Sudan is Africa’s secret crisis


I don’t normally write about Sudan. But now I have to. For the last few weeks, friends and democracy activists from the country have been sending me pictures of the men, women and children that have died in the protests against President Omar al-Bashir’s failing regime. They haunt my dreams, keeping me up at night. Their bravery and defiance in the face of a truly brutal regime is both inspirational and tragic. And their deaths are getting far too little attention.

The shame of Sudan’s most recent crisis therefore lies at two levels. The first is the attempt of President al-Bashir to cling on to power come what may, placing his own interests before those of the national good, and ruining his country in the process. The second is the failure of the world’s policy makers and media to speak about what is happening in Sudan. In this article, I hope to make my own small contribution to putting that right.

The roots of the crisis

It is no surprise that people are protesting in Sudan. Having long failed to establish an inclusive and stable political system, al-Bashir’s government has now presided over a prolonged economic crisis. While the cost of living has soared, with inflation estimated to be almost 70%, government revenue has fallen. As a result, his National Congress Party (NCP) seems powerless to reverse an economic slide that has made life intolerable for millions. In 2018 it was estimated that almost half the population is living in poverty, and that 5.5 million people were in danger of starvation.

These developments mean that al-Bashir’s regime lacks both democratic legitimacy and economic credibility. It is also unable to fall back on the classic authoritarian justification of delivering order and stability given past and present conflicts in areas such as Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile – in addition to the government’s troubled relationship with South Sudan.

The president has also run out of excuses.

Previously, the NCP was able to blame the country’s economic woes on American sanctions, imposed first in response to Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1997 and then the extreme violence of the Darfur crisis in 2007 – which the United Nations estimates led to the deaths of around 300 000 people and the displacement of over 2.5 million more. However, most of these sanctions were rescinded in October 2017, leading to a wave of optimism that things would get better. Instead, the economy took a severe turn for the worse.

Currency instability has further undermined economic confidence, with the Sudanese pound was devalued multiple times in 2018. Intermittent shortages of fuel and food have pushed up prices, while the decision to remove bread subsidies in January 2018 inspired hundreds of protesters to take to the streets after the price doubled.

The NCP argues that its problems can still be traced to the United States, whose decision to keep Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism makes it harder to attract investment. This is a degree of truth to this, but it overlooks the fact that the government has failed to diversity the economy away from its dependence on oil rents, which have plummeted following the secession of South Sudan and the falling price of oil on world markets. Even this might have been manageable if the regime had not spent around $3.3-billion a year – 15% of the total budget – on the national security service in order to be able to better repress its own citizens.

The mounting opposition to al-Bashir’s rule over the last two years is powerful evidence that a growing proportion of Sudanese people recognise that the country’s problems are home grown. As Hafiz Mohamed, a member of human rights group Justice Africa Sudan, told the BBC: “We need to first of all stop all the conflicts, and cut the spending on security and the military … The government spends less than 10% of its budget on health and education. The economic problem is the manifestation of the political problem Sudan faces.”

Al-Bashir’s catch 22

Following sporadic protests throughout 2018, opposition to the government coalesced towards the end of the year, as an umbrella group of doctors, engineers and teachers began to mobilise and coordinate demonstrations. According to some Sudanese journalists, the resulting movement led to over 300 protests being held in 15 of the country’s 18 states – the biggest uprising in recent memory.

The response of the al-Bashir regime was sadly predictable. Instead of opening talks or finding ways to ease the people’s suffering, the government deployed the security forces to crack down on the protesters. According to Amnesty International, 37 people were killed in first five days of demonstrations alone, while thousands have been arrested. Footage filmed by protesters and shared with the BBC reveals the use of “secret hit squads” who chase after demonstrators, beating them, dragging them away, and holding them in secret detention centres where many have been tortured.

Despite this most terrifying of tactics, the protesters have refused to be cowed. The declaration of a state of emergency on the 22 February and an official ban of public meetings only seems to have hardened the resolve of the president’s critics to get rid of him once and for all.

As a result, al-Bashir now has his back to the wall. He is rapidly losing support both among the public at large and within his own party. Stories circulating in Sudan suggest that senior NCP figures are planning to elect a new party head. Al-Bashir will therefore need to deploy ever greater levels of repression to silence his internal and external critics. This is why in addition to declaring a state of emergency the president dissolved the government – which had only been in office for five months – and removed all elected regional governments and state governors, replacing them with military officials.

But while further centralising power in his own hands might prevent the president from being toppled in the short-run, it also makes it impossible to resolve the country’s economic, social and political problems. Political stability can only be achieved through a more inclusive political settlement that recognises some of the protesters concerns. Economic recovery will depend on the country being able to re-engage with the wider world to secure much needed investment, which becomes less likely with every atrocity that he commits.

This is al-Bashir’s catch-22. The very tactics he is using to retain power will prevent him from effectively resolving the grievances that have forced people to the streets. He now has two options: to recognise that his time has come and stand down, or to hold on to the presidency at all costs and push his country into a period of civil conflict from which it may never recover.

Africa’s secret crisis

Despite the turmoil in Sudan, and the widespread human rights abuses, the conflict has received little attention. Amnesty International have warned of the human rights violations, journalists have carefully documented the protests, and the state of emergency was denounced by a small number of political leaders around the world, including two influential members of Congress in the United States.

Yet most world leaders have studiously avoided commentating on one of the most alarming political developments of the year. Similarly, most newspaper editors have kept Sudan off the front pages – even those that previously highlighted government abuses in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is therefore unsurprising that most people have no idea about what is happening in Sudan. Two days ago I bumped into a friend who works on Africa and is usually well informed. I asked him what he thought about the crisis. “Crisis?”, he replied, “what crisis?”.

Tell your friends, write to your political leaders, sign a petition. Something needs to change.

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Nic Cheeseman
Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development and has conducted fieldwork in a range of African countries including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). 

Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), and Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Mail & Guardian. In total, his articles have been read over a million times. Many of his interviews and insights can be found on the website that he founded and co-edits,

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