Brave new Sudan

Lamis ElSharqawy, Thursday 18 Feb 2021

Sudan faces towering economic challenges, including a huge budget deficit and widespread shortages of essential goods and soaring prices of bread and other staples

Brave new Sudan
Protesters build a brick barrier on a main road during demonstrations against rising prices (photos: AFP)

A long-awaited government in Sudan was announced last week amid violent protests decrying the dire economic conditions, which were the key reason behind mobilising the Sudanese people in a historic uprising in 2019 that led to the ouster of the Omar Al-Bashir’s regime.

Today, with the same levels of poverty and economic meltdown, a new government is taking over. It faces, in addition to traditional problems, such complicated files as tackling the stormy relations with neighbouring Addis Ababa and waves of opposition due to the normalisation deal with Israel.

The new 25-member government replaced a caretaker cabinet of technocrats that has been running the country since July last year. It includes seven ex-rebel chiefs as ministers, in the framework of a power-sharing deal which the transitional authorities struck last year with a rebel alliance fighting government forces in the west and south.

Days before announcing the new government, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok dissolved the previous cabinet which only includes two ministers from the military, with the remaining coming from the Forces for Freedom and Change group, which was the driving force behind the anti-government protests that toppled Al-Bashir.

However, Sudanese demands remain the same. Protests continued across the country’s main cities ahead of installing the new government, demanding better economic conditions.

Sudan faces towering economic challenges, including a huge budget deficit and widespread shortages of essential goods and soaring prices of bread and other staples. The country is $70 billion in debt and its annual inflation rose beyond 200 per cent in the past months, along with chronic hard currency shortages and a flourishing black market.

After his swearing-in, Minister of Cabinet Affairs Khaled Omar stated that the government would prioritise alleviating the people’s economic suffering and make peace with other rebel groups that did not join last year’s deal.

But the economic challenges are one aspect of the problem awaiting a resolution from the new government of Sudan. Forming a government based on diverse political groups from different backgrounds was a dream sought by pro-democracy advocates in Sudan.

However, the government’s teamwork has yet to be questioned especially in the light of the various challenges besetting the country. It is a fact that governments based on political quotas usually face complications and have conflicting objectives, a case in which political goals could be prioritised over civilian and economic ones. 

“It is not going to be easy for this coalition because the challenges it faces are many,” Prime Minister Hamdok said at the press conference following the new cabinet’s declaration.

Speaking about the obstacles that may face the newly formed government of Sudan, Samuel Ramani, an international relations specialist at the University of Oxford, warned, “the continued frictions between Sudan’s military and civilian authorities, as well as substantial regional cleavages and inequities could prevent a national recovery plan from taking shape.”

Although the protesters are still taking to the streets, urged by different demands, they are still sticking to a glimmer of hope for the country’s progress towards a democratic transition and the potential transition to full-fledged civilian rule in 2022. “There is a mood of cautious optimism in Sudan, which did not exist under Bashir’s tenure, but one that is laced with trepidations about what might go wrong in the future,” Ramani told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Foreign interference in Sudan’s affairs, according to Ramani, is one of the issues worrying the Sudanese about realising a change. “The interference of foreign powers, such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and to a lesser extent, Turkey, is concerning for Sudan’s sovereignty and long-term stability,” Ramani explained.

Washington’s removal of Sudan from the terror blacklist after it normalised ties with Israel, despite being beneficial for the country’s ailing economy as the decision will lift economic sanctions on Khartoum, still generates public criticism.

Ramani remarked that the normalisation move is an “unpopular” one and “could exacerbate the already parlous state of civil-military relations in Sudan. The Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces were the chief backers of normalisation with Israel and reportedly engaged with Israel without the consent of the civilian authorities or Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok.”

The creation of a 300-seat legislative assembley will take place on 25 February, according to an official timeline, where rebel representatives will take up 25 per cent of the seats.

Tensions on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border can be an added burden to the new government. Military unrest between Sudan and Ethiopia has been recurrent in the Fashaqa border areas in the light of the failure to fully demarcate the borders between the two countries.

Ramani also added that “Sudan’s mobilisation of troops on the Ethiopian border in response to the Tigray conflict increases the risk of an accidental Sudan-Ethiopia conflict, which could undermine the stability of the Horn of Africa.”

The Sudanese government has numerous questions to answer and popular demands to fulfill, not limited to the economic grievances caused by the unequal distribution of wealth and poor resource management.

Sudan has already been facing continued conflict in Darfur since 2000s. Despite the October peace deal, violence breaks out continually in Darfur, a vast and impoverished region awash with weapons where bitter rivalries over land and water remain.

What is more, Sudan has to handle a long-running negotiation, along with Egypt, over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Meanwhile the Covid-19 pandemic proceeds unchecked, especially in urban areas of the country.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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