Saturday 28 September 2013

President Bashir’s final war

Sudan's ministry of interior acknowledged on 26 September the death of twenty nine people in the wave of demonstrations gripping the capital Khartoum. Medical sources put the death toll since the outbreak of protests on Monday in Wad Medani, the capital of Gezira state in central Sudan, at one hundred and eleven. By Friday 27 September, another forty had been added to the tally. In preparation for the lift of fuel subsidies, enforced at the beginning of the week, the finance minister met with senior opposition politicians, president Bashir rallied support for the measure within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and briefed senior officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on the issue while the police said it was ready to counter any potential protests. President Bashir held a press conference on Sunday 22 September where he delivered the government’s arguments for the economic measures. The event was aired live. The president attempted to persuade but convinced only his own; evidence has been stacking against him for too long, and no words could cushion the blow the government was determined to deliver to fragile livelihoods. As the president spoke, the security authorities pre-empted the day after with a charge of arrests targeting the usual suspects. Senior functionaries of the Communist Party, almost all members of a committee formed by the opposition National Consensus Forces (NCF) to mobilise against the lift of subsidies and a number of prominent younger activists were rounded up before the break of dawn. 
In his press conference, president Bashir said society was divided into a rich minority with extravagant consumption habits and the majority struggling to make a living. By the official measure even the undersecretary of a ministry would count as poor, he said jokingly. In Wad Medani, protests had already broken out by then. Experience had primed the security authorities to expect trouble from university campuses, and police contingents were deployed to keep the students at bay. The government judged the mainstream opposition organisationally incapable of investing in the popular discontent and thought the nightly raid sufficient to stifle the initiative of newer associations of activists styled after Egyptian models. The security apparatus was unprepared however for the eventuality that Bashir spelled out but could not comprehend: class riots. True to the presidential proclamation, the spread of demonstrations in Khartoum since Monday maps materially to the class divide, the geography of impoverishment that encircles the capital. Omdurman’s Um Badda, al-Samrab in Khartoum North and al-Kalakla in Khartoum, to name examples from the three towns that make up the Sudanese capital, flared up in a show of anger that is by all measures the greatest urban challenge to the regime since its inception. In the same press conference, president Bashir, now in silent mode, revealed that sixty percent of the country’s police force had deserted the service because of law wages. 
No political organisation in the country can claim authorship of the demonstrations, whether the mainstream opposition or the newer protest movements with a youth tag. The leadership expected of the political class was restricted to surprise, the routine condemnation of state violence, and calls for refrain from ‘sabotage’, the accusation grabbed by the government to demonise the protesters. In Omdurman’s Um Badda, an angry crowd set ablaze the headquarters of the ruling NCP, a multi-storey building with air-conditioners sticking out of its walls, and looted its furniture. Gas stations around the capital were set on fire as were Mr al-Khidir’s green buses, over-priced public transport vehicles owned by Khartoum state and identified with its governor, Abd al-Rahman al-Khidir. Activists said thugs employed by the security authorities were to blame for the mayhem as part of plot to criminalise the protestors. The government’s misinformation campaign did not step here. The information minister accused operatives of the rebel Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) of involvement as did the governor of Gezira state who claimed the demonstrators were foreign to Wad Medani and had smuggled into the state capital in the dark of night. To explain the killing of protestors by gunfire in the town, the governor offered a scene out of a Western. The doors of a white car passing by flung open and unidentified gunmen opened fire killing a twenty three year old man, he stated, promising an investigation into the incident. To the governor’s credit, he told the truth. Only, he missed to mention that the gunmen were operatives of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) acting with absolute impunity. Looking for answers to its crisis the government had only the shock and awe tactics of counter-insurgency to draw on, it’s primary expertise. Unmarked white cars manned by death squads raced by protestors wherever they amassed in Khartoum’s rebellious neighbourhoods leaving a trail of blood behind. The minister of interior said in a statement on Friday that six hundred people had been arrested over the five days before. Meanwhile, a game of numbers kicked off. Government officials admitted the death of tens, including policemen, and opposition sources said the death toll was already in the hundreds. For families and friends, the number equals infinity.
