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There is no real change in Sudan’s new government and protests are ongoing

March 19, 2019 at 10:02 am

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir [Doyle Industries/Twitter]

The Sudanese President’s government reshuffle following the imposition of a state of emergency on 22 February has been greeted with mixed reactions. The most outstanding feature of the changes is the lack of any appointments worthy of mention. Many of the same faces remain or have returned to government although some effort to represent domestic opposition groups has been made. Predictions that President Omar Al-Bashir would introduce qualified technocrats rather than politicians turned out to be inaccurate, leading to fears that the substantive changes and innovative ideas needed to overcome the country’s current economic crisis will not be forthcoming.

The Foreign, Justice and Defence Ministers all retain their positions with other appointments being filled by well-known political figures. Although 15 ministerial changes were made, observers say that Al-Bashir missed a golden opportunity. According to political commentator, Yasir Abdullah Ali, the appointments are “disappointing” because new ideas and efficiency drives are needed to optimise the workings of government. “Without motivated and experienced technocrats,” he explained, “it’s business as usual, and I do not see this government lasting very long.”

The new appointments appear to follow the pattern outlined by the national dialogue programme concluded in 2016, and represent a 50/50 split between members of the ruling National Congress and the opposition. Plans to change the make-up of the ruling party from a leadership to a membership driven system are proving to be one of the greatest challenges.

READ: Hundreds protest in Sudan, keep up pressure on Bashir

Last week’s leadership meeting chaired by the recently-appointed National Congress official Ahmed Haroun, promised to make changes that would respond to the demands of the Sudanese people. Within the ruling party, there are clear disagreements between those wishing to see reforms and those resistant to change. The contentious issue remains whether or not President Al-Bashir should be allowed to run again in 2020 if the elections go ahead. There is also a suggestion by Judge Abu Qanaya to introduce harsher penalties for corruption and malpractice. Almost a year after being agreed, the proposal has not been approved by Al-Bashir but remains under review.

Last week he welcomed a think-tank initiative headed by professors at Khartoum University that would suggest ways to improve the use of the country’s limited resources and culminate in a “Policy and Dialogue” forum. However, with investment in manufacturing and industry at a historical low and sanctions preventing debt relief still in place, the prospects for economic recovery remain bleak.

Sudan’s reliance on gold and petroleum exports as revenue sources has not been backed up with effective measures to prevent smuggling, with millions of dollars lost as a result. In addition, petroleum wealth remains under the ground, with no new concession blocks coming on stream to boost production. Critics also point out that the bulk of government spending is still directed disproportionately to the army and security forces.

Protests in Sudan - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Protests in Sudan – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Sudan’s allies remain an important factor in the fortunes of the government. Delegations from the United States and representatives of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have been in Khartoum assessing the direction of Al-Bashir’s leadership. The Russian delegation was led by the Deputy Foreign Minister, who pledged that Moscow will “stand by the Sudanese people and its leadership… to overcome the current crisis.” Meanwhile, the US delegation headed by Gus M. Bilirakis of the Freedoms Bloc in Congress is speaking to Sudanese officials to decide whether or not to remove Sudan from the list of “state sponsors of terror”.

The news of a $300 million loan from a regional Arab fund and the UAE-based Arab Trade Financing programme will come as great relief to the government in Khartoum which is struggling with a balance of payments deficit. However, it will, in turn, raise expectations that strategic policies funded by the loan will bring results.

READ: Sudan’s Bashir to form new government to address local issues

On the opposition front, the political changes have done little to placate those calling for President Al-Bashir to step down. The deputy leader of the opposition Ummah Party, Dr Miriam Sadiq Al-Mahdi, was jailed for her participation in an unauthorised protest, while her father and head of the Ummah Party, former Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi, convened a meeting of the Sudan Call opposition group in Paris on Monday. The outlawed Sudan Professionals Association was invited to the meeting but declined, announcing later the formation of its foreign affairs committee to document government abuses and prepare a platform to gain international support.

Meanwhile, hundreds of protestors continue to defy the state of emergency by staging more street protests. So far, the response of the army and security forces has been muted but there are reports on social media with videos of raids on the homes of prominent protestors.

The next few weeks and months will be decisive in defining the pace of change in Sudan under Al-Bashir’s new administration. Opposition groups are now trying to diversify the protest movement’s strategies to generate energy for further demonstrations and political change. However, despite external support, the battle to improve the economic situation and ministerial reshuffles all continue to equate to no substantive changes in Sudan since the protests began exactly four months ago.

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