Sudan Revolution: A people’s struggle for Freedom, Peace, and Justice

 In Adithya Subramoni, Africa, HomepageSlider, International & Transnational Affairs

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Adithya Subramoni                                                                                      Aug 05, 2019/ Commentary

Mass protests, revolutions, and coups are not new to Sudan. Recent protests that began against drastic fall in living standards and rise in commodity prices transformed into a movement that  ousted dictator Omar Al Bashir and his 30-year oppressive regime. This is the third time in its history since 1956 that Sudanese have overthrown the regime through protests in order to restore a civilian government. This has not been fully successful as Sudan’s power-sharing agreement between pro-democracy movement and the ruling military council shows the road-map for a slower and phased transition to civilian rule. The agreement indicates that elections are to be held after joint council’s rule for three years.

The rise in prices of basic commodities such as bread and oil was the final issue that sparked the Sudanese revolution. Protests that started in Atbara against a rise in prices gained national support as Khartoum, Port Sudan and other parts of Sudan came together against the state’s gross financial mismanagement. Protests in Bashir’s early regime were localized, unlike the recent protests that garnered national support. His failure in identifying these factors, and ordering an army crackdown in December proved counter-productive and strengthened the revolution against Bashir’s regime.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa and erstwhile British colony, has suffered oppressive dictatorships ever since it attained independence in 1956. While the current situation in Sudan is an example of peoples’ revolt against unjust governance, it also is an undeniable case of how interests of regional/global powers interfere in domestic politics.

Sudan and the subsidy lesson

Sudan’s economic problems started with the secession of South Sudan in 2011. South Sudan, a region  rich in oil resources was a major contributor to government revenues. The 2011 referendum led to breakaway and independence of South Sudan, and with it a huge revenue loss to Sudan. During the resource division, three fourth of Sudan’s oil fields went to South Sudan and the extracted oil was to be transported through pipelines in Sudan for export. Though the two countries worked out a transportation fee for the use of pipelines laid in Sudan, the primary revenue from oil to Sudan was lost.

The largest cost to the Bashir government was the subsidies it provided. As per an IMF report, subsidies were diffused into the economy in three ways; ‘direct budgetary transfers to producers’, ‘tax exemptions to producers and consumers of subsidized commodities’ and ‘preferential access to an overvalued exchange rate to importers of subsidized commodities’. The whopping difference between the ideal exchange rate and the overvalued rate pegged by the government was 216%. This led to imports turning cheaper than domestic produce itself and discouraged domestic producers. An instance would be the case of wheat; at the subsidized rate, prices for imported wheat were much cheaper compared to domestically produced wheat.

As of 2017, Sudan’s total imports stood at $ 10.3 billion compared to exports of $ 4.2 billion. When the Bashir government decided to unify the exchange rate with global standards, the estimated price hike for fuel product, electricity tariffs, and bread prices were set at 216%. Thus the primary shock to hit the economy was a price hike in domestic production due to the removal of subsidies, and the secondary shock was a rise in import prices since correcting the exchange rates meant devaluation of the Sudanese pound.

This sudden price surge could not be absorbed by a weaker section (below poverty line) of 15 million people, almost 46% of the Sudanese population. Moreover, they could not hope for  cheaper domestic produce since imports never let the domestic markets grow or survive. This was a crucial factor in the rise of bread prices and scarcity since domestic wheat production was significantly lower than imports.

While running an economy on subsidy for a long time is itself a bad idea, the sudden pulling out of subsidies in an economy with under-performing domestic industries is worse. Ideally, subsidies should have been phased out in stages with proper planning, keeping in mind the income levels of Sudanese living below poverty line and that the prices of basic commodities be kept in check. Decades of poor governance and absence of planned implementation are the twin shocks that brought Sudanese economy to its knees, resulting in the demand for a considerate government focused on the welfare of people.

Sudan and the world

Major powers vie for their influence over Sudan due to its strategic location in north-east Africa. Sudan shares a border with seven other countries and the Red Sea. Moving towards the north of the Red Sea gives access to the Suez Canal, which is a major shipping route towards the European markets, and the southern end of the Red Sea opens up into the Indian Ocean giving access to Arabian Sea, thus Asian markets. Despite its under-performing economy and rampant political strife, Sudan has enormous potential to develop its position as a sea-based trade-corridor between the Western markets, Arabian and Asian markets, while also acting as land-based trade-corridor providing access into the West Africa. This geographical advantage and geopolitics of the region is the reason why major powers seek to interfere in Sudan’s politics.

Sudan’s crisis has its roots in historical animosities between Arab-origin tribes and non-Arab tribes. Two prolonged civil wars for most of 20thcentury were rooted in northern economic, political, and social domination of largely non-Muslim, non-Arab, southern Sudanese. This was compounded by competition for scarce resources, inflow of Arab nomads (Janjaweeds) with the connivance of the government in occupying grazing lands at the expense of non-Arab tribes, and the discovery of oil that brought foreign vested interests into play. Darfur genocide in 2003-04, which led to the massacre of 480000 people, was a result of the oppressive dictatorship of the Bashir regime that used Arab support, Janjaweed militia, and Islamic fundamentalism. As Amnesty says, ‘Darfur has gone out of world’s attention but nothing has changed’, as it discovered the Bashir government using chemical weapons on the local population in 2016.

