Tag Archives: Sudan

Negotiations continue on what will replace the al-Bashir regime in Sudan

In the end, the fall of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir seemed to come quickly, with rumours circulating on the morning of 11th April that a debate was underway within the state security services and the military about how it would be handled – and who would replace him. He was gone by that evening, after almost 30 years in power. But the dramatic events came after months of protests, which began in December over food price increases and quickly turned into a demand for his regime to go. They continued despite a harsh crackdown in which scores of demonstrators were shot dead by state forces, including medics. It is hard to overstate the importance of these events, even though it’s not yet certain that fundamental and lasting change will happen, or whether some factions in the security forces will manage to hold on to the real power.

The background to the demonstrations is explained in a previous blog post on this site, and the regime itself is also analysed here. The organisers remained relatively united and channelled the anger felt by many ordinary people. At a certain point, it seems that many lost their fear of the regime, felt that there was a realistic chance of change, or were simply prepared to risk sacrificing their lives. Eventually a demonstration outside the national military headquarters in Khartoum on 6th April became a round-the-clock affair, and then a remarkable thing happened: soldiers were seen on the streets supporting the protesters. The various elements and ranks of state security apparatus, which Omar al-Bashir had managed so skilfully over the years, were clearly at odds with each other. On a number of occasions, soldiers returned fire on units of the state security which turned up and shot at the protesters. Several soldiers lost their lives. The future of the country was no longer being decided on the streets, but now also through a struggle within the security services.

On 11th April, it was clear that a coup had taken place. Later in the day the country’s First Vice President, Lt Gen Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, announced that he was in control. The constitution was suspended and there would be a two-year transition period. However the protesters outside the headquarter in Khartoum remained determined, knowing that Auf was not only the defence minister but also a key figure in the old regime. He was replaced the following evening by another military officer, Lt Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, who is seen as more open to the protesters’ demands, and had in fact met with them in the previous days. There were scenes of joy, as soldiers and demonstrators mingled outside the headquarters.

Transition process underway

Power is currently held by the Transitional Military Council, under al-Burhan, while negotiations on a transition continue with an alliance of opposition groups. These talks were continuing as this piece went online. The opposition is grouped under an umbrella body, the alliance of the “Declaration of Freedom and Change”. Agreement apparently reached so far included a three-year transition period, with a parliament whose 300 members would be appointed rather than directly elected. Two thirds of the members would come from the Freedom and Change group. A cabinet of technocrats would be nominated by the opposition groups, however a “Sovereignty Council” would also have real powers, and be made up of both military and civilian representatives.

As a sign of ongoing tensions within elements of former regime as the talks continued, protesters continuing the sit-in outside the military headquarters were attacked on 13th May by unidentified elements wearing uniforms of one of the state security services. Five civilians and one army officer were killed. The Council later announced the arrest of those responsible, who it described as infiltrators. Meanwhile, the Popular Congress Party, which held power under al-Bashir, is unhappy with the power-sharing arrangements, in which they would apparently have little say.

There is some international pressure on the Transitional Military Council to finalise a handover of power, from the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the EU. The AU’s Peace and Security Council called at the end of April for the transition to civilian rule to be completed within 60 days. However both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the Council, with an offer of $3 billion in budget support and aid.

The fate of the detained former President al-Bashir is a key question for whatever political order replaces his authoritarian regime. An indictment for genocide and other crimes in Darfur still hangs over him, despite which he managed to travel internationally as president without any attempt to arrest him. His fate is more likely to be decided within Sudan, however, although it is far from certain what will happen. Having been held initially in what the military called a “safe place”, he was later moved to the notorious Kobar prison in Khartoum, where so political opponents suffered at the hands of his regime. He has now been charged in relation to the deaths of protesters during the four months of demonstrations since December which ended his 30-year rule.

The resilience of different elements of the former regime is not to be underestimated – but neither is the determination, capacity, and resourcefulness of the civil groups staging these protests, along with a well-educated and mobilised diaspora. Whoever is control, the severe economic problems facing Sudan which prompted the protests last December, along with the civil war in neighbouring South Sudan, will be a significant challenge. But it is clear that things will never be quite the same.

