Since his rise to power in 1989, Omar al-Bashir has been fairly successful at keeping a strong hold on Sudanese politics with limited mass protests against his regime.The recipe for success is now well known and certainly not original. In neighboring Libya, Moammar Gadhafi employed and perfected this strategy over his 40-yearlong tenure.
It goes something like this: the state capitalizes on oil-driven monetary resources (taxes, bilateral contracts with private companies in the oil sector, kickbacks, partnership with the Chinese state, and so on). Subsequently, the president and his associates redistribute a fraction of the oil profits to key social sectors (military, local, and regional stakeholders) to avoid mass unrest. In the meantime, frustration and social disfranchisement are unavoidable at an individual level. By appeasing the appropriate clientele, al-Bashir, who learned this technique from his neighbor Gadhafi, continued able to keep the society at bay.
One of the key reasons this strategy works so well is because, in autocratic states, civil society forms of representation (NGOs) are often crushed or crippled. Often they cannot operate due to lack of funding. When such organizations cannot get off the ground, the typical refuge of social discontent is the church. Unfortunately, since repressive governments know this, churches are also among the primary institutions targeted by “government sponsors” in an attempt to squash all opposition. What is left is mass media, which is also carefully controlled by the government. So there are many dissenting voices, but no clearly defined outlet to channel them to the rest of the population.
Passing the Blame
Governments like the one led by al-Bashir also use another key subterfuge: assigning blame for economic misfortunes on someone else, typically an entity that cannot speak for itself or whose voice will not get trickled down to the masses (primarily because the government controls all mass media).
In Zimbabwe, there’s rarely any speech given by Robert Mugabe that doesn’t start with: “It’s Great Britain’s fault or America’s fault that inflation is so high.” During the Libyan civil war of 2011, Gadhafi first accused the rebels of being “drugged” and linked them to al-Qaeda in an attempt to channel protesters’ rage away from the regime. When this strategy failed, Gadhafi channeled his propaganda toward NATO, claiming that the organization was interested in capturing Libyan oil fields, not the well-being of the Libyan people.
In Sudan, when al-Bashir was indicted for crimes against humanity, he used similar rhetoric claiming that the court is the tool of Western governments who want to exploit local oil resources and interfere in Sudan’s sovereignty.
Society on the Edge
The result of all these strategies is a society on the edge: perilously close to the social unrest that can topple a government, but not quite to that point. In all these cases, the macro strategy of assigning blame and the micro strategy of buying the key social, political, and military players works. Until it doesn’t, any more!
Sudan is finally reaching the point when this strategy can no longer be leveraged to appease the masses. Recent developments are making it almost impossible for al-Bashir to redistribute increasingly shrinking economic capital with a clientele that has remained the same in size, or even expanded.
To al-Bashir’s credit, he’s certainly trying his best to mask the incompetence of his regime. According to a recent story published in The Wall Street Journal, the Sudanese government has extended cash handouts to half-a-million Sudanese families, increased minimum wages, and begun offering subsidies on cooking gas. In addition, an estimated 25 percent of the annual budget is going toward the military (the key partner of every autocratic leader).
It is not enough.
The reality is that 75 percent of the oil-driven revenue in Sudan was lost after the South Sudan’s secession. As a result, al-Bashir’s regime no longer controls the cash cow used to keep the masses at bay.
Crippled by this sudden and disruptive loss of revenue, the government had no choice, recently, but to lift the subsidies on gasoline, nearly doubling the cost of gas overnight. This, of course, led to increases in the price of other basic products—wheat, rice, meat, cooking oil, and so on—whose cost is contingent on the price of gas since products are carried in trucks from one part of the country to another. With a significant chunk of the revenue now gone, the government has no way to subsidize fuel costs in a country already crippled by a 40 percent inflation rate.
As authoritarian governments crumble, there’s that one incident that simply takes the masses over the edge. Then, disparate social groups, despite their differences—religious, social, economic, political, age-wise—come together and say, “This is enough.”
We saw it in Tunisia with Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose act of setting himself on fire began a revolution. We also saw it in Egypt with Khaled Said, the young man who died under suspicious circumstances after being arrested and beaten by the local police, which was, in part, a catalyst to the early protests in Egypt.
Now, in Sudan, groups of protesters are gathering all over the country to express their outrage and mourn the death of Salah Sanhouri, a pharmacist from a well-known merchant family who was gunned down in Khartoum during an initially peaceful protest which turned violent. The hundreds of women arrested, and later released, after protesting against the government, also helped boost anti-regime feelings.
So here we are today, when Sudanese politics are slowly but surely heading toward the well-known recipe for success (or disaster): a crippled government with too many mouths to feed and not enough dough to feed them; an increasingly disgruntled populace—cutting across gender, age, and ethnic groups—taking their discontent to the streets; a panicked government that doesn’t know how to react (other than with violence) to the growing public exasperation at the ever-rising cost of living. The question is: What’s next?
Government resources in Sudan are shrinking, but have not yet been depleted. This will buy al-Bashir time, at least in the short run. If analysts expect to see the same pattern as in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya in the near future, then they will be disappointed.
Sudan’s population is too spread out across the various parts of the country to form a common front and topple the government. In addition, the inter-ethnic tensions in Darfur and the southern borders will continue to keep communities torn apart by regional conflicts. Not to mention that the Chinese government controls the majority of the oil fields in North Sudan and the Chinese are not known for siding with the interests of the masses.
But one thing we know for sure: the current situation is unsustainable. The opportunities al-Bashir’s regime has to turn the country around and produce economic growth are bleak at best. Even so, as previously learned lessons from the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya show, it’s not so much a question of whether al-Bashir’s government will be removed from power, whether peacefully or violently. It’s a question of when.
Codrin Arsene writes about African political and cultural affairs. He is a Chicago-based anthropologist who lived and worked in Tanzania and Uganda.