Author: Aymen Mohamed
Since independence, Sudan has seen periods of civilian multi-party governments, military dictatorships, transitional governments, and lastly, reoccurring army coups. Despite this, sequential governments were similar in some ways; they all shared the willingness to constantly be guided by sectarian concerns and an unfathomable pattern of maintaining power to promote factional interests rather than state interests. As Sudan is moving towards the creation of a transitional government it is important to call attention to the problems that the state may face during the 3-year transitional period. In what follows the article will focus not on the issues that may arise between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) during their coalition in the Sovereignty Council (SC), but rather, the article will focus on potential problems that the transitional government will face as it pertains to the economy and foreign policy.
The December revolution and the journey towards establishing the transitional government
The December revolution was an event unique not only to Sudan but rather to the history of the Arab and African region. The revolution which led to the eventual downfall of the Bashir regime on the 11th of April 2019 was achieved through a concerted effort of national unity with limited international and political support at its onset.
The movement which began in Aldamazin city after the government announced new economic policies which led to a rapid increase in the price of basic commodities. Inevitably, demonstrations and rioting followed, and although the authorities sent in troops to control the situations, civil unrest persisted. The situation reached a boiling point on 19th December when government forces used deadly force to confront demonstrators in the towns of Atbara and Algdarif. In the wake of this, a loose organization, which became known as the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), decided to coordinate with protestors in support of their calls for ‘regime change’.
The SPA which at first consisted of doctors, journalist, and lawyers, rapidly expanded to include members of other professional committees. The SPA started calling for systematic general strikes to force the collapse of the regime, and their calls were heeded when a number of large-scale demonstrations followed. In the wake of this, some of the political parties sensed the wind of change and, in a bid to keep pace with the political climate they signed with the SPA a memorandum which resulted later in the creation of what is now known as the FFC. The major shift of the uprising was on the 6th of April 2019 when large numbers of anti-government demonstrators converged in front of the Sudanese Armed Forces headquarters in Khartoum and across Sudan. The sit-in in front of the army headquarters led the military to overthrow the Bashir regime.
On the 11th of April they announced the creation of the TMC composed of senior army officers who had opted to side with the citizens to overthrow the Bashir regime. The TMC at its onset was led by General Awad Ibn Ouf, who was then Vice President and Defence Minister under the Bashir regime, however, public sentiments demanded he swiftly resign from this post. Following his removal, the presidency of the TMC was bestowed on General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan. On the 12th of April the FFC issued a statement that praised the role of the army in overthrowing the Bashir regime, and with this the FFC hoped that a quick transition to civilian rule would take place. However, the period that followed was characterised by ups and downs regarding the FFC’s calls for an immediate transfer of power to a civilian government. The gap between the TMC and FFC grew wider after the Qiyada massacre (3rd June), and existing channels of communication were severely hampered in view of the massacre. Nevertheless, the African Union (AU) and the Ethiopian efforts to conciliate between the negotiating parties came to fruition on the 4th of July, as a preliminary power sharing agreement between the TMC and the FFC was signed.
Problems, challenges and opportunities of solving Sudan’s political crisis
Despite an agreement being reached between the TMC and FFC to halt the political conflict, find solutions through an all-inclusive political dialogue and establish transitional government of unity, there are still challenges which undermine these efforts, these include:
(a) The reluctance of the TMC and the constant reservations of political parties that form the FFC to respect terms they have agreed on;
(b) The need to accommodate the interests of armed opposition groups in the mediation agenda to affect an all-inclusive lasting solution to the conflicts;
(c) The TMC leaderships fear of a citizen led government seeking retribution for the Qiyada massacre and other violations which occurred when the two groups were vying for power.
(d) Challenges remain on how the interim transitional government will be structured and the two faction parties will be amalgamated, and most importantly, how the TG is planning to lead the transitional period smoothly within the African Union-Ethiopian mediation proposal. Nevertheless, in what follows the article will focus not on the issues relevant to the challenges faced by the FFC and TMC, but rather the article will examine the economic and foreign policy challenges faced by any transitional government.
1. The Economy: Upcoming substantial change?
Throughout the Bashir regime, Sudan has failed to extricate itself from the ever-tightening grip of a protracted economic crisis. As one source has described it, the country was falling headlong ‘like the nose-dive of an aircraft that has run out of fuel’.
