with humanitarian ramifications to this scale. 

Given the dire humanitarian crisis, what do you think the most effective path forward is, both in terms of getting needed aid to the people of Sudan and in terms of establishing stable governance in the long term? What is needed to prevent a power vacuum from sucking Sudan into war again? 

Sudan already has another power vacuum. There is no functioning government. Hospitals are not working. Doctors have not received salaries. The government has functionally moved to Port Sudan, and Khartoum is under RSF siege. Sudan is at its worst right now, in terms of government stability. The million-dollar question is whether Sudan can get their act together and come to some kind of ceasefire. They can only look forward to the future when the fighting stalls. There is some semblance of hope on the horizon. A Sudanese friend of mine has informed me that there are people working diligently to come up with a tentative alternative and a governance vision for the future. 

Drawing from your personal experience, could you speak to the role that the international community has played in assisting Sudan’s peace processes? What approaches have been effective and what needs to change? 

The international community is often very impatient. When it comes to situations like that of Sudan, where the state has been under the control of a dictatorship for 30 years, the country cannot be expected to be able to restore rule of law the next day. They also cannot be expected to make the justice system functional or institutionalize democratic governance in weeks. Permanent institutional change takes time and requires patience. It is good that the international community puts pressure on developing governments for these types of institutional reforms, but that pressure has to come alongside support. If the international community wants a budding civilian government to survive and succeed, it takes more than just support on paper: it needs tangible monetary support. One of my last initiatives in Sudan was organizing a Donor Conference, where over $1.8 billion was pledged to support Sudan’s young post-Bashir government. That money never arrived. Perhaps that monetary support would have been the crucial difference between the survival and the fall of that civilian government. The international community is not a monolith. Different parts of it have different agendas. But collectively, we all tend to fall in the pattern of pushing idealistic policies too soon. Going forward, it is imperative that we listen to the people of the country and analyze the readiness of a country for certain forms of structural and institutional change, giving them the tools that they need to pace themselves rather than setting the pace for them. The barrier to this approach tends to be generalized anxiety from the international community, which often complicates support for a more people-led approach to government reconstruction. As much as we can, we need to reflect on where we can truly add value to the future of a country. We must ensure that we are simultaneously advising and supporting, rather than superimposing our ideals upon them when it is perhaps not the right time for those reforms. What the international community thinks is the right thing may not be the right thing for a particular country for the given moment at hand. Sudan’s complete chaos today is largely understood to have been triggered by radical security reform, which came far too soon. The country needed more time to think about the role that the military plays in governance in the aftermath of three decades of a military dictatorship. Sudan was not necessarily ready for an immediate switch to fully subjugating the power of the military. There’s an immense need for the international community to reflect more, to listen better, and to understand the aspirations of the people. We must give countries the space for their people to make their own decisions, but also provide them with our support to succeed in those decisions. Of course, the formula is complicated by the fact that support cannot come from the international community unless they can explain their actions to their constituents at home. We all need to be much more careful in the way in which we communicate to all parties involved. When need coherence and coordination. 

Do you think that lack of coordination currently has been a major issue, in terms of mediation efforts and also more generally?

Absolutely. There are several different avenues through which international interventions are taking place. Primarily, there is AU-IGAD action, and there is QUAD (US, UK, UAE, and Saudi Arabia) involvement. However, there are also important regional players like Ethiopia and Egypt who are also attempting to broker peace agreements. As such, there are three or four different groups having meetings and coming up with different resolutions and decisions, which are sometimes slightly contradictory. This poses a major barrier to Sudan’s ability to adopt any of these solutions – they have to sift through all of the different options first. This is not within the bandwidth of a country that is about to break into pieces, they simply do not have the time to digest large amounts of information before deciding how to move forward. Simplicity is direly needed. 

Is there existing infrastructure for the Sudanese people to voice their preferred visions of the future? How does the international community currently consult with the people on the ground in Sudan? 

The Sudanese people have all sorts of wide and strong webs of connections amongst themselves.  They are not always consistent or in agreement, given that different groups have different interests and priorities. That barrier to viewpoint cohesion, however, does not mean that the international community should not consult them. Rather, bringing various groups together to help foster cohesion and transparent dialogue is of the utmost importance. The existing infrastructure does not emulate the Western conception of consultation, but it takes equally legitimate. Consultation is happening already within Sudan. The onus is on the international community to go beyond just consulting the political and academic elite, the leaders of rebel groups, and to actively seek out the collectives of ordinary people in Sudan. What do they want for their country?  If there is a will, it is possible to include the views of the average Sudanese citizen. 

