9 June 2019

Sudan At a Crossroads

opinion

Khartoum — The unprecedented violence in Sudan's capital Khartoum in the past few days has led to a stand-off between the Transition Military Council (TMC) who took over after President Omar Al Bashir was ousted on April 11, and the Sudanese people demanding democracy.

This was a calculated move from the TMC to limit the leverage of the opposition forces with the end of the sit-ins not just in Khartoum but in cities throughout the country.

It certainly emptied the streets, but it may be a pyrrhic victory in the long run.

The people still have an ace up their sleeves and that is civil disobedience - people staying at home and refusing to work, paralysing the economy.

This move already brought the country to a standstill at the end of May and the opposition intend to do so again next week.

While the TMC are counting on the fact that the people will not be able to maintain this forever, there is a real danger they do not understand the level of desperation of the people after the near economic collapse that prompted this revolution in the first place.

Years of corruption

It is the years of corruption, mismanagement and sanctions of the economy that brought Sudan to its knees and gave the people no recourse but to take to the streets.

Amid chronic shortages of bread, petrol, diesel and cash, people queued in scenes reminiscent of Communist Soviet times. The black market value of the Sudanese pound dropped from 26 to almost 100 to the USD in one year, instantly wiping out the emergent middle class. The flow out of the country of people competent enough to rebuild the economy was constant.

People who have nothing left, have nothing to lose.

Al Bashir underestimated the power and determination of the people and paid the price.

This means that the first task for any new government - whether it is military or civilian depending on who blinks first in the current impasse - will be to deal with the crumbling economy.

Occasional donations from Saudi and the UAE may help prolong the lifespan of any military government but, as Al Bashir discovered, this will not resolve the underlying problems - especially in the midst of a global recession.

Real economic reform

Sudan needs real economic reform and to be reintegrated into the international economic community.

The removal of Al Bashir - wanted by the ICC - as head of state removed the largest barrier to that.

But the killing, rape and beatings on June 3, will likely also make the current military leaders unacceptable to international reintegration.

The TMC may point to Egypt as an example. President Abdelfattah Sisi committed atrocities in Tahrir Square, was suspended by the African Union and now sits at the head of the organisation as its chair. But Egypt is a regional superpower and key ally for the USA in the Middle East and its policy of support for Israel.

A successful military government needs regular funds, a blind eye from superpowers and apathy from the media (including social media).

Sudan, quite simply, is not a foreign policy priority for the Western powers and is key for China and Russia mostly in its position in the regional proxy war against the West.

This can swing both ways - the TMC might see this is as a way to get away with what they did and continue. Certainly Trump has remained silent and his administration has paid the minimum of lip services to the bloodshed. The UK and Europe are currently distracted with the self-destruction of Brexit.

However, Trump may not be in power for long and, if the winds of change usher in a new US President next year, it will likely be one more concerned about the public repercussions of supporting atrocities in Sudan.

Sanctions

The lifting of decades of sanctions and the opening of international markets to Sudan will more than likely now require a civilian government as its premise.

Without it, Sudan's economic woes will continue longer term and the cycle of protests will continue.

The kingmaker is paramilitary leader Hemeti. Commanding the most powerful armed force in the country and now firmly entrenched in the capital and the epicentre of influence, he has the power to put the benefit of the country first and take a step back or drive Sudan straight down the path of Syria and Libya - a descent into civil war.

Probably the only power capable of influencing Hemedi would be Saudi Arabia. And a U-turn on Saudi support of the TMC requires heavy American engagement which we are not yet seeing under Trump.

However, Sudan is not just an Arab country. It plays an important African role.

While the intervention of the Arab world with all its money and current carte blanche from Trump's USA has no interest in a popular revolution succeeding, Sudan is now at real risk of becoming yet another failed state.

This would spell disaster for the region and the African Union can well see that.

Sudan's regional position is key. Already crumbling with the secession of South Sudan as well as conflict in Darfur, The Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Abyei, conflict in the centre of Khartoum could push it over the edge into an abyss.

Sudan has always been a strong buffer surrounded by troubled states (South Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Chad, CAR, Eritrea). Any further destabilisation of Sudan could spill over and threaten key regional economies like Egypt, Kenya, and now Ethiopia.

Recent gains in the region by Ethiopia's reconciliation with Eritrea are at risk by a troubled Sudan, hence the choice of Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed to mediate.

Ethiopia is the example of where Sudan could end up, if it embraces reconciliation instead of repression and ensures a transition to civilian rule.

The African Union can see its interests lie in a stable Sudan and will likely play a mediation role to that end.

The TMC would do well to consider that, longer term, the road of repression could end up with them meeting the same end as Al Bashir, albeit with more blood spilled, in a few years. Worse still - they could end up ruling over a Somalia-like disjointed and failed state.

Deep mistrust

Moving forward, talks will be difficult now as there is a deep mistrust between the TMC and the opposition forces. The opposition says the TMC broke its promise not to disperse the sit-in and the arrests of opposition leaders Yasir Arman and now Mohamed Esmat after meeting Ethiopian leader Ahmed did little to rebuild bridges.

From its side, the TMC bemoaned the level of unprofessionalism and lack of organisation among the opposition negotiators. They said the coalition agreed on points and then backed out when public opinion turned against them and requested written minutes signed after every negotiation.

The opposition forces must unite and accept that they are negotiating for a civilian, technocratic government with a clear mandate to end conflict, corruption and rehabilitate the economy, health and education.

There is now no time to negotiate a new constitution acceptable to all parties or to debate the separation of religion and state. A timely transition to civilian rule using the original and well-negotiated 2005 constitution as a starting point is a priority.

Every delay from their side, every disagreement between them, is a nail in the coffin of the revolution..

The author of this Op-ed is a Khartoum educator who has asked Radio Dabanga to withhold their name for safety reasons, as writers and journalists are still regularly harassed by government forces in Sudan.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Radio Dabanga.

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