Coronavirus: Sudan’s economy and pandemic threaten revolutionary gains
It is just over a year since Sudanese revolutionaries ousted Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir, who had presided over a military-backed Islamist regime for 30 years.
It was accused of grand corruption, bringing the economy close to disintegration, and committing serial human rights abuses, including war crimes and mass murder in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the now independent state of South Sudan.
Against the odds and most predictions, Sudan’s revolutionaries built a peaceful and disciplined movement to oust one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Many who joined that movement across the country are worried that some of the worst elements in the ancien regime are regrouping to derail the country’s transition to pluralistic politics and state accountability.
In place of the ancien regime, a hybrid military and civilian government has been running the country – in what is meant to be a transition to free elections in two to three years’ time. It is headed by a Sovereignty Council, with equal numbers of military and civilian appointees. Under this is a Council of Ministers, dominated by civilian technocrats. And the third tier is a Legislative Council, whose composition is yet to be agreed.
This transitional government inherited a structure dominated by securocrats, running multiple intelligence entities and armed factions, and Islamist ideologues, many linked to the former ruling National Congress Party.
The transitional government’s Council of Ministers under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has the urgent task of resuscitating the economy, re-establishing trust with diplomatic partners and now it has to respond to the public health emergency, the coronavirus pandemic, that is threatening the country.
It’s been a long haul to get to this point. The revolution was fraught with ups and downs as a group of generals seized the reins of power after the fall of Bashir last April. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of protesters were camped outside the ministry of defence in Khartoum demanding the exit of the military from power. For weeks, the peaceful and disciplined revolutionaries held their ground.
And then at the beginning of June, gangs of fighters from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia attacked the protest sites in Khartoum, killing well over a hundred civilians there. The transitional government announced a judicial inquiry into the attack.
It is politically contentious: Commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka ‘Hemeti’, is number two in the current military hierarchy and denies responsibility for the attack on the civilians.
Such attempts to hold the army and associated militias to account for abuses gets to the core of the dilemma facing reformers and revolutionaries within the transitional government. To what extent can civilians sharing power with senior military officers hold the armed forces to account?
Prime Minister Hamdok and his team have shown resolve. But is resolve enough to change Sudan’s political direction?
Already, some notable progress has been made.
On 23 May, the government announced that an estimated $4bn in assets amassed by Bashir, his family and associates had been confiscated. That’s a good start for the parched Sudanese treasury.
The finance ministry, looking to bolster the national budget, has set up an anti-corruption body that is working to seize assets illegally required by members of the former regime, says Ahmed Soliman, research fellow for the Horn of Africa at Chatham house, a leading think tank in London.
“Balancing a hybrid government including civilians and military was always going to be difficult, especially as the military controls the security apparatus and significant levers of economic power. There have been teething issues with regards to roles and responsibilities of the civilian cabinet and the Sovereign Council (currently led by the military), but the partnership appears to be holding and there has been progress and some unity of purpose, particularly on the peace process, as well as in aspects of governance reform.”
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After 20 years, Khartoum has appointed an ambassador to the US; a major move amid a thawing of relations that could prove helpful to the new government.
The appointment, made at the start of May, comes just as the country is grappling with the new realities of the global coronavirus pandemic. Ideally, the exchange of the ambassadors between the US and Sudan will help remove another hurdle for Khartoum: its inclusion on Washington’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
Being removed from that list would be a step in the right direction. But “leaders and diplomats on both sides have stressed that this is not a litmus test for US relations with Sudan nor a panacea for solving Sudan’s economic problems,” adds Soliman.
Following from that step comes the most recent announcement that Sudan and the US have agreed to end the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, made the announcement on 26 May following a phone call from both the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Tibor Nagy and US special envoy to Sudan Donald Booth.
But despite this slow dance with the US, the main question, according to Magdi el Gizouli of the Rift Valley Institute is: “What does Washington precisely want from Khartoum?”
He continues: “Washington’s demands are almost mysterious and require some interpretation effort, almost like those of an aggrieved lover.”
Until Khartoum can better decipher what Washington is after, a true warming of relations between the two is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Economic reform stagnating
That is small but good news, but the reality is Sudan remains in a crucial moment of transition at a terrible time globally.
Sudan cannot borrow money from international financial institutions as long as its “arrears to them have not been cleared,” says Lucas van de Vondervoort, a Sudan specialist at the European Institute of Peace. On top of that, Khartoum “has not developed a poverty reduction strategy paper,” says Van de Vondervoort, making it difficult for foreign institutions to green-light any funding.
Because it has been unable to borrow from international financial institutions over the years, it has welcomed any help from both China and the Gulf states. But those countries are currently dealing with their own economic meltdowns from COVID-19, coupled with the “dramatic slowdown in world trade, historically low oil prices for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar,” says Van de Vondervoort.
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While the Gulf states have traditionally been a band-aid solution to propping up Sudan’s economy through the remittances of Sudanese workers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, those transfers have dropped dramatically, about 20% or more according to estimates from the World Bank. This is due to mass “pay freezes, lay-offs and the prioritisation of government nationals across the Gulf… leaving millions of impoverished Sudanese families who depend on them,” adds the Sudan specialist.
