The Sudanese Predicament

New Protests and the History of Repression, Corruption, and War

Anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan.

A series of street protests erupted in Sudan less than two weeks before the turn of the year in the city of Atbara. What had started as a response to the recent economic decline quickly evolved into something much larger. After protests spread to several other cities, the protestors began calling for Omar Al-Bashir, the Sudanese President and Head of State for the last 30 years, to peacefully step down and allow for a new government and a more democratic political system to form. Police have been routinely dispersing the protests using tear gas and live fire. These encounters have led to violence and so far, according to the Sudanese authorities, hundreds have been injured and even more have been arrested. According to Amnesty International, at least 37 protestors have died thus far.

Sudan has found itself in this turmoil after losing 75% of its oil production following the secession and independence of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011. This, coupled with Sudan’s over-reliance on oil exports, has greatly contributed to the ongoing economic struggle. In the period leading up to the protests, the population went through fuel, bread, and cash shortages, which kept increasing in severity, forcing people to queue at gas stations, bakeries, and ATM machines. The country has also recently reached an unprecedented inflation rate of 70%.

The phrase “Bread Protests” has now been appropriated on the headlines of media outlets, a phrase that is a serious oversimplification of an intricate problem. Validating this oversimplification is the fact that the dissidents’ have called for completely new leadership, and not for economic reforms, showing their utter lack of trust in the current government’s ability to produce any meaningful changes. In a similar vein to the infamous event preceding the Tunisian revolution, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in response to bureaucratic oppression, the recent deterioration of the economy in Sudan seems to have similarly served as a catalyst for dissent that has been accumulating for years. A broader look at the historical and political context surrounding these protests is necessary to fully comprehend the situation.

History and Corruption

Sudan has gone through alternating forms of democratic and authoritarian governments since its independence in 1956 from British-Egyptian rule. For the greater part of the country’s independent history, the Authoritarian-Islamist governments of Khartoum in the North were at war with the mostly Christian and animist South before the latter underwent its secession in 2011. Colonel Omar Al-Bashir seized power in an Islamist-led military coup back in 1989, taking the place of a democratically elected but ineffective government, and has been ruling the country since then as a false democracy.

Map of Sudan and South Sudan with new border in white.

It is important to note that corruption in Sudan, the abuse of entrusted power or authority for private gain, is systemic, affecting all levels of governance and deeply embedded in the norms and expectations of the country’s politics. Conventional solutions like political mobilizations are less likely to generate solutions for a problem that is a central feature of the system and not incidental. A deeper look at how corruption typically occurs and what drives it is necessary before one can understand how it relates to the recent events.

The appearance of the executive and the judiciary as two independent, co-equal institutions is merely superficial in Sudan given that the executive has control over judicial appointments, an arrangement that, unsurprisingly, results in nepotism and other forms of favoritism. This means that judgments are hardly objective when a politically sensitive case is presented. Lower courts maintain better standards, but higher courts remain subject to significant levels of political control. Furthermore, Islamic institutions took control of the judicial training process away from worldly universities following the government’s introduction of its Islamic Constitution.

The lack of transparency when it comes to budget expenditure grants the government more spending freedom without the threat of criticism. A great portion of the national budget is spent on unspecified national security aims and providing relatively good wages to state level officials. These measures, intentional and circumstantial, help maintain the regime and ensure loyalty.

The pervasive practice of bribery by policemen is a well-known issue in Sudan. Almost half of surveyed citizens perceive the police as corrupt, an issue that is often attributed to low salaries and a lack of legal accountability. Beyond bribery, police, military, and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) officials often have access to their own private enterprises that receive benefits and preferential treatment from the government. A National Security Act in 2010 gave NISS members the authority to seize property, conduct surveillance, search premises, and detain suspects for long periods of time without judicial review. The security forces often exceed these already vast powers, carrying out acts that range from arbitrary arrests to torture.

One of the major sectors where corruption is rampant is the extractive sector. Discrepancies have been reported along the whole of the production chain, from reserve volume to distribution to producing states and companies. There have also been reports stating that most oil revenue does not get deposited in the public exchequer and that the oil companies operating in Sudan engage in tax evasion.

Despite the richness of agricultural lands in Sudan, the true potential of this sector remains underutilized. The acquisition of land by foreign investors at the expense of the population has been increasing and the selling of lands by the government to individuals with connections to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has been previously reported. Bribes are frequent and the government often uses these lands as a form of patronage to further extend its political influence.

The forces driving corruption in Sudan are twofold: the makeup of the governance system and the weakness or lack of anti-corruption frameworks. The necessary counterbalancing effect that a genuine separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers ought to provide is lacking in Sudan. The Constitution does recognize these institutions as separate powers but the rule of Al-Bashir has severely blurred the lines, resulting in a government that resembles more of an autocracy than a democracy.

Media censorship has been a central feature of the NCP. Publication editors are instructed not to cross specific lines, such as portraying the elections, armed forces, economic policies, and national military policies in a negative manner. Newspapers have been shuttered and non-compliant journalists get targeted. Non-governmental civil society organizations and opposition movements that might counter the tyranny are generally forced to operate under heavy restrictions. Political parties, for example, cannot coordinate meetings without government approval and independent opposition figures are routinely intimidated and arrested.

