Sudan’s government reverts to old ways
Sudan has had a tumultuous few years. In April 2019, a huge popular uprising led to the removal of former dictator Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power. In the aftermath, military leaders and representatives of the people negotiated a gradual transition towards full civilian leadership.
This fragile arrangement has been rocky and much maligned, but it was at least moving Sudan towards the agreed date for civilian leadership to take effect. That is, until General Burhan – perhaps fearing retribution for past war crimes or not wanting to hand over the vast wealth obtained by the military – launched the coup this October and arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Once again, demonstrators immediately took to the streets in cities and towns across the country. After weeks of sustained protests, the military government on 21 November offered some concessions by releasing Hamdok from house arrest and reinstating him as Prime Minister. But key civil society groups rejected the agreement, and protests have continued against any deal that would involve the military.
Since 25 October, hope in a transition towards democracy has been dealt a serious blow. According to Farsab, one of the first casualties of the coup was Sudan’s newfound freedom of expression.
Just before midnight on 24 October, the former information minister reported on Facebook that military forces had stormed the state broadcaster in Omdurman and arrested employees. First thing on the morning of 25 October, Burhan then issued a “presidential decree” to dismiss the General Director of the national news agency SUNA. Its website went down for almost a week, while its offices remained closed for the first time since the 1970s. According to Hassan Farouk, a member of the Sudanese Journalists Network, SUNA’s staff were also summarily fired and replaced with former Bashir cadres.
“We almost had a professional news wire during the transitional period,” says freelance journalist Mohamed Saleh. “Now we’re back to the former lies.”
Military authorities also disconnected the Internet. It was turned back on in late-November, but authorities continue to block social media platforms, meaning people have to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access these apps and maintain private conversations. Similar restrictions on the media were applied.
On 21 November, the military re-instated Prime Minister Hamdok, saying he would have full authority to appoint his cabinet and insisting the civilian transition was back in effect. Local journalists, however, say repression of the press continues as before.
In fact, after a brief pause, repression has reached similar levels to those before the return of Hamdok. The military’s move to re-install Hamdok was therefore simply an attempt to appease the increasingly frustrated people as well as its international backers like the US.
Towards the end of December, the repression by the authorities reached a new level.
First, the security forces cut off mobile internet, all telephone communications — including calls from abroad – and the bridges linking Khartoum to its suburbs, Omdourman and Khartoum-North.
In the streets of the capital and its outskirts, security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition at tens of thousands of supporters of civilian rule in a country that has been under military rule for most of its 65 years of independence.
At the same time, officers arrested journalists and attacked the office of the Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya.
After two months of a crackdown that has left a total of 53 people dead, the violence on Thursday was concentrated in Omdurman, where four protesters were fatally shot in the head or chest, according to a pro-democracy doctors’ union.
Last week, Sudanese security forces violently dispersed huge crowds protesting against the coup, killing at least three people, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD).
The medical group, which is part of the pro-democracy movement, said one of those who dead was hit “violently” in his head while taking part in a protest march in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. A second person was shot in the chest in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman, the CCSD said, adding that dozens of protesters were also wounded.
The protests came despite tightened security and blocked bridges and roads in Khartoum and Omdurman. Sunday’s deaths have brought the death toll among protesters since the military takeover to at least 57, according to CCSD. Hundreds have also been wounded.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said on Sunday he was resigning, six weeks after returning to his post in a deal with military coup leaders he argued could save a transition toward democracy.
Hamdok, who had failed to name a government as protests continued against the military takeover in October, said a roundtable discussion was needed to produce a new agreement for Sudan’s political transition.
“I decided to give back the responsibility and announce my resignation as prime minister, and give a chance to another man or woman of this noble country to … help it pass through what’s left of the transitional period to a civilian democratic country,” Hamdok said in a televised address.
The announcement throws Sudan’s political future even deeper into uncertainty, three years after an uprising
that led to the overthrow of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir. An economist and former United Nations official widely respected by the international community, Hamdok became prime minister under a power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians following Bashir’s overthrow.
On Sunday Hamdok said he had tried in vain to forge a consensus between deeply divided factions that would have allowed for the completion of a peace process signed with some rebel groups in 2020, and the preparation of elections in 2023.
“I have tried as far as I am able to spare our country the danger of slipping into disaster,” Hamdok said. “Despite all that was done to bring about the desired and necessary agreement to fulfill our promise to the citizen of security, peace, justice and an end to bloodshed, this did not happen.”
