ISS Today: Inside Sudan’s house of cards

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    First published by
    ISS Today

    Two years ago, in April 2015, Sudanese
    President Omar al-Bashir – who assumed power in 1989 – once
    again won the presidential election. This further entrenched
    his personal hold on the politics of Sudan.

    He pledged in February last year that he would
    step down in 2020, but similar pledges were made in 2010 and
    2014 – and he went back on his word.

    Al-Bashir’s longevity in office can be
    attributed to his ability to rapidly adapt to new situations,
    and to win over opponents through financial and political
    rewards.

    Is Sudan set to follow a long-term trajectory
    of continued instability – including ongoing warfare, a
    political stalemate, popular dissatisfaction and economic
    hardship – following the separation from South Sudan after a
    vicious 22-year civil war and the genocidal killings in Darfur?
    Or is there any hope for concrete change through a more
    representative form of government? As it stands, the situation
    in Sudan is making regional and external actors very
    nervous.

    Al-Bashir, 73, is in poor health, and spends a
    lot of time in hospitals in the Gulf. Officials report that his
    condition is not life-threatening, but it has clearly cut into
    al-Bashir’s energy to govern as before. He delegates much to
    his second-in-line, whom he trusts the most, Prime Minister and
    First Vice-President Bakri Hassan Saleh. Saleh has long been an
    al-Bashir
    ally
    , and helped him to root
    out opponents.

    This is a serious matter, as succession will
    be complicated by factional politics within the key pillars of
    the government, which are less united than before. 

    Al-Bashir also faces other challenges, with a
    deepening crisis in the diminished economy and further drops in
    the value of the Sudanese pound. He further has to confront the
    paralysis of the government’s key pillars, including the ruling
    party, the National Congress Party (NCP). The NCP is in bad
    shape, as its high-ranking cadres have begun to question
    al-Bashir’s decisions in unprecedented ways.

    Actual power is concentrated in the hands of
    the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the
    military. Al-Bashir has managed to keep an uneasy balance
    between the two institutions. The NISS has become the most
    potent instrument of the government, having its own parallel
    paramilitary formation. Moreover, the government is dominated
    by military officers who either hold key ministerial posts, or
    oversee decisive ministries and local government
    offices.

    Al-Bashir makes sure that the officer corps is
    divided, and that certain personalities are systematically
    rotated out. This is done to prevent officers from building a
    support base, and to reduce the risk of a coup d’état.
    Nonetheless, there is nothing to stop middle-level and
    junior-level officers from considering staging a coup and
    establishing a new government of populist inspiration.

    However, al-Bashir’s government is not about
    to collapse – mainly because opposition forces, which hold
    widely differing political views, remain weak.

    The opposition is divided; and their best hope
    at present is for a more open political process. The NISS
    ensures things stay that way through arbitrary
    detention
    and enforced disappearance, making
    a speedily negotiated and consensual solution less likely.

    In a new pragmatic world where the West is
    unable to solve everything, al-Bashir’s government is adept at
    covering up the cracks in its opaque power structure. And it’s
    proven to be resilient, successfully weathering internal power
    struggles and popular uprisings alike. A profitable alliance
    with the Gulf offers further support, as do friendlier
    realignments in the Horn of Africa – where other countries like
    Ethiopia and Eritrea are offsetting one another.

    Al-Bashir wants freedom from the International
    Criminal Court’s indictments. The West has offered other
    incentives, including constructive engagement from the European
    Union (EU). Indeed, the EU struck a deal with Sudan mainly to
    reduce the unimpeded flow of migrants. United States sanctions
    were also eased earlier this year.

    Al-Bashir’s government has become known for
    meting out half-hearted measures, and using violence while
    resisting reforms. Whether incentives could moderate this
    behaviour remains to be seen.

    It is clear that substantive changes are
    needed, and urgently. Such changes should primarily transform
    the current, personalised structure of political power and the
    mechanisms through which it is exercised.

    They should also address deep-rooted problems
    and long-harboured grievances that have resulted from
    discrimination and neglecting key development sectors. It is
    hard to do this within a government which developed, over 28
    years, a complex and corrupt web of tribal and economic
    patronages; and managed along the way to alienate key
    constituencies. These groups resent its narrow geographical
    focus, absence of vision and repressive
    tendencies. 

    The other urgent priority is to end the armed
    conflicts, which have been costly both in lives and essential
    revenues lost.

    This could be a much-needed starting point to
    open up the political space to more constructive dialogue with
    the opposition, which ought to be integrated in Sudan’s society
    and restructured institutions. With such measures in place,
    prospects for true change could emerge on Sudan’s political
    horizon.
    DM

    Berouk Mesfin is an ISS
    Consultant

    Photo: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
    seen during the “Family photograph” taken at the AU Summit in
    Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa, 14 June 2015. Photo:
    EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

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