Why Sudan’s Al-Bashir must not fall

Protests broke out following a hike in fuel prices as Sudan seeks to shore up its budget by lifting the heavy subsidies it has implemented over the years to ease the pressure of sanctions on the general populace. Although if we apply some perspective, 1 litre of petrol became 11 cents (that is 0.11 USD), and is still one of the cheapest of any country in the world.

If social media is to be believed, thousands took the streets. Realistically, the numbers look to be more in the hundreds. However, these protestors have expressed legitimate grievances. Sudan is suffering from a crippling economic crisis while society suffers from war fatigue, and graduates suffer difficult job prospects. The protestors are mainly youths and graduates who have grown up under sanctions and are tired of the constant economic difficulties and limited opportunities available to them.

However, to lay the blame with Al-Bashir is ignorant at best, and at worst callous. In fact, it is perhaps the clearest display of historical amnesia among both protestors and their supporters. Since 1983 and the declaration of Sharia by then-President Jaafar al-Numeiri, Sudan has been under relentless international pressure that has not permitted the government to pursue any initiatives with optimal resources. These crises have been on top of political upheaval, ideological struggles, domestic instability caused by the civil wars between North and South, Ethiopia-backed rebels in the East, and Chad and Libya-backed Darfur rebels in the West. Sudan has gone from crisis to crisis with no break in between or period of any real stability that might have allowed the country to maximise its vast agricultural and economic potential.

Historical amnesia

Between 1983-89, Sudan saw significant political upheaval. Numeiri was ousted in 1985 by General Suwar al-Dhahab, who handed power a year later to a democratically-elected coalition government between Sadeq al-Mahdi and the charismatic Islamist Hasan al-Turabi. Al-Dhahab, al-Mahdi and al-Turabi shifted Sudan away from the Western fold, resulting in frosty relations with Washington and the wider Western world. Domestic liberal/communist ideologues sought to push back against the popular Islamist trend and threatened then-Prime Minister Sadeq al-Mahdi with a coup if he did not end his coalition with al-Turabi. Al-Mahdi complied. This shattered confidence in the government which became seen as a puppet of the army. In 1989, the situation was exacerbated by a rapidly escalating crisis in the South. Garang had seized multiple cities and was besieging Juba; the capital of the South.

In this climate, with rebel forces in South Sudan marching, the economy stumbling, political chaos, and widespread discontent, talk of a coup became rife. In the end, Omar al-Bashir, backed by Hasan Al-Turabi, overthrew Mahdi’s government. The timing of the coup is rumoured to have been set following information that Baathist and liberal factions within the army had assigned their own dates for a coup of their own. This encouraged Bashir to act quicker. Bashir swiftly ended the infighting, and restored relative confidence in the government.

Bashir upset Washington a year later by voting against Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s proposal to the Arab League to permit US troops to set up military bases and drive back Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait. The US responded to Sudan’s antagonism by listing the country on the list of terror sponsors in 1993, causing international businesses to begin abandoning Sudan’s economy and leading the currency to plunge to such levels that the government introduced a new currency; the Sudanese dinar (the currency was later abandoned).

The economy worsened in the subsequent years before plunging into an even deeper crisis when In 1997, the US imposed the most comprehensive sanctions on Sudan over Khartoum’s alleged support of Bin Laden despite Khartoum offering numerous times to offload him to another country and requesting bilateral engagement with the US on a number of occasions. However, given that Hasan al-Turabi’s influence was on the wane, it is more likely that the real reason for the sanctions were that the US felt the end of the ‘Islamised’ regime was near and sanctions would accelerate the process.

Instead, Omar al-Bashir survived. He fell out with al-Turabi in 1999 after expanding the space domestically for organised opposition. However, a few years later, semi-nomadic tribes in Darfur would clash over resources before seizing on rebel momentum in South Sudan to raise arms against Khartoum itself and seek independence. Backed by Chad and Libya on different occasions, and taking advantage of Sudan’s overstretched army that was fighting the South Sudan rebellion and Ethiopia-backed rebels in the East who were conducting hit and run operations on newly-constructed pipelines, this rebellion would reach Khartoum itself (Omdurman specifically) in 2008.