Sudan’s president faces ongoing protests

Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir approaches the 30th anniversary of his rule in June with the most serious protests his regime has faced. More than three months after they began, people are still in the streets on an almost daily basis calling for the president to step down. Many people are feeling the pain of the country’s worsening economic crisis, with both price increases and shortages of bread and fuel. The scale and persistence of the demonstrations is unprecedented, despite a brutal crackdown in which dozens of protesters have been killed. What is also worrying for the regime is the fact that they have erupted in many locations across the country, not just in the capital, Khartoum. They started unexpectedly outside Khartoum in mid-December 2018, but spread quickly to the capital, where most are now held.

A further challenge for al Bashir is the fact that protestors seem to have lost their fear of his regime. Demonstrators recently gathered in front of the headquarters of the much-feared National Intelligence and Security Service, demanding the release of relatives detained there. The government says that 31 people have died during the protests, but human rights organisations say that more than 50 were killed, and Human Rights Watch has released videos showing the violence used against protestors. The use of live ammunition against them, and the targeting of medical staff, have been widely criticised. International condemnation by governments has, however, been relatively muted.

Response to the economic crisis

The country has faced spiralling inflation and steep falls in the value of its currency over the last few years, which as in turn hit food imports. The disruption of oil exports through Sudan and the loss of direct revenue from oil production when South Sudan broke away have been factors. The economy has long been affected by US sanctions which were imposed more than 20 years ago. Washington lifted some last year, and signed a framework agreement last November to remove the remainder, which would require some democratic reforms and greater press freedom.

The president announced the government was being disbanded on 22nd February with a plan to replace ministers with technocrats. State governors were also replaced by security officials, a state of emergency was declared, and unauthorised public gatherings were banned. Parliament subsequently reduced the state of emergency from a year to six months. A new government has since been put in place with the task of dealing with the economic crisis, but in fact includes many former ministers – some of them in the same positions as before.

History of the regime

Omar al Bashir is now aged 75 and not without health problems. He came to power in a military coup in 1989, and has remained in office through elections which are usually boycotted by the main opposition parties. He previously indicated a number of times that he would not seek a further term of office, only to stand again. Elections are due again next year, and his latest reversal and move to stay in power was dealt with in a recent blog here. Power is retained by the military and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which al Bashir has been particularly adept at managing by effectively ensuring the support of key figures, with important patronage networks in place.

He is of course wanted by the International Criminal Court for his role in crimes against humanity, genocide, and other attacks on civilians in the western region of Darfur. Despite being the first serving head of state to be indicted by the Court, he travels freely throughout Africa and the Arab world, and is also supported by Russia, which has invited him to the first Russia-Africa summit due to be held this October in Sochi. In the region, Khartoum helped to mediate shaky peace agreement in neighbouring South Sudan, which achieved its independence from Sudan in 2011, but has experienced civil war for most of its short history since then as a state. More than third of the population there is displaced by fighting, insecurity, ethnic cleansing, and food shortages. Importantly for Khartoum, South Sudan’s oil production has been badly hit by the war. This has had devastating consequences for the economies of both countries, since Sudan received substantial income for the use of pipelines through its territory to the Red Sea – the only possible export route for the oil.

One interesting phenomenon seen in different contexts is how demands change and evolve as protests gain momentum. The demonstrations by the jilets jaunes in France were sparked by a carbon tax which was reversed, but the protests continued while the demands broadened. Similarly in Algeria, people took to the streets and won the major concession, with President Bouteflika agreeing not to run for a fifth term in elections due this year. But the demonstrations continue, with the demand that he step down by the time his terms ends in April, as the prospect emerged that that would continue in power while the electoral process was under review. In Sudan, however, while the spark was economic hardship the demand has remained clear: for al Bashir’s regime to be replaced by an interim administration which would prepare the way for free and fair elections.