The same neighbourhoods had before delivered young men and women to the service of the “project”, as Sudan’s Islamists refer to their long season in power, to be sacrificed in Sudan’s unrelenting peripheral wars. Today, the altar is set at the doorstep as it were. President Bashir, tucked away in the safety of his harem, probably thinks this a passing storm that he will survive as he did many a challenge. The paradox is, as he bleeds Um Badda and al-Kalakla he is cutting off his own life support.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Sudan: presidential hot dogs and ministerial pizzas

After almost two years of agonizing budgetary worries Sudan’s finance minister, Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasoul, pushed forward a plan to abolish government subsidies on fuels (including cooking gas) and wheat, a decision that the government failed to implement back in 2012 and is now apparently determined to enforce whatever it takes. The National Congress Party (NCP) bloc in parliament, effectively the entire house, voted down the scrapping of fuel subsidies in the 2012 budget draft but then agreed to a package of austerity measures, termed the three years rescue plan, including a gradual reduction of subsidies in June 2012 following on South Sudan’s decision to suspend oil production in January. The plan is copied letter and comma from recommendations regularly repeated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since the independence of South Sudan in 2011. In its 2012 Article IV report on Sudan, the Fund estimated the cost of subsidies to be a total of 1.24 billion US dollars in 2013. The IMF made the argument that it is not the poor who benefit from fuel subsidies but rather the affluent Sudanese who have cars and consume more fuel, a proposition that President Bashir has been drumming with little if any original contribution from his side. Emboldened by the expert opinion of khawaja finance gurus, the President and his aides vigorously advocated for the indispensability of the ‘economic reforms’ in the face of considerable resistance within the party, the rejection of opposition forces and public displeasure. Unlike in June 2012 when he preferred to watch over the debate President Bashir has taken it upon himself this time to lead the charge. 
The government’s keenness to implement the IMF’s recommendations seems partially related to its bid to secure the relief of Sudan’s burgeoning foreign debt; the 2012 calculation was 41.5 billion US dollars in nominal terms of which eighty four percent was in arrears. In its 2012 report the IMF declared Sudan potentially eligible for relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) noting that the country has progressed well towards the target of satisfying the conditions of the initiative. The related fragment of the report is worth quoting in full: “The government has taken three important steps: (i) it has reconciled over 90 percent of the end-2010 external debt stock in collaboration with creditors; (ii) Parliament has approved an ambitious interim-PRSP [Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper] in June 2012; and (iii) Sudan has implemented 13 Staff-Monitored Programs (SMPs) with the Fund since 1997, establishing a sound track record of cooperation on economic policies and payments. Furthermore, Sudan has indicated its desire to continue demonstrating a strong commitment to cooperation with the Fund on policies and the payment of arrears, also formally in the framework of a new SMP (for which negotiations could start later this year). Meanwhile, the government is collaborating with the World Bank on an Interim Strategy Note, which would determine the development objectives for the next two years.” Nada al-Galaa, one of Sudan’s star singers, was forced a few years ago to defend her reputation in lyrics after a video recording of a performance she held ‘bare-headed’ to entertain a Nigerian businessman identified as Mr al-Shareef and his guests in a hotel found its way to the internet. Nada sang “al-Sharif is pleased with me because I love my art” to mock her detractors. “The Lexus was a present and not the reward for a personal relationship,” she explained in the next line. Replace Mr al-Shareef with Messrs IMF and you have the government’s policy rationale, the detractors being the people under its rule. Whether the IMF will reward the Sudanese government with the Lexus it expects remains an open question. The government’s hopes in that regard have been repeatedly dashed, partially because of its failed relationship with its own people. President Bashir’s long reign, since 1989, has not witnessed a single day of peace throughout the country, before the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and thereafter. In his mind, this predicament is the product of a foreign conspiracy that unfolds to no end, tireless and timeless. 
