The current upheavals in Khartoum are emblematic of the twin political and economic crisis facing Sudan’s transitional government. Hemmed in by a tight economy and an increasingly disgruntled public, the rulers in Khartoum are in a tight spot.
The two-year old transitional council made up of civilian and military figures, recently survived a coup attempt, reflecting both latent support for the transition to democratic transition, and the ever-present threat of a push back by Bashir loyalists who had the best from his patronage state. Paradoxically, even as they turned up to demonstrate against the coup attempt, angry citizens continued to picket Sudan’s cities, in protest against deteriorating personal circumstances.
That juxtaposition is not strange in itself. In Tunisia, disillusioned citizens miss the stability and predictability of the regime they helped oust in the Jasmine revolution of 2011. That experience and the subsequent turn of events in Libya, took the wind out of what is arguably one of the most destructive and least productive revolutions of modern times.
It is instructive. Democracy cannot be separated from the bread and butter issues that drive the instinct of the average man. Citizens might support a more liberal political status quo, but they also expect any change of guard to be accompanied by a tangible economic dividend.
This is the dialectic dock, in which Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdook finds himself right now. Hemmed in by and expectant public, the administration in Khartoum faces hard choices. Weighed down by Western sanctions for decades, Sudan’s emerging economy is at a crossroads. Growth remains modest while inflation is surging in triple digits. Mounting debt and deficit financing can only widen the fiscal deficit.
The reforms needed to bring the economy back to an even keel, come with unacceptable levels of collateral damage. Reversing the trend is going to require a tighter monetary policy, cutting subsidies and currency liberalisation. The transient shock from such measures can only make life harder for those living on the margins. How they react to the changes is anyone’s guess but more protests are possibly on the cards.
It is a delicate situation which can only be made worse by the anything that suggests a power vacuum. The military and their civilian partners need to find unity of purpose and communicate a united front to the public.
That development community by now has enough examples to show that the shock treatment imposed on distressed economies in the 80s and 90s came with an unacceptable social price. Sudan’s revolution will only be saved if multilateral lenders learn from history and avoid actions in Sudan, which will probably only trigger more social unrest and derail the transition to democracy.
Sudan needs more empathy than punitive reforms to nurture its democratic transition and its removal from the list if state sponsors of terrorism is a positive first step. But it will need more than that. The country should be used as the pilot for new template that blends the best of the past and the promise of the future. A patient intervention of reforms that allow the private sector to gradually allowed to take the place of the state with minimal disruption to the lives of ordinary folk is Khartoum’s best shot for now. But they cannot pull it off without buy in from the global west.