Protests are not new in Sudan, but the duration of these ones have taken many by surprise. Their persistence, despite the firm support of the army for the regime along with a brutal crackdown, has been described by some as becoming a war of attrition. This is the most serious threat al Bashir’s regime has faced. Much will depend on the ability of the traditionally divided opposition parties to unite and take advantage of the opportunity.

After 29 years in power, Sudan’s president says he’ll stand for election – again

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has confirmed that he will stand for election in 2020, despite the usual statements earlier that he would be stepping down then. For the resourceful and adaptable leader this will be the third time had he has gone back on pledges not to seek a further term, having made similar statements in 2010 and 2014. Overall, he is one of the longest-standing strongmen in Africa: his rule has lasted since he led a bloodless coup to seize power in 1989.

He does face another obstacle for now, in that he would be seeking his third term as an elected president. The 2005 constitution prevents a president serving more than two consecutive terms. The opposition umbrella group Sudan Call has launched a campaign against any move to amend the constitutional term limits.

President al-Bashir says his government is ready for the 2020 elections, having been nominated by his ruling National Congress Party in August. The ruling party has denied reports about a possible postponement to give it more time to deal with the country’s worsening economic crisis before facing voters. More recently, Sudan’s National Assembly approved a new draft election law on October 9th, arising out of a process of national dialogue on electoral reform. The proposed reforms have received a mixed reaction from opposition parties. Some of those aligned with the opposition Sudan Call may now participate in the 2020 elections, if they are satisfied that these will be conducted fairly. However another opposition coalition, the National Consensus Forces (NCF), has already said it will boycott the elections in two years’ time.

An election boycott by Sudanese opposition parties has in fact been the norm, and the opposition has remained weak and fragmented over the years. There are significant restrictions on media, with newspapers facing closures or seizure of their copies, and opposition politicians also face arbitrary detention or exile. Real power remains in the hands of the military and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

Relations warming with US but worsening economic crisis

Sudan is keen to normalise its relations with the US. The US lifted some of its economic sanctions on Sudan in October last year, 20 years after they were imposed. There are clear signs of warming relations at the strategic and military level, with the recent visit to Washington of the Sudanese Chief of General Staff, where he met several intelligence and military figures. However the US has for now kept Sudan on its blacklist of states which it says sponsor terrorism, along with three other countries.

Sudan’s economy has been in crisis for some time, with inflation rising from 34% last year to an annual rate of 67% in August according to Central Bureau of Statistics. It suffered when the South – where most of the oil reserves lie – gained its independence after a long war, to become South Sudan in July 2011. Sudan benefits from payments for transporting the oil via pipelines through its territory from land-locked South Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. But oil production has declined sharply due to the civil war in the newest member of the United Nations which broke out in December 2013. Sudan has been closely involved in brokering peace talks in South Sudan (covered in this previous blog post) through the regional IGAD mechanism, despite being a former adversary of the South’s SPLM/A which fought for decades for its independence.

Khartoum is keen to see oil production restored to previous levels, and has had direct talks with the government of South Sudan and engaged in technical cooperation to re-open the damaged facilities. In September, Khartoum signed agreements with the main oil producers under which the state would receive US$14 per barrel for transporting crude oil in government-owned pipelines from production sites.

The Sudanese pound has fallen considerably in value against the dollar, with a further official devaluation of 60% in October. The shortage of foreign currency – which is acknowledged by the finance ministry – is a serious matter for a country which imports much of its food. The economic problems have been worsened by Khartoum’s debt arrears and limited access to external finance.

China has cancelled a small part of Sudan’s debt of more than US$2 billion, which Khartoum has failed to service in recent years due the economic crisis. Further debt forgiveness is expected following a package of relief for African countries announced at a summit in Beijing in September.

