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.
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.