The prime question to ask is how the TG, is planning to rescue the country out of the quagmire of economic ruin that spread as a result of mismanagement, corruption, and the wasteful endeavours of the previous regime. Will the TG create a substantial change to the states economic policies, or would it not be concerned with the rigours of economy and finance; just like its predecessors (previous failed transitional governments). A closer look at the transitional government that followed Nimeiri’s regime (May regime) we can stipulate clearly that it was feeding people false propaganda while it maintained some of Nimeiri’s policies such as allowing cabinet ministers and others to import tax-free and granted special import licences without adequate supervision. Other transitional governments faced significant resistance from those who were benefiting from the previous regime when they started to radically reduce, expand and review tax laws, and this created continuous pressure on the administration to the point where they cut back their impetus for such policies. Consequently, the new TG will need to avoid hollow slogans and start with a well-conceived plan that addresses the root causes of the country’s economic ailments.
The first duty of the TG, one assumes, would be to stop the haemorrhage, especially since they are faced with many economic troubles which have become more acute with time: inflation has soared, production has declined, and government expenditure has sky rocketed. If the TG’s forthcoming economic policies are to have any credibility, they must start by first addressing issues of conflict and ensuring peace with all the warring factions in Sudan. If the TG decides to follow the pattern of previous regimes and continue fighting costly wars it will have dire impacts on human, economic, and physical resources. On this point especially, the TG must learn from Sadiq Al-Mahadi’s failed government (1985 -1988) when it presumed that political and economic problems can be fixed through external support and that the process of peacebuilding can be postponed to a later time. This strategy led to the loss of large amounts of state funds, particularly as significant portions of government resources were going towards the war effort. Therefore, the TG must ensure that it brings already existing conflicts to an end and is cautious to avoid acting in a manner which may cause new trends of violent conflict to emerge.
Another major issue the TG will be faced with is how will it combat systemic corruption, which was bred by the previous regime, particularly considering that corruption manifests itself in all sectors of the economy. On the 5th of July 2019, the National Audit Chamber of Sudan announced that there were more than 1000 government institutions that have no tax registration, furthermore, more than 800 of these institutions do not provide any sort of financial returns to the National Bank of Sudan. The National Audit Chamber of Sudan also pointed to the fact that forthcoming administrative policies directed towards such enterprises must be strategic due to the fragility of the state’s economic infrastructure. One study of corruption as ‘a feature of production’ analysed in some detail the issues faced by governments in relation to its policies combatting corrupt governmental enterprises that are deeply involved in the national economy. The study concluded that the policies directed towards specific corporations must be adequately studied because such enterprises can have a dangerous effect on the national economy. Also, such enterprises still maintain formidable networks of individuals who are working independently to further their own agenda within such enterprises. On this point, the TG must look to the failure of the Mahdi administration to implement accountability measures against some of the dubious agreements made by Islamic banks and petroleum corporations. This failure was primarily attributable to the presence of a number of individuals within the Mahdi admiration who were working against the implementation of accountability measures against Islamic banks and petroleum corporations. However, in combatting such forms of corruption the TG must not make the same mistake of the Bashir regime when they casted too wide a net on the deep state and started purging all individuals in government institutions without adequate impact assessments which inadvertently further weakened these institutions. Therefore, the TG must start reforming such corporations and institutions through investigation boards that will produce in time assessment reports, in order to balance any policy change and ensure that replacements do not weaken the institutions.
Finally, one major issue the TG must avoid is wanting too much too soon. This means that the TG must not rush the implementation of economic and development programs without an adequate strategy, especially since the country is standing on very weak economic infrastructures. A very quick glimpse into the Nimeiri regime, we can formulate that a big contributor to the economic crisis of that period was that the administration implemented numerous economic projects without having the capacity to execute them all. The mismanagement of the economy led to a deterioration in the balance-of-payments and the terms of foreign debt which pushed the country towards a major economic crisis by the year 1980. Therefore, the TG must be vigilant not to throw the country into the unknown and must keep in mind that despite the promise of financial reform it must not inadvertently lead the administration towards a new financial catastrophe.
There are no simple solutions to Sudan’s economic problems. Nevertheless, four prerequisites are clearly necessary before any rational economic strategy can be formulated and implemented. Firstly, the TG must be ready to create political stability through achieving peace with all the armed parties inside and outside Sudan, especially those in Darfur andUpper Nile region. Secondly, The TG must figure out a way to make western and Arab government stakeholders as well as international financial organizations offerconcessions on the debt issues, including writing off some of Sudan’s debts. Thirdly, the TG must implement socio-economic transformation measures, this transformation should aim to end the monopoly of both power and reach of the deep state which has had a debilitating effect on the political and economic stability of the state. Finally, the Sudanese people must acknowledge that economic recovery won’t be fully realized throughout the political lifetime of the transitional period but rather during the tenure of successive governments who continue positive strides towards cohesive economic progress.