Indictment by the ICC

Besides holding onto power for so long, Omar al-Bashir has other claims to fame. He became the first ruling head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, and other attacks on civilians, during the war to suppress rebels seeking greater autonomy in the western region of Darfur, which broke out in 2003. An arrest warrant was issued by the ICC in 2009 but he has been able to travel freely throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where the ICC is regarded with suspicion even by those who are party to the Rome Statute which set it up in 2002. They are supposed to arrest al-Bashir, but never act on the warrant. He made an early departure from a summit of African Union leaders in South Africa in 2015 when civil society groups started a court case against their own government for not arresting him. For now, the arrest warrant does not seem to be a problem to him, and can even help to rally his supporters around the flag.

In Darfur itself, a ceasefire means there is less fighting in the region compared to the worst of the ethnic cleansing from 2004 onwards. But there are still about two million internally displaced people, most of them in Darfur itself. How these people might return voluntarily to their lands – and whether it is safe for them to do so – is one of the key questions to be addressed. The joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission Darfur, UNAMID, is being scaled back considerably, with a view to exiting the region over the next two years. It was first deployed in 2007, and has been one the world’s largest peacekeeping missions.

Regional dimension

Omar al-Bashir is now 74 and has some health problems, but he has shown considerable skill in managing threats around him, consolidating power, and using a powerful network of economic and political patronage. That network is under greater pressure – but could also be more useful – as the economy continues to falter. The region has many security problems, not least being the war in neighbouring South Sudan which has displaced a third of the population and created famine in some parts. Egypt and Ethiopia both want Sudan as an ally in their competition for the waters of Nile, which flows through all three countries. Sudan also participated in Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. There are many reasons for observers to follow how al-Bashir manages his latest economic and political challenges.

Signing of peace agreement is just the start for South Sudan’s broken politics

The signing of a power-sharing agreement between sworn enemies in South Sudan should be a cause for celebration. President Salva Kiir’s tentative deal with his former Vice-President Riek Machar in Khartoum in August is one of the most hopeful things to have happened in the last two years, given the worsening political and humanitarian crises. But it is far from being a solution in itself. The continued mistrust, and the shallowness of the peace process, are in fact real causes for concern.

The situation is remarkable in many ways. Not least is the impact which these leaders’ hostility has had on their fragile country: a third of the population (more than four million people) have been displaced by fighting since 2013, and an estimated seven million people have been affected by food insecurity – some of them severely. The wounds are deep, since these leaders effectively represent the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer. Politics has become even more polarised along ethnic lines, as have its military forces. There are widespread and well-documented reports of ethnic cleansing, rape, and worse, on the basis of ethnicity. The state forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is increasingly regarded as pursuing the interests of the Dinka group, while Machar’s SPLM-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition) is largely a Nuer force.

The two forces fought each other openly in the capital, Juba, in July 2016 as Machar was forced to flee not just government but the country. He ended up in South Africa where he spent more than a year under effective house arrest, while regional powers sought to restore some kind of calm. So his return to government – as agreed on paper at least – seems like even more of an achievement.

The real concern is that the peace agreement has only been initialled under duress from regional powers – President Kiir was strongly opposed to Machar’s release and any role for him in a future government – rather than having some kind of basis in changing relationships. The negotiations have focussed on issues which look more like a carve up of state resources for the elites involved. The number of vice-presidents is being increased to five (with Machar due to return as First Vice-President). Parliament has been increased to 550 members, with the additional seats divided out under the agreement rather than through any kind of election. Even the government itself has ballooned to 45 ministers (again divided out by faction, with most going to the two largest groups). While the country suffers from one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, patronage and state capture have taken priority.

From new state to failed state

South Sudan is still celebrated as one of the newest states, having become independent in July 2011. (Independence day celebrations were cancelled this year for the third year running due to lack of state funds.) It achieved its sovereignty after decades of war with northern Sudan, which cost millions of lives. The peace process went remarkably smoothly, with a referendum overwhelmingly endorsing the creation of a new state. Analysts who expected Sudan to somehow overturn the process were proven wrong, even though it meant the breakaway nation leaving with nearly all the oil fields which had started to boost the Sudanese economy. There was considerable international support for the SPLA’s difficult transition from guerrilla movement to proto-state. But the ethnic tensions (exploited by Khartoum during the war) and weak, corrupt, or non-existent institutions were always going to be a huge challenge.

