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Will the new Sudanese government bring trust back into politics?

A general view of the National Congress Party's fourth general assembly at Khartoum International Fair in Khartoum, Sudan on 28 April 2017 [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]
A general view of the National Congress Party's fourth general assembly at Khartoum International Fair in Khartoum, Sudan [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]

The long-awaited announcement of the new Sudanese government, expected next week, undoubtedly heralds a new era in the nation's politics. It puts Sudan on a course to democratic change without the upheavals that have afflicted the region post-Arab Spring uprisings and, arguably, without the trust of the average citizen.

Ever since the days of its first independent leader in 1956 and first coup d'├ętat two years later, Sudan's politics have travelled a journey through authoritarian governments and periods of democratic rule, the last of which ended in 1989. However, the people have become increasingly disillusioned with any prospect of change in a country afflicted by weak international relations, a failing economy exacerbated by economic sanctions, and perpetual war and conflicts that have plagued the entire rule of the National Salvation (now Unity) government.

The two year national dialogue initiated by President Omar Al-Bashir was an ambitious project but had actually been a central demand of many opposition groups since the 1999 legislation allowed the creation of such parties. In December that year, a conflict between Al-Bashir and the party's Speaker of the National Assembly, Hassan Abdullah Al-Turabi, resulted in a split within the Islamic movement and pressure for greater political pluralism. In 2003, the call for national dialogue became an exercise in the ruling National Congress Party talking to itself, with most opposition groups unhappy about the conditions and deciding to give the conference a wide berth.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech during the National Congress Party's fourth general assembly at Khartoum International Fair in Khartoum, Sudan on April 28, 2017 [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech during the National Congress Party's fourth general assembly at Khartoum International Fair in Khartoum, Sudan on April 28, 2017 [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu Agency]

After the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) in 2005 that ended the civil war with the South, there were again calls for opposition groups to be included in the government but, with the exception of the power-sharing arrangements with individuals and Southern politicians, the majority of politicians holding differing views from those of the government were sidelined and occasionally detained or imprisoned. In 2013, Al-Bashir's removal of the ideologue Ali Osman Al-Taha, a leading National Islamic Front figure and the former First Vice President, triggered the arrival of fresh new faces and appointments in the government. To all intents and purposes, though, it was politics as usual.

Read: Sudan refuses amendments to restrict security powers

However, with the separation and creation of South Sudan as a new state, and the desperately difficult economic fallout from the loss of 75 per cent of its oil revenue, it became clear that internal differences that could develop into conflicts in Sudan had to be averted. Hence, the introduction of the dialogue, which had a surprisingly good take up; more than 80 opposition groups, including the government's staunchest critic, the late Hassan Al-Turabi before he died last year, agreed to take part in the process.

Now that the dialogue is over, there has been an appeal by President Bashir for "rational politics" unlike the Sudanese politics of the democratic period, where sectarianism rather than ideological or national interest ruled the day. The fragmented state of affairs brought about a near-military defeat by the encroaching southern rebels who had resumed the war on Khartoum under the leadership of John Garang in 1983, three years before the democratic government was elected and six years before Bashir's 1989 military coup. The then state of the economy and the impending military defeat of Sudan were cited as major reasons for the military intervention.

Read:Sudan's Al- Bashir says Khartoum will intervene to stop war, famine in southern Sudan

History will judge the current government that began its tenure in support of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the first Gulf war in 1990 and was hit with sanctions in the mid-nineties for an alleged link to an assassination attempt on the then Egyptian President, Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, an act that saw its inclusion on the list of states sponsoring terror. With the civil war in the South raging non-stop, progress on the exploration of the country's oil reserves unlocked a period of growth of GDP of up to 7 per cent annually during the early years of the new century. However, the Darfur conflict again fractured the political climate and Sudan's government laboured under newly-introduced international sanctions from 2005 as well as periods of political instability.

Six years after the South broke away and three years before the next scheduled general election, the Sudan of 2017 is, in theory, a changed place. Despite its difficult economic conditions and rising inflation, the normalisation of relations with Western countries (particularly the United States), Sudan's closer ties with the Gulf States and an increase in political freedom all mean that investment and greater opportunities could create the conditions for the country to prosper.

However, that may be optimistic, especially if one considers that the level of political participation of the average citizen is dogged by self-imposed limitations and a total lack of trust in politics and politicians. Back in the 1990s, the sole Sudanese television and radio station was infamous for adverts about biscuits and the propaganda tapes of the armed forces fighting the war in the South. The political programmes were broadcast once a week, on Friday mornings. Now, with the advent of the internet and a plethora of satellite channels, there has been an increase in the number of political programmes which can be seen daily, although Sudanese comedy, music and cookery appear to be more stimulating than politics for the average viewer.

Read: Sudan seeks to end crises with Egypt

The talk among politicians is all about how political participation will be translated into policies and action. Only then will it be seen if they are able to deliver real changes in the poorly equipped, expensive health sector, the problematic education system and the conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, which continue to drain resources, disrupt livelihoods and destroy lives.

The pending announcement, which puts the experiment of political pluralism firmly at the centre of the Sudanese national arena, has so much riding on it, not least because the international community and investors are eager to support the new rapprochement and distance themselves from the negative image accrued (sometimes unfairly) by Sudan over the years. Whatever happens, though, the crucial turning point for the Sudanese people and its new government is not the installation of its ministers, but the decision expected next month from the US Congress, the members of which will decide whether to lift sanctions imposed on Sudan permanently, or not.

Trust in Sudan's political process will depend largely on the lifting of the sanctions, which will bring about an improvement in the social and economic fortunes of the country, along with politicians who work in the nation's interests, rather than for the fortunes of the various parties. Ultimately, the three years leading to the next general election will be a crucial period for building trust in the political process and political institutions, and demonstrating the effectiveness of government in the new era of multi-party politics.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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