An economy in meltdown, a President of the Republic indicted for crimes against humanity, and a ruling clique fighting among themselves as piranhas in a pool. The last thing the Sudan, one of Africa’s martyred nations, wanted was a new round of violence shaking its foundations.
Yet, this is what happened on Monday as demonstrators took to the streets to call for an end to a despotic regime imposed with a military coup in 1989.
Although spearheaded by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a southern outfit campaigning for independence from Khartoum, the demonstrations attracted a range of opposition parties from across the country. Protestors sacked President General Omar al-Bashir’s offices in a number of key cities in the south, the west and the north.
By mid-week, it had become clear that the movement enjoyed support from a broad spectrum of political groups, from the secular left to the Islamists led by Hassan al-Turabi, a former ally and, later, a prisoner of al-Bashir’s. Even the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), an artificial concoction designed to offer despotism a democratic fig leaf, is now split.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the president and his entourage no longer enjoy any significant support base.
President al-Bashir has always tried to justify his rule with the claim that he is the man who ended the north-south civil war that started in the 1950s, reaching its most intense phase from 1983 to 2005.
According to estimates by the United Nations, this was Africa’s longest war and, having claimed 2.5 million lives, the costliest in human terms.
With almost 12 years of fighting, General al-Bashir’s regime was responsible for at least half of those victims. Add to that the estimated two million believed to have died in the Darfur tragedy, and the general’s record emerges as one of the bloodiest in modern African history.
There are times when history dictates the closing chapters even of the longest surviving rulers. Today, it seems that General al-Bashir’s rule is becoming the subject of precisely such a final chapter.
The NCP regime may have reached the end of the line not only because of its disastrous political record, massive and well-documented corruption, and sheer brutality.
The main reason it is in trouble is its perceived incompetence, its obvious inability to offer a roadmap for the major problems the nation faces.
Today, the general looks like the Wizard of Oz at the end of the saga when he has to admit that he does not know how to lead Dorothy back to her home in Kansas. It no longer matters whether he is a good man. What matters is that he is a bad wizard.
The NCP regime is manifestly unable to develop a coherent economic policy. Doped by oil income, the Khartoum leadership has enjoyed a freeloader’s ride for several years. Now, however, it has to face an economic crisis that it is manifestly unable to comprehend let alone control. Double-digit inflation and unemployment reaching levels unseen in the Sudan since the 1980s highlight the regime’s incompetence on a daily basis.
General al-Bashir has also led the Sudan into a diplomatic cul-de-sac. Indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity, he is no longer able to set foot out of the country, let alone develop and lead a credible foreign policy. His ill-advised bravado and his refusal to hand over officials wanted for questioning by the ICC prior to his own indictment have turned the Sudan into a pariah state.
However, the regime’s biggest failure has occurred in domestic politics. Marked by crass opportunism, the NCP’s policy has consisted of a crude version of “divide and rule”. This has come in the form of temporary and changing alliances, marked by social and political bribes for some and savage repression for others.
It is now clear that whenever the general had a pen in one hand to sign an alliance, he also held a dagger in the other to stab his latest ally in the back.
The story of the Sudan in the past two decades is one of missed opportunities.
The first opportunity lost was that of developing a pluralist system that reflects the country’s ethnic, religious and political diversity. The Sudan is, perhaps, the only Arab-African country with a genuinely diverse and rich political tradition covering all shades of the modern ideological rainbow.
Even the long dictatorship imposed by the late Jaafar al-Nimeiry did not succeed in destroying that tradition. When General Swar ad-Dhahab led the military back to the barracks, the Sudan had a genuine chance of becoming a working democracy. Al-Bashir and his allies destroyed that chance, at least for a generation.
By trying to silence dissident voices and ordering a crackdown on bona fide political parties, the general has endorsed the analysis of those who preach armed struggle and violence, that is to say the mirror image of despotism.
The second missed opportunity was to end the north-south civil war, opening the way for a system of coexistence reflecting the wishes of a majority of the Sudanese. The 2005 peace deal was premised on the promise of holding general elections this year and an independence referendum for the south in January 2011.
Convinced that voters would throw it out if given a chance, the NCP has reneged on the promise of elections this year. As for the promise of holding a referendum on independence for the south, al-Bashir has told his Chinese interlocutors that no such event is on the cards. He has also stopped all mechanisms placed by the United Nations to monitor developments in the south.
In other words, the general never intended to honour his word from the start. His attitude is designed to wreck a peace deal developed over years of negotiations at the end of decades of war.
The third opportunity that the general has squandered concerns the Sudan’s oil boom, especially in the past five or six years. Rather than use the bonanza to improve the nation’s infrastructure and encourage investment in sources of alternative revenue, the regime went on a spending spree that has produced inflation but no growth. Khartoum’s new skyline, with luxury hotels and shopping malls, and hordes of nouveaux-riches driving in stretch limousines, is a caricature of the “oil-rich” nation once popular with stand-up comics in Western cabarets.
Finally, the ruling clique in Khartoum has missed the opportunity to end the tragedy in Darfur, leaving in place a time-bomb that a future, and more competent government, may find hard to defuse.
Last month, the Obama administration in Washington published its long awaited Sudan policy paper. Reflecting the administration’s internal divisions, the first part of the paper envisages working with the al-Bashir regime to promote a settlement in Darfur, implement the peace accord on the south, and pave the way for the emergence of an elected government in Khartoum.
The latest uprising may be a sign that such a scenario is no longer credible. Thus, greater attention should be paid to the second part of the paper that offers the broad outline of what could amount to regime change in Khartoum.