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Sudan Protests: Why It’s In The Government’s Interests To Respond With Restraint
Sudan Protests: Why It’s In The Government’s Interests To Respond With Restraint
Op-Ed / Africa

Sudan Protests: Why It’s In The Government’s Interests To Respond With Restraint

Originally published in African Arguments

Public discontent and protests against price rises for pharmaceuticals and fuel have been spreading in Sudan. Khartoum should avoid reacting harshly, and build on its recent relative successes toward a better-balanced budget, resolving internal conflicts and international acceptance.

Since early November, a disturbing pattern of economic protests and political arrests has emerged in Sudan. This is putting in danger the small gains made by Khartoum over the past year: the recently concluded National Dialogue; the continuing African Union-backed peace process with rebel groups; and a generally improving relationship with key international players, notably the US and UK.

While the demonstrations in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities remain peaceful, the security services have reacted with the old-style pre-emptive arrest of many opposition activists and political figures. For President Omar al-Bashir to maintain his Islamist regime’s recent progress away from international isolation, it is imperative that his government free political prisoners and above all avoid the previous tactic of violent repression.

The government should also pay attention to the causes of the protests

The government should also pay attention to the causes of the protests: the removal of fuel subsidies; and an unexpectedly sharp rise in the price of pharmaceutical products, which pharmacies were previously able to buy with a preferential exchange rate. Future measures should be introduced in a more sympathetic fashion.

For external powers seeking to facilitate the end of Sudan’s internal conflicts, these protests should serve as a reminder that Khartoum’s greatest weakness is its poorly performing economy.

Making Ends Meet

In September 2013, Khartoum faced its most serious popular protests since the 1985 intifada as Sudanese flooded the streets of the capital and other major cities against the government’s removal of the long-standing fuel subsidy, which had in turn increased the price of many basic commodities. The government clampdown killed upwards of 170 people.

The immediate cause of the economic crisis was the secession of South Sudan, along with its oil reserves, in July 2011. When this happened, Sudan retained control over the export pipeline, but oil transit fees, along with growing gold and livestock exports, only made up for some of the loss of the oil exports that were previously its main source of hard currency. This doomed the Sudanese pound to a steady decline against the US dollar and has forced major cuts in public spending.

Many pharmacies are now unable to stock essential items

The September 2013 protests had a profound effect on opposition politics, but made little lasting impact on the National Congress Party (NCP) government’s policies. Several key figures who criticised the security response were kicked out of the party and subsequently began a new life in opposition. In an attempt to address critics, President Omar al-Bashir in January 2014 announced the start of the National Dialogue which, after much internal wrangling, eventually commenced in October 2015. It concluded with a fanfare of regional bonhomie a year later.

A ‘National Monologue’

Dismissed by many opposition figures as a “National Monologue”, the National Dialogue was ostensibly intended to find a “comprehensive solution” to Sudan’s conflicts, but it failed to gain traction with any of the serious armed groups and much of the political opposition. Khartoum nevertheless achieved its aim of buying some political space domestically and to hold and win elections in April 2015. It also wanted to demonstrate to the international community, then distracted by the war in South Sudan, that it was making a genuine attempt to end its own internal conflicts.

This tactic was partially effective as international actors initially supported the National Dialogue. They have also backed the now stalling Africa Union-led mediation process between the government, rebel groups and political opposition. It was hoped that rebel groups might be persuaded to join a genuinely inclusive dialogue, but they ultimately judged it to be over-dominated by the government and stayed away. Nevertheless, the groups remain engaged in peace negotiations, despite the painstaking rate of progress. A violent crackdown on current or future protests would further alienate the political opposition and undermine international support for the peace process.

Since the September 2013 protests, and with the new mandate granted to President al-Bashir by his 2015 election win, Khartoum’s position has somewhat strengthened. Government finances received a temporary boost through cash injections from Gulf States, a reward for its pivot away from Iran and deployment of troops in their war in Yemen.

