Month-Long Protests Plunge Sudan into Crisis

Economic crisis and repression in Sudan have led to constant protests while the US and others look the other way because they need him. Prof. Alex de Waal discusses the situation

Month-Long Protests Plunge Sudan into Crisis

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

Ongoing antigovernment protests in Sudan, which have lasted for over a month now, have claimed the lives of at least 40 protesters, and there have been over 1000 arrests so far, according to the Sudanese Central Doctors Committee. Doctors are now calling for a boycott of police and military hospitals, because doctors themselves have become targets of government repression when they treat injured protesters. Also, teachers will join the doctors in a solidarity strike next week. Meanwhile, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir traveled to Qatar on Tuesday, where he’s looking for financial support for his cash-strapped government. Joining me now from Boston to make sense of what is happening in Sudan is Alex de Waal. Alex is executive director of the World Peace Foundation, and a research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Thanks for joining us again, Alex.

ALEX DE WAAL: You’re very welcome.

GREG WILPERT: People in Sudan have been demonstrating for more or less a month continuously, now. What is going on? How have these protests developed, and what are they protesting against?

ALEX DE WAAL: The first thing to say is that in Sudan, as in elsewhere in the Arab world, the only way in which authoritarian rulers have been brought down is by large scale, nonviolent popular protest. They’ve never been removed by civil war or other mechanisms. It has always either begun or culminated in this type of popular uprising. And Sudan itself had two such events in its history. In 1964 they overthrew a dictatorship. In 1985, similarly. And this really is the model for the uprising that we see today.

Bear in mind that we have a ruler, a military ruler who has been in power for almost 30 years. The median age of Sudanese is about 20. It’s only people who are 50 years old who have ever had the chance to vote in a truly free and fair election, back in 1986. President Bashir took power in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was still standing. So for most Sudanese he is really the relic of a bygone era. And they simply want change.

And a particular driver for this change is the deterioration in the country’s economy, which is due primarily to corruption. Just massive corruption at the top of government. Not only President Bashir, more particularly the people around him, stealing large amounts of money. But also, more particularly, they’re taking money in order to pay off their political networks, in order to bribe the security services, bribe senior army officers, in order for them to have a financial incentive to stay on side and support the government. And ordinary people, understandably, are utterly fed up of this. So there is a very broad societal consensus that this is the time when Bashir really has, finally, to go.

GREG WILPERT: Now, it seems like there’s a serious economic issue, as well. I mean, for a long time the countries of the West have imposed sanctions on Sudan. Those have been lifted, or were lifted, about two years ago, at least from the U.S. and others. But now, of course, with the partition of Sudan, I’m wondering if you could say something about that. I mean, it seems like the South Sudan was the more oil-rich part of Sudan, and it seceded. So what’s the economic situation like now, and is that also a factor in the protests that have been developing?

ALEX DE WAAL: Absolutely so. I mean, Sudan had an economic boom when oil was first exported, starting in 1999; a massive sort of growth in the economy in the 10 years that followed that. And continuing prosperity, for a while. But South Sudan, which has about three quarters of the oil, seceded in 2011, eight years ago. And the major source of foreign currency, the driver of the economic boom, was was therefore pulled away. The rug was pulled out from under the economic feet of Sudan.

And one of the things that the Obama administration, and indeed the Bush administration before that, had promised to Omar al-Bashir was that if you go along with certain steps, cooperating with us on counterterrorism, making peace with South Sudan, allowing South Sudan to secede, then we will lift sanctions. And each time the Sudanese actually went ahead and did what they promised, and the U.S. changed the goalposts. They wouldn’t lfit sanctions. And finally–which means that the administration has–indeed, the previous administration–they have a little bit of sympathy for Bashir, because the administration wanted to lift the sanctions. It was Congress, because of the pressure of the Save Darfur Coalition and other lobbies who said no, don’t do this don’t compromise. Put in another set of preconditions before you lift sanctions.

So finally, when sanctions were lifted two years ago, it was really too late. And also by that time, this cabal of kleptocrats around the president are grown so deeply entrenched they were simply gobbling up any extra resources that came into the country. And as a result people are unable to afford basic necessities, fuel, and even in the last months, bread.

GREG WILPERT: Well, as you mentioned, now, President Omar al-Bashir has been in office for almost 30 years now. And in 2009 the International Criminal Court indicted him for genocide because of the Darfur conflict. What is his hold on power like now, and is there a chance that he might either be forced out of office or step down in light of these recent protests?

ALEX DE WAAL: Well, one the tragic consequences of the arrest warrant for President Bashir [inaudible] charges over Darfur is that he has no safe way of stepping down. And in fact, for some years he’s wanted to step down, because he’s been tired, he’s not been in good health. But he knows that if he leaves office, it’s very likely that his successor government will hand him over to the ICC. So he’s really been backed into a corner, and I think this is one of the really unfortunate, counterproductive outcomes of that arrest warrant.

What he really has been very effective in doing is is building what we would call a coup-proof system, a system that can protect him from a military coup. So he has a very tight control over the senior echelons of the army. And his particular personal and political skill is he knows the army officer corps individually, one by one. He’s a very personable character. He has an encyclopedic memory for people, their families, their personal circumstances. And he uses that very skillfully to keep on top of Army politics. And he also has another insurance system, which is the national intelligence and security services, that keeps an eye on the army as well as on the population in general, and also has a very powerful firepower, so that if some army officers were to say it’s time for us to stand with the people, then there is a danger that they might come into armed conflict between them and the national intelligence and security.

So Bashir still has a few cards to play. And the great worry of many Sudanese and many observers is that in playing these cards he may spark yet another civil war in Sudan, and this time a civil war not just in the far-flung rural areas like the south and in Darfur, but actually in the main cities themselves.

GREG WILPERT: Now, it seems that this conflict that’s going on right now has received very little media attention, and as a matter of fact, Western governments seem to have hardly expressed any interest in getting involved. Why is that?

ALEX DE WAAL: I think there are two main reasons. A general reason is that the aftermath of the Arab Spring popular uprising, everyone was very enthusiastic. You get rid of a dictator like Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or Gadhafi in Libya, and we’ll have democracy. And it didn’t really turn out that way. So people are more frightened of the chaos that might follow the devil that we know, which is Bashir.

But for theU.S. there’s another very particular reason, which is that the United States very much invested in South Sudan, and in trying to get peace in South Sudan. And ironically enough, the key intermediary who designed the peace agreement that is now in place for the warring parties in South Sudan, for that civil war, is Bashir himself. He is the one who actually stepped in with his detailed knowledge of South Sudan, his leverage over the parties, and said, I will work out a peace deal, which he has done. So the U.S. is very, very reluctant to see that peace deal jeopardized by the overthrow of Bashir, however much they dislike him, however much they see him as a relic from the past and as a problem for the future.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but we’ll definitely come back as the situation develops. I was speaking to Alex de Waal, research professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Thanks again, Alex, for having joined us.

ALEX DE WAAL: You’re very welcome.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.