2. Sudans foreign policy: Continuity or change?
In the last years of the Bashir regime, Sudan experienced an unprecedented reliance on the outside world – from the Middle East largely- particularly in order to keep Al-Bashir in power. The Bashir regime’s foreign policy up to 2013 was openness without total dependency, but in the face of economic challenges, security issues and mounting threats of a popular uprising, the Bashir regime was pushed further into regional alliances. By 2017-2018 Bashir began to align himself with all feasible sources of support. The resurgence of public criticism and Sudan’s participation in the Yemen war, transformed Sudan into an exposed powder-keg in the field of Arab politics and the Arab alliances. Far from going nowhere fast, the Bashir regime’s foreign policy was leading the country down the path of self-destruction.
Nevertheless, with the removal of the Bashir government from power, it is unreasonable to think that the TG would reject all previous foreign policy obligations. The TG can make slow strides towards adopting a stance of positive neutrality in public relations, while maintaining working relationships with all powers who have a vested interest in the state of affairs in Sudan. However, in order to understand some of Sudan’s foreign policy faux pas, and how the TG can evade repeating them, it is necessary to take a closer look at history.
Sudan due to its unique geographical position, has traditionally been enmeshed in several foreign policy spheres. The geographical position, for all previous regimes, raised questions on whether Sudan would be more oriented and affiliated with Arab or African stateswhich would then by extension determine its foreign policy. The governments of Sudan between 1956 and 1968 tried to create a balance its foreign relations, however, these efforts were hampered by domestic political developments. Such developments were mostly driven by individualistic concerns and often under the guise of fraudulent ideological labels such as Arab nationalism. For example, Sudan’s foreign policy during these periods leaned towards the Middle East orbit. As a result, Sudan saw a weakening of its relationship with African statessuch as in the case of Ethiopia where an agreement with Egypt on the sharing of Nile waters in 1959 caused the breakdown of relations. The only positive foreign policy achievement during this period was that Sudan maintained a passive non-aligned policy towards the major superpowers.
The period between 1969 to 1985 on the other hand witnessed a profound departure from a passive non-aligned foreign policy to an often incoherent and contradictory set of foreign policy decisions. Impracticality and personalisation of matters in foreign relations were the general form of Nimeiri’s government especially in its last years. Jumping from alignment with the Eastern block to the Western block resulted in the weakening of Sudan’s position in the Arab league, moreover, it resulted in the collapse of goodwill with Ethiopia and increased animosity with Libya. While the period between 1989 to 2019 was considered a roller-coaster in Sudan’s foreign policy, two axioms defined Sudan’s position during the Bashir regime. First, a sense of irresolute policymaking, and secondly zigzagging alienations. In the end, the impracticality and the personalisation of policies led the state into a public relations rabbit hole, moving from one alliance to another without adequate perspective nor a long-distance strategy.
Following from this the TG must therefore follow the path of non-alignment, both regionally and internationally. This can be achieved not by paying lip service to issues that occurred in the past, but rather simply by adopting a stance of positive neutrality towards regional and global matters while maintaining working relationships with all powers having interests in Sudan. Furthermore, the transitional government must acknowledge that foreign policy is not the sum of individual foreign policy measures, but rather, it is an interplay between internal and external factors aimed at achieving well-defined objectives and goals. Towards that end, the TG must play a more active role in regional and international forums in order to bring positive change to Sudan’s foreign relations. However, executing this the TG must not divert Sudan’s foreign policy into the forum of alignment, but rather in must take a neutral side with any warring faction in order to maintain a balanced relationship.
The experiences of previous regimes in Sudan should by now have made it abundantly clear that short sighted and exploitative policies of different regimes have only served to achieve specific ideological and factional interests. However, one narrative that has continued is that every new regime in the history of Sudan starts its journey by condemning its predecessor only to make the same mistakes of the past.
The December revolution emanated from a desire to transform Sudan politically, socially and economically. But revolutions are not only about rejection; they are also an opportunity for reconstruction. The rejection of the old should be accompanied with alternative policies and institutions. Therefore, the TG government must begin to discuss the fundamental problems, that were in the past swept under the carpet. Furthermore, the TG through its different guises, policies and institutions must make positive and viable economic and foreign policy choices. In this respect the TG must acknowledge that there is no way for the country out of its miseries other than self-reliance, neutrality and increased productivity. There three principles must be the guiding principles through this transitional period.
In the end, the people of Sudan must also acknowledge that a complete overhaul of Sudan’s political and economic base won’t be fully achieved throughout the political lifetime of the transitional period. Lastly, the Sudan will require political groups with profound national characters that will impede the emergence groups that merely seek to create regional, religious and ethnic divisions.