Khartoum has taken advantage of this period of relative stability to cut government spending. The government has also learnt from its previous experience of public protest and mostly tried to impose the austerity slowly. Protesters are wary too, not having forgotten the trauma of 2013.

However, demonstrations have been spreading in response to the exponential increase in the price of medicines and the less dramatic rise in the costs of other commodities. Many pharmacies are now unable to stock essential items, and in a chaotic U-turn on 25 November, demonstrating its nervousness over plans for further civil disobedience, the government suddenly announced that it had scrapped the new pricing structure.

Time For Restraint

But the protests and government responses demonstrate that Khartoum has a serious problem with economic management

Amid widespread criticism of the austerity measures, several opposition parties, including the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and the Sudanese Congress Party (SCoP), have called for protests and subsequently three days of “civil disobedience” intended to function as a general strike across Khartoum. The government has reacted by jailing the SCoP’S leadership.

Reforms to the subsidy regime, championed by international financial institutions, are conceived as technocratic responses to an unsustainable economic policy. But the protests and government responses demonstrate that Khartoum has a serious problem with economic management, further undermined by the NCP’s current reliance on the security services and patronage to remain in power.

The corrupt and ineffective public sector, as well as costly wars in the peripheries, makes it unlikely that any revenue gains made by the removal of subsidies will be spent on improving the lives of the poor who, according to the World Bank, make up nearly 50% of the population. The protesters understand this and do not trust the government’s motives or competence.

The government would better serve its own interests and those of the country by showing restraint. Its current strength gives it much room to be conciliatory and to tolerate legitimate dissent. The credibility of its recent political engagement with opposition must be buttressed with some accommodation with these forces. And doing so now will also help boost its slowly improving relations with vital international partners.

Internally displaced persons (IDP) fleeing from tribe clashes in Balela locality arrive at Kalma camp in Darfur, Sudan, on 24 July 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Briefing 128 / Africa

A New Roadmap to Make U.S. Sudan Sanctions Relief Work

By 12 October, Washington will decide whether the steps Sudan has taken qualify it for lifting some U.S. sanctions. But to push forward afterwards will require a new roadmap that ties further sanctions relief and improved bilateral relations to political reform and human rights.

I. Overview

By 12 October, the U.S. will decide whether to permanently lift economic and trade sanctions it suspended since January 2017. As Crisis Group argued in its June 2017 briefing, Time to Repeal U.S. Sanctions on Sudan?, the administration faces a hard choice, but on balance lifting those sanctions remains the wiser course. Many disagree, raising concerns about any move that might appear to rehabilitate President Omar al-Bashir or suggest an easing of pressure on Khartoum to improve its human rights record. But the benefits to conflict prevention and humanitarian access attributable to Sudanese performance under the so-called “five-track plan” represent a tangible, if modest, step in the right direction. They are too important to let slip away by returning to an outdated sanctions regime. If it were to decline to lift sanctions now, the U.S. risks losing considerable future leverage with Sudan and reinforcing Khartoum’s deep-seated belief that Washington cannot be relied upon to honour its commitments.

Should the administration decide to lift the sanctions, however, such a decision ought to be viewed not as the end of a conversation about the future of U.S.-Sudan relations, but rather as its beginning. Washington should use the remaining sanctions to encourage further positive steps, both on areas covered by the existing roadmap for improved relations and on new ones, including notably political reform and human rights. In other words, the usefulness of a repeal decision only can be fully realised (and its risks appropriately managed) if the U.S. follows up with an approach aimed at pressing Sudan for more progress. This in turn will require empowering a senior U.S. official of appropriate stature and background who will be responsible for the next phase of this effort.

II. Lifting Some U.S. Sanctions, Leaving Others in Place

In January 2017, the U.S. announced that it would suspend certain specified sanctions against Sudan based on positive actions that President Bashir’s government had taken over the preceding months, and would repeal them permanently if progress were sustained over the subsequent six months. This decision marked the culmination of a policy of cautious engagement since 2015, after decades of hostile relations.

