As the world welcomed a New Year, President Hassan Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was fighting to contain widespread protests across the country in which at least three dozen people are reported to have died.
At one point, President Bashir’s continued tenure came into serious doubt as professionals joined ordinary folk in a protest that was triggered by a threefold hike in the price of bread.
In a country that has been under the iron grip of Bashir’s National Congress Party for the better part of three decades, the protests that erupted on December 19 reflected pent-up anger at bureaucratic inertia amid worsening economic conditions.
President Bashir’s response has been typical, unleashing the police on the protestors and ordering the arrest of opposition leaders. Though he has called for police restraint, the president shows no signs of making any significant concessions. While it may buy him time, this approach is hardly productive since only national consensus can avert a major crisis.
Though seemingly spontaneous, the protests were not exactly unexpected. Strangled by US sanctions until just about a year ago, and the breakaway of the oil-rich South in 2011, the Sudanese economy has been teetering on the brink of collapse for several years.
Efforts at export diversification to fill the hole in revenues created by the loss of three-quarters of oil revenue after the South broke away in 2011, were undermined by sanctions.
A belligerent stance that culminated in a military confrontation with the South in 2012 not only wasted scarce resources but resulted in heavy economic losses for both sides. While oil production resumed after a truce, this provided little relief after international prices for crude began tumbling in 2015.
With the local unit sharply falling against major currencies, inflation rose inexorably and is currently running at 70 per cent. This is at the heart of shortages and rising consumer prices that forced the increase in the price of bread.
While opponents are likely to look at the current situation as a Bashir problem, he is only part of the problem and merely removing him from power will not change much.
What the country needs now is unity of purpose and a de-escalation of conflict in order to focus on the core governance issues that precipitated the current crisis.
A look at the southeast may be just what President Bashir needs for now. Not very long ago, Ethiopia was at risk of a major implosion. A rapid series of concessions that even saw a voluntary transfer of power, have set the country on a new course.
Addis has boosted internal cohesion and even mended fences with arch-rival Eritrea. The benefits for the economy are palpable, with the resumption of trade and air links between the two countries.
The commission of enquiry ordered by President Bashir is a good starting point but is not enough. It needs to be quickly followed up with an open and transparent national dialogue involving all stakeholders.
But that can only happen of Bashir takes the initiative by first of all releasing all political prisoners. Only then can Sudan dare hope for a new dawn.