Amputation is No Cure for Cancer

South Sudan is gone. But the government in Khartoum still can't escape what ails Sudan.


A majority Muslim country in northern Africa is challenged by protests on the streets, a frustrated and disillusioned youth population, and a flagging economy. Rioters recently ransacked western embassies, leading the U.S. to withdraw many of its diplomats. But unlike some of its neighbors, Sudan has yet to experience its "Arab Spring" revolt. Whether that revolt is imminent is a matter of considerable debate.

Sudan was the scene of the Arab world’s first successful popular uprisings against unpopular regimes, in 1964 and 1985. Those successes loom large, but are just as much a cautionary tale for President Omar al-Bashir’s government as they are an inspiration for the opposition. The engines of those past revolts, professional organizations and trade unions, have been decimated during Bashir’s 23-year reign, and the political and armed opposition have yet to find a formula for seriously challenging the status quo.

Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) came to power through a military coup in 1989, touting an ambitious Islamist project. The civil war with then-southern Sudan had resumed in 1983 and the NCP doubled down on a military solution, with the war machine increasingly fueled by proceeds from oil exports that began in the late 1990s (the majority of the oil was located in southern Sudan but pumped by the north). But amidst a military stalemate and intense international pressure, in 2005 the Sudanese government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The CPA prescribed a daunting schedule of changes and reforms for Sudan, and gave southern Sudanese the option to secede, which they overwhelmingly chose to do through a referendum in January 2011. Unfortunately, through the course of its six-year implementation the CPA was boiled down to its bare elements, most notably the referendum on southern secession. What got left behind was an entire democratic transformation agenda, meaning that today’s rump state of Sudan is no more democratic than it was prior to the CPA.

Meanwhile, the NCP’s Islamist project has been reduced to a survival project. The government shows little ability to think beyond the current political, security and economic crises or present a compelling new vision for Sudan. International Criminal Court indictments loom over Bashir and a couple of his lieutenants, and he continues to shoulder the blame for allowing South Sudan to secede, taking with it much of Sudan’s oil. Severe internal divisions are increasingly apparent, with elements of Sudan’s Islamic movement openly questioning the government and criticizing its widespread corruption. But while Bashir is often treated as a pariah internationally, he may also be the element holding the regime together, as he continues to command some degree of respect from the party, the army, and the Islamic movement — the critical triumvirate at the center of power.

Violence in Sudan’s peripheral areas continues unabated. While the western region of Darfur is not the bloodbath it was during stretches of the previous decade, there has been a recent uptick in violence, with a peace agreement between the government and a single rebel group, pushed by Qatar and signed last year, yielding few results. Since South Sudan’s secession, the Sudanese states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, bordering the new country and home to groups that fought alongside southerners during the civil wars, have been engulfed by violence. In those states the Bashir government sought to neutralize the former northern component of the SPLM/A — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N), which split from the SPLM/A when South Sudan seceded — doing so with all-too-typical attacks on military and civilian targets alike and indiscriminate bombing. The SPLM/A-N retaliated (likely with the support of South Sudan), essentially creating a military stalemate that is frozen by the current monsoon rains, with fighting likely to intensify come the dry season starting in November. In the wake of this encounter, a horrific humanitarian situation has developed, with hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing to South Sudan and Ethiopia, where they are housed in squalid and under-resourced refugee camps, with many who stayed taking shelter in caves and in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

The constant flurry of diplomatic activity around Sudan has focused on trying to alleviate this suffering by convincing the government to allow humanitarian assistance into Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile (so far a fruitless endeavor) and finalizing a grand bargain between Sudan and South Sudan concerning the many issues left unresolved when South Sudan seceded. (On Wednesday, October 17, both countries agreed to restart oil exports which have been halted since January.) Both are laudable priorities, but neither gets to the heart of what ails Sudan: a basic failure of governance. The Bashir regime, and regimes that preceded it, have repeatedly failed to effectively govern what used to be Africa’s largest country (that Sudan no longer holds this distinction is a direct result of failed governance). Time and again, Sudanese leaders have failed to address the extreme concentration of wealth and resources in the center of the country (meaning Khartoum and its immediate environs) and marginalization of peripheral areas (basically everywhere else). They have failed to manage and embrace Sudan’s significant diversity. They have failed to function as representatives of all the Sudanese people, rather than oppressors of many of them. The millions of violent deaths in Sudan since its independence are a direct result of this governance failure. There is effectively no strategy for governing the periphery, so when violence erupts on the periphery the government seeks to suppress it with as little cost to the center as possible, which often entails violence (such as arming proxy militias).