The Darfur conflict was particularly problematic. Rather than focus on the source of weapons and supplies that created a haven for rebel movements to conduct operations, the international community pursued a policy of appeasement towards the rebels. Instead of labelling them terrorists and condemning the insurgency, and regional support behind it, the international community called on Sudan to show restraint and heavily criticised the conduct of the army. Buoyed by the international apathy to the root causes of the war, the Darfur rebels were encouraged in their pursuit for an independent state and rejected genuine participation in peace talks.

Tired of conflicts, Al-Bashir began to implement a series of peace processes with South Sudan and with Darfur. According to a then-senior official in the Sudanese foreign ministry involved in the negotiations, Al-Bashir was keen to end the conflicts: “Al-Bashir compromised far too much. We [his advisors] were deeply angry that al-Bashir did not demand and insist on more, particularly given the high price Sudan paid for these internationally backed conflicts”. Al-Bashir gave up large chunks of oil resources during the conflict, a sign of either significant international pressure, or a sincere desire to end the conflict even at a high cost.

A ceasefire with South Sudan was agreed in 2005 and the newly created state seceded from Sudan via a referendum years later. A former European ambassador claimed that Al-Bashir warned the international community at the signing of the agreement that they did not fully comprehend the internal dynamics of the South and that there would soon be civil war if they were not careful. Accused of scaremongering, Al-Bashir’s words were ignored. They would soon sound prophetic as the Dinka and the Nuir (two major tribes in South Sudan) fell out following a public disagreement between Silva Kir and Reik Machar, causing a brutal civil war that only recently saw a ceasefire following talks hosted by Khartoum.

Crippling sanctions remained in place until Obama lifted them towards the end of his tenure. However, Sudan remains on the list of state sponsors of terror. This renders the lifting of sanctions meaningless as banks refuse to risk restoring services to Sudan, which means companies have no reliable means to conduct effective investments in the country. In effect, the sanctions have been lifted in name only.

Resistance and Survival

However, despite the dire situation Sudan has constantly found itself in, Al-Bashir’s government has remarkably achieved expansive development in infrastructure that suggest a very different picture than that painted by the protestors. In 1990, the number of primary schools in Sudan numbered 7600. Today, it is over 18,000. In 1990, there were four universities. Today there are over 100. In 1990, there were 209 hospitals. Today there are 689. In 1990, there were 399 medical centres. Today there are over 7000. Before 1989, Sudan had just over 2000km of roads. Today, it has more than 9000km. In the 1980s, options to cross 2000km of Nile were limited to a severe shortage of bridges. Now there are more than eight bridges at various points.

Sudan has expanded freedoms with over 100 political parties in operation. In comparison to other nations in the wider region, it is by far the most progressive in terms of free press with a host of anti-government publications. Moreover, following peace negotiations with rebel groups, Khartoum has been effective in maintaining peace by incorporating senior leaders of rebel groups in the government such as Tidjani Sissi from Darfur, or appointing South Sudan rebel leader John Garang as vice president in 2005, and Silva Kiir later. This has been instrumental in social reconciliation between the parties and a key reason why al-Bashir has survived so long with power. Far from being a dogmatic ideologue, al-Bashir has displayed efficient pragmatism in preserving the territorial integrity of the nation that continues to be threatened from international-backed groups.

This latter point is of particular significance. To put into context, one must ponder what the reaction of the international community would be if the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt decided tomorrow to take up arms to restore the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi to power. They would likely be declared terrorists and shunned. Catalonia’s recent bid for independence was shut down by Europe and indicative of an aversion to undermine the territorial integrity of Spain and an aversion to independence movements in Europe generally. Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan sought to take advantage of the chaos caused by the war on ISIS to unilaterally declare independence. The central government in Baghdad and the international community rushed to crush the unilateral bid and there is a general consensus that this was in the best interests of the region, irrespective of the sentiments of the Kurdish people. However, this attitude does not extend to Sudan. Sudan remains one of the only countries in the world where the international community permits rebel groups to raise arms against an international-recognised government, and then pressure the government to make significant concessions or risk further international pressure and isolation.

This is not lost on the Sudanese population or indeed the wider Arab-Muslim population who find resonance in al-Bashir’s insistence that Sudan is being specifically targeted for its preference of a more Islamic identity, and its general independence and resistance to play the ‘lackey’ as other states in the region appear prepared to do. The issue is not that they believe Al-Bashir is an exceptional leader (although he is certainly very capable). The issue is that the fall of Al-Bashir would represent more than just change. It would represent the clearest example of modern social-engineering; that if the superpowers do not like the will of a people, they can sanction them into submission. It is irrelevant whether this is the reality. This is the perception. This is why al-Bashir continues to enjoy large swathes of support during times of crisis.

