Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan

Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans as they march along the street during anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan on 25 December 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

What’s new? Protests across Sudan flared up as the government cut a vital bread subsidy. Economic grievances are fuelling demands for political change, with protesters calling on President Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, to resign. Authorities have responded with violence, killing dozens and arresting many more.

Why does it matter? In the past, President Bashir and his government have been able to ride out popular demonstrations. But these newest protests, demanding Bashir resign because of economic mismanagement and corruption, have spread to loyalist regions and coincide with rising discontent in his party.

What should be done? Foreign governments influential in Khartoum should continue to publicly discourage violence against demonstrators, with Western powers signalling that future aid and, in the U.S.’s case, sanctions relief are at stake. They should seek to improve prospects for a peaceful transition by creating incentives for Bashir to step down.


Protests engulfing Sudanese towns and cities have seen dozens killed in crackdowns by security forces and could turn bloodier still. Demonstrators express fury over subsidy cuts and call for President Omar al-Bashir to resign. Discontent within the ruling party, the depth of the economic crisis and the diverse makeup of protests suggest Bashir has less room to manoeuvre than before. He may survive, though likely by suppressing protests with levels of violence that would reverse his recent rapprochement with Western powers and deepen Sudan’s economic woes. Another scenario would entail his ouster by parts of the security apparatus, though this could also prove destabilising. Better would be for Bashir to negotiate his exit, perhaps induced by some form of conditional immunity. Outside powers should keep discouraging crackdowns, with Western leaders underscoring that continuing to use violence against protestors will scuttle aid and sanctions relief. They should also create incentives for Bashir to resign and signal to Sudanese elites the economic lifeline on offer were that to happen.

Protests broke out in mid-December in Atbara, a mid-size town 350km from the capital Khartoum, and quickly spread to towns and cities across the country. People from all parts of Sudanese society initially took to the streets to protest the rising cost of staples, particularly bread; anger had been bubbling for years but heightened when the government lifted wheat subsidies in January 2018 without putting in place social protections to offset deteriorating living conditions. Now, many protesters focus their ire on the president himself and demonstrations feature chants calling on him and other top officials to step down.

President Bashir has weathered many such protests in the past, but a number of factors this time around are different. Protesters have gathered in Bashir’s strongholds, mostly in the wealthier centre of the country, and attacked several ruling party offices. The police and other security agencies, including the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), have at times responded brutally but the army has shown greater restraint than before and, noting this, the opposition has urged generals to remove Bashir. The feared Rapid Support Forces, a government militia renowned for its brutal counterinsurgency tactics, has been active, particularly in Khartoum, but less prominent than during previous protests, when they were responsible for many deaths. Within the ruling party and security elites, ever-louder voices question whether the country can escape its economic doldrums with Bashir at the helm, given that his presidency is the greatest obstacle to obtaining foreign aid or loans.

Three scenarios appear possible. One is that the president survives, though without funds to offer protesters significant reforms, he will likely have to subdue them by force. This in turn would slow Western re-engagement with Khartoum and almost certainly end prospects of the U.S. lifting its remaining sanctions, including its designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, which in effect bars Sudan from international debt relief or bailouts. A second scenario could see protests gathering pace and prompting the president’s ouster by elements within his party or security elites. This might usher in a new government and fresh direction, though it could also trigger further instability. To insulate against coups, Bashir has regularly shuffled security chiefs, marginalised rivals and kept the security forces factionalised. A takeover by another senior figure could prompt infighting among divided security factions.

A third scenario would see Bashir resign. This would allow for a leadership change that could mollify protesters. Many see Bashir as emblematic of an unaccountable and self-interested elite that has led the country into long-term economic crisis, isolated Sudan and stubbornly refused to implement substantial reforms to resolve these problems. Some of Bashir’s allies and former senior officials are encouraging him to step down in 2020; the president pledging not to contest the 2020 vote would be positive, though this carries a risk that he later reneges. For now, he shows few signs of stepping down. Indeed, the president has strong incentives not to do so, fearing the next government would hold him accountable for corruption at home or, if he leaves Sudan, delivery to the International Criminal Court, which has indicted him for atrocities in Darfur.

For outside powers, the first priority should be to minimise bloodshed on the streets. Foreign governments with sway in Khartoum should publicly discourage violence against demonstrators and call on the government to maintain forces, especially the Rapid Support Forces, in check. Western powers should continue to signal that future cooperation, aid and, in the U.S.’s case, normalisation of ties, are at stake. They should warn commanders of the various security forces that they could face travel bans, asset seizures and prosecution abroad for indiscriminate violence against demonstrators.

