Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, is demonstrating remarkable resilience. In 2011, autocracies in three of Sudan’s Arab African neighbours collapsed. In January, Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted after 23 years in power. The following month, Hosni Mubarak was removed from office in Egypt, having been president for more than 31 years. A few months later, Muammar Gaddafi, leader of Libya for 42 years, was forced from power and then killed.
Al-Bashir is now in his 24th year as Sudan’s leader, having seized power from Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless military coup in 1989 and appointed himself president four years later. He has run effectively unopposed in every election since then. When parliament made an attempt to curtail his powers in the late 1990s, he dissolved the chamber and declared a state of emergency.
Political dominance in Sudan
Although political opposition is officially tolerated under the 1998 constitution, the National Congress Party (NCP), of which Al-Bashir is the leader, has become almost synonymous with the Sudanese state. In elections in 2010, the NCP won 323 out of 450 seats in the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house, and its members dominate the executive. Even when things are not going the party’s way, elections can be “rigged”, says a report published in November by International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based non-governmental institution.
Despite its continued dominance of the levers of state, Al-Bashir’s regime is under huge pressure. In July 2011, Sudan suffered the humiliation of the secession of the southern part of the country – now South Sudan – after an almost unanimous referendum vote in favour of independence the previous January.
Sudan’s military, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), is involved in three violent domestic conflicts – in the Darfur region in the west and the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan in the south. In 2012, it was also engaged in fighting with South Sudan’s military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). All of these conflicts remain unresolved, and there is little optimism that this will change any time soon.
While Al-Bashir’s regime focuses on its own survival, Sudan’s economy is gradually collapsing. According to independent reports, the regime has long been corrupt and inefficient, and the economy based on patronage rather than sound investment. But since the loss of the south in 2011, the situation has rapidly deteriorated.
The territory that became South Sudan contained about three quarters of Sudan’s oil production and provided half its fiscal revenues and about two thirds of its international payments capacity, according to the Washington-based IMF’s latest Sudan assessment published in November.
Relations between Sudan and its new neighbour deteriorated to such an extent in the months following secession that in early 2012 South Sudan decided to stop pumping oil via the north, depriving it of yet another source of income, transit fees. In the face of these challenges, there is growing discontent in Sudan about Al-Bashir’s leadership. This dissent is not only from the opponents of Al-Bashir’s NCP-dominated regime, but also among reformers within the system who believe that their leader is failing the country, or its Islamic values.
The formal opposition is united by opposition to the regime, but not much else. There’s [an] absence of strategy
Aly Verjee, Rift Valley Institute
In recent years, Sudan’s fragmented opposition has attempted to form a more coherent and united platform on which to confront the regime. In 2009, several of the main opposition parties joined with women’s organisations, former trade unionists and other groups to create the National Consensus Forces (NCF). The NCF agenda, encapsulated in the Democratic Alternative Charter published in July 2012, is based on the creation of a broad-based government that will resolve the domestic and external conflicts in which the nation is embroiled.
But the NCF has its own weaknesses. According to the ICG report, the NCF lacks any “well-defined structure”, and has failed to effectively engage with the economic plight of the country’s poor. It is also is undermined by a lack of support from two of the main opposition groups, Sadiq al-Mahdi’s moderate Islamic National Umma Party (NUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
“The formal opposition is united by opposition to the regime, but not much else,” says Aly Verjee, senior researcher at the Rift Vally Institute, a research and advocacy organisation in Nairobi. “There’s a complete absence of strategy.”
Meanwhile, Al-Bashir has tried to co-opt the NUP and DUP, while quickly clamping down on any signs of popular support for political change. The regime has made pre-emptive arrests of youth leaders and infiltrated Facebook groups to isolate activists. In June-July 2012, street protests were met with an overwhelming show of force from the state security apparatus. At least seven protesters were killed in South Darfur on 31 July.