Apart from the NCP’s leadership council, which hastily approved the decision to lift subsidies in a late night meeting chaired by President Bashir on 12 September, no political formation in the country sounded its support for the measure first hand. The National Umma Party (NUP), the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the Communist Party declared their rejection of the government plan and vowed to mobilize popular protest against it. Even the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the NCP’s partner in the cabinet, voiced a similar opinion. The Just Peace Forum (JPF) issued a statement announcing its opposition to the economic measures and the party’s chairman al-Tayeb Mustafa wrote in al-Intibaha ridiculing the National Assembly for failing to challenge the government on the issue. Arguments for and against the measure were traded between officials of the NCP, the first claiming that subsidies do not benefit the poor anyway and were undermined by cross-border smuggling of fuel for sale in neighbouring countries, and the second stressing the possibility of a popular backlash. Prominent imams in Khartoum, including the imam of the city’s grand mosque, Kamal Rizig, criticized the government’s anticipated measures in their sermons on 13 September. Rizig told worshippers the way forward was to reduce government expenditure rather than burden the people with further increases in prices. In response, the security authorities ordered press silence on the subject and dissenters were punished with confiscation. On a single day, 19 September, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) seized all copies of three newspapers, the left leaning al-Ayaam, al-Jareeda and Tayeb Mustafa’s al-Intibaha. In parallel, the finance minister and the governor of the Bank of Sudan were instructed to exercise their persuasion muscles with leaders of the opposition. The two gentlemen held a meeting with Hassan al-Turabi, and knocked the doors of the Communist Party. The patrons of the DUP and NUP, Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani and Sadiq al-Mahdi, received separate visits from President Bashir himself, each at his domicile. It was to his effective constituency that President Bashir paid greatest attention. The President took his economy team to meet senior officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and conferences of the NCP’s students’ and women sectors were hurriedly organized for the President to speak. Worn out by their own campaign the NCP bigwigs started to fret as it were. The Minister of Finance said the Sudanese were spoiled by years of luxury and now refuse to accept the necessity of austerity. “The houses were ugly” and “people only heard of pizzas while today pizza shops are everywhere…there were only old pickups in the country and now there are cars of all models,” he stated on 18 September to reporters prohibited from splashing out his pronouncements the day after. President Bashir won the cup in that regard. Caught up in a rant, the President challenged anybody who knew what a hot dog was before his rule to come forward. In the same speech to the NCP’s student sector on 19 September he declared that sixty percent of the police force had deserted the service over the past two years because of low wages, hot dogs notwithstanding. 
The crowning event of the NCP’s campaign was a presidential press conference on the evening of 22 September aired live. Beside the President sat the information minister, Ahmed Bilal Osman, a migrant from the DUP. To kick off the event the chairman of the Islamic Movement’s Shura Council, a four hundred members central committee, and head of the NCP’s parliamentary caucus, Mahdi Ibrahim, recited convenient verses of the Quran, ones reminding the believers of the alternation of plenty and scarcity and promising those who hold strong to their faith when challenged by persecution generous reward. The President delivered a macro-economic argument for the lift of subsidies, stressing the ills of the economy - excess consumption over production, imports over exports and government expenditure over income, crying all the while over the loss of oil with the secession of South Sudan, and concluded with the oft reiterated proposition that fuel subsidies benefit high consumers rather than the deserving poor. Instead, he declared, revenues spared through the scrapping of subsidies will be channelled to raise wages in the government sector and boost production. The President spoke the language of an incumbent with one term behind him attempting to clear his mixed record for a second try. His memory I suppose registers the twenty four years since he assumed power in 1989 as just that. Whatever he says however is hollowed out by the hard spade of practice. The revenues the government had commanded in the years of oil plenty were squandered in a manner that entrenched the imbalances he spoke of rather than correcting them producing a government sector hypertrophied out of all proportion by co-optation and nepotism, an immense gap between a wealthy minority and a majority of nas who can only afford their envy, and a rural economy that has imploded to yield an ever expanding resources conflict. The short version is: President Bashir and his ever recycled government cannot be trusted with money. A witty Omdurmani granny told me, if he is not ready to subsidise our cooking gas we are not ready to subsidise his hot dog, let alone his minister’s pizza. 

