Sudan: A precarious road to democracy?
Following the ousting of former president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, a transitional government consisting of military and civilian representatives was established to stabilise the country and steer it through to democratic elections in 2022.
Today, Sudan’s transition is at a crossroads. The country is battling a severe economic crisis that has led to growing popular dissatisfaction with the transitional government. The authorities are also facing renewed security-related challenges from pro-Bashir factions in the military. These challenges could lead to military leaders dissolving the interim government to side-line civilian representatives; a scenario that could derail the election timeline and endanger the democratic transition.
Economic crisis & rising civil unrest
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has attempted to reintegrate Sudan into the international financial system by cooperating with the IMF and the World Bank through their Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. The initiative will enable Sudan to receive debt relief and support it in implementing essential social and economic reforms. Barriers to Foreign Direct Investment flows have also eased following Sudan’s removal from the US’ State Sponsors of Terrorism list in December 2020.
Despite these positive steps, key domestic issues remain unresolved. The government has been unable to implement political and socioeconomic reforms at the pace demanded by the pro-democracy movement. Spiralling foreign exchange rates and rising inflation continue to afflict the country and have triggered serious outbreaks of unrest. For example, on 3 and 30 June protesters gathered in Khartoum to call for Hamdok’s resignation. Similarly, on 18 September, anti-government protesters held demonstrations in Port Sudan and Suakin, Red Sea state, to demand the resignation of the transitional government.
This renewed outbreak of civil unrest is unlikely to wane until the government brings the economic crisis under control. While the government’s efforts to re-engage with the international community will yield long-term benefits, they have yet to improve the daily lives of much of the population, who continue to experience shortages of basic goods and severe business disruption.
The current wave of unrest has disrupted key sectors of the economy. Demonstrators from the Beja tribe have blocked roads around the city of Port Sudan since 16 September causing severe disruption to operations at the country’s largest port, which accounts for around 60% of trade. The blockade has caused nationwide shortages of key goods, including fuel, wheat, and medicines. The Sudanese government reached a deal with the protesters on 27 September to allow for the resumption of crude imports from South Sudan, but imports of oil from other countries remain blocked. A resolution will likely take place in the near term, but the prospect of additional blockades and related business disruption remains high, while the unrest has further undermined confidence in the government and Sudan’s business environment.
Risk of military intervention
Pro-Bashir factions pose a significant threat to Sudan’s transition. On 21 September, State media reported that the authorities had thwarted a coup attempt led by pro-Bashir factions in the military. Bashir supporters in the military were also linked to a coup attempt in mid-2019 and were suspected of organising an assassination attempt on Hamdok in March 2020.
It is highly unlikely that Pro-Bashir factions retain sufficient support within the military to carry out a successful coup. However, the repeat plots could see the military representatives of the transitional government dissolve the administration under the guise of safeguarding the country from internal security threats. This scenario appears increasingly likely given a surge in popular support for a military intervention. On 17 October, thousands of people gathered in Khartoum to call for a military coup and the dissolution of the present administration, an incident that has likely emboldened the military. If a coup takes places, the military is likely to suspend the elections indefinitely and placate pro-Bashir factions by integrating them into a new administration; factors that could undermine or undo altogether Hamdok’s efforts to re-engage with the international community.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok will need to rapidly address domestic grievances in order to stabilise the government and safeguard democratic elections in 2022. Should these efforts prove unsuccessful there is a genuine risk of military intervention and the reintegration of pro-Bashir factions, which would setback or even reverse Sudan’s democratic transition. Sudan’s internal struggles highlight the complexity of facilitating a transition to democracy following the ousting of a long-term authoritarian administration.
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