Just over two years after independence, the power-sharing government which ushered in the new state fell apart amid mistrust and rivalry between the two leaders in December 2013. Civilians quickly fled as the ethnic nature of the violence became clear almost immediately. Regional powers brokered an unstable deal – not a good precedent for the current agreement – which allowed Machar to return to the capital. But within months the violence broke out again, in the July 2016 clashes during which he was forced to flee.

Consequences of war

The consequences for South Sudan have been dire – and this was a country already deeply impoverished by neglect and war even before it achieved its independence. Food production has been affected by millions of people fleeing their homes, and insecurity preventing the movement of goods. Famine was declared in parts Unity State in February 2017, exactly as predicted, and only a massive international aid effort prevented deaths on an enormous scale. This year has been worse in ways: the World Food Program (WFP) warned of “alarming” levels of food insecurity  with some communities again just “a step away from famine”. Nearly two-thirds of the population (7.1 million people) were facing severe food insecurity by the end of July. The WFP assisted 2.6 million people in May this year alone.

The link between conflict and hunger in South Sudan has been well documented. It is worsened by continued fighting preventing access by humanitarian organisations. South Sudan has been listed as the most dangerous place for aid workers to operate: 28 were killed last year, bringing the total to more than 100 since 2013.

In terms of displacement, 2.47 million are now refugees in neighbouring countries, with more than a million in Uganda. A total of 1.76 million are internally displaced, with about 200,000 seeking shelter at Protection of Civilians sites in or beside UN bases across the country. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has faced a difficult task in trying implement its complex and multi-dimensional mandate to protect civilians (amongst other things), given the hostile attitude of the government. At the UN Security Council, an arms embargo was finally imposed in July through Resolution 2428, which had failed to get enough votes to pass at its last outing in the final days of the Obama administration. The government meanwhile extended President Kiir’s term of office to 2021 with little fuss in July.

Human rights abuses, sexual violence, and the killing of civilians has continued to deepen enmities and erode trust, even as elites talked “peace” in neighbouring capitals. A report by UNMISS and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented atrocities in detail in April, in which the SPLA was implicated among others.

First steps in a peace process?

So, an actual peace process was never more needed. The main sponsor has been the regional body of states (including South Sudan itself) known as IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development). It brokered a cessation of hostilities in December (which is frequently ignored) and effectively gave permission for the release of Riek Machar from house arrest in South Africa in late March (something strongly opposed by President Kiir). Talks principally involving the two groups, along with other less powerful factions, took place in the neighbouring capitals of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan. The agreement was initialled in August by most parties in Khartoum, followed by further renegotiations there with a further deal being initialled at on 30th August. Talks on the implementation matrix continued in Khartoum.

But even if the agreement can be implemented – including the tricky questions of power-sharing and reintegration of Riek Machar’s forces into a national army – the problems are far from over. The deal represents a share-out of jobs and resources for those with leverage, rather than a peace process. There are of course many voices of courage in South Sudan, with the vision, humanity, and solidarity to build a future based on co-existence, despite the very hostile environment for civil society organisations. A deal which involves elites and armed elements seeking to advance their interests is not a peace process which can heal the alarming ethnic polarisation of national politics and everyday life in South Sudan. The importance of a process like this is well understood, but the country is a long way from seeing the leadership which would allow this kind of dialogue to emerge.

 

Suggested Reading:

Arensen, Michael J, 2016, If We Leave We Are Killed: Lessons Learned from South Sudan Protection of Civilian Sites 2013–2016, International Organization for Migration, South Sudan.

Christian Aid, 2018, In It for the Long Haul? Lessons on Peacebuilding in South Sudan, London and Juba: Christian Aid

Concern Worldwide, 2018, Conflict and Hunger: The Lived Experience of Conflict and Food Insecurity in South Sudan

Jok Madut Jok, 2017, Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace, Oneworld Publications.

Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2016, Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response, Washington DC: Center for Civilians in Conflict.