More broadly, those governments should seek to improve prospects for a peaceful transition; doing so is as critical as taking immediate steps to deter violence. Behind the scenes, they should press the president to step down or at least pledge not to seek re-election in 2020. They might also signal to Sudanese political and security elites that greater aid and investment would likely be forthcoming without Bashir. The UN Security Council might also offer to request the ICC defer investigation or prosecution of Bashir’s case for one year, pursuant to the Rome Statute’s Article 16, were he to resign or to leave office in 2020; the deferral could be extended provided Bashir stayed out of – and did not interfere in any way with – Sudanese politics. The downsides to deferring his case would be enormous, but without a pledge along these lines, Bashir is unlikely to step down.

II.Protests Spread Across Sudan

Protests broke out on 19 December in Atbara, a town about 350km from the capital Khartoum and the historic home of Sudan’s once-powerful national labour movement. This followed a cut that same month in the government subsidy on bread in River Nile state, where Atbara is located, which tripled its price. Demonstrations quickly spread across the country to at least 28 towns and cities, including major centres such as Port Sudan, El-Gadarif and, eventually, the twin cities of Khartoum and Omdurman, the country’s political and economic centres. Videos posted on social media, circulating despite the government’s attempt to shut down the internet, showed protesters calling for Bashir to step down from power.Unusually, protests are taking place in riverine areas, which are close to Sudan’s wealthier centre and traditionally loyal to Bashir, making them all the more threatening to his rule. Protesters have attacked offices of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in a number of towns, ransacking and sometimes burning the buildings; rarely in the past have such attacks occurred outside Darfur or Sudan’s other conflict zones.

Protesters come from mixed political and economic backgrounds. They include members of Sudan’s longstanding leftist movements, the Sudanese Communist Party and the Sudanese Congress Party (whose members are particularly active on social media) and a number of other political parties, along with professional trade unions, notably doctors, who are currently on strike. The newly-formed Sudanese Professionals Association – an umbrella group encompassing several professional unions – organised a march on the presidential palace on 25 December and again on 31 December demanding Bashir’s resignation. The association is coordinating with Girifna, a loose coalition of youth movements formed by anti-regime university students in 2009 to agitate for reform in Sudan and a change in the country’s leadership. The bulk of the protesters, however, are ordinary Sudanese with no strong political affiliation and who blame their dire economic plight on the NCP’s economic mismanagement and kleptocracy.

So far, the Sudanese government’s response has largely involved deploying its four security organs: the police, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and Rapid Support Forces militia. Those forces, accustomed to violent tactics, have shot into crowds and hurled teargas at protesters. Amnesty International stated on 24 December that it had “credible reports” that 37 people had already been killed. That said, security forces have not yet unleashed the level of brutality witnessed in 2013, when militias indiscriminately killed almost 200 protesters then opposing the removal of a fuel subsidy.

Bashir has labelled the protesters “vandals and looters” and in a speech, delivered in the NCP’s stronghold of Gezira state, just south of Khartoum, describing them as “traitors, mercenaries, agents and heretics”. But at the same time, he has urged the police not to use “excessive force”.Reportedly, some senior security officials have counselled against using indiscriminate violence, fearing this could provoke a larger public backlash and weaken the government’s relationship with Western countries, who have already condemned the violence.

Encouraged by the army’s reticence, a coalition of political parties including some Islamists previously allied with Bashir, has urged the military to seize power. Although protesters favour the wholesale fall of the government, many would welcome a transition that sees Bashir leave, offers a chance for economic relief and opens the way to political reform. Responding to calls for a military intervention, Bashir declared 8 January that he was open to handing over to the military but not, in words he uses to describe the political opposition, to “traitors”.

III.Economic Grievances at a Tipping Point

President Bashir’s government has weathered protests and contended with economic discontent in the past. But entering 2019, it has fewer options for generating the revenue necessary to assuage protesters. It has faced a severe economic crisis since the start of 2018, consistently refused to cut exorbitant state spending in the security sector and lost potential investment due to sanctions, international isolation and a failure to develop an attractive environment for investors. The country’s already-high levels of debt mean that it will be difficult to borrow funds to finance its deficits, and its chief financial backers in the Gulf are less generous than in the past.