What type of government do you think the Sudanese people want eventually, given your personal experiences in Sudan? What role do you think the average citizen wants the military to play in governance? 

I do not think the Sudanese people want democracy in the way that we define democracy. Their primary goal is to see their country prosper. A key component of prosperity is overcoming ethnic divides, which have brought so much pain and tension upon the social fabric of the country. Translating that vision into reality is a difficult process. The country has been divided for years, and most institutions have been built on distrust rather than trust. Social cohesion must be re-established slowly. The Bashir regime weaponized divide and rule tactics –especially leveraging Janjanweed and Islamist forces– to maintain absolute control, which has left lasting damage on Sudan’s social fabric. Sudan needs a revival of the pre-Bashir era, where diverse ethnic groups were able to live together more harmoniously. The vision also definitely includes a government that is strong enough to provide adequate social services to its people since 70% of Sudan’s population is extremely poor. Hungry people want to be fed. Those that live hand-to-mouth do not prioritize much else higher than food security. We saw this with how quickly the increase in the price of bread angered the entire population. I think what the Sudanese people most want is a government that truly serves the interests of their people, one with a very clear social contract that enumerates the exercise of rights and the provision of social services. Of course, that includes the values of freedom, peace, and justice, which was the predominant slogan during the revolutionary period. 

Do you think the ethnic cleavages are surmountable in the short term? What do you think it's going to take to reverse decades of induced division? 

There’s essentially a widespread racism, which pits Arabic nomads against African descendants, who tend to be mostly farmers. Racism does not go away overnight. You almost have to rebuild the culture from the ground up, which takes decades. Luckily, we have a way to change people’s behavior: education. With the proper investment in education, healing the social cleavage is possible, but it will require diligent work. Leaders have benefited hugely from discriminating against African farmers for decades, exploiting them for their resources. But the social cleavage goes beyond just ethnic divides; Sudan also has to address the center-versus-periphery dynamics, where most resources are concentrated at the center and oppressed minority groups disproportionately inhabit the periphery. There is immense inequity when it comes to distribution of resources. All of these structures have to be mended and rebuilt, brick by brick. 

Do you think there are movements right now to empower Sudanese farmers, given the current agricultural crisis? What role do you think reorganizing economic structures plays in rebuilding Sudan, both in terms of social cohesion and stable governance? 

There was a time when I believed that Sudan could become the breadbasket of the Horn of Africa. That dream is no longer possible. Over 6 million people are close to dying because of lack of access to food. Before the conversation about rebuilding the agricultural sector can occur, the violence needs to end. A permanent ceasefire would be good, but if that is not possible, at the very least a humanitarian pause to get food aid distributed. To provide assistance to the millions in need, the international community must come to an agreement amongst themselves. In general, the international community needs to interfere less and support more. We must let Sudan emerge with its own vision of what their new governance should look like. However, any future path forward cannot proceed until the fighting stops. The current conflict could easily blur into regional conflict, given Sudan’s wealth of natural resources and oil infrastructure that neighboring countries may want for themselves. In addition to humanitarian assistance and de-escalating the conflict, we must seek to empower Sudan to come up with alternatives to the current military leaders vying for control. The Sudanese people are desperate for peace. 

From your experience, what has it taken to actually get the international community to care about mediation efforts and humanitarian assistance in regard to conflicts that have been ‘put on the backburner’?” 

The international community is very divided when it comes to priorities. As the world is seeing so many more types of conflicts, international consensus is becoming rarer. Cohesion and coordination become more difficult in a multi-faceted conflict landscape. Bolstering the overall coordination and coherence of the international community is extremely important. In regard to Sudan, if certain countries support the Rapid Support Forces, and other countries support the Sudanese Army, and others support other ethnic militias, the international community exacerbates the conflict at hand. That must be avoided at all costs, which is why we must find a common denominator that brings everybody together and shows them that no one will benefit from the conflict escalating. It’s a tragic situation. When I was there, I was so proud of Sudan. I thought that it might be a new beacon of hope in Africa. Since I left, however, the situation has deteriorated rapidly and now is almost at the point of no return. But my contacts within Sudan give me a glimmer of hope and continually reassure me that there are many people working behind the scenes to create the possibility for a different future than the conflict-ridden status quo. 

Enya Kamadolli '26Student Journalist

Mohammed Wd Muna, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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