The Roots of Sudan’s Upheaval
Herman J. Cohen is the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs (1989–1993), the former U.S. ambassador to the Gambia and Senegal (1977–80), and was a member of the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty-eight years. You can find his blog here.
While the Sudanese military expelled President Omar al-Bashir from office, the people of Sudan are ultimately responsible for toppling his regime, and the leaders of the protest movement have promised not to let up until civilian rule is secured. They well know that any persistence of military control represents a continuation of the Bashir regime, and in particular, the Arabic-speaking population’s monopoly of power. For three decades they have endured the suppression of civil society, labor unions, freedom of press and religion, and any real measure of democratic expression or development. The Sudanese people have enough experience with the security apparatus Bashir created to know that exchanging one general with another does not represent improvement.
A loss of oil revenue to the independent South, a rise in state corruption, and a series of devastating internal conflicts all contributed to the end of Bashir’s reign, which itself began in a 1989 coup. Supporting al-Bashir was the National Islamic Front (NIF) party, and its leader, Hassan el-Turabi, a devoted revolutionary with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, who believed a Salafist Sudan under his leadership could spread Islamism throughout the Horn and North Africa. The NIF’s vote share in parliamentary elections consistently topped out at 15 percent, excluding them from participation. With guidance from el-Turabi, al-Bashir coopted the NIF’s Islamist ideology as a political rationale for the coup, leading to the imposition of Sharia-based law—and ultimately, an entanglement with the United States.
El-Turabi spent the first few years of the junta supplying weapons to Islamist revolutionaries in Tunisia, Libya, and southern Egypt. He also revised Sudan’s immigration laws to allow all citizens of Arab nations to enter Sudan visa-free and reside there—enabling extremist groups to set up shop in the country. During a 1992 visit to Khartoum, I saw a city map in the American Embassy showing the office locations for nine Middle Eastern extremist groups. It was around this time that a wealthy scion named Osama bin Laden fled Saudi Arabia to establish a foothold in Khartoum.
One year later, the World Trade Center was bombed. The Clinton administration designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism, and the U.S.-Sudan relationship became embroiled in sanctions, diplomatic withdrawals, and condemnations by the UN. By 1996, economic and political isolation were taking a heavy toll. Turabi’s influence began to wane. Sudanese officials began asking foreign governments how they could ease the pressure; one move was to expel bin Laden to Afghanistan. Yet Sudan’s involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings and the 2000 USS Cole bombing deepened its reputation as a pariah state.
Meanwhile, the Khartoum government was continually dogged by its conflict with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the rebel group fighting for self-determination in the country’s majority-Christian south. A major oil discovery in 1999 provided revenue and helped the Khartoum regime to stabilize its control, but provided little or no benefit for the people of the south where the oil itself was located.
George W. Bush’s 2000 election marked a turning point for U.S.-Sudan relations. The U.S. had been providing substantial humanitarian aid for the drought-stricken South. But the new administration wanted to mediate a lasting solution to the internal conflict, motivated largely by Bush’s key evangelical Christian constituency. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe was particularly vocal regarding South Sudan’s Christians.
In 2005, the Bush administration’s efforts bore fruit with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Khartoum government and the SPLM. Bush himself was involved in this process—Salva Kiir’s famous Stetson hat, which he is rarely seen without, was a gift from the then-president. After a transitional period, the agreement provided for a 2011 referendum on South Sudanese independence, which passed with over 98 percent of the vote.
But Khartoum’s problems continued. The new nation of South Sudan enjoyed sovereignty over the oil deposits and revenue Khartoum previously controlled. Although Khartoum was able to negotiate a $24-per-barrel transit fee for oil passing from South Sudan through its territory to Port Sudan in the north, the Sudanese economy was crippled. Youth unemployment and overall poverty levels skyrocketed. The military regime became increasingly corrupt.
Above all, the problem in Khartoum was al-Bashir, one of the worst dictators the world has seen in the post-colonial era. Bashir stole billions from his people while they suffered through poverty and famine. In Darfur, Bashir responded to an insurgency among non-Arabs with a campaign of genocide, slaughtering hundreds of thousands. Bashir did not simply roll back Sudan’s fledgling democracy; he replaced it with fraudulent elections and a kleptocracy designed to keep him in power. To secure his thirty-year dictatorship, he created a “hydra-headed” security state which, having turned on Bashir, may now struggle internally over control of the country, as Alex de Waal recently chronicled in AfricanArguments (and in the case of the various paramilitary organizations Bashir created, perhaps violently).
Besides Sudan’s total lack of democratic institutions and a massive national security sub-state designed to thwart their development, the protest movement will also have to contend with the fact that political power has always been controlled by Arabic-speaking elites. With the separation of the south, the Sudanese people are nearly all Muslim, but Arabic speakers remain a minority, despite their disproportionate influence. It will be a challenge to reform the country’s power structures and create a system which fairly shares control among all Sudanese.
Yet as al-Bashir learned, it is a mistake to underestimate the power of the protesters. With support from the African Union, they are rejecting half-baked proposals from Sudan’s generals for a joint interim government which would maintain military control. The Sudanese people’s unrelenting demand for real change even after al-Bashir’s ouster is remarkable, and a reason for cautious optimism. After three decades of dictatorship, no one is more familiar with the numerous obstacles to democracy and prosperity than the Sudanese themselves.