Sudan in crisis: failing to learn from past mistakes

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Mhamed Biygautane
Mhamed Biygautane

Throughout the annals of history, revolutions have been principally triggered by political repression, dissatisfaction of people from rising prices of food, energy and rising poverty rates as a dire consequence of the unfair distribution of wealth among all citizens.

As a result of the Sudan’s government dismissing the fuel subsidies that led to doubling energy prices, Sudanese people took to the streets calling for “freedom, peace and justice”. One wonders what kept the Sudanese people so late in catching up with the rest of the Arab world three years ago to demand the change of regime and call for freedom and dignity. More importantly, how can the Sudanese people be proud of a leader who tops the list of the most wanted criminals at the International Criminal Court since 2009 for the genocide war crimes he had committed?

The outburst of the Sudanese political crisis since the 23rd of September makes one reflect on the failure of the Sudanese regime and authorities to learn from the mistakes of Arab leaders during the peak of the Arab Spring. There is a saying that ‘history repeats itself’, but it takes a sound mind and solid judgment to learn from its lessons and avoid its negative consequences. Perhaps this is what the Sudanese authorities are lacking; sound decision making mechanisms and solid leadership to effectively manage this political crisis.

However, comparing the Sudan’s political crisis to the ‘Arab Spring’ is like glorifying and anticipating its failure. Arab Spring did not yield any positive change to the political landscape of the countries that went through it, but it rather aggravated the internal conflicts those countries had before the uprisings in some cases, and led to a full-fledged civil war in others like Syria. Hence, it should perhaps only be referred to as a source of lessons to better understand and anticipate the political direction of Sudan in the short and long runs given the similarity of its regime, political and historical developments to many countries of the MENA region.

The failure of the regime to deliver since 1989

In the majority of Arab countries, resources have been drastically misused. Instead of investing in sectors that propel and trigger economic growth, governments invested in subsidies that strengthen the fake social contract they claim to provide their people by highly subsidized energy and food prices. Most governments in the region use these subsidies as a proof of their commitment to mitigate the effects of high prices on their citizens. But in fact, they only reinforce the dependence of poor people on their current governments to provide the basics of living so they never question their legitimacy. An IMF study confirms that the Arab world spends three times on energy subsidies more than on education or economic growth.

The regime of Omar Al-Bashir has ruled since 1989 but has not achieved growth in any sector. The government’s mismanagement of oil revenues during the rainy days of the country, and its failure to properly invest in education, strengthening the foundations of the economy, especially the agricultural sector, are key factors for its lagging behind in all developmental indicators. The country has been suffering from rampant inflation and unemployment rates and a soaring Sudanese Pound that has plummeted dramatically in the past 5 years. Al Bashir’s government secured its continuity and sustainability by heavily subsidizing the prices of energy and food and ignoring essential sectors that would create business opportunities and social stability.

The miscalculation and mismanagement of Al-Bashir’s government is apparent in his contradictory statements concerning the secession from the union with South Sudan. Before 2011, the year in which Sudan was split into South and North Sudan, Al Bashir stated that the South was a burden in front of the development of the North and its economic prosperity. However, since the secession in 2011, the North lost around 75% of oil revenues and could not manage to keep subsidizing the energy prices. Now, Al Bashir claims that the price of the concession from the South was high and has had unaccounted for consequences on the economy’s health.

The fuel subsidies, in fact, benefit the richest segments of the population and the poor do not directly benefit from them; however, the elimination of these subsidies should have been studied and implemented effectively. Before removing the subsidies, the government should have conducted a comprehensive study that measured and identified the people who were in real need of cash to subsidize the prices of energy. This way, these people would not feel the pinch of the abrupt rise of the prices especially for cooking and heating oil.

