President Omar al-Bashir has ruled Sudan since 1989. Under his rule there have been innumerable human rights violations, war crimes, famine, and deaths. In July 2011, South Sudan gained it’s independence and seceded from Sudan, taking with it a large part of Sudanese oil resources. Internal frailties and numerous problems have been slowly worsening since then.
The last month has seen an escalation in violence, protest and uprising directed specifically against the government, that has rarely been apparent in Sudan before. Although al-Bashir and his regime will most likely survive this time, it is obvious that he is now as weak as he has ever been. The loss of almost three-quarters of Sudan’s oil production and revenue to South Sudan, along with numerous, expensive military confrontations leading also to the loss of oil transit fees, has seriously confounded the growing problems brought about by decades of economic mismanagement. With a quarter of their GDP spent on the military and the waging of several internal wars, this loss of oil revenue is causing serious economic difficulties for the al-Bashir regime.
The Sudanese military caste is too strong and too important as a pillar of support to the regime in Khartoum for the cutting of military expenditure to be even considered an option. Thus, in attempting to introduce austerity measures, al-Bashir has targeted the fuel subsidy as an unjustifiable drain on the economy. Without warning, the fuel subsidy was cut. This led directly to the doubling of the price of fuel, subsequent rises in public transport fares and the cost of household goods such as cooking oil increasing.
Unsurprisingly, rioting has ensued.
The different nature of these riots lies in both their concentrated direction against the regime, and in the regime’s subsequent reaction to them. Ordinarily, according to a Think Africa Press source, “protests are tolerated in Khartoum” and a hands-off policy is followed. However, the weak position of the al-Bashir regime, and the insecurity emanating from this, has led to a more heavy-handed response. Reports from inside the country tell of people being confronted by armed soldiers, homes being raided and ransacked at random, arrests and torture, and protesters and bystanders alike being killed by the armed forces. These violent reaction, Peter Dorrie suggests, has come about because the regime are looking for arrests and scapegoats in the wake of petrol stations, cars and private property being set on fire by protesters.
In all, around 300 people have been killed in the violence. The violent reaction of al-Bashir’s government suggests a desperation that is at once worrying to the Sudanese ruling elite and to the region as a whole. For Sudan itself, it shows the regime to be weak and with decreasing options in how to address it’s escalating economic problems. Military spending cannot be cut, as it undermines the regime’s power base. Raising taxes risks further civil unrest. Economic support from the world community is non-forthcoming, with China reliant on South Sudanese oil and the current circumstances severely unattractive to traditional allies and the IMF or World Bank alike.
For the region itself, the escalation of violence and the fact that Sudan appear to be arming for a war with South Sudan, having recently purchased fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and new artillery, is worrying. Moreover, despite the inadequacy of the al-Bashir regime, a strong and organized opposition does not exist and a regime change could lead to instability and a power-scramble with horrific consequences.
What is strange is how little we here of these sub-Saharan uprisings, protests and potentially epoch-ending political changes we hear about, especially in comparison to North African and Middle Eastern stories. May I suggest that it is yet another glaringly obvious example of our Western press and governments only really caring not about freedom and democracy but those countries, resources and conflicts where they will be beneficiaries of any such “democratic” changes.