Whether with South Sudan or in South Kordofan, the regime is using war as a systematic tool
Gillian Lusk, UK-based Sudan expert
Opposition forces in the periphery have also started to coalesce. In August 2011, the SPLM-N (the northern section of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which split from the SPLA following South Sudan’s independence) joined with elements of the opposition in Darfur to form the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Again though, the loose affiliation of SRF members undermines its effectiveness as an opposition force.
“The SRF is just a name, and any attempt to bridge the gap [between the agendas of its members] has failed,” says Verjee. “The difference between Sudan and countries where there has been regime change is that the opposition elsewhere showed some ability to organise beyond the capital.”
Growing frustration with Al-Bashir
Within the regime, there is growing frustration with Al-Bashir on a number of counts, from the loss of South Sudan and the pursuit of unnecessary wars to the prevalence of corruption and the regime’s perceived departure from the principles of Islam. Internal memorandums calling for government reform were published in the national press in 2011, apparently signed by 1,000 members of the Islamic Movement, which represents the Islamic heart of the NCP. Some say that unpublished parts of the memorandums demanded the removal of Al-Bashir.
At an Islamic Movement conference in November, Al-Bashir and fellow conservatives faced down a reformist element that wanted to modernise the way the movement operated. Al-Bashir was made chairman of a new body to oversee the movement, consolidating the president’s power over the NCP’s political and religious affairs.
Less than a week later, the state-run National Intelligence and Security Services arrested its own former leader, Salah Gosh, along with several other army officers in what the government claimed was a pre-emptive intervention against a plot to sabotage the regime. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt by Al-Bashir to weaken those whose loyalty to his rule might be less than wholehearted, as well as a warning not to challenge his authority.
One of the common strands among many of the opposition groups, both within and outside the regime, is a desire to put an end to the draining military confrontations in which the country is embroiled. As long as Al-Bashir is in power, this is unlikely to happen.
Sudan’s repeated failure to pursue opportunities to resolve these conflicts suggests that their perpetuation is part of a deliberate strategy. In Blue Nile and South Kordofan, Khartoum has consistently failed to honour commitments under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to give the two states a say in their future. In July 2011, the president repudiated a framework agreement on the two states signed by NCP officials just a few days earlier. In recent weeks, senior figures in the regime, including Al-Bashir himself, have said that there will be no peace with Blue Nile and South Kordofan until they have been defeated militarily.
Khartoum’s attitude to South Sudan has followed a similar pattern. The roadmap to resolve one of the main bones of contention between the two countries, the status of the border territory of Abyei, has been agreed numerous times, both under the CPA and since South Sudan became independent. A deal to resume the transit of oil from South Sudan across Sudan was reached in Addis Ababa in September 2012. But each time a deal is made, Khartoum puts more obstacles in its path.
“Whether with South Sudan or in South Kordofan, the regime is using war as a systematic tool for holding onto power,” says Gillian Lusk, a UK-based Sudan expert. “It’s a way of suppressing the areas where opposition might arise, it’s a way of taking land, exercising superiority, diverting attention from problems in the centre, and keeping the army quiet.”
The perpetuation of conflict is also a reaction to the recent embarrassments suffered by the regime, from the loss of the south in 2011 and the SPLA’s capture of the oil-producing border region of Heglig in April 2012. In October 2012, the regime faced the humiliation of an Israeli air strike on a weapons production plant in Khartoum and the SAF saw reverses recently in Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
Regime change in Sudan
There is a consensus among analysts that the resolution of Sudan’s various military and political confrontations is all but impossible while Al-Bashir is in power. But opinion is divided over whether the greater threat to the regime comes from outside or from within, and over the likelihood of an imminent change of leadership.
While there is some hope that regime change might bring a softening of Sudan’s attitude to the disputes on its periphery, it is equally likely that it could herald a period of chaos, or the replacement of the current leadership by an even more hardline military-Islamist regime.
Al-Bashir and his allies are unlikely to go quietly, particularly as the leader’s removal could expose him to charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur for which the International Criminal Court at The Hague has issued arrest warrants. If there is to be a new regime in Sudan, the transition is unlikely to be smooth.
Omar al-Bashir is now in his 24th year as Sudan’s leader, having seized power in a bloodless coup in 1989