On November 22nd, 2012, a foiled coup orchestrated by former military and security services officials took place in Khartoum. A few days later a faction within the regime declared publicly that those arrested should be respectfully treated, and not be subject to mistreatment. A question arises: was this public declaration made in order to avoid sparking more animosities among the opposition? Or does it mean that the coup plotters have some significant support from within the government and the regime? The arrests of former military commanders and also former officials of the Sudanese security services mean that the second option is more likely.
This event also shows how volatile the situation became after the South’s secession, something which triggered anger among Islamists, the military and the regime in itself. In fact, opposing voices within these groups spoke loudly against the partition of the Christian and animist south, fearing its economic consequences, namely the steep decrease in oil revenues, and the decline of Arab rule and influence over an important and large part of the territory.
If one wants to understand why there was a coup attempt, it is necessary to go all the way back to Sudanese independence in 1956. From then on, until 2011, the majority Muslim North dominated the whole country, including the majority Christian and animist South. Such political, economic and social domination triggered a rebellion in the South and in non-Arab regions, tensions and conflicts that have endured up to these days.
In order to tackle such conflicts, an international agreement was put in place, know as the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972. The agreement aimed at integrating the South, where the main focus of the rebellion was, in the national system by providing wider degree of autonomy and incorporating the rebels in the National Army ranks. Furthermore, the Constitution that followed established a secular Sudanese State. Hopes for a definitive peaceful settlement were larger than ever, despite the fact that there was still mistrust from the South, justified by the previous failures by the government in complying with its promises, and also by some grievances which were not duly assessed, such as the continuing control by the central government over economic planning in the south; the construction of an oil refinery in the North and not in the South; and the persistent interference by Khartoum in Southern politics.
There was much opposition to the agreement within the regime and influential organizations surrounding it.. Therefore, Sudan’s President at the time, Jaafar Numeiri, realized that he needed to broaden its base of support, resulting in two prominent politicians joining government ranks: Sadiq al-Mahdi, Umma National Party (UNP) leader, and his brother-in-law, Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan and founder of the National Islamic Front (NIF), a militant Islamic party. Al-Turabi was appointed attorney-general and started pressuring for the nation-wide Islamization of the legal system.
As the relationship between Numeiri and the Islamists grew stronger, in 1983 an “Islamic Revolution” was declared. Laws enacted in conformity with the 1972 Peace Agreement were repealed and Sharia Islamic Law promulgated. Moreover, the Southern Regional Government – an outcome of the 1972 Agreement – was dissolved and the territory separated, most likely aimed at controlling the disputed oil-rich territories, most of them located in the South.
Economic and geo-political events caused Numeiri’s power to decline. The country was going through a social and economic crisis, and his allied stance towards the United States became even more fragile due to his relationship with the Islamic factions. Considering U.S favour as essential for his survival, Numeiri began disengaging from the Islamists, a move which, coupled with the difficult economic and social situation, cost him his rule in a military coup taken place in April 1985.
In the 1986 elections, Sadiq al-Mahdi became prime-minister under the UNP, a Sufi Muslim party with its origins dating back to the nineteenth century. The new government continued implementing the Islamic State, though it also began pursuing moderate policies, granting citizenship, human and religious rights to non-Muslims. Some liberal institutions, such as a functioning parliament, a certain degree of free-press and an independent judiciary, were established. However, the war in the South was still raging, and the South’s refusal to participate further worsened the situation.
As the war went on, and the South’s Sudan’s People Liberation Army grew in strength and numbers, Sadiq realized that confrontation was not the solution. Therefore, talks were initiated and the implementation of Islamic Law frozen. In spite of pleasing the South, the Islamist factions were not happy with the concessions, leading to further divisions in the regime and security forces. Ultimately, on June 30th, 1989, a group of militant officers supported by al-Turabi’s NIF orchestrated a coup and arrested al-Mahdi. As a consequence, negotiations with the Southern rebels broke up and reforms introduced by Sadiq were removed. General Omar Hassan al-Bashir was then nominated President of Sudan.
Bashir retook the path to establish an Islamic State in a more radical manner, under his mentor Hassan al-Turabi. The constitution was suspended and political power concentrated in the new Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), while the new head of state was given unlimited powers. Islam became then a method of repression, as Islamic rule was being implemented and Arabic language imposed on education across the country. One other move by Bashir, which aimed at defending his regime, was the creation of the People’s Defence Force, used to suppress civilian demonstrations in northern towns and to be part of the war effort against rebel forces.