Washington defined criteria for lifting sanctions along five tracks: Sudan’s cooperation on counter-terrorism; addressing the threat from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); ending hostilities in the “Two Areas” (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) and Darfur; improving humanitarian access to those areas; and ending negative interference in South Sudan. Last June, Crisis Group argued that although Khartoum’s progress on some of these was at best partial, it had done enough to warrant the permanent lifting of suspended sanctions. It also argued that failure to lift the sanctions risked undercutting those in Khartoum pushing for reform along the lines of U.S. demands and playing into the hands of hardliners.

The U.S. administration instead opted last July to delay its decision for three months. Although angered by the decision, Sudanese officials – pressed by their Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia in particular – stuck to the process, encouraged by belief that the delay at least in part reflected the U.S. administration’s Africa team was not fully in place and by hope that this delay would be the last. Officials in Bashir’s government who say they counselled patience in Khartoum claimed to Crisis Group that they faced an uphill battle but their arguments ultimately carried the day.

Measured engagement, with positive rewards held out in return for improved behaviour, is [...] more likely to induce positive change from Khartoum than continued attempts to isolate the regime.

The reasons Crisis Group cited in favour of lifting the sanctions are still valid today. Measured engagement, with positive rewards held out in return for improved behaviour, is in our view more likely to induce positive change from Khartoum than continued attempts to isolate the regime. The geopolitical winds that have shifted over the past few years in Bashir’s favour and allowed him to shore up support from new allies, particularly in the Gulf, make this all the more true.

Perhaps of central importance, lifting sanctions would not leave the U.S. bereft of powerful political and economic tools to continue to press for change. In fact, one could argue the opposite is true: the administration, by showing it is prepared to reward better behaviour, could gain additional leverage from those sanctions that still are in place. Those are far from insignificant: these include the U.S. designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, as it requires Washington to veto international debt relief that Khartoum is particularly keen on securing. At the same time, the U.S. should signal that if Khartoum backslides in its behaviour, Washington would aim for a new series of targeted sanctions against key figures.

The U.S. administration raised another issue during this round, namely Sudan’s alleged military dealings with the North Korean regime. From a U.S. perspective the crisis with Pyongyang clearly overrides any interest it might have with Sudan and thus felt justified in adding this requirement. Senior Sudanese officials told Crisis Group that they immediately complied with the U.S. request. Assuming the claim is accurate, Khartoum’s compliance with this late breaking request will only fuel its sense of grievance should the U.S. government choose not to lift sanctions.

III. The Next Phase of U.S.-Sudan Engagement

Lifting sanctions should not, however, be the end of the conversation. Rather, it should usher in a new phase of engagement with Khartoum aimed at using U.S. influence and that of other foreign powers – notably, the UK, Norway, the Gulf monarchies and China – to nudge Bashir’s government toward further positive steps. This means coupling the lifting of sanctions with a discussion of the next phase of the roadmap: further normalisation of relations, including potentially returning a permanent ambassador to Khartoum, lifting the terrorism designation and enabling debt relief, in return for concrete Sudanese measures.

The U.S. should concentrate now on areas where the Sudanese government has made partial progress but could do much more, namely continuation of the ceasefire in the Two Areas, improved humanitarian access there and in Darfur, and playing a more constructive role in South Sudan. Importantly, a new phase of engagement should include improvement of Sudan’s dismal human rights record and ultimately the dismantling of militia groups in Darfur, responsible for much insecurity and violence against civilians in the region. For example, the recent killings of at least five people in the Internally Displaced People camp in Kalma, South Darfur, during clashes between security forces and camp residents, should be investigated.

A. War in the Two Areas

A first set of additional steps upon which the U.S. could insist relates to conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where Khartoum has been fighting the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) since 2011. For now prospects of a breakthrough in talks between the sides, currently suspended, are gloomy. The SPLM-N is in the midst of a bitter leadership fight, lacks significant external support and thus has little military clout. Khartoum is reluctant to offer concessions to a group it believes to be on its last legs.

