In Sudan, a strongman falls but his regime stays

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When anti-government protests in Sudan spread across the country demanding the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir, the dictator who ruled the Northeast African country for three decades with an iron fist dismissed them with disdain.

“Rats go back to their holes,” he said in January.

Mr. Bashir initially used force to quell the protests, killing dozens, but the public anger only grew over the weeks. Amid the demonstrations growing stronger, the Sudanese Army stepped in, removing Mr. Bashir from power and taking control of the government. As soon as Mr. Bashir was ousted, Defence Minister Awad Ibn Ouf was sworn in as the head of the Military Council that will rule the country for two years till elections are held.

The rise of Bashir

Mr. Bashir, a colonel in the Sudanese Army who captured power in 1989 through a bloodless coup, has largely been seen as a survivor. Immediately after assuming power in Sudan, he suspended political parties, curtailed independent media, carried out a purge against his political rivals, introduced an Islamic legal code and eventually anointed himself as the absolute ruler of the country with vast powers.

In the initial years, he aligned himself with Hassan al-Turabi, a controversial Islamist politician, and launched a top-down Islamisation campaign in the northern parts of the country. This period also saw jihadists from around the world travelling to Sudan, mainly attracted by the ideas of Mr. Turabi. Osama bin Laden who set up a camp in Khartoum, was among those who made investments in Sudan. The U.S. listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and later imposed sanctions on the country. In 1998, after the terror attacks on American embassies in East Africa, a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum was destroyed by a U.S. missile strike because of its alleged links to al-Qaeda (an account that has been disputed by many analysts).

When Mr. Turabi started challenging him, Mr. Bashir expelled him from the ruling National Congress party and later arrested him. When it became clear that he could not end the two decades-long insurgency in southern Sudan by force and amid mounting international pressure, Mr. Bashir entered a peace agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, providing the South autonomy for six years which was to be followed by a referendum. The southerners would eventually break with Sudan and form their own country.

In Darfur, an impoverished region in western Sudan, when people protested demanding rights, Mr. Bashir unleashed militias against them in 2003 that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The Darfur conflict led to his conviction at the International Criminal Court for genocide.

But despite these internal challenges and his international isolation, Mr. Bashir survived all these years as Sudan’s President and the Army and the militias stood by him. The discovery of oil in Sudan in the late 1990s also helped him establish himself as an economic moderniser. He weathered the storms even in 2010 and 2011 when Arab countries in North Africa and West Asia were shaken by popular protests. In recent years, he warmed up to the West, presented himself as a bulwark against terrorists in Africa and got international sanctions removed. But still, he couldn’t quell the mounting public anger amid steady an economy that was rocked by the country’s split.

Economic woes

After South Sudan seceded with three-fourths of the country’s oil fields in July 2011, Sudan fell into an economic downturn. (On the contrary, South Sudan is now one of the fastest growing economies). The fall in the energy prices from 2014 also hit Sudan hard. Inflation soared to 73% by late 2018 in a country where more than 40% of the population is living in poverty. The rapid rise in inflation has brought down the living standards of the middle class, who were at the forefront of the anti-Bashir protests. The country also plunged into fuel and cash shortage, prompting long queues in front of banks and fuel stations.

The protest began in late December against soaring prices of bread, but soon snowballed into a nation-wide protest against Mr. Bashir’s rule. When Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for 20 years, stepped down on April 3 amid popular protests, it was a shot in the arm of Sudanese protesters. In events that were reminiscent of the Arab Spring protests of early 2011, the Sudanese demonstrators, energised by the fall of Mr. Bouteflika, doubled down on their demand and took a march to the gates of Mr. Bashir’s home in the headquarters of the Army, setting the alarm bells ringing across the military establishment.

What’s next?

Like in Algeria where Mr. Bouteflika was removed by the Army, in Sudan also the old regime remains powerful, even without Mr. Bashir at its helm.

At a critical moment, the establishment has stepped in to remove the President so that the system he built could survive. It’s more like the “Egyptian revolution” of 2011 in which President Hosni Mubarak lost power but the military retained its influence in all structures of the regime.

The Sudanese Army has been blunt. It has said that it would be in charge for two years before elections are held. Some protesters have rejected the Army’s intervention, saying that they want to topple the regime, not just the President. It remains to be seen whether they will turn the protests now against the Army or Gen. Ibn Ouf, the new ruler, would stabilise the political and economic crises.

-Stanly Johny/The Hindu

East Africa Editor