Bashir, under the auspices of al-Turabi, was paving the way for Sudan to become the staging ground and centre for a worldwide Islamic revolution. In fact, one of Turabi’s first diplomatic initiatives was to forge an alliance with Iran, which had recently become the recipient of the first Islamic Revolution in modern times. From then on Iran became the mains weapons supplier to the Sudanese army, and in exchange Iran would be free to use Sudan as a platform to spread and promote Islamist revolutions in Africa. Thus, as it was al-Turabi’s will, Sudan was on the path to become the successor of the ancient Islam Caliphate, ruled by Sharia as its legal code and the Quran as the only source of truth.
The early 1990’s were when Sudan put in practice its ambitions of being an Islamic revolutionary platform. Islamic militants poured into Sudan, including Osama Bin Laden, who for long had been searching for a place where he would be welcomed after being expelled from Saudi Arabia. Henceforth, Osama bin Laden used his family fortunes to build, among other things, training camps in Sudan and to recruit militants across the Muslim world. With no surprise, Sudan became a rogue-state – a terrorism sponsor one – actively supporting Islamic movements across the Maghreb. Such development culminated firstly in an attempt to assassinate Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, in 1995, and in the August 1998 bombing attacks on American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
As a consequence, Sudan became increasingly isolated in the International System, most importantly from the Arab countries. On the other hand, United States answer to attacks was by militarily targeting strategic sites in Sudan. Apart from military intervention, the U.S imposed sanctions on Sudan, prohibiting American companies of exploring, producing and purchasing Sudanese oil. Oil had become a major source of revenue for Bashir’s regime, thus the western boycott to its oil industry, coupled with southern rebels attacks in the oil-rich areas, created a dilemma within Bashir’s ranks: keep the allegiance to al-Turabi and his dream of restoring the ancient Islamic Caliphate, or breaking-up with him and favour Sudanese integration in the international system. Bashir chose to engage positively with the international system, and in order to deepen such integration the regime began talks with the southern rebels, even though, in the end, it proved to be unsuccessful.
In what concerns to the oil factor, by 2001 oil-related revenues contributed to more than 40 per cent of the government’s total revenue. In fact, Sudan achieved the first trade surplus in over a decade. Nevertheless, those positive statistics were not reflected in the Sudanese periphery development. Those same revenues were mostly applied to Khartoum’s development and to the regime’s patronage system, creating thousands of new jobs, at a national and provincial level, for the most important factions in the country – Islamists, military and local leaders. Such a move provided Bashir with greater control over the economy and politics. It is also worth noting that half of the oil revenue was allocated to the modernization of the military – in 2003 the regime spent around one million dollars a day in financing the civil war (the military budget absorbed sixty per cent of oil revenue in that same year).
The draining of resources into the military campaign, the need to improve Sudanese image in the international system and to see sanctions removed, might have been the major factors in reinstating official conversations between the two warring sides – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was a result of such talks -, which ultimately gave the South a wider degree of political and economic autonomy.
However, as has been usual in Sudan, grievances and disagreements were still present. One of the major unresolved issues was the Abyiei region. Located in the border separating the North from the South, this is a region ravaged by competing tribal claims. In the 1980’s, Ethnic Ngok-Dinka Africans, mostly Christian and animist, were driven out of their farmlands by Misiriyya Arabs – cattle grazing Arabs – recruited by Sadiq al-Mahdi, and claimed the area as their traditional region.
Notwithstanding, it is worth taking in consideration that Abyei is important for the North not as much as a question of defending the Arab nomads, but a question of oil reserves. In fact, the area in dispute is where the majority of oil within Northern territory is located. To guarantee the greatest portion possible of the territory was vital for Khartoum, since its oil revenues had been depleted as a result of South’s autonomy within the CPA framework – in fact, between 2005 and 2010 the Government of Sudan transferred seven billion Dollars in oil revenues to the Southern Government.
To make things even more complicated, a CPA provision recognized the area as traditionally belonging to the Dinka ethnic group, while at the same time recognizing the Misiriyya Arabs’ grazing rights over the territory. Moreover, the CPA includes provisions that would grant the region with a referendum simultaneously with the one in the South, and defines a post-referendum governance and oil-revenues settlements regardless of whether the outcome of the referendum goes North or South. In sum, the absence of a concrete agreement over the territory has only spurred disagreements and worsened tensions, causing the stipulated referendum to be constantly delayed up to these days, along with clashes of interests between the two sides.
November 22nd, 2012
The January 2011 referendum had the expected outcome – 99 per cent of the voters decided for the South’s independence, taking effect on July 9th, 2011. This event turned out to have positive and negative effects for Sudan and Bashir’s regime. On the positive side, the U.S. Administration praised Bashir for his cooperation and declared the U.S intention to re-establish normal diplomatic relations with the regime – possibly revoking the economic sanctions –, something which would, nevertheless, be difficult considering the human rights violations and conflicts across Khartoum’s periphery.
