When Sudan’s Ismail Azhari was sworn into office in 1954 as the nation’s first Prime Minister, he led his country into independence two years later while facing a series of key challenges. Before the end of 1956, he was removed from office having been incapable of reconciling political differences or resolving constitutional issues.
Today, as 2018 begins, Sudan faces similar obstacles to development and progress. If the country’s eighth head of state, President Omar Al-Bashir, can resolve those major issues over the next twelve months, and other insurmountable challenges do not occur, then Sudan could move into a period of economic prosperity and political stability. However, unless he is able to find viable short- and long-term solutions, the possibility remains that the country could deteriorate further, both economically and politically.
Back in 1956, there were three major issues facing the Azhari leadership; the first was Sudan’s relationship with Egypt, which brought disquiet and discomfort to much of the political elite in Khartoum. Azhari was a staunch advocate of Sudanese unity with Egypt, but he was forced to change his stance and support Sudan’s aspirations for independence, a move that weakened his leadership and his political credibility.
Today, Al-Bashir’s government faces 2018 while struggling to reconcile two major problems with Egypt: the ongoing Halayeb border dispute and the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Sudan and Egypt are locked in a battle over sovereignty of the Halayed Triangle and there is pressure from some quarters for Al-Bashir to “do more” than simply depositing memos at the UN objecting to the Egyptian position. Within some ranks of the armed forces, “more” translates into a willingness to go to war. Although Sudan has lent its support to the Dam project, it has resulted in a major diplomatic row over the effects it will have on Egypt’s supply of water from the River Nile; the region is threatened with turmoil over this matter.
Azhari also faced disputes within his own party about the framework of government. He preferred a prime ministerial style while others wanted a presidential system. The differences led to a breakaway by some members of the Khatmiyah sect unhappy about the direction that he took. Today, the prime ministerial issue has again taken centre stage. Under the National Dialogue process, participants from opposition groups insisted that the country should return to a system of prime ministerial rule. However, despite the appointment of Hassan Bakri Saleh – an erstwhile colleague and friend of the president – to the new position created by the constitution, and despite relinquishing 30 per cent of the legislative assembly and cabinet to the opposition, the President continues to hold the reins of power.
In 2018, the big question is whether President Al-Bashir should stand for a third term when the elections come along in two years’ time. There are already disagreements about this starting to appear in the ranks of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Islamic Movement. Al-Bashir still seems to enjoy a high approval rating, and various civil society organisations, large sections of the Islamic movement and religious groups have already backed his candidature.
Three senior figures in the Islamic Movement have played down reports of splits on this issue. Abdul Qadeer Mohammed Zain, Secretary of the Islamic Movement Khartoum State and the National Conference; Dr Hamdan Hamdan, Deputy Head of Statistics and Analysis Department of the Secretariat of Information and Support to the General National Conference; and Professor Mahmoud Abdeen, Advisor to the International Centre for African Studies and a member of the National Council have all told me that, “The NCP will have no candidate other than Al-Bashir despite the conflicts in the political arena over that question.” Indeed, they also said that the disagreements between the Islamic Movement and the National Congress are personal differences that do not amount to a power struggle. “It is not an ideological, doctrinal or systematic dispute,” they insisted, “and there is no one who wishes to derail the National Islamic Front supported by the military who carried out the Salvation Revolution.”
However, prominent figures such as Amin Hassan Omer, who is in charge of the Darfur peace process, have said publically that the President will not seek a third term. Others in the government, such as Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman, contradicted that view: “The constitution, unlike Qur’an, can be amended any time [to allow the President to stand again].”
When Azhari faced the “Southern” problem, his approach in resolving the differences voiced by the people of South Sudan under his rule has been described as “insensitive”. History records that he sought to control South Sudan through a combination of military and police engagement on the one hand and negotiations and tentative discussions on the other. The problem of North-South unity plagued successive post-independence governments, but was only partially resolved in 2011 when the South chose self-determination and separated from the North.
Today, President Al-Bashir needs to solve armed conflicts that are in large part a result of the unresolved questions of the North-South divide. Fighting in Darfur started in earnest just before the signing of the peace agreement, and conflicts in the Blue Nile, Abeyi and Nubia Mountain regions followed straight after. The government needs to find a way to bring the armed rebels back to the negotiating table. Al-Bashir has allowed the Popular Congress Party leader, Ali Al-Hajj, to launch a new peace initiative which seems to be producing results. One of the armed groups originally sponsored by Al-Hajj agreed last week to peace talks, but there still a long way to go to persuade secular groups to end hostilities.
It is on the economic front, though, that Sudan will see its biggest challenge in 2018. With the devaluation of its currency, the shortage of infrastructural investment and the high national debt ratio, the announcement of this year’s Draft Budget has already come in for sharp criticism. However, hope remains that the budget – which provides exemptions for imports of industrial products, has lifted a production tax for foods and aims to unify the price of foreign exchange – will kick-start the economy. The deployment of additional customs officers on the borders should help, as Khartoum aims to reduce the amount of smuggling.
Some commentators have expressed optimism that 2018 will see the lifting of the “sponsor of terrorism” designation, cooperation with international banks and an unprecedented level of foreign investment in Sudan. The truth is that the country’s economic success in 2018 may be the only way to avoid social unrest and political failure. This year could indeed make or break Sudan.