Response from the African Union and neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia has been positive in supporting the emergence of democracy and civilian control. Ethiopian delegates have been working with both sides to bring a peaceful transition while African Union’s suspension of Sudan in order pressurize the military council to pass the reigns to a civilian committee has been successful to an extent. Despite regional measures, the civilian transition will continue to fall short unless regional powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and UAE cut down their support for Hemedti headed Military Council.

For Saudi Arabia and its ally UAE, the real threat to the region is the restoration of democracy and losing Janjaweed soldiers in its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The involvement of Saudi Arabia invites Iran’s presence over Sudan as well, since both the countries have been fighting for supremacy over the West Asian region through proxy wars. Supporting civilian control, Iran in a statement, said that it supported the demands of the civilian protesters and urged the military council to hand over the reins. There certainly is a change of pattern here. During Bashir’s regime, Sudan was a close ally to Iran. This relation between Iran and Sudan is the reason behind Saudi Arabian aloofness in helping out the dictator when he first approached the country before being ousted by coup. While Bashir also approached Iran for help around the same period, it proved unsuccessful owing to Iran’s weakened economy due to renewed American sanctions. Bashir’s fall is effectively a loss of an ally for Iran, while it’s staunch enemy Saudi Arabia has gained an ally through Hemedti at the helm in the Transitional Council. Instances such as three billion dollar aid being offered to Sudan by Saudi Arabia and its ally UAE, after the coup adds more muscle to this theory.

Another important facet that needs to be examined in terms of the international response to Sudan’s crisis is the lack of action from the United Nations Security Council. After the bloody massacre of June 3rd, the US along with Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, and Poland called for an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting ‘to condemn the killing of civilians and issue an urgent call from world powers for an immediate halt to the violence.’ Unfortunately, China, backed by Russia, blocked this UN Action citing that interfering in a state’s internal matter wouldn’t be right.

The underlying fact is that both China and Russia have a strong relationship with Sudan. Along with military training, arms and ammunition trade (despite the UN Embargo of 2005) and oil exploratory deals, the talks of developing a Russian base in Sudan is the main reason why the Kremlin backs Sudan. As far as China’s interests are concerned, Sudan is a key piece in its Belt and Road initiative. In line with this strategy China  has been the largest investor in Sudan. China is the largest importer of Sudanese hydrocarbons, and in return, China is supporting major infrastructure projects in Sudan.  Beyond this, Beijing has shielded Sudan from many UNSC actions over Bashir’s war crimes by using its veto power. This goes to show the deep interests that both countries have in Sudan. Russia and China both favour stability and consistency in Sudan’s politics, even if through another coup. Taking examples from the Arab Spring, though Tunisia has managed to come together after international interventions, Libya and Yemen stand as striking examples of fragmented states due to regime changes effected  by international powers. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that Russia and China continue to prefer status quo, so long as their interests are protected.

Transitional Council  and the fight for Democracy            

As of now, the Military Council has agreed to share power with the civilians over a transitional council consisting of six civilian protest leaders, five military officers and General Hemedti as the Chair for the first 21 months. The question, however, is about how long this arrangement can hold and how effectively the opinions of the civilian members are heard.

To understand this, we need to go back to study the military psyche behind Bashir’s coup. The coup was not to oust the dictator due to human rights violations, war crimes or plundering the country’s economy; it was the first step towards a new military regime because the senior military officials were fearful about the power of a dictatorship model of politics in Sudan. The coup was their safe ticket to ensuring the political model continued, and hence the bloody massacre of June 3rdwhen the military council decided to scrap previous agreements and hold elections in a short period of nine months.

It can only be assumed that any commitment made by the military should be taken with a pinch of salt. Though another power-sharing agreement has been agreed upon, it is yet to go through fine-detailing. The most sensitive issue of the hour over the agreement negotiation is the TMC’s demand for immunity for its officers over recent events in Sudan. This works against the civilian vision for governance as it denies justice to the martyrs of the revolution. This request is predictable of Hemedti since the TMC has been keen on protecting their interests. An apt instance would be how the TMC turned down presenting Bashir at The Hague and instead kept him prisoner in Khartoum despite the ICC issuing an extradition order on him. This instance is important because Hemedti was Bashir’s right-hand man in Darfur genocide and, hence, a verdict on Bashir would turn into precedence over all those involved in Darfur which would include Hemedti and many others in Sudan.

Way Forward and a Silver Lining

The only way to establish trust and hold the transitional committee to accountability would be to first extradite the criminals wanted by the ICC for Darfur crimes. This should be followed by independent investigations and bring to justice those responsible for the recent massacre in Sudan. However, taking a reality check, the civilians lack sufficient international backing to bring strength and leverage to the negotiating table to keep this power transition alive.

Sunday’s agreement, brokered by African Union and international institutions, give some hope of the crisis resolving in due course of time. The deal envisions the formation of a Sovereign Council, which will run the country for three year transitional period leading up to the elections. The council is set to be announced on August 18th. A new prime minister will be named on Aug 20th, and the council of ministers on Aug 28th. The constitutional deal will be signed by both sides on August 17th, thus raising real hopes of freedom, liberty, and democracy, in more than half a century, for the embattled people of Sudan.

Adithya Subramoni is a research intern at TPF.

Photo credit: Benjamin Earwicker from Free Images

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