Among the economic reforms Hamdok oversaw were the removal of costly fuel subsidies and a sharp devaluation of the currency.
Those enabled Sudan to qualify for relief on at least $56 billion of foreign debt and a long-running economic crisis had shown signs of easing. The coup put the debt relief deal in doubt and froze extensive Western economic backing for Sudan.
On his return as prime minister in November, Hamdok said he wanted to preserve the economic steps taken by the transitional government and halt bloodshed after rising numbers of casualties from the crackdown on protests.
Is there a long term solution?
In order to understand if a political solution is possible in Sudan we must understand the political and economic background to the current crisis.
Sudan’s most recent popular uprising was nurtured by a cascade of mass grievances over President Omar Al-Bashir’s 30 years dictatorial and repressive regime that has had significant impact on the livelihood of ordinary Sudanese citizens. President Al Bashir has faced protests and rebellions throughout his rule, but the decisive protest that toppled his regime began on 19 December 2018 following the government’s removal of subsidies which led to price hikes on basic commodities.
The protest was triggered primarily by the government’s decision to remove its subsidy on wheat which tripled the “price of a loaf of bread from one Sudanese pound to three (about 0.02 USD to 0.06 USD)”.25 However, the grievances have been nurtured over the years due to rising cost of living, over 70% inflation rate and bank withdrawal limits. The economic hardships coupled with austerity measures and fuel price hikes had also motivated similar protests in 2011, 2013 and 2016. Branch and Mampilly note that economic grievances often translate into concerns about corruption and long-serving regimes.26
The government’s decision to remove subsidies was based on a number of factors that led to the country’s economic decline. Notably, the secession of the oil-rich South Sudan from Sudan in 2011 weakened Sudan’s sources of revenue.27 Prior to its secession, South Sudan had three-quarters of Sudan’s oil reserves. Additionally, the war in South Sudan since 2013 had limited Sudan’s revenue that was generated from South Sudan’s use of oil pipelines and infrastructures of Sudan. The fall in oil prices in the last few years further weakened Sudan’s revenue base thereby making it untenable for the govern- ment to continue paying huge subsidies on basic commodities. Furthermore, the sanctions on Sudan played a significant role in crippling the economy.
Although the US only lifted its 20-year-long trade embargo on Sudan in 2017, the country was unable to attract significant foreign investment between 2017 and 2019.
The country’s steady economic decline reduced the government’s ability to buy loyalty and sustain its extensive patronage networks. For the protesters, however, the worsening economic challenges are only consequent from the long autocratic rule of President Al-Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years.
The 2018–2019 uprising in Sudan began in a spontaneous and uncoordinated manner in several cities and rapidly spread throughout the country. This was unlike the protests in 2011 which were confined to only major cities involving students and the poor. Sudan also faced mass demonstrations between 2012 and 2013 after the government cut fuel subsidies and introduced austerity economic measures.
It is worth noting that the Sudan’s uprisings in 1964 and 1985 worked only when the military took sides with the protesters. Likewise, the popular uprising in 2019 tilted in favor of protesters when the military intervened. The turning point of the revolution became clearer in early April when ordinary members of the military force refused to use force against protesters. These military officers also fired back at security agents who were using live ammunitions on protesters who encircled the military headquarters calling for an end to Bashir’s government.
Notably, after the euphoria surrounding the ouster of Bashir, Sudanese protesters began to realize that the ouster of Al Bashir may mean that the military would dominate the political life of the country resulting in another autocracy, and this is indeed what happened as became clear last year with the military coup on the coalition government, and now at the resignation of Hamdok.
International response during popular uprisings remains a challenge due to the principle of sovereignty and the mainstream focus on electoral-based democracy in Sudan.
International aid is just a stop-gap solution that would help in the short-medium turn. In order for Sudan to reach political stability, a plan needs to be formulated for holding elections that present an equal opportunity to all parties involved, and without the intercession of the military. Although Sudan must formulate this plan on its own, it can only be done with international support of Sudan’s main partners and neighbors, as well as their pressure on the military to facilitate such a process. The US and the African Union for instance. A similar process to the Libyan model must be established, however with several key differences to prevent a scenario like the Libyan one where the elections were postponed. Electoral laws, constitution and legislation must actively be negotiated between truly all parties in Sudan, without excluding any parties or regions, and mechanisms must be put in place to avoid electoral fraud. An elected inclusive government would provide the basis for long-term political stability, which is needed to deal with the country’s dire economic situation. The road to such a scenario however, is still long.