Bidding adieu to Bashir? Sudan’s anti-government protests, explained

On 19 December 2018, protests erupted in the northeastern Sudanese city of Atbara. From there the protests spread to cities around the country, such as Rabak in the south, el-Gadarif in the east, and towns in the Darfur region. Chanting for “freedom, peace, justice, and the downfall of the regime,” the protesters transitioned from anger over economic injustice into a call for Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator, to resign. However, since the protests began in December, the 75-year-old former army commander has shown no signs of caving to pressure from this millennial-powered movement. The government has blocked social media platforms to prevent the dissemination of information, issued warrants for journalists, and authorized security forces to harm peaceful protesters and medics treating them.

With this crisis showing no signs of abating, what are the potential causes and consequences of these anti-government protests? To understand this issue, we must briefly examine Sudanese political history and understand the factors that lead to the protests. Then, we must ascertain the protests implications for the government, citizenry, and international community, and look to the protests economic and political impacts.

Since Bashir took control in 1989, he has ruled Sudan with an iron fist. During this time, he has been accused of using ethnic Arab militias known as the Janjaweed to orchestrate genocide against black Africans in the Darfur region, accusations that resulted in his 2009 indictment by the International Criminal Court. He became the first sitting head of state to receive this distinction. His regime’s brutality in Darfur is indicative of a broader strategy of fomenting divisions between Arabs and Africans – a gap this protest movement has transcended, resulting in a united front against Bashir’s regime. Bashir’s government has asserted and maintained social control for the past three decades using a broad patronage network and the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). According to Tufts University’s Alex de Waal, Bashir’s lengthy tenure can be attributed to these aforementioned institutions, since his patronage network has kept supporters happy by allowing them to accumulate wealth and his security forces have crushed any challenge to his power.

Next, we must understand the factors that lead to the protests. In October 2017, the United States lifted sanctions on Sudan for the first time in 20 years. This move led the Sudanese people and government to be optimistic about increased foreign investment. The opposite occurred – inflation hit 55 percent by July 2018, the highest rate in nearly two decades. The Sudanese government subsequently consulted the International Monetary Fund, which suggested that Khartoum eliminate wheat and fuel subsidies, devalue the Sudanese pound, and invest in cash transfer programs supported by the World Bank and the African Development Bank to shield poor families from the effects of rising prices. Bashir’s government failed to implement the last proposal, burdening lower-income citizens. When protests began in December, Sudan’s inflation rate was at 72.94 percent, the second-highest rate in the world after Venezuela. Many Sudanese were frustrated by the Central Bank’s devaluation of the Sudanese pound, a response to the severe lack of foreign currency, because while it decreased the price of exports, it increased the price of imports, resulting in pricier goods on the market.

The protests’ implications for the Sudanese government, its citizenry, and the international community are significant. Bashir’s government is facing its most sustained challenge since he took power nearly three decades ago. Bashir’s claims that insurgents from Darfur are behind the protests have been met with a unifying response: “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur.” The population is more empowered than at any time in Bashir’s reign. The Sudanese Professionals Association, a union composed of doctors, teachers, lawyers, and other professionals that have grown frustrated of Bashir’s mismanagement, has elevated the protests. During the 1990s, Bashir attempted to disempower trade unions because he was aware of the power they exerted during the successful overthrows of military governments in 1964 and 1985, but now, the unionized professional classes have decided they have had enough. Bashir’s government is still resisting demands to step down, but there have been signs that Khartoum is listening. On 2 February 2019, Sudan’s prime minister Moataz Moussa conveyed how “there are legitimate demands and demands that must be expressed” pertaining to the protests, and the next day, Bashir promised in a speech to increase rural development and regional growth. The government promised last week to release all journalists detained for covering the protests.

The international community is also watching the developments very closely. The United Kingdom, Norway, United States, and Canada all expressed concern at the governmental response to the protests and the detainment of journalists, but otherwise have released muted responses. The United States has a motive to closely track the situation for two key reasons: first, Sudan is a counterterrorism ally of the United States – Khartoum has played a critical role in stopping terrorists on the country’s western border with Libya. Second, Sudanese soldiers have been deployed to fight the U.S.-supported war in Yemen. According to Sudanese analyst Magdi el-Gizouli, Washington would lose an ally if Bashir were to fall, so there is not an impetus to pressure him to step down.

Economically and politically, Sudan is at a crossroads. Bashir’s attempts to use international financial institutions such as the IMF to prescribe stopgap solutions to remedy systemic problems will not cut it anymore. After years of soaring inflation, among other economic problems, what these protests have demonstrated is that the Sudanese people are fed up and want change in their country. Politically, these protests have brought to our attention once again the Sudanese people’s plight, and whether a state with Omar Bashir as the head can effectively function and provide basic services to its own people. If the Sudanese state is incapable of doing so, then a bid of adieu to Bashir may come sooner than we think.

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Author: Raj Rao

Raj Rao is a staff writer at The Compass. He is a freshman in the Elliott School majoring in international affairs. Outside of writing for the Compass, he is a member of Roosevelt Institute at GW.