United Nations, 2018, Letter dated 12 April 2018 from the Panel of Experts on South Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2018/292

 

Sudan – President Al-Bashir easily wins re-election bid

Sudan held its latest general election from April 13 to 16 after the voting period was extended by one day due to low voter turnout. With official results due to be released on Monday, April 27, there is little doubt long-time President Omar Al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) will emerge as the overwhelming victors. This outcome, while entirely predictable, has nevertheless led to renewed speculation about Sudan’s political trajectory, and the prospect of more violence on the road ahead.

A pyrrhic victory for the Bashir and the NCP

While these elections do not pose a challenge to Bashir’s hold on power, they do little to reinforce the legitimacy of the NCP regime. In power since 1989, the current leadership has had to contend with unprecedented opposition in recent years, prompted in part by the severe economic repercussions of oil-rich South Sudan’s secession in 2011.

The low turnout at last week’s polls expressed the clear lack of enthusiasm for the ruling party, not to mention cynicism regarding the electoral process. As one observer quipped, why bother holding elections over several days when they could be done ‘in five minutes?’

Violence perpetrated by rebel groups in Sudan’s embattled periphery further highlighted the prevailing instability in much of the country. Gunmen in North Darfur shot at ballot boxes while in South Kordofan, attacks led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North resulted in the closure of several polling stations.

An opposition boxed and cornered

The decision by the main opposition parties to boycott the elections further undermined any added legitimacy the NCP could hope to gain.

The decision to stage a boycott came after repeated arrests of opposition party leaders, including in December of last year after an unprecedented coalition of political parties, civil society organizations and rebel groups jointly issued the ‘Sudan call.’ The ‘Call’ expressed a commitment to a non-violent political process aimed at dismantling the one-party state. The NCP government did release two political detainees shortly before the elections, but that did little to alter the sense of opposition persecution.

Unsurprisingly given the political environment, the primary opposition parties remain weak. Even the mainstream opposition does not have the nation-wide structures or clear political programme that would enable it to form a government.

Given the circumstances, Bashir ended up running against 13 little-known presidential contenders who could hardly dent his share of the vote.

Fading prospects for a peaceful transition in Sudan

The fact that Bashir appears ‘stronger than ever’ and the obvious weakness of the opposition has exacerbated fears that the NCP regime—and its powerful base in Sudan’s security system—will never be able to hand over power peacefully.. As noted by one Khartoum-based Western Diplomat, ‘There is an uneasy feeling among diplomats here that these elections were a lost cause. It would be better to focus on the 2020 elections, even if it looks like the peaceful way of challenging al-Bashir’s power may have run out.’

In general, Western powers appear to be reconsidering their attitude vis-à-vis Bashir’s government. Long-time a pariah state, not least given the ICC’s arrest warrant for Bashir, Sudan is currently working to reposition itself regionally. It has loosened ties with erstwhile ally Iran while looking to strengthen its links with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Europe and the US, meanwhile, appear concerned that the removal of Bashir and his NCP could herald a new era of domestic and regional instability. While many western powers continue to issue weak statements condemning the worst of the NCP’s political abuses, these do not seem calculated to have any real effect.

While observers in Nigeria are still celebrating the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another, the elections in Sudan leave little hope for a similar breakthrough in the foreseeable future. Instead, the country is left with an aging President and little sense—either at home or abroad—of what could come next

Sudan – Tensions high as President Bashir officially launches his re-election bid

On Sunday, January 11, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir officially registered his re-election bid, setting the stage for a continuation of his now 26 year reign. Bashir’s action comes amidst heightened political tensions at home and waning enthusiasm for his leadership within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), yet his grip on power seems as firm as ever.

A fraught domestic scene

This time last year, observers began to speculate about a possible thaw in Sudanese politics. Following a brutal crackdown on protests in September 2013, which led to the death of over 200 demonstrators in Khartoum, the President Bashir called for a ‘national dialogue’ with political and civic forces. A committee of both government and opposition representatives was convened to pave the way for a ‘National Dialogue Conference’, which government representatives affirm will take place early this year.