Another important factor in corruption is the strong link between business and politics in Sudan. Despite a privatization attempt, the NCP controls a large portion of the economy and administers excessive regulations that, as countless studies would have us expect, generate opportunities and incentives for unethical business practices.

Ever since its creation, the culturally and ethnically diverse Sudan has failed to spread its wealth and power in an equitable way. Home to over 597 ethnic subgroups that range from the Bedouin Arabs, like the Rashaida, to the more African tribes, like the Fur and Zaghawa, Sudan has large sections of its territory that have seen little to no development. For the most part, these sections are politically underrepresented, something that has led some of the residents in these lands to take up arms against the state and initiate wars that have further complicated the situation in Sudan.

War

The war in the western state of Darfur started when two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which are mainly comprised of the African groups of Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit, started rising up against the government in 2003. They claimed that the region was being neglected by Khartoum and that the government was taking the side of the Arabs. The rebels successfully attacked the airport of Fasher, capital of North Darfur, and captured a high ranking official.

The government responded by arming the Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, already active in that area, and using them to counter the insurgency. Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit villages were bombed and burnt, civilians were killed, and women were raped during this conflict. The UN estimates that several hundred thousand people died because of the war and millions were displaced. The Sudanese government, however, disputes these numbers. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court issued warrants against Al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials under charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.

Map showing Darfur region, South Kordofan State, and Blue Nile State.

The two aforementioned rebel groups later formed an alliance with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — North (SPLM–N), a predominantly South Sudanese group active in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States, which remained in Sudan following the secession of South Sudan. Together, they formed the Sudanese Revolutionary Front with the goal of overthrowing Bashir’s government. There is evidence that these Southern areas are targets of indiscriminate air bombing executed by the Sudanese armed forces that always results in civilian casualties.

In simpler terms, the government has been fighting rebels in parts of southern and western Sudan using militias and armed forces for a few decades now. Countless innocent civilians have died, been displaced, or suffered tremendously during these conflicts. The rebels claim that discrimination and broader economic and political marginalization are their main motivators. After multiple failed negotiations and peace treaties, their goal is to completely overthrow the regime and establish a better society. The government’s position on all of this, however, has not been as consistent. For example, the leader of the Janjaweed, the militia that the government had denied any connections with in the past, is now the Sudanese Minister of Internal Affairs. Mohamed Hamdan (“Hametti”), another Darfurian Arab who also recruited his own militia, is the current commander of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces. The causes behind these conflicts are often reduced to racial and ideological differences, but a deeper examination reveals that disputes over oil wealth, land distribution, policy, and extent of political influence plays a major role as well.

Prospects

Considering the recent events against this historical background reveals the complex nature of the events that have generated the protests. The government’s response to these protests has included deploying armed forces in a sustained attempt to stifle the demonstrations, pushing a narrative that presents the protests as being orchestrated by traitors led by one of the rebel leaders, using fear tactics by comparing the protests to the chaos Syria, blocking social media, closing university institutions, promising economic reforms, arranging a pro-government rallies, and claiming that the unsatisfied citizens are not representative of the Sudanese population.

Similar protests, albeit much smaller in scale and duration, took place during September 2013 after the government announced cuts to fuel subsidies. Characterized by the use of excessive force and live ammunition, these protests resulted in the deaths of over 200 people in the capital alone. The unexpectedly forceful response from the government was what most likely caused the protests of 2013 to dissipate swiftly.

President of Sudan Omar Al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir shows no interest in fulfilling the calls for him to step down. The NCP has recently amended the Constitution to allow him to rerun for the Presidency in the upcoming elections in 2020. A relevant empirical variable to consider is the actual size and source of the government’s demographic support, but there are no official numbers available, apart from the elections that have questionable levels of fairness. Nevertheless, given what we already know, the greatest support for the government comes from Islamists that are not willing to risk losing the ideological character of the current regime. Add to them the police, military, militia, and NISS officials, who have maintained their political loyalty, and businessmen, politicians, and other elites, who have a direct interest in the NCP remaining in power.

The protests have been getting more organized over time, partly due to the recently formed Association of Sudanese Professionals, an umbrella group of independent unions that has been setting dates and locations for the protests. Two rebel group leaders fighting the government have also professed their support for the protests. It is still doubtful whether these protests are going to overthrow the regime or even continue given their current scale and the challenges they face.

With the memory of the Arab Spring revolutions still fresh in our minds, a valid concern is the possibility that more civil wars would arise if the situation in Sudan further devolves. It is difficult to predict developments of this nature by just looking at Sudan’s social and political structure. The protestors, however, keep calling for the demonstrations to remain peaceful as an attempt to avoid violent developments and with past, peaceful Sudanese coups as positive references. Other possible scenarios are the discontinuation of the protests, similar to what occurred in 2013, another military coup, a major political or economic amendment or the dissolution of the government by the President, either voluntarily or after gradually losing support. The voluntary scenario is the least likely to occur considering how Al-Bashir has shown interest in rerunning in the 2020 elections. Stepping down puts him in risk of being arrested due to the warrant against him by the ICC.

Beyond the protests, the people of Sudan still have the long-term burden of successfully transitioning into a functioning democracy, shifting away from the deeply corrupt, ineffective, and ideologically narrow system that has failed to account for the country’s diverse demographics. This is a major challenge for a population that has been, for the most part, politically unaware and unengaged due to years of censorship, repression, and false prosperity.