January 3, 2019

IntelBrief: Protests in Sudan: Is Change Finally on the Horizon?

In this Tuesday Dec. 25, 2018 handout photo provided a Sudanese activist, people chant slogans during a demonstration in Khartoum, Sudan. Police used tear gas and fired in the air Tuesday to disperse thousands of protesters attempting to march on the presidential palace to demand that Omar Bashir, Sudan's president of 29 years, step down, according to activists and video clips posted online. (Sudanese Activist via AP).
  • After two weeks of protests in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir has ordered an ‘investigation’ to determine what led to the unrest.
  • The nearly three-decade-long rule of al-Bashir has hindered Sudan’s economy and divided the country along ethnic, tribal and religious lines.
  • Security forces have been accused of shooting protesters, with estimates of up to 40 people killed in the protests that began on December 19th.
  • Al-Bashir shows no signs of actively addressing the protesters’ grievances, although this could change if the protests intensify over subsequent weeks.


The recent protests sweeping across Sudan are more than ‘fuel riots’ and concerns about subsidies, although both interrelated issues are fundamental to the growing unrest. At the heart of the protests is frustration and anger at the 29-year reign of President Omar al-Bashir, a brutal dictator whose tenure has seen the stagnation of the Sudanese economy and overall mismanagement of the political sphere through corruption, incompetence and violence. The recent spike in fuel prices and a shortage of basic commodities have served as dual catalysts for a nation awash in resentment and outrage.

In light of the protests, the most serious during his nearly three-decade-long tenure in office, al-Bashir is seeking the impossible: he promised the 2019 budget would continue current subsidies and also raise wages, all while lowering the tax burden. In his first public statement about the protests, which he dismissively referred to as ‘recent events' to downplay their significance, al-Bashir thanked ‘our people for their beautiful patience’ and reaffirmed that the Sudanese government appreciated the people’s suffering. As he ushered in the new year, al-Bashir offered reassurances that foreign investment would provide the boost necessary to lift Sudan out of its current economic morass. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these investments are likely to originate in Beijing, Moscow, and Riyadh.

The long-term costs of this short-term help will likely be significant. In recent years, Khartoum has orchestrated a deliberate campaign to curry favor with Iran, as well as countries throughout the Persian Gulf. China has invested heavily in African countries, building critical infrastructure that it ends up controlling. Sudan finds itself in such dire straits that it will accept almost any investment that delivers hard currency to its coffers and allows the government to continue the massive subsidies that have shielded most Sudanese from the country’s real economic debacle. This myopic approach is purely about the survival of the regime, not the welfare of the country's citizens.

Al-Bashir also ordered an ‘investigation’ into the protests, to be led by Minister of Justice Mohammed Ahmed Salem. There were no specifics as to what the inquiry would investigate, however. An honest investigation would not need to look far for reasons for the unrest. Inflation currently stands at over 70%, and most of the country’s oil revenue was forfeited following South Sudan’s independence in 2011. Ethnic and religious violence still plague the country, and Darfur remains a tense conflict zone, although it is far from the only region of the country suffering from such disorder and instability.   

A group of 22 opposition parties issued a joint declaration calling for al-Bashir to step down. This is no small matter in Sudan, where al-Bashir has solidified his cult of personality and draconian authority over the past thirty years, ruling with an iron fist and eliminating rivals through imprisonment or lethal force. The statement called for a transitional government, a ‘sovereign council’ that would only remain in power until free elections could take place. Some of the parties in the opposition group were once linked to Hassan al-Turabi and Islamist allies of al-Bashir when he took power in a 1989 coup. The loss of their support is another indication that the ‘patience’ al-Bashir so appreciates among the Sudanese has been depleted. The heavy-handed tactics used by the internal security services against non-violent protesters is a sign that al-Bashir believes force can quell the unrest and buy time for foreign investments to relieve some of the pressure he is currently facing. But even after the general unrest has subsided, the structural factors that led to the protests will still exist, and al-Bashir has few budgetary gimmicks or stalling tactics left to appease the population indefinitely.


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