Opposition support for the dialogue, however, quickly began to collapse. The first to jump ship was the National Umma Party (NUP), Sudan’s largest opposition party, which denounced the dialogue after its leader was arrested in May 2014. In August, NUP faced renewed threats from government after it joined with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to sign the ‘Paris Declaration’, which calls for genuine dialogue between all political forces, including rebel groups. December witnessed a further unification of opposition forces as an unprecedented coalition of opposition parties, civil society organisations and rebel groups jointly issued the ‘Sudan Call.’ Described in the press as a ‘breakthrough’ event, the ‘Call’ expresses a commitment to a non-violent political process aimed at dismantling the one-party state. It also includes a demand for government to allow humanitarian aid to reach Sudan’s embattled periphery, particularly Darfur.

Deemed an ‘unholy alliance’ and ‘treasonous to the homeland’ by NCP officials, the coalition was immediately targeted with the arrest of two prominent leaders. On January 13, just two days after Bashir registered his candidacy in the April elections, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) moved to dissolve NUP and ban its activities under the pretext that the party is colluding with rebel forces.

The government is still trying to put on a conciliatory face, claiming that 83 government and opposition parties will participate in the upcoming ‘national dialogue conference.’ Already in tatters, though, the legitimacy of the dialogue took yet another hit this week when the NCP breakaway party, the Reform Now Movement (RNM), suspended its participation. RNM also announced that it will boycott the April elections, thus aligning with the Muslim Brotherhood and NUP, among others who have denounced the upcoming polls as a government-orchestrated ‘absurdity.’  The promised boycott heralds a repeat of the 2010 scenario in which opposition parties similarly shunned the polls, the first since the NCP seized power in 1989.

With AU-mediated negotiations between government and rebel groups also at a standstill, Sudan is very far from ‘a new minimum of consensus’ observers hoped might be achieved when the ‘national dialogue’ was first launched.

Within the NCP – leading by default?

While a battered opposition continues to criticize Bashir’s government, his re-nomination as presidential flag bearer for the ruling NCP was, as argued by one observer, ‘conspicuously squeaky.’

Late last year, Sudan’s foreign minister, a close ally of the President, declared that Bashir is the ‘only person trusted’ to head the NCP, but there appears to be a large portion of the party leadership who do not share this trust, or else remain apathetic.

The 522-strong NCP shura (consultative) council convened to vote on a presidential nominee in October.  With 126 members absent, though, the council barely mustered the 75 percent quorum required to vote while just over 50 percent of the total shura members (many of whom were not present) actually came out in favour of a Bashir re-nomination.

Despite condemnation from opposition actors and the somewhat tepid embrace of his own party members, Bashir’s power shows no obvious signs of weakening. Admittedly, the Sudanese economy continues to struggle with double-digit inflation, slow growth, and the aftershocks of IMF-mediated fiscal consolidation, much of which is tied to the 2011 secession of oil rich South Sudan. A number of other factors, though, are playing in Bashir’s favour. The ICC, which long had a warrant out for his arrest, suspended its investigations in December. Bashir has meanwhile worked to shed his international pariah status by multiplying his trips abroad while also receiving foreign dignitaries, most recently China’s foreign minister, in Khartoum.

The foreign charm offensive aside, Bashir has also worked to consolidate power at home, notably by—in his own words—abolishing competing ‘power centres’ through the substitution of elected state governors with presidential appointees. He also appears to have successfully gambled on a military strategy in the restive South Kordofan region, where government troops and Khartoum-backed militia are reportedly on the verge of routing rebel opposition.

Raw political tensions, violent conflict in the periphery and deeply entrenched socio-economic inequalities at the centre are as much as ever a part of the Sudanese reality. But for now at least, these obstacles appear of little importance in shaping Bashir’s hold on power. In this context, presidential elections—and Bashir’s participation in them—do seem like a non-event, indeed an ‘absurdity.’ But the so-called absurdity does put into greater relief how a combination of repression, fear and apathy ensure Bashir retains his position without serious challenge.