What are Sudan’s prospects after Omar Al-Bashir?
Political uncertainty reigns in Sudan since the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir, who had been ruling the country as a dictator for almost 30 years. The Transitional Military Council who deposed him is now facing pressure from the crowd to transfer power to a fully civilian government. In this complex situation, Sudan remains a poor and fragile country keen to plunge into instability and possibly armed conflict.
I’m your host Kasim, welcome to another KJ Vid. In this video we will discuss the recent military coup in Sudan. But just before we begin, please support KJ Vids by subscribing to our membership plan on kjvids.co.uk. The website has tons of other content and useful resource for geopolitical enthusiasts. This will also help us keep politically and financially independent.
Sudan’s contemporary history can be traced back to 1821, when Muhammad Ali, the de facto independent ruler of Egypt nominally under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, begun the invasion of the country. His descendants continued the expansion southwards, ultimately occupying nearly all of Sudan.
When Egypt fell in the sphere of influence of the British Empire in 1882, Sudan followed it.
Just one year before, a preacher named Muhammad Ahmad had proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the “Guided One”, a term indicating a messiah who would save and restore the true Islamic faith. He started a revolt against the government and met some initial success, establishing a practically independent Sudan based on the principles of Sharia. However, his successors were ultimately defeated by the British forces in 1898.
The following year, an agreement between the British and the Egyptians established a joint control over Sudan, but in practice the country fell under London’s colonial rule. This was largely motivated by geopolitical considerations.
First, the British feared that their projects in Africa would be threatened if Sudan fell under the influence of France or another power.
Second, they did not want to lose control over the waterflow of the Nile, which crosses Sudan before entering into Egypt.
As a result, Sudan was under Anglo-Egyptian domination from 1898 to 1956, when it finally became independent. Still, as it often happened in the decolonization period, this did not bring political stability and substantial economic prosperity to the new country.
There was a sensible divide between the relatively advanced Arab-Muslim north and the less developed south inhabited by black Africans of Christian or Animist faith.
While struggling to improve its economy, Sudan experienced various military coups; until the one of 1989 that brought Omar al-Bashir to power. He established a one-party system centred on himself, with no political freedom, a poor human rights record and links with Jihadi groups. Sudan was an isolated and underdeveloped country with little prospects for improvement and which experienced several armed conflicts. Among these, one of the most important started in 2003, when an uprising began in the Darfur region. As a matter of fact, the local non-Arab population felt discriminated in favour of the Arab majority; which reflects the longstanding divide in Sudanese society that was mentioned before. The conflict has caused a non-specified number of casualties, which nevertheless reach the thousands, and is still practically unresolved today. Severe violations of international humanitarian law were committed, and the International Criminal Court even indicted al-Bashir himself. Another decade-long conflict, similarly linked to ethnical differences between the north and the south but also to the presence of important oil fields in the latter, culminated with South Sudan’s secession in 2011.
The situation for al-Bashir’s regime became unsustainable from December 2018, when large-scale protests erupted against the government’s decision to increase the price of basic goods in an attempt to counter the disastrous financial-economic situation of the country. The authorities initially tried to repress the movement; but on April 11th 2019 a military coup ousted al-Bashir and power was given to the Transitional Military Council. However, this did not calm the people. On the contrary, many protested against the presence of three generals who were known for their Islamist ideas and for their proximity to the al-Bashir regime, and demanded an immediate transition to a fully civilian rule. The three generals have all resigned, but the crowd continues to call for a civilian government, and the situation remains uncertain.
