The violent anti-government protest that began on 19th December 2018 continues unabated and appears to paralyse life in Sudan. Protests and strikes are not new to them. President Omar Bashir himself came to power after deposing the elected Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi in a military coup in 1989. The three decades of Bashir’s rule were interspersed with revolts a number of times.
It was the turmoil in the Darfur region in western Sudan that led the International Criminal Court to incriminate Omar Bashir for his support for the Arab militias. The conflict left hundreds of thousands dead and more than a million displaced. Hence, though he was the sitting President, on March 4, in 2009 the ICC issued an arrest warrant against him for war crimes. South Sudan broke off in 2011 after animated dispute and bloodshed. But, the common denominator of all these conflicts was the fact that all these were political tug of wars for grabbing power!
But, the present revolt is the result of the chilling penury that emerged from the economic disparities and distress. It has been rocking the nation for long. Omar Bashir, it seems, had foreseen the present financial scenario of suffering. In September 2018 , he advised his National Congress Party (NCP) members to initiate ‘austerity measures’. He suggested reducing the portfolios of the ministry from 31 to 21 and to bring down public expenditure of the government to 34 per cent. These austerity measures were envisaged so as to overcome the economic crisis, the accumulated inflation rates, deterioration of the value of the local currency and the scarcity of the essential items, especially food.
But, even then, the government couldn't have foreseen the present tightening of the IMF noose that could make triple the cost of the bread. On December 19, it was in the town of Atbara , in north eastern Sudan that people staged the protest against the tripling of the bread prices. They shouted, “freedom, peace, justice and the downfall of the Regime.” As the ‘bread riot' intensified, it was taken over by the ‘Nida'a al Sudan’ (call of Sudan) the opposition alliance formed in September 2018 by the anti- government parties. Slowly, the protest on penury got transformed into a political struggle. It spread at least to 23 towns, and to the capital city of Khartoum. Along with the subsidy price of the bread, oil subsidy was cancelled and the ATM counters were empty without cash. In order to resolve the crisis, Omar Bashir reshuffled his government. But the people did not feel impressed enugh. He reshuffled the Government four times after 2015.
Naturally, they asked whether the government is playing ‘musical chair’. Though the US sanctions introduced in 1997 were partially lifted, its benefits did not reach the people as the IMF control began to tighten its noose.
2020 is the next election year in Sudan. Now ,the political leadership is working out strategies to woo the voters. For them, especially for those who intend to fish in the troubled waters, these ground realities have become a boon. The economic disparities, the accumulated inflation rates and the scarcity of food and essential items are attractive baits on their hooks. Whether the US wanted this crisis in Sudan is a doubtful question. The government was advised to set up a mechanism for a free dollar exchange rate against Sudanese Pound. This benefited the US dollar.
Now, though the people are fed up with the three decades of the long rule of Omar Bashir, the opposition parties have no idea of what to do in case they could topple the government. They don't have a substitute to lead them. Sadiq al Mahdi who was in exile, living in Cairo and London, is now at home.
But, his traditional party, the once popular ‘Al Umma' and the ‘Democratic Union’ are now weak and fractured. Their motto and discourse do not resonate with the new generation youth who are the activists in the streets. Rallies held in Khartoum in support of Bashir indicate that these revolts and protests are only temporary. Bashir’s heavy hand may liquidate them.
Ideologically and culturally the NCP government of Omar Bashir is anti-imperialist and therefore anti-American. Its anti-US stance became more pronounced in 1992 as it reflected in the close political ties the regime maintained with Iraq and also its alliance with Iran. It permitted Iran to establish a military base on the Red sea in its territory. The US alleged that Sudan had authorised the presence of a branch of the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah in Khartoum. This escalated the conflict of interests between the US and Sudan. But, the escalating conflict was restrained due to dire political and economic need for American assistance.
This oscillation gave way to the economic reform programmes of the World Bank and IMF.
On the side lines of the IMF-World Bank annual meeting in 2018 in Bali, Indonesia, discussions were held between the head of the Sudanese delegation and the deputy director of the IMF. Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, President of the Investment Finance Corporation (IFC) and the directors Of the Arab Monetary Fund also participated in it.
Consequently, on their advice Omar Bashir took steps to implement the economic reform programme. Actually, it appears that America and Israel want the exit of Omar Bashir from the political stage. However, it is too early to judge whether they can succeed in their conspiracy with the influential parties within Sudan.