Sudan: A land in despair

MUSLIMS have iftar (breaking of the fast) during the Ramadaan at the Sheikh Dafallah Mosque in Oumdrman, Khartoum, in this May, 2018, file picture. President Omar al-Bashir (inset) maintains strict control of the country. Reuters African News Agency (ANA)

Sudan faces the spectre of economic meltdown, the hardening of religious fundamentalism and more regions breaking away, unless its leader Omar al-Bashir and ruling party, the National Congress Party, governs more inclusively, more democratically and tolerantly.

Sudan has plunged into new depths with its economy on its knees, inflation surging more than 65% and a desperate shortage of hard currency. The country has devalued its pound currency twice this year after it collapsed against the US dollar. The liquidity of the country’s banks has plummeted, raising concerns of a coming banking crisis. There are shortages of bread and basic foodstuff.

In January this year, the government slashed subsidies for basic foodstuff and public services, to release extra government finances. The rise in food prices unleashed mass public uprisings in January. The government arrested scores of opposition party leaders and civil society activists and violently crushed the protests.

Early in September 2018 President Al-Bashir sacked his 31-member Cabinet to get a new team to try to rescue the economy. Omar al-Bashir has ruled since 1989 when he grabbed power in an Islamist coup, supported by the country’s military. Al-Bashir has forcibly Arabised Sudan, has marginalized regions opposed to Islamification, and has violently crushed opposition to his leadership.

More recently, as al-Bashir tightened his autocratic rule, there has been a rise of regions marginalized by Khartoum, such as the Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, calling for secession.

Civil society organisations accused al-Bashir government of a scorch-earth policy of bombing civilians indiscriminately destroying schools, hospitals and homes. They have also accused the government of destroying farmlands to starve the communities into submission. The government vehemently denies these accusations. The Khartoum has restricted humanitarian aid organisations access to the conflict areas.

After making his mid-September 2018 new Cabinet appointments, al-Bashir said he had “high hopes” that the new team would resolve the economic crisis which was “one of the biggest challenges for the new government to resolve”.

The government in September 2018 also released a “new economic strategy”, which included reducing the ministries from 31 to 21, reducing the size of the presidential council and reducing state level government. The new economic strategy saw the lifting of subsidies on basic commodities, and channeling subsidies to the poorest communities instead.

The government promised to cut spending by 34%, improve public sector productivity and tackle corruption more seriously. It would prioritize infrastructure development, improve finance for agriculture and channel subsidies to the poorest, rather than the general population.

Sudan has a foreign debt of US$53bn, of which one-fifth, around US$10bn is owed to China. Al-Bashir has been calling on foreign debt holders to forgive part of the country’s foreign debt.

Sudan, like many other African countries, is reliant on the export of one or a few commodities.  South Sudan had produced three-quarters of Sudan’s oil. The breakaway of South Sudan in 2011 following decades of exclusion by the central government meant cut Sudan’s foreign income. Astonishingly, the government’s “new economic strategy” does not include adding value to oil, gold and of gum Arabic, a natural emulsifier used by cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies.

Al-Bashir has introduced limited political reforms. The government’s new anti-corruption strategy is called “Fighting the Fat Cats”. In mid-September 2018, the government arrested seven prominent people, including politicians, businessmen and bankers for alleged money laundering.

Al-Bashir in September 2018 announced he would free political prisoners, who were involved in the January 2018 anti-austerity protests, saying the government was ushering in a “new era of freedom”. However, civil society organisations say so far only a handful of political prisoners have been released.

The government has declared a unilateral ceasefire in its fighting with opposition in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions. However, the African Union-mediated peace talks have bogged down following the government’s refusal to lift the humanitarian aid blockade to the conflict areas.

The main opposition parties have dismissed al-Bashir’s economic, political and peace reform plans. In a statement in response to the al-Bashir’s reforms, Sudan Call, the main opposition allice, said the president was just rotating National Congress Party leaders, rather than injecting fresh blood, energy and ideas.

Al-Bashir has been supported and protected by his African peers, as well as the African Union and regional organisations, making his ICC arrest warrant and the US sanctions against his government ineffectual.

Al-Shabir’s National Congress Party is also in the midst of fierce internal leadership struggle over al-Shabir’s nomination in August 2018 to stand for president for a third-term. The country is having presidential elections in 2020. Sudan’s current constitution imposes a two-term limit on presidents.

However, it appears that Al-Bashir, will like many other African leaders brushed the constitution aside to remain in power. Al-Bashir fears prosecution from the ICC and domestic opponents once he formerly leaves office.

Al-Bashir and his National Congress Party must government more inclusively. Development must be spread more equitably across the regions, ethnic and religious groups. Attempts by the NCP to turn the religiously and ethnically diverse country into an Islamist state, should end, as it is at the heart of the conflicts and breakups of the country since the end of colonialism. Aspects of the penal, religious and “moral” codes which undermine gender equality must be scrapped.

Sudan needs a government of national unity which includes members of the opposition, civil society, the private sector and academia. This will bring new ideas, energy and capacity, which is needed to resolve the country’s intractable political, economic and social problems. Corruption must be investigated transparently, and not used to silence critics within his party and the opposition. The government must introduce a genuine ceasefire with the regions it is in violent conflict with.

The embargo on humanitarian aid to conflict zones must be lifted. Opposition parties, civil society organisations and humanitarian organisations must be given freedom of movement, association and expression. Political prisoners must be released. Unless the country is better governed, human rights respected and democracy strengthened the country will spiral into further civil war, the economy will collapse, and ultimately the country will break-up further.

William Gumede is Chairman, Democracy Works Foundation (; and author of South Africa in BRICS, Tafelberg