Sudan’s Geopolitical Situation
Sudan is located in a volatile region between the Arab world and the Sub-Saharan one. Even though South Sudan became independent in 2011, non-Arab minorities are still present in the southern part of Sudan and tensions persist. Its territory is largely desert or semi-arid but contains some notable underground resources to exploit; even though this was sensibly reduced after the loss of the oil fields in South Sudan. Economically, it has experienced a positive growth rate of more than 1% in the past few years, but it remains a poor country where 46.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Agriculture still absorbs 80% of the workforce and it accounts for nearly 40% of the GDP, with industry representing 2.6% and services around 57.8%. The fiscal situation is troublesome: in 2017, the budget deficit and the public debt were 10.6% and 121.6% of the GDP respectively. Inflation is high: having reached 32.4% in the same year. This situation was also the result of South Sudan’s secession in 2011, which had a profound impact on the Sudanese economy.
Most of Sudan’s neighbours are in a state of instability or even open conflict. To the north, Egypt has now stabilized after the events of the Arab Spring, but the political divide persist between laic and Islamist factions and its economy remains vulnerable. Egypt has important stakes in Sudan: its agriculture relies on the Nile, which flows through Sudanese territory before reaching Egypt; meaning that water conflicts could emerge in the future. Libya, on its part, is torn by civil war. To the east, Sudan has access to the Red Sea. This should boost its economic growth, especially considering that the maritime trade routes connecting Europe and Asia pass through its waters; but in practice, this has brought only limited benefit to Sudan. Always to the east, Ethiopia and Eritrea have been engaged in a long conflict that has been solved only recently, at least on paper; but in spite of progress both remain affected by underdevelopment problems and Ethiopia has also to deal with separatist movements. Southwards, the newly-independent state of South Sudan continues to struggle with poverty, instability, and civil war; and the resource conflict with its northern neighbour remains strong: while it has rich oil deposits, it can hardly export them without passing through Sudan’s territory to reach the Red Sea. The Central African Republic to the south-west is another weak state affected by inter-ethnic conflict and with limited prospects for development. Finally, to the west lies Chad, which is equally affected by political turmoil and internal conflict.
In short, Sudan is one of the many pieces of the area’s geopolitical landscape marked by instability, poverty, ethnic-religious strife and conflict. Borders are porous and armed groups – either separatists, smugglers, terrorists or other – can easily move from one state to another; often setting up a cross-border network and using one country as a “safe haven” to operate in another. Combined with weak state institutions and widespread corruption, this leaves little hope for economic development and political stabilization for Sudan and its neighbours. Such situation is not only a regional matter, because as long as it persists many locals will seek to migrate to Europe. Similarly, this situation will make it possible for people from Sub-Saharan Africa to illegally cross these countries to reach the Mediterranean, enriching the groups that participate in human traffic activities. As a result, the migrant flow towards Europe will continue, with all the socio-political effects that are already taking place.
What Prospects for Sudan?
Now that al-Bashir has been ousted, there is great uncertainty over the future course of Sudanese politics. The protesters seem determined to obtain a swift transition to a fully-civilian government, and also to prevent the Islamist forces to take power. Yet, this is not a guarantee that Sudan will have a civilian executive anytime soon. Such bottom-up protests can easily be deviated by opportunistic politicians; and in any case the new President could be another strongman backed by the military or turn into one. In the worst-case scenario, the opposition between different political groups could even result in a full-fledged civil war. The ethnic fragmentation existing in Sudan makes this possibility more likely and potentially more destructive.
In any case, even with a new fully civilian government willing and capable of promoting radical reforms to democratize and modernize the country, the prospects for Sudan leave little room for optimism for the time being. The country has its potential to grow, but there is much work to be done and it will not be an easy task even for a stable and competent executive. This is also because of the broader situation affecting the region around Sudan, marked by poverty, instability and where conflicts can easily spill over to neighbouring countries. As a result, it is unlikely that the social, political and economic situation of Sudan will improve much in the next few years. This will require stability, sound policies, investments and international assistance; and creating the right conditions is a complicated endeavour. In the short term, the first thing to monitor is what political situation will ultimately emerge in the aftermath of the recent coup and the following protests, as this could be either the first step towards Sudan’s stabilization or towards its collapse as a state.