Sunday 8 September 2013

Bashir and Kiir: brothers into twins

Khartoum received President Kiir of South Sudan with great relief. Even Tayeb Mustafa’s al-Intibaha offered the important visitor a welcome note, but made sure its readers received a florid interpretation of President Kiir’s salutary bow before the Sudanese flag in Khartoum airport. The more imaginative said a few tears came down his bearded cheek. President Bashir dropped his threat to block South Sudan’s oil exports through Sudan and President Kiir promised to halt all support to rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N) and their allies in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) including sealing the border to the movement of insurgents. The two presidents effectively avoided discussion of the dispute over Abyei, weary of the Abyei constituencies in their orbit. President Kiir said his government backs the African Union (AU) proposal to hold the Abyei referendum next October while President Bashir affirmed that establishment of the agreed on civilian institutions in Abyei must precede the referendum. The routine positions drew criticism from leaders of both the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya. That said, the two presidents appeared ready to freeze the situation in Abyei as long as the terms of their tenuous trade-off, continued flow of South Sudan oil in return for South Sudan’s commitment to suppress the activities of the SPLA/M-N along the border, were adhered to. 
The current thaw of relations between Sudan and South Sudan is also partially a result of the altered domestic political environment in both countries. President Kiir suspended the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Secretary General and chief negotiator with Sudan, Pagan Amum, arguably the SPLA/M-N’s greatest friend in South Sudan, and put him under investigation, and dismissed his minister Deng Alor, the prominent Ngok Dinka politician, on allegations of corruption. In Sudan, appetite for confrontation with South Sudan has become hard to sustain, even with the continued propaganda of al-Intibaha, considering the economic hardships facing the country as a consequence of the loss of oil revenues, and the resistance of business to the government ban on the lucrative cross-border trade with South Sudan. At a grander scale, a delegation of Sudanese businessmen joining the tycoons Usama Dawood Abdul Latif and Jamal al-Wali recently visited Juba to meet President Kiir, and the sidelines of the summit witnessed the signing of a cooperation protocol between Sudan’s employers’ union and the commerce and labor chamber in South Sudan. The two announced the formation of a joint council and plans for a joint investment bank. 
Whether the current improvements in relations between the two Sudans will continue is contingent primarily on the domestic situation in the two countries, namely President Kiir’s ability to centralize power and guard it, and President Bashir’s ability to quell opposition to his continued rule from outside the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and dissent within it without the need for the shield of a foreign belligerent. The President held a meeting with the National Umma Party (NUP) chief Sadiq al-Mahdi as part of a public relations campaign to popularize the proposal of a national reconciliation, and the press continued to speculate about possible candidates for the new cabinet, from the opposition parties and also the ‘reform’ protagonists in the NCP, including the former National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) boss Salah Gosh. 
Reflecting the changing winds from Juba, the SPLA/M-N declared a month long unilateral ceasefire in solidarity with the victims of the recent heavy rains and floods in the country. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) dismissed the declaration as a political gesture addressed to the international community but individual lawmakers in Khartoum welcomed it. Significantly, the government and the SPLA/M-N announced their readiness to allow the stalled polio vaccination campaign in rebel-held areas in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile to proceed in October. Details of the temporary ceasefire and the delivery of the vaccines are yet to be agreed upon. The government of South Kordofan offered opposition parties half the positions in the new state cabinet, and declared willingness to re-employs members of the SPLA/M-N dismissed from government service on outbreak of the insurgency in 2011. Judging by the precedent of its dealings with Chad in containing the operations of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Darfur, Khartoum will probably be inclined to intensify its military campaign against the SPLA/M-N while seeking political accommodation with leaders of the Nuba in South Kordofan, a strategy it has been actively. The As the SPLA/M-N’s Yasir Arman spoke of truce, the National Assembly in Khartoum urged leaders of the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) to scale up their recruitment efforts to assist the SAF ahead of the new fighting season. NCP politicians said one other season and it’s all over. Well, President Bashir said the same in 2004 as the war in Darfur was just warming up; the officially dated mayhem in Darfur turned ten this year. Khartoum’s calculations are clear to read, but it is the response of the SPLA/M-N to the shifting coordinates around it that will determine the future course of the conflict that now threatens to ‘Darfurise’ the New Sudan. 
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.