Sudan’s economic crisis originates in part from South Sudan’s secession in 2011, which led to the loss of nearly three quarters of Sudan’s oil reserves. Previously, oil production generated around half of all tax revenues and two thirds of Sudan’s foreign exchange earnings. The secession agreement sought to cushion the impact of South Sudan’s independence through a series of lump-sum payments from the now oil-rich Juba to Khartoum amounting to some $3 billion. But this arrangement only went so far in compensating for fundamental damage to the Sudanese economy and, in any case, Juba has been unable to pay up since South Sudan’s civil war broke out in December 2013.

While the economic shock of South Sudan’s secession was inevitable, Khartoum also failed to prepare for it. Long-term economic mismanagement, pervasive graft and high military expenditure have contributed to unaffordable levels of spending. International isolation caused by U.S. sanctions, introduced in the late 1990s, inhibited attempts to diversify the economy through foreign investment, leaving Sudan with a crippling lack of foreign-exchange reserves, which has resulted in shortages, particularly of fuel. A small gold boom since 2011 has not made up for the loss of oil revenue, in part because traders avoided selling to the Central Bank and instead smuggled gold out of Sudan to countries where prices were higher. Furthermore, Sudan’s $55 billion in external debt prevents the government from accessing new foreign credit, except ad hoc loans mostly from Gulf allies. Sudan would normally be eligible for debt relief under the joint International Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative (HIPC), but cannot gain that while it remains on the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Authorities in Khartoum like to blame U.S. sanctions for all the country’s economic woes. But their own failure to encourage dynamism contributes significantly to economic dysfunction. Investors talk of encountering a sclerotic bureaucracy which insists on imposing byzantine rules for simple transactions, causing many to stay away. The security establishment’s overbearing control of economic policy, including in determining allocation of foreign currency, does little to improve conditions for business.

The government’s limited attempts at belt tightening have both failed to address the economic crisis and fuelled discontent. In January 2018, its annual budget included a cut to wheat subsidies. The World Bank and IMF had encouraged such measures, seeing subsidies as a costly and ineffective method to help the poor, but recommended Khartoum offset these cuts by increasing spending on social protection, such as making cash transfers to needy families. The government did not do so. Moreover, because its efforts to reduce spending focused on eliminating subsidies rather than downsizing the military budget or recovering revenues lost to corruption, they hit the poor hardest. In response to the wheat subsidy cut, bread prices doubled and the cost of other staples, particularly sorghum and millet, increased as the market reacted to extra demand.

At the same time, the government devalued the Sudanese pound from seven to eighteen pounds per U.S. dollar and then later to 30 pounds per dollar. Following the first devaluation in early January 2018, the illegal parallel market rate, which had fluctuated between eighteen and twenty Sudanese pounds per dollar, rapidly increased to 31 and later doubled to 60 pounds per dollar. The government then became concerned about the possibility of uncontrollable hyperinflation and, from February 2018, put in place limits on the amount of money Sudanese could withdraw from banks. In November 2018, the official inflation rate stood at 68.93 per cent, one of the world’s highest.

Already in January and February 2018, the combined effects of the subsidy cuts and the currency devaluation stimulated a number of well-coordinated protests. Many demonstrators were committed anti-government activists and some were linked to established opposition political parties; the protests failed to attract the broader social base that has taken to the streets today and were not large enough to threaten Bashir. Still, security forces arrested over a hundred protesters and held them without charge for weeks. Newspapers that covered the events had entire print runs confiscated and some journalists were temporarily detained. The harsh measures the government used illustrated its nervousness about potential public anger at the economic downturn.

While Sudan’s relations with Western powers, particularly the U.S. and European Union, have improved, they have yet to pay economic dividends. Over the past few years, Khartoum has skilfully used its advantages as a partner on counter-terrorism (particularly regarding jihadist groups in neighbouring Libya), its influential role in South Sudan and its cooperation with the EU on migration management to slowly build better relations with Western countries. Western diplomats also cite Sudan’s strategically important location and the need to prevent further economic decline that could lead to political instability and conflict as drivers of their gradual re-engagement. Though European concerns over migration attract the most press coverage, diplomats say they worry most about the economy’s structural fragility and the possibility of state collapse that could further destabilise the region.

In October 2017, the U.S. lifted some economic sanctions, which had been in place since the late 1990s. As yet, however, this has not had a notable effect. Khartoum remains deeply in debt and considered a risky investment destination. The second phase of U.S. sanctions relief, the program for which was announced in November 2018 – requiring Khartoum to make improvements in six areas, including in its respect for human rights – should be more significant, potentially lea