What is behind the economic and political crisis in Sudan?

Three factors underpin Sudan’s entanglements with the West and also give a clue to the current crises.

Omar al-Bashir. Image via Al-Jazeera Flickr.

In October 2017, Sudanese were thrilled with the decision of US President Donald Trump to lift economic sanctions –in place since 1997.  Sudanese social media buzzed with great expectation. This enthusiasm was legitimate given the drastic impacts of two-decades of sanctions on Sudanese society, but how realistic was it?

The US first imposed restrictions on Sudan in 1993 as part of a group of countries supporting “terrorism.” In 1997 the Clinton administration announced comprehensive economic, trade, and financial sanctions against Sudan. Then in 1998, the US bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the capital Khartoum; the US claimed the factory was manufacturing chemical weapons. These sanctions remained in place throughout the Bush years until, in 2016, Obama announced he was lifting the sanctions. Obama stipulated five conditions and gave six months to the Sudanese government to fulfill them.

Sadly, the hopes of revitalizing the Sudanese economy and boosting social and economic development, was dealt a blow when  drastic inflation has hit the Sudanese economy a month later, causing near implosion.

Since the start of January 2018, demonstrations spread in all Sudan’s major cities. Protesters cited the high prices of commodities, specifically bread. Many Sudanese families reported they are eating only one meal a day. And many claimed they could afford to buy medications.

The crisis is the result of three major factors that underpin Sudan’s political and economic entanglements with the West.

The first the Sudanese government’s “Altamkeen” (empowerment and solidification) policy. In 1989 when Islamists, led by Dr. Hassan Alturabi, first came to power via a military coup, Altamkeen served to empower their affiliates and supporters. In practice, it translates into using the state and its institutions as tools to serve party goals. The Altamkeen policy is better understood by linking it to the history of the Islamist group with the West.

Sudan became independent in 1956. From the outset, the West maneuvered to influence the new nation’s politics, pushing the government to take right-wing positions. This agenda was aided by coups, interventions in parliamentary politics and assassinations.  During the Cold War, Islamists in Sudan, like other political Islamist groups in the region, were nurtured by the West to combat and minimize the influence of leftist parties. In the mid-1970s Islamists’ influence was particularly powerful and the ruling party imposed International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) policies to lifting subsidies, liberalization and privatization. The government also worked to impose Sharia Law. The IMF policies created a climate of profiteering and corruption that benefited the Islamist group through the creation of multiple businesses, banks, and companies. However, in 1985 the Sudanese public rebelled against the IMF policies and its social impacts, including Sharia Law, toppling the dictatorship through a popular uprising. The election of a democratic government jeopardized the economic power of Islamists and threatened its political goals. It then moved to retake power, and eventually did so through a military coup in 1989.

The new regime, however, adopted neoliberal policies: privatization, lifting subsidies and promoted a free-market economy. It sold major enterprises that were owned by the public and the government. The major beneficiaries of the sell-off were a small minority linked to the generals and the ruling National Congress Party of General Omar al-Bashir.

The second factor driving the crisis is the long-term effects ofthe  economic sanctions. It affected the technological and social development of the country. Travel restrictions on Sudanese people have drastically affected an exchange of skills, education and training in the country, and negatively impacted economic development.

The third factor contributing to the current economic debacle in Sudan is the austerity project of the IMF, which has resulted in the staggering accumulation of debt, stunted economic growth, and social and political destabilization. For instance, in 2001 the IMF praised the economic performance of Sudan — despite the sanctions — and announced it would facilitate debt relief if the government followed its lead. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 caused a loss of 46% of the national income, resulting in a major shock to the Sudanese economy, which the government, expectedly, did not prepare for. The IMF intervened again in 2013 and 2017 and pushed for further austerity measures and liberalization. This caused commodity prices to soar. Frustrated Sudanese took to the streets again. In November 2016, the Sudanese public organized a successful civil disobedience campaign for a week, which led to massive arrests. Since the beginning of January 2018 civil society demonstrations have been constant in Sudanese cities leading to massive arrests.

The Altamkeen policy could be considered a recipe for corruption and nepotism, yet the IMF policies have emboldened it, giving it international legitimacy, while the liberalization of the economy has been shouldered by the masses. Every time the government announces austerity measures it appeals to the public to be thrift and asks them to be patient, attributing the economic difficulties to the sanctions. At the same time the government spends munificently on its security apparatus. The government also relies on high taxes and other tricky means of collecting money from the public thereby hindering production and victimizing the ordinary Sudanese.

The lifting of sanctions without political reform did not solve the political and economic crisis; it only exacerbated it. The end of  sanctions presented a golden opportunity for economic growth and social development if accompanied by political reform to reinforce transparency and accountability. It would have stimulated the economy and potentially drawing thousands of Sudanese in exile to return and participate in the development of the country. The need is ever pressing for major political reform that addresses endemic corruption and encourages political and economic participation.

With a weak and divided opposition that lacks a comprehensive plan for a political transition, the only option for young activists and youth movements is to continue demonstrating.

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