Sudan has been gripped by popular protests since December, representing the most sustained challenge to President Omar al-Bashir’s 30 years in power. The protests were sparked by a tripling in bread prices and an inflation rate of 65 per cent and rising.
Sudan is one of the few African countries in which citizens pioneered post-Independence popular uprisings that forced the ruling military regimes to step down. This happened in 1964 and in 1985. As a result, popular uprisings are viewed as a way of redefining the peoples’ social contract with the state.
The recent uprising was triggered by a government decision to lift subsidies on essential commodities, most significantly bread, but more broadly, it is a manifestation of the structural economic, political, and social fragility of the state of Sudan.
Unlike previous uprisings, these protests have been engineered by young people as well as middle-class professionals who are well informed, connected and equipped with enabling social media technology that the regime is ill-equipped to suppress.
There is no doubt that the uprising has weakened the authority of al-Bashir and political Islam in Sudan and it is likely to persist. Meanwhile, some elements in the government are determined to repress the protests until the movement is worn out.
Sudan is at a crossroads. Some observers see al-Bashir as having no option but to fight back. The protesters, on the other hand, are determined to see regime change. If the confrontation continues, the country is destined for chaos that may deteriorate into a scenario similar to that of Syria or Libya.
The situation in the country is already incredibly fragile given that Sudan is arguably one of the worst performing states in the world.
The current climate marks a low point in the country’s tumultuous history that included its political Islamisation by the National Congress Party after gaining power through a coup d’état in 1989. This in turn resulted in the breaking away of South Sudan.
There are possible options to end the impasse. But the good ones would require al-Bashir to accept mediation and to stand down, or indicate that he won’t stand for re-election in 2020. There’s also, however, the possibility that he digs in his heels and brutally suppresses the uprising.
Al-Bashir’s fragile base
The uprising seems to gain more strength and re-energise itself the more the government uses violence to suppress it.
It is significant that 22 political parties, including Islamist political parties, have withdrawn from the national dialogue initiated by al-Bashir. Their January 1 call for him to step down and form a sovereign council and a transitional government is a political blow to the president’s standing.
Many observers also believe that the army has shifted from its absolute allegiance to al-Bashir to a neutral position and are even siding in some instances with the protesters.
The National Intelligence and Security Service, a loyal and integral part of al-Bashir’s ruling party, has started blaming the government for its mismanagement of the economic crisis. This has further weakened the control of al-Bashir over the affairs of the government.
Even the special military force, called “The Rapid Support Force,” that was formed to protect al-Bashir and his regime, has kept a low profile during this uprising.
With the erosion of al-Bashir’s political base, the National Congress Party is divided and he retains only a few loyal supporters from his party. Besides the divisions within the party, there is also friction among the regime’s supporters.
The Sudanese Muslim Scholars Association, a body of state sponsored clerics that is perceived as conservative and loyal to al-Bashir, has, in an unprecedented move, criticised the government for the economic crisis. It has called for the responsible officials to be held accountable.
One option would be for al-Bashir to voluntarily resign and hand over to the national army along with a technocratic government to oversee the transition to constitutional democratic governance, (provided that he can find a host country to ensure his safety and protection from arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court.)
If he was afforded some protection he could decide to stay out of the country. Such a move would quell the protests and spare the country the risk of more widespread violence.
But this option is unlikely as the national army may be too politicised. Moreover, some protesters may not accept al-Bashir avoiding accountability.
The second option is for him to undertake that he won’t vie in 2020. This would allow the formation of an inclusive government of national unity to oversee the transition to a constitutional democracy.
Under this scenario, al-Bashir would publicly apologise for the atrocities committed under his rule and bring charges against those responsible for the killing of protesters.
As part of the transition process, he would commit to a national dialogue that would help create a conducive political environment for power-sharing. This would also ensure the participation of moderate Islamist members, as has been the case in the Tunisian transitional process.
This option is likely to be entertained by al-Bashir and accepted by the protesters if a trusted body facilitates it.
The third option is for him to declare a state of emergency to try to violently suppress the uprising. This would result in more bloodshed and could trigger a violent response from protesters. Under this scenario, Sudan could descend into a protracted and fragmented conflict leading to massive displacement and immense human suffering.
Without mediation – both internal and external – al-Bashir’s instinct and pride may predispose him to this route.
Dr Luka Kuol Abiong is professor of Practice for Security Studies at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, at the US National Defence University.