Political strife is not uncommon in Sudan, but the intensity and endurance of recent protests may well portend the end of the Bashir regime in the African country.
Omar Bashir has been in power in Sudan since 1989, and in typical fashion for post-colonial regimes in politically fractured countries, that longevity owes much to a repressive state apparatus that has systematically cracked down on any sign of political opposition, and the support of a unified military establishment – an establishment from which Bashir himself originated, where he was a Brigadier-General before he seized power in a military coup in an alliance with Islamist political forces.
For now, that military establishment is holding firm behind the President. But that’s where the good news ends for Bashir. The current upheaval in the country owes to deteriorating economic conditions: the economy is struggling and price inflation is skyrocketing. And there is precious little that the Sudanese government can do about it.
Prior to 2011, a significant chunk of the Sudanese economy was driven by oil production in the south of the country – oil was the country’s main export. But after a lengthy conflict, South Sudan eventually managed to secede and form an independent country in July 2011, taking with them a good 75 percent of Sudan’s oil fields.
Disputes over exploitation rights did carry on, and South Sudan’s subsequent story was not a happy one, as the country promptly descended into a civil war that is still to be resolved, but those oil fields are now forever out of Khartoum’s control. And Sudan has been in stagflation ever since.
If they were savvy, Bashir and his top military entourage should be looking to make a deal with the Umma Party: a quick, clean exit in exchange for judicial amnestyDr. Azeem Ibrahim
What is worse, the country does not have any other major economic sector to look to, to take over the critical role the oil industry held in past decades. And after a good 7 years of struggling to sustain the flagging economy, nor does it have much in the way of reserves to dedicate to any kind of deep restructuring of production and trade needed to give that economy the boost it needs.
Against this backdrop, the long repressed political discontent is bubbling back to the surface. And now it looks like people have started dying ‘bread protests’. This may well turn out to be the genie that cannot be put back into the bottle.
Once people get killed by the state when they are protesting the fact that they are starving, regimes do not usually survive. And Sudan does now seem to have a unified political opposition to make sure that happens, in the form of the Umma Party, led by the country’s last pre-military coup Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, who recently returned to the country from exile, to a hero’s welcome.
Unfortunately, it seems there is little chance that this situation will be resolved peacefully. The military is likely to continue to remain entrenched behind Bashir, and Bashir himself will not want to go anywhere. Not least because he has been indicted by the ICC as a war criminal for his ‘handling’ of the Darfur conflict.
Political office has shielded him, and the top brass of the country’s military from the consequences of such an indictment, but if they were to leave power there would be hell to pay before the international community for those war crimes, before the Sudanese people for the years of brutal repression, and before the political opposition, especially Mr Mahdi, for the bitter history between them.
So Omar Bashir is stuck having to defend an indefensible fortress in Khartoum. It remains to be seen how long the military can hold him in power for, but if they were savvy, Bashir and his top military entourage should be looking to make a deal with the Umma Party around about now: a quick, clean exit in exchange for judicial amnesty.
They may not trust the opposition to keep their end of the bargain, but the longer they hold on, the less viable even such an exit becomes, and the more likely it is that the country will descend into a protracted civil war.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.