What is behind the economic and political crisis in Sudan?

Since the beginning of 2018, demonstrations have erupted in all the major cities of Sudan. Although these protests were ostensibly against the high price of goods, specifically bread, it soon became clear that what the protesters were demanding was the ouster of the ruling regime. To date, while one component of the ruling regime - the National Congress Party of General Omar al-Bashir - has resigned, the other - the Army - is still holding out. The following article by Rabah Omer, which was written before the ouster of Bashir, provides a background analysis of these momentous developments.

IN October 2017, Sudanese were thrilled with the decision of US President Donald Trump to lift economic sanctions in place since 1997. Sudanese social media buzzed with great expectation. This enthusiasm was legitimate given the drastic impact of two decades of sanctions on Sudanese society, but how realistic was it?

The US first imposed restrictions in 1993 on Sudan, which was on a US State Department list of countries said to be supporting 'terrorism'. In 1997 the Clinton administration announced comprehensive economic, trade and financial sanctions against Sudan. Then in 1998, the US bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the capital Khartoum, claiming that the factory was manufacturing chemical weapons. The sanctions remained in place throughout the Bush years until, in 2016, Obama announced they would be lifted after a six-month period. This was later confirmed by Trump when he withdrew the sanctions in October 2017.

Sadly, the hopes of revitalising the Sudanese economy and boosting social and economic development were dealt a blow when drastic inflation hit the economy a month later, causing near-implosion.

Since the start of January 2018, demonstrations spread in all Sudan's major cities. Protesters cited the high prices of goods, specifically bread. Many Sudanese families reported they were eating only one meal a day. And many claimed they could not afford to buy medications.

The crisis is the result of three major factors that underpin Sudan's political and economic interactions with the West.

The first is the Sudanese government's Altamkeen (empowerment and solidification) policy. In 1989 when Islamists, led by Dr Hassan Alturabi, first came to power via a military coup, Altamkeen served to empower their affiliates and supporters. In practice, it translates into using the state and its institutions as tools to serve party goals. The Altamkeen policy is better understood by linking it to the Islamist group's history with the West.

Sudan became independent in 1956. From the outset, the West manoeuvred to influence the new nation's politics, pushing the government to take right-wing positions. This agenda was aided by coups, interventions in parliamentary politics and assassinations. During the Cold War, Islamists in Sudan, like other political Islamist groups in the region, were nurtured by the West to combat and minimise the influence of leftist parties.

In the mid-1970s the Islamists' influence was particularly powerful and the ruling party imposed International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies of subsidy cuts, liberalisation and privatisation. The government also worked to impose Sharia law. The IMF policies engendered a climate of profiteering and corruption that benefited the Islamist group through the creation of multiple businesses, banks and companies.

However, in 1985 the Sudanese public rebelled against the IMF policies and their social impacts, and against Sharia law, toppling the dictatorship through a popular uprising. The election of a democratic government jeopardised the economic clout of the Islamists and threatened their political goals. They then moved to retake power, and eventually did so through a military coup in 1989.

The new regime adopted neoliberal policies such as privatisation and lifting subsidies, and promoted a free-market economy. It sold off major public enterprises, benefiting a small minority linked to the generals and the ruling National Congress Party of General Omar al-Bashir.

The second factor driving the crisis is the long-term effects of the economic sanctions, which affected the technological and social development of the country. Travel restrictions on Sudanese have drastically affected exchange of skills, education and training in the country, and negatively impacted economic development.

The third factor contributing to the current economic debacle in Sudan is the austerity project of the IMF, which has resulted in the staggering accumulation of debt, stunted economic growth, and social and political destabilisation. For instance, in 2001 the IMF praised the economic performance of Sudan - despite the sanctions - and announced it would facilitate debt relief if the government followed its lead. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 caused a loss of 46% of the national income, resulting in a major shock to the Sudanese economy, which the government, expectedly, did not prepare for. The IMF intervened again in 2013 and 2017 and pushed for further austerity measures and liberalisation. This caused commodity prices to soar. Frustrated Sudanese took to the streets again. In November 2016, the Sudanese public organised a successful civil disobedience campaign for a week, which led to massive arrests. Since the beginning of January 2018, civil society demonstrations have been a constant in Sudanese cities, also triggering a wave of arrests.

The Altamkeen policy could be considered a recipe for corruption and nepotism, yet the IMF policies have emboldened it, giving it international legitimacy even as the liberalisation of the economy has hit the masses hard. Every time the government announces austerity measures, it appeals to the public to be thrifty and patient, attributing the economic difficulties to the sanctions. At the same time, the government spends munificently on its security apparatus. The government also relies on high taxes and other means of collecting money from the public, thereby hindering production and victimising the ordinary Sudanese.

The lifting of sanctions without political reform has not solved the political and economic crisis; it only exacerbated it. If accompanied by political reform to reinforce transparency and accountability, the end of sanctions would have presented a golden opportunity for economic growth and social development. It would have stimulated the economy and potentially drawn thousands of Sudanese in exile to return and participate in the development of the country. The need is thus ever pressing for major political reform that addresses endemic corruption and encourages political and economic participation.

With a weak and divided opposition that lacks a comprehensive plan for a political transition, the only option for young activists and youth movements is to continue demonstrating.                                     

Rabah Omer is a researcher working on Sudanese politics and society. This article is reproduced from the Africa Is a Country website (

*Third World Resurgence No. 337/338, January/February 2019, pp 32-33