Still, Sudan could and should take immediate steps to improve the situation, including, first, maintaining its current ceasefire beyond the latest end-date in October; and, secondly, that it cooperates fully with talks on humanitarian access to rebel-controlled areas. Both these measures would diminish the suffering of people in conflict-affected areas and de-intensify conflict dynamics. The first step would be to reconvene a new round of the African Union-mediated peace talks to ensure both sides remain in dialogue.

B. Darfur

With rebel groups weakened and driven almost entirely out of the country, the government has been less concerned about the presence of aid organisations, and the possible diversion of assistance, and thus more open to humanitarian access. Relief workers report better, although not complete, access to Darfur’s Jebel Marra region, now mostly held by government forces. They note, too, improvements in their interactions with the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), particularly with respect to travel notifications in non-conflict areas (generally granted within one day), visas and technical agreements (more readily approved).

That said, improvements are far from comprehensive. African Union-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) personnel still face visa delays and officials continue to obstruct the entry of supplies into the country. Addressing such issues could be part of the package of additional demands the U.S. and others make of Khartoum. The Sudanese government also should cooperate with UNAMID in establishing a new temporary operating base in the Jebel Marra (this reportedly was recently approved by Khartoum), which would provide greater security for humanitarian relief efforts while the mission begins its draw-down in other areas.

C. South Sudan

Khartoum largely has refrained from destabilising South Sudan via proxies, though the recent, if limited, uptick in cross-border activity could test U.S. resolve. Crisis Group remains concerned that Sudan could exploit its links with Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). Machar currently is in exile in South Africa and Khartoum should not take any steps that would allow him to undermine any efforts by a new SPLM/A-IO leadership to seek a political settlement with Juba, or to establish a political movement that would seek to challenge the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM). Sudan could be tempted to do this to pressure Juba to stop hosting Sudanese armed groups, make concessions on disputed border territories and maintain the deal on transit fees (an important source of hard currency) for South Sudanese oil exported through a pipeline to Port Sudan. Continuation of Khartoum’s relative restraint in South Sudan is a priority; it should be measured not only by the absence of arms and ammunition supplied to South Sudanese rebels but also in its willingness to renegotiate revenue sharing with the south.

For its part, Juba should be pressed to make good on its commitment to cease to host and give safe haven to Sudanese rebel groups, some of which have fought for it and contributed to conflict and insecurity in South Sudan. The expulsion of Darfuri SLM-MM units from South Sudan in May 2017, which precipitated an unwelcome, if short-lived round of fighting in Darfur, showed Juba beginning to uphold its side of the deal. It now must fulfil similar commitments regarding the Darfuri Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which without a safe haven outside Darfur is more likely to engage in the peace process. Juba also should continue to limit its support to and involvement with the SPLM-N. Without significant external supply of arms, ammunition and fuel, the group likely will be unable to increase the conflict’s intensity; this in turn will lessen the risk that Khartoum channel arms and ammunition to South Sudanese rebel groups.

IV. Conclusion

The unease many in Washington feel about appearing to reward Khartoum is well founded. President Bashir’s government is guilty of political repression and extreme violence in the country’s neglected peripheries. The small positive steps it has taken are still a far cry from those needed to improve its governance and end its wars.

Any lifting of U.S. sanctions currently suspended should not be presented as an implicit stamp of approval for President Bashir or mark Khartoum’s diplomatic rehabilitation in Washington. Rather, it should be seen as a first step along what will continue to be a long and difficult road. It reflects belief that cautious, time-bound demands, tagged to proportionate incentives, can achieve more than the continuation of the outdated sanctions regime.

Lifting sanctions should mark the beginning of a new phase of U.S. engagement, focused on nudging Khartoum – as well as Sudanese rebel groups and Juba – toward measures that are both within reach and would do much to improve the lives of Sudanese and South Sudanese people. This will require the U.S. administration to follow up vigorously, empower officials charged with carrying out this effort and signal to Khartoum both that real progress will lead to normalised relations and, conversely, that Sudan’s backtracking will trigger the imposition of targeted sanctions focused on Sudan’s leaders, not its people.

Washington/Nairobi, 29 September 2017