This week, the Republic of South Sudan celebrated its first anniversary amidst sober assessments of the problems facing the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in maintaining control over the territory, combating pervasive hunger and establishing rule of law.
Two weeks earlier, Sudanese people marked another birthday: the 24th anniversary of the Al-Ingaz (Salvation) Coup, which brought a military-Islamist regime to power in Khartoum. Once famed for its sophisticated political-economic strategising and its ability to navigate even the most turbulent of international waters, the Al-Ingaz regime is today struggling to survive the fall-out of Sudan’s partition. Spiralling inflation, revolutionary protests, a proxy war with South Sudan, and infighting within the Salvation are producing a sense the regime may be in its last days, similar to the last months of the government of Gaafar Nimeiry which the Islamists helped overthrow in a 1985 intifada.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 after over two decades of brutal war between Khartoum and the SPLM/A, was a flawed document but it promised a fundamental transformation of the Sudanese state and the root causes of half a century of conflict. Whilst power-sharing, the re-establishment of parliament, and democratic elections were to underpin political liberalisation, the combination of oil money, aid flows and a ‘peace dividend’ were to provide the cash for addressing the vast inequalities between Khartoum and the impoverished rest of the country.
President Omar Al-Bashir and Vice-President Ali Osman Taha went along with this “New Sudan”-inspired vision of their former nemesis John Garang, believing that it would allow the regime to reinvent itself and shift its legitimacy from revolutionary ideology to economic competence. Solving the “Southern question” and launching a developmentalist agenda were also seen by Bashir and Taha as a route to ensure their dominance of the political landscape in the face of intra-Ingaz contestation of their power.
However, several factors undermined this attempted reinvention. The grand transformation agenda lost its main advocate when Garang died in a mysterious helicopter crash, while Al-Ingaz and the SPLM/A abandoned their vows of cooperation in the Government of National Unity and instead chose to bolster their own constituencies in a military-Islamist North and an SPLM/A-controlled South.
Moreover, the international community failed to deliver on its promises of ending Sudan’s economic isolation by ending sanctions, scrapping Khartoum off the US list of terror-sponsoring states, and offering debt relief. This hampered growth but also emboldened hardliners in the security services and army who had always been reluctant to liberalise and who could now reproach reformist Islamists for having nothing to show for all their engagement with Washington.
On January 9, 2011, southern Sudanese voted for independence, seemingly ending Garang’s New Sudan agenda. Northern extremists like Tayeb Mustafa slaughtered a black bull in Khartoum to celebrate the secession and called for the end to the ‘liberal’ 2005-2011 interim-period. Bashir and Taha, who had both staked much political capital on signing the CPA, now argued that Sudan would not only survive the loss of the South and three-quarters of oil reserves, but might use the settlement of the southern question to finally take off.
Through a media offensive, Northern public opinion was carefully prepared for partition. When July 9, 2011, passed without a last minute attempt to salvage the unity of the country and without contestation by the population, it seemed as if Bashir and Taha had once again succeeded in reinventing the Al-Ingaz regime to prolong their stay in power.
One year later, partition and its consequences constitute the core of the threats faced by Sudan’s president and vice-president. While the shutdown of Southern oil production represented the most eye-catching blow to the country’s fortunes, the real drama lies in the total inadequacy of the post-oil alternatives which Al-Ingaz claimed would guarantee post-secession prosperity. The regime invested billions of dollars in a dysfunctional dam programme and counted on an “Agricultural Revival” that would generate valuable export revenues and much needed jobs. The former is regionally controversial and has been domestically explosive in that it contributed to the return to war in Blue Nile. The latter is a mirage which contributes almost nothing to the economy and does nothing to reverse the growing despair in rural areas.
This is all the more damaging because, as mentioned earlier, Al-Ingaz reinvented itself after 2000 from its focus on revolutionary ideology to economic competence. Minister of Finance and National Economy Ali Mahmood, whose economic literacy is questioned even by loyal colleagues, is also the object of much black humour, not least since the government was forced to withdraw an expensive fuel subsidy for Khartoum’s middle classes.
The lack of preparation for secession is fusing with increasingly vocal discontent about the partition of Sudan. Regime insiders and ordinary people alike are pinning the blame on Vice-President Taha as the architect of both the CPA and many of the bad economic policies of the past decade. His position as the leader of Sudan’s Islamic Movement – the political-ideological backbone of Al-Ingaz – is also widely questioned.
Taha survives as the regime’s number two because of the political interdependence between him and Bashir, a partnership through which they have controlled the country since 1999. Yet Taha’s weakness now causes growing damage to the president, who is under fire too through popular protests on the streets and by disgruntled Islamists inside Al-Ingaz.
Attempts last May by the president and vice-president to turn the Islamic Movement into an ordinary party institution have led prominent Islamists to repeatedly threaten to break away from the ruling coalition. Many are already disgusted by the South’s separation, the lack of democratic reforms, and the wars in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Leading figures have openly speculated about forming a new party to challenge Taha, and thus also Bashir. Their devastating charge is that the regime has run out of ideas and that the president seems increasingly incapable of re-seizing the political initiative. Al-Ingaz policy has become largely reactive.
The street protests in Khartoum and other urban centres of the past weeks have not been lacking in passion and are showing signs of growing organisational complexity, both internally and in terms of liaising with the outside world. So far though, they have been met by a sophisticated system of repression by al-Bashir’s security services. The key challenge for the protesters remains scaling up their efforts and uniting different constituencies fed up with the regime.
Many of course fear the potential chaos and disintegration of Sudan were Al-Ingaz to fall. But at the same time, the sense of crisis in Khartoum is so widespread that Al-Ingaz leaders admit their time horizons for decision-making are now measured in days and weeks rather than months and years. They are aware that a new corruption scandal, another humiliation of the army after the capture of the Heglig oil field in April, or the killing of protesters at the University of Khartoum could mark a point of no return. If the bulk of the Islamic Movement’s cadres would indeed leave the regime they themselves created, and ignite an unprecedented public debate about Al-Ingaz’ dark side of war, disappearances and corruption, the days of those who remain in power would be numbered.
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