This is not a new observation. The African Union Panel on Darfur, led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, wrote in its 2009 report about "Sudan’s crisis in Darfur", an acknowledgement that Darfur’s problems are not unique to Darfur, but the consequence of a governance failure emanating from Khartoum that afflicts all of Sudan.  Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations went largely unimplemented, as the diplomatic focus shifted toward the approaching referendum on southern secession and then to the Sudan-South Sudan negotiations.

With those negotiations moving toward conclusion, it is time to return to the issue of Sudan’s governance — whether under the current government or a new regime — with an intense and prolonged focus.  Of late, Sudan is too often viewed through the lens of its relations with South Sudan, not as a deeply troubled state unto itself in need of comprehensive reform.  Because of Sudan’s propensity for large-scale violence, often perpetrated by the government and its allied forces, diplomatic engagement with Sudan suffers from chronic short-termism, as efforts to end hostilities and find "quick wins" crowd out sustained, long-term strategies to promote genuine reform and address root causes of instability.

A central impediment to any push for governance reform is uncertainty about the opposition.  It roughly breaks down into two camps: The traditional political opposition, dominated by the Umma and Democratic Unionist parties, whose aging leaders show no sign of giving way to the next generation and lose legitimacy through their flirtations with the Bashir government; and the armed opposition, led by the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a shaky union between the SPLM/A-N and three Darfur-based rebel movements. A new opposition element are the young, educated and tech-savvy Sudanese (some based in the diaspora) who organized many of the street protests in June and July, which generated some momentum but were ultimately quelled by the regime.

These opposition elements struggle to address and agree on basic questions of how Sudan should be governed. They are quick to embrace western-friendly ideals — democracy, secularism, respect for human rights — but beyond that the conversation usually sputters. To their credit, the political opposition recently produced a Democratic Alternative Charter, and the SRF followed with a political platform document, both of which go into some greater detail on their plans, but are still filled with generalities. Opposition talking points inevitably gravitate toward how destructive the Bashir government is, rather that addressing in any detail their plans to right the ship.  They make the case that the current situation can’t get any worse — so why not try something new? — but the sad reality of Sudan’s history is that it can. The government, in turn, is expert at amplifying uncertainties about the opposition and positioning themselves as the guardians of stability.

Another impediment to meaningful reform is uncertainty surrounding the reform process itself — how to initiate it, the appropriate venue for the process, and how to ensure that agreements reached are implemented. Sudan currently operates on an Interim National Constitution, developed prior to South Sudan’s secession and in need of replacement, so one argument put forth is that the constitution-writing process should be the venue for an inclusive conversation about governing Sudan. Along similar lines, the opposition has suggested convening a national conference, perhaps modeled on similar conferences held in francophone Africa in the 1990s.  Both ideas have merit and deserve closer scrutiny and planning. As difficult as it will be to reach agreement on contentious questions of how Sudan should be governed, it will be equally difficult to ensure that the reform process is set-up to give it the greatest chance of success. The temptation will be to quickly jump into heated debates on central issues, without giving proper thought and attention to process design.

The international community can help by maintaining a long-term focus on governance in Sudan and the need for reform, in parallel to any ceasefire negotiations or humanitarian support. The Bashir government and the various opposition elements should be pressured to produce detailed positions on how they believe Sudan should be governed and how it can extract itself from the current quagmire. That pressure shouldn’t come only from the west, which has limited leverage with Khartoum, but from Qatar, Turkey and other influential countries with Islamic roots and close ties to the Bashir government. If the government isn’t willing to engage in a participatory, inclusive and transparent governance reform process and constitutional review, the conversations should proceed without them. Sudan’s re-emerging civil society should play a robust role. And the process should be allowed time to play out, with modest expectations initially. Until the basic questions of how to govern this unwieldy country are addressed, there’s little hope for sustainable progress. As some of the other Arab Spring countries grapple with how they want to govern themselves, Sudan should join the debate.

Jon Temin is the director of Africa programs at Freedom House. From 2014 to 2017 he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. Twitter: @JonTemin