The transitional government came to power “as a consequence of a popular movement against politics of austerity,” says el Gizouli. Today, it appears to be pursuing similar policies but with more political rhetoric. In short, until these policies provide more “balanced macroeconomic indicators, whatever the costs for the population,” Khartoum remains reliant on foreign assistance.
Under the old regime, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were those primary sources of external financing for Sudan. The money they offered was due to their “real or perceived geopolitical interests” in Sudan. Coronavirus will undoubtedly force them to reassess “exactly what these interests are,” stresses Van de Vondervoort.
That money stopped coming into Sudan at the end of last year, adds Soliman. Therefore the prospect of financial help for Sudan in the post-pandemic era from its usual friends will likely not be very substantial.
“Terrible state of the Sudanese economy”
Given that lack of external funding, Sudan’s political transition did not have much of a chance from the start. “The combination of international sanctions, a spending splurge during the oil boom decade (1999-2010) and the chronic mismanagement of the country’s plentiful human and natural resources” have left Sudan’s economy in a terrible state, says Van de Vondervoort.
He adds: “Simply put…Sudan needs a huge influx of fresh capital to, in the short-term, stabilise the economy, restore purchasing power to its people and boost its healthcare defences against COVID-19.”
Khartoum has been running huge trade and current account deficits. So it’s currently unable to pay for what it is consuming and thus “continues to haemorrhage capital”, making it harder to stabilise the macroeconomy.
Making new friends
Although Sudan hasn’t been able to take advantage of external help, both Al-Burhan, the chairman of the Sovereign Council, and RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) have been benefitting from financial and political aid from the Gulf states. They have been using this funding to keep their internal coalition intact, says Van de Vondervoort.
The onus is on Prime Minister Hamdok to push ahead with establishing closer ties to international actors, especially with those in the West as a means of normalising its diplomatic standing and managing the economy, adds the Sudanese specialist.
The ongoing saga of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is one area that could work in Sudan’s favour.
The US is supporting Egypt’s claim to the Nile, whereas Ethiopia is about 70% done with the construction and plans to begin filling the reservoir in July so it can start selling electricity to its neighbours. Both are looking to Sudan for support in influencing the other.
“Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has made concerted recent efforts to bring Ethiopia and Egypt back to the negotiating table,” says Soliman. Political trust between Cairo and Addis Ababa has been on thin ice for years now, but if Sudan can make the most of this opportunity to patch up this diplomatic and potentially military dispute, it will definitely come out of it with more leverage.
But as al-Gizouli notes, Sudan has no leverage to begin with. The fear is that Sudan will succumb to the insistence of Egypt (and indirectly that of the US) in an effort to stabilise its economic situation.
Healing scars from the past
When Bashir seized power in 1989 with the backing of Islamist leader Hassan el Turabi and the National Islamic Front, he sold off many state assets to private business interests, leading to the hollowing out of the public health services.
That in turn led to a massive exodus of Sudan’s renowned medical professionals, many of whom have since made names for themselves across Europe and the Americas.
The privatising of such sectors became a major source of funding for the military and the Islamist movement. Today, the transitional government is left with a health system unable to cope with many major diseases, let alone a pandemic.
Many of the activists in groups such as the Sudan Professionals Association that ousted Bashir last year were public health professionals – doctors, nurses and pharmacists – who had won the trust of the people over many years.
The Islamist regime imposed Sharia law, emphasising its commitment to its own interpretation of huddud punishments such as amputating arms of people convicted of theft and whipping young women for wearing trousers.
It brought in a public-order law that severely curtailed the rights of citizens, particularly women. On 28 November 2019, the Sovereign Council banned that very law that had seen thousands of women flogged, fined and jailed over the years.
“The Prime Minister laid down an early marker with key posts in the cabinet going to women, and one of the first pieces of legislation to be removed was the oppressive public-order laws,” says Soliman.
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In an effort to demonstrate that promise, both domestically and internationally, Sudan approved a draft law in early May to ban female genital mutilation in a country where up to 88% of women are affected by this. The proposed law still needs the final approval of the Sovereign Council.
Many were quick to say that the passing of this law in the midst of the pandemic was a diversion from the worrisome situation of COVID-19 in the country and the weak capacity of the health system to respond accordingly.
“The amendments to the criminal law including FGM article (141) were on the agenda since December 2019 of the ministry of justice,” Tamador Ahmed Abdalla, a UNICEF Sudan child protection specialist tells The Africa Report.
The timing may be questionable, but it did push Sudan into the limelight for a “landmark achievement” says Massiomo Diana, the United Nations Population Fund representative in Sudan.
Bottom line: A year after the ousting of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan has made progress. But inheriting a weakened economy now ravaged by the coronavirus means the transitional government has to win the trust of foreign states and institutions to open new channels for financial help.
If the economy dips further, the government risks losing the confidence of the Sudanese people and could face a challenge from reactionary forces, either from within or abroad.