Similar to what happened with Numeiri when shifting his stance towards Islamist ambitions, opposing factions to the peace talks, publicly condemned the regime during negotiations and its aftermath. Those factions, namely the Islamist one, opposed the loss of sovereignty over a large portion of the territory and the resulting loss of 80 per cent of the country’s national resources – 70 per cent of the oil reserves. Coupled with the growing opposition, an expected economic crisis followed, which was also aggravated by the widespread corruption and diverted funds to off-shore accounts by members of the regime and power-houses. In fact, by the time of South’s independence, Khartoum’s national debt reached 92 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP).
Despite having lost the major source of state revenue, Sudan is still dependent on oil-related activities, i.e., transportation of South Sudanese oil trough Sudanese pipelines all the way to the North-east, Port Sudan, where it is shipped onto international markets. However, since South’s independence there has been successive disagreements between the two sides concerning transportation fees, culminating in the total shut down of oil transfers by the South. Due to the inevitable political and economic crisis created by such event in the both countries, this issue was recently settled and it is expected that oil will start flowing once again this month (February, 2013).
The November 22nd, 2012, foiled coup spurred fears that Bashir would fall. Despite the failure, the economic and social conditions in the country tell us that, unless conditions improve, more coup attempts will be expected to take place. Since it will be hard for the regime to do so in the short-term, there is a need to gather support among the several opposing factions, and one way to do it is to guarantee Khartoum’s overarching Arab rule over its interests across the country – namely in Darfur, eastern Sudan, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. In case Bashir decides to enter official conversations with the rebels, it is likely that a mass opposition movement, namely by hard-liners – Islamists and military -, will gather and turn out to be fatal for the regime. In sum, to ‘give up’ on territories such as the oil-rich Abyei and on Darfur, where the existence of large amounts of several natural resources – as gold, diamonds, uranium, copper, good quality arable land and underground water sources – would be a political suicide for the regime.
Notwithstanding, a significant share of the regime’s support is becoming disgruntled with the military campaigns in Khartoum’s periphery. The long enduring war fronts have not been able to squash the rebellions, at the same time depleting resources. Adding to this, the regime’s reliance in paid-for militias in the various fronts, and on the patronage system which guarantees a significant share of the regime’s support, is contributing for the increasing burdening of the economic and financial disastrous situation. The regime is severely factionalized and the patronage system is showing signs that it is becoming harder to sustain, thus volatile allies are feeling disillusioned with Bashir’s regime. Having said this, it is not a surprise that the November 22nd coup had such an important basis of support, such as former members of the military and secret service, and also the highly likely massive support from within the regime.
Sudan’s economic and social problems – unsustainable debt, inflation estimated at a rate of 65 per cent (increasing the price of basic goods), and poor agricultural development (as an example, 100 per cent of wheat consumption is imported) – are so overwhelming that there might be only one solution for the regime’s survival: to align with other regional powers, such as the Gulf countries and Iran. In 2008, Sudan and Iran signed a military cooperation agreement, which established a network of imports of Sudanese-made weaponry, and also the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Darfur. Geo-political developments resulted in the October 24th, 2012, Israeli Air-Force strike at a munitions factory in southern Khartoum. Israeli intelligence indicated that such weapons were being supplied to Hezbollah and Hamas. This attack seriously upset the two pillars that keep the regime afloat – the military and the Islamists – , severely damaging their fragile confidence and loyalty to the regime.
Moreover, the severed Sudanese relations with the Sunni Arab States, from which it depended financially, damaged the economy even further. Also, the growing pariah status that Sudan acquired in the international system, by aligning with Islamic terrorism and with the Iranian regime, coupled with a disastrous economic and social situation, and conflicts in several fronts, depicts a doom and gloom prospect for the regime. Moreover, in 2009, President al-Bashir became the first sitting head-of-state issued with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of war crimes in Darfur.
One other issue which is undermining Bashir’s power is the opposition to his plans of implementing a new constitution – which is being drafted at the moment – that consolidates Sudan as an Islamist State. The secular faction is still very influential in Sudanese affairs, and will not be easy to dissuade secular groups from demonstrating their grievances in a more public and straightforward manner. However, the new Sudanese reality – religious homogeneity – originated with the South’s partition, is to play a decisive role. The call for an Islamic state is gaining momentum among growing Islamist factions and organized political movements. Moreover, the growth in numbers of Islamist parties across the region – from the Middle East to Algeria – which followed the Arab Spring, inputs a logic of alignment with such ideology. In other words, to establish an Islamic State according to Sharia Law tenets has the ability to silence critics in the country and to make powerful allies across the region, thus eliminating, at a certain extent, the regional isolation felt before the revolutions in Arab countries.
