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.