Failing to learn from the mistakes of the ‘Arab Spring’ states

It was common sense in the countries that experienced the so called ‘Arab Spring’ that its pre-revolution era leaders were notorious students of Machiavelli. They applied his realpolitik approach prescribed to the Princes of Italy in the 15th century on how to protect and long-rule their princedoms. The advice was mainly on how to orchestrate a ‘cult of personality’ that would enable ruthless leaders to rule under an effective machinery of propaganda and tactics. However, they failed dramatically to learn one basic rule which is: to never harm or steal the resources of their citizens to avoid their rage. Machiavelli said:

“It makes him hated above all things, as I have said, to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain. And when neither their property nor honour is touched, the majority of men live content, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can curb with ease in many ways.”

Al Bashir is astonishingly making the same mistakes that the dictators of pre-Arab spring era made and intensified the wrath of their people; he is smashing the peaceful demonstrations and killing his citizens to hold into his position and protect his throne. It is currently estimated that more than 800 people have been arrested and more than 150 killed. The Minister of Interior said that there were no protests in North Sudan except the arrest of 700 “criminals” who were plotting to topple down the regime. The Sudanese authorities are also waging a war against the media and journalists. They have been shutting down major media networks like Al Arabiya, Sky news and restricted the freedom of newspapers like Al-Intibaha, nationally widespread newspaper, to cover the political crisis. They are also interrupting internet connection and harassing journalists and threatening their lives. More absurd than anything else is his allegations and those of his government’s spokespeople to blame the Sudan Revolutionary Front and his enemies to be driving these demonstrations.

These repressive tactics have never proved to be effective especially in a world that is connected by social media and careful observation of the international community. However, it seems that the Sudanese decision makers are not weary about the consequences of their actions and like to make their own history.

No leadership identity for the demonstrators

Like almost all the Arab countries that went through political uprisings three years ago, Sudan’s uprisings are not well structured nor backed with clear direction and vision. People from different parts of the country take to the streets calling for different objectives. Some call for reducing the prices of energy and fuel like before, others call for cheaper food products, while others chant slogans of freedom, democracy and dignity. However, no single, united and focused voice is heard in Sudan.

Moreover, no clear vision of the Sudan post Al-Basher is clear in the minds of the demonstrators. The country has been torn in civil wars and racial segmentations throughout the past 100 years. Demolishing the current regime will just make the political situation worse and more instable, and give golden opportunities to the militias and terrorist groups to flourish.

The future is not brighter anyway

What the countries of the MENA region did not think about during their political uprisings was the political situation after the collapse of the old regimes. The domino effect has plagued Islamist political groups in Egypt and now in Tunisia after their dire failure to deliver. Other countries like Syria are in the midst of a dramatic and brutal civil war that is nurtured and sustained by international networks of governments and terrorist organizations.

In North Sudan, the situation is far more alarming. The country has been a host to ruthless and devastating civil wars, deeply rooted terrorist organizations, racial wars and militias that probably outnumber the official national army. This mixture does not promise the establishment of a democratic and stable state any time soon. It rather promises a civil war with a bigger magnitude than the current one in Syria.

Experiences of the Arab Spring states have taught us that political change must not be abrupt, but rather incremental. The voices of all citizens had to be one voice that calls for one purpose and united by one vision. This is not something that can be achieved over night, but rather developed incrementally over the years. It should be embedded in educational systems, reflected in the behavior of people and deeply rooted in their social unconsciousness. It is not only the will for change that matters, but the existence of an echo-system that is ready to absorb the change and build on it to create a new soil in which democratic values can grow and prosper.

Mhamed Biygautane’s research focuses on the political and economic developments of the MENA region with special focus on the Maghreb countries. He has published more than 70 studies on political economy of development, knowledge Management in the Public Sector, modernization and reforming of public sector and improving its performance, governance challenges in the Arab world. He also serves as a Middle East and North Africa Expert in the European Geopolitical Forum where he provides strategic advice on the economic development of the MENA region. Mhamed has been featured in international and regional TV channels such as the BBC, Dubai One, Kuwait TV, Dubai TV and newspapers like the New York Times, Gulf News, Al-Khaleej and other prestigious outlets.

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