Dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for nearly three decades, was overthrown in April 2019. After months of protests, negotiations led to a joint civilian-military transitional government to govern the country for a period of 39 months. However, Sudan’s political transition remains tenuous, and even before the coronavirus pandemic, the risks of failure were many. USIP’s Manal Taha, Payton Knopf, and Aly Verjee discuss the past year in Sudan and the need for further international support to shore up the transition.
Omar al-Bashir was deposed last April. What stands out to you in the year that has passed since?
Knopf: Given the historic nature of Sudan's transition and the potential impact that it could have–positive or negative–not just for the Sudanese people but for Western interests in the Horn of the Africa and the Middle East, I remain surprised by the absence of a genuine center of gravity in the international diplomatic response to ensure that the transition does not fall victim to the competing motivations of regional actors, and that reform efforts receive the scale of political and financial support necessary for them to succeed.
Taha: It is an ongoing struggle to keep the balance between military and civilian control over government decisions and actions. Many citizens—especially youth, women’s groups, trade unions, and political parties—fear that the military will usurp power during the transition period, with the risk that the civilian authorities will lose their public approval and legitimacy. Consequently, the public is both skeptical of the transitional government, and yet has high expectations for reform that are difficult to manage.
Verjee: As some analysts have noted, the pivotal protests that led to Bashir’s ouster began well outside Khartoum. This is a revolution that had genuine, national support beyond the traditional political center. Today, I am struck by how the transition seems to be developing on two tracks: one for the capital and another for rural and urban areas elsewhere in the country. For many beyond Khartoum, it does not seem like much has fundamentally changed—the state remains either predatory or dysfunctional and absent.
How do you assess the performance of the transitional government to date?
Taha: Considering the frontline role that youth and women played during the Sudanese revolution, the lack of youth engagement and the limited participation of women is a notable weakness of the transitional government. Women and youth appear to be in the backseat of today’s processes, with their views insufficiently considered by the government’s leadership. The limited political and governance space for young people needs to be expanded by the transitional government.
Although there has been some progress in the pursuit of a comprehensive deal with armed groups and new security sector arrangements to maintain the peace in the conflict-affected areas of the country, the transitional government also seems to be struggling to develop practical means to accelerate the peace process. This is a key test for the transition.
Knopf: There were inevitably going to be headwinds pushing against the fulfilment of the aspirations of the Sudanese revolution. On the one hand, the elasticity of Sudanese political culture and the ability to compromise—in many ways unique in the region—is often under-appreciated. On the other hand, those who have criticized the transition for not moving swiftly and decisively enough have plenty of evidence to support that argument. To that end, it will be important for the decision-makers to realize that their legitimacy is collective and that one or another faction or group will not be able to earn or sustain legitimacy—domestically or internationally—on its own.
Sudan’s economy has been weak for years. What are the implications for the transition of continued economic difficulties?
Taha: If the economic crisis persists, the government may lose people's confidence and support. Fueled by hardship, local conflicts may emerge or re-emerge, especially in areas that are experiencing competition over scarce water and grazing resources. Hardship may be even more severe for internally displaced persons and refugees, and impoverished and isolated regions in eastern and western Sudan.
Knopf: Sudan's economy is in a weaker state than it was before Bashir was deposed. COVID-19 is almost certain to make it exponentially worse. Basic commodities like fuel and food are already scarce. The dependence on the informal economy, on remittances, and on revenues from extractive resources like oil, makes Sudan acutely vulnerable to the global economic slowdown that is unfolding. The stay-at-home order recently imposed by the government and tentatively in place through the first week of May will further erode domestic economic activity. The credibility of all parts of the transitional government rests on its ability to mitigate the most dire scenarios, which could include widespread food insecurity, including in cities.
Verjee: With vast spending on the security sector, Bashir’s government could not live within its means; attempts to cut public expenditure through subsidy reform contributed to toppling his regime. Therefore, for the transitional government to also contemplate a reduction of subsidies is inherently risky and likely to be very unpopular. Since the transitional government does not have the money to satisfy even a fraction of the demands it faces, and it is unclear whether security sector spending has been sufficiently reigned in, the transition could fail on economic grounds alone, irrespective of the political arrangements in place.
To this already fragile situation comes the coronavirus pandemic. What is your assessment of what lies ahead?
Taha: COVID-19 will likely be a major challenge to Sudan’s fragile economy and poor health system. Managing an epidemic may require more technical capacity and resources than the government appears to have. However, the epidemic also provides an opportunity for the technocrats in the civilian government to demonstrate their competence and therefore gain legitimacy from citizens. Key to the response would be a campaign based on a common national identity rather than on tribal, regional, or ethnic affiliations.
Verjee: I am hopeful that this time of global crisis will provide renewed impetus to Sudanese civilian and military collaboration and consequently improve the prospects for a successful political transition. But I am worried that any international appetite to support Sudan financially will only diminish as the world economy comes under increasing strain. This would be an historic mistake, and risks driving Sudan back into long-term authoritarian rule, at the cost of another generation of Sudanese lives.
Knopf: The failure of Sudan’s transition could lead to state fragmentation and escalating threats to both regional and international peace and security. However, success could set the region on a more stable, democratic, and prosperous trajectory for decades. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and buffering Sudan against the looming tidal wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will itself require a significantly more robust and coordinated international strategy.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be the make or break period that determines whether the disparate power centers of the transitional arrangements can find enough of a workable accommodation with each other to mitigate the pandemic's fallout.
Still, the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to reset both the government's reform plans—which were facing opposition among a number of domestic constituencies—and the international support for those plans, which was stagnating. The magnitude of Sudan's economic crisis coupled with the global economic downturn will require fresh thinking and serious consideration of approaches that are outside the normal prescriptions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Efforts to follow through on the G-20 pledge to support Africa must account for the underlying political and conflict dynamics in the most fragile states, such as Sudan. For Sudanese or international actors to continue on autopilot in the face of the pandemic will be woefully insufficient.
Manal Taha is a program advisor on Sudan for the U.S. Institute of Peace.