Nor is this perception lost on African leaders generally. The narrative on Darfur in Western capitals tends to be one of racist Arabs committing genocide against Africans. However, if this was true, why would Pan-African, black nationalist leaders on the continent reject the ICC warrant? Why would they not participate in assisting their brothers against an ‘apartheid’ or racist state? Why would Thabo Mbeki, one of the loudest advocates for Black African rights, continue to enjoy good relations with Khartoum? The only answer can be that they do not believe the narrative being peddled of racism and genocide. Instead, they see the conflict of Darfur for what it is; a movement that survived only because of an internationally-backed environment that permitted, and at times facilitated, the steady flow of weapons which blunts any desire among the rebels to take peace seriously.

There is also another important dynamic to Sudanese society that ensures al-Bashir continues to survive. Sudan is a conservative society. Even after al-Numeiri was overthrown in 1985, Suwar al-Dhahab did not reverse the constitutional amendment that made Sharia the law of the land. Nor did the liberal elements in the army for fear of provoking a strong reaction from the Sudanese people. Even under the most extreme pressure, al-Bashir did not lift the constitutional amendment. There is an acute awareness that Sudanese society remains conservative and unwilling to abandon their Islamic identity irrespective of how flawed it might be in practice. The symbolism remains powerful.

This awareness is not lost even on opposition parties. Liberal and communist parties lament the status of Islam and their rhetoric generally leans towards ‘education’; an implied admission that they are not accepted as genuine alternatives by the people and also an implied insult that Sudanese society is ‘backwards’. The rebel movements such as those led by Abdul Wahid Nour use racist anti-Arab and Islamophobic rhetoric to justify their case for secession. Such haughty attitudes have prevented their capabilities to seriously threaten the Islamist regime.

In other words, Al-Bashir’s survival is based on more than just his pragmatism. His survival also stems from an aversion by Sudanese society to hand over the state to those who would de-Islamise it.

Protestor demands

The protestors are demanding a better standard of living. Very few, including the President himself, will argue that these are not legitimate demands. However, even if al-Bashir falls, this would not herald better times. Sudan remains under de facto sanctions as long as the US continues to list the nation as a of state sponsor of terror. This means irrespective of who is in power, banks and investors will not return to Sudan simply because Bashir is gone. In other words, al-Bashir is not the obstacle to economic prosperity; the US is.

However, protestors should not be disheartened. The US Deputy Secretary of State has been charged with looking into removing Sudan’s name from the list of terror sponsors. As Russia and China expand their influence in Africa, the US feels on the back foot and is looking to re-orient its foreign policy to be able to push back in what is becoming an increasingly multi-polar world. Sudan is an ideal ally in these circumstances, and it is telling of how serious Washington is assessing the possibility that such a high-ranking US official has been charged with this matter.

The lifting of Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror would send investment flooding back to Sudan and herald genuine prospects for economic improvement that the protestors are looking for so badly. The solution to Sudan is not domestic. The solution lies with the internationally community who must act swiftly.

In any event, although social media is rife with videos of protests, the numbers do not compare to those who came out in support of Al-Bashir in Madani, Khartoum, and even Niala in war-torn Darfur. An objective assessment of the numbers suggest far more are in favour of al-Bashir remaining than supporting the protests. Al-Bashir has now flown to Doha, the city from which much anti-Bashir analysts have been insisting that his end is nigh, but who now find themselves in an awkward position as Emir Tamim mulls providing much needed aid to a country that could well become a vital ally as the country continues to face off against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As al-Bashir’s situation becomes clearer, there is a sudden rush from neighbours to send delegations to Khartoum to insist they knew al-Bashir would survive. First came the Turkish statement from Cevdat Yilmaz. Then Egypt. Then assistance from the UAE.

With John Bolton having ripped the credibility of the International Criminal Court to shreds after threatening the judges with arrest warrants if they pursued American soldiers, as well as discussions taking place to bring Sudan in from the cold, the prospects for al-Bashir look far better than is currently being touted by analysts. Al-Bashir has never been permitted a chance to govern in peace. Until he does, he and the wider Sudanese regime cannot be judged in the manner they have been so far. Sudan should be spared the relentless attempts at social-engineering and permitted to demonstrate what it has to offer to the world.