Nevertheless, the issue which probably is the greatest threat to Bashir’s hold on power is his health. Since August 2012, Bashir underwent two surgeries in his throat in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. His absence was noted and meant to many that his hold on power was weakening. In fact, according to participants in the coup, such health conditions were a decisive motivational factor for it to take place. Is Bashir’s fall inevitable? If so, who could replace him?
What next for the regime?
As already referred, the Armed Forces have been a major target of investment since the 1950’s and, across the 50 plus years of Sudanese independence from the British, it has always held an important position within the regime’s ranks. Moreover, the November 22nd coup was led by former military and secret service officers. Therefore, it is highly probable that, if there is to be a successful coup, the military will once again control the regime. The question is if whether the new power-holder will follow Bashir’s path, or if it will reform the regime and open it to the international system.
On the other hand, if the regime manages to survive until the 2015 elections, Bashir might step down and give his place to Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, First Vice President and Deputy Chairman of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Apart from his government role, Taha is also Secretary General of the Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM), a political base created in 1999, following the regime break-up with Turabi. SIM’s main objective is to support the Islamist orientation of the regime, at the same time rallying Sufi – which comprises most of the Sudanese population – and radical Islamist groups around the regime.
Taha is a controversial individual. He was widely praised as one of the main architects of the comprehensive peace agreement, while at the same time being the Maestro leading the operations in Darfur and supporting the brutal Arab Janjaweed militias.
It is worth noting that Ali Osman Taha´s term as Secretary General expired in November last year after completing two terms in office. The relevance of this seemingly unimportant event is the existence of rumours that, within the NCP, talks are indicating Taha as a possible candidate for the 2015 elections. Such move would indeed make sense, since Taha had been by Bashir´s side during the troubled times that preceded and followed the CPA agreement, giving him a clear idea of where things stand in terms of government affairs; he is also more likely to maintain the patronage system alive, thus safeguarding some important support strongholds; and, in the same way as important, has the support of the Islamist factions around the regime.
However, this does not mean that Ali Osman Taha will enjoy a peaceful and easy transition into power. One should not forget that Taha was never a military officer, contrary to Bashir. In fact, along his career Taha was a lawyer, a judge, an Islamist, and finally a politician. In sum, if Taha rises to power, will the military be able to maintain the power and influence it had under Bashir? Highly unlikely. Logically, it would be a political suicide to create animosities between the regime´s leadership and the military. Taha would probably maintain some of the privileges that the military enjoyed, but not at the extent which Bashir did. Therefore, would the Armed Forces be willing to support, or to be complacent, about Taha´s rise to power?
The answer to this question lies on two individuals: Bakri Hassan Salih, the Minister of Presidential Affairs, and Abd al-Rahim Mohamed Hussein, Minister of Defence and purportedly a trusted friend of Bashir. These two individuals control the Armed Forces and without their support the military campaigns against the rebels might suffer severe setbacks, namely in North Darfur where its governor Osman Mohamed Yusuf Kibir has been having a tense relationship with the Islamic Movement. All in all, tensions between North Darfur’s Governor and a probable NCP/SIM coalition in power might create a stand-off in an area where the military campaign is of great importance for Khartoum. Thus, it proves how fundamental would be for Taha to be backed by those two individuals who have the power to mobilize the armed forces. It will all depend on what kind of terms will Taha offer them.
In what concerns to the opposition, on January 5th the two main groups – the Sudan Revolutionary Front, comprised of the major armed opposition groups, led by a SPLM proxy, and the National Consensus Forces, made of opposition political parties – met in Kampala, Uganda, and agreed on a charter (New Dawn Charter) to topple the regime. However, disagreements regarding whether it should be a violent or non-violent campaign, along with distrust between the various parties, created a stand-off.
In order to have a sense of the difficulties through which a possible agreement has to go through in order to be signed, one has to bear in mind that the two major opposition parties present in the meeting were respectively led by al-Turabi and al-Mahdi, two figures which clashed when of the coup that toppled al-Mahdi and gave al-Turabi a crucial role in Bashir’s regime. Moreover, there are rumours that al-Mahdi has made a secret agreement with the government by which he would oppose a regime change. In fact, one issue that strengthens the veracity of this argument is the fact that al-Madhi’s son has been nominated presidential assistant to Bashir. Furthermore, al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP) defends the creation of an Islamic State in a Post-Bashir regime change, something which opposes al-Mahdi’s Umma National Party (UNP) goal of including the NCP and rebel groups within a new government, thus contemplating a regime continuation, along possibly more moderate lines (when comparing with al-Turabi’s ideas).
Taking in consideration that these two movements are probably the only ones who can mobilize significant support against Bashir’s regime, and also their mutual distrust and seemingly opposing goals, it can be concluded that it will be difficult for the opposition to have a crucial say in the near Sudanese future.