Sudan’s problems are bigger than Omar al-Bashir

While Syria’s civil war rolls on with another (presumably doomed) Annan peace planSudan has been rocked by a series of violent protests against the government which president Omar al-Bashir says are nothing like the Arab Spring. Western journalists say otherwise. Well, not all. Anyway as I see it the argument over whether it is or isn’t an extension of the Arab Spring is more a matter of trying to get website views than anything else. I think a more pertinent question is what hope is there for lasting change in Sudan?  Make no mistake, Bashir is not a nice fellow – there’s a reason he’s been indicted for crimes against humanity – but ousting him and establishing democratic structures won’t solve the problems which are plaguing Sudan.

The simplest narrative to explain the state of Sudan today is this: there was a civil war which led to the country losing its oil-rich southern region (now the imaginatively named South Sudan) and now it’s poor. Although the immediate threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan seems to have passed, neither state appears very stable or strong at the moment. Aside from this issue though, there is the problem that Sudan is a large multi-ethnic state dominated by one ethnic group and uneven distribution of wealth and power across different regions has fuelled ethnic tensions. The conflict in what is now South Sudan was one example of this, while another is the crisis in Darfur which is now in state of uneasy peace. Granted, a true democracy in Sudan might alleviate some of these issues but not all. Wealth will still be unevenly distributed because of the uneven distribution of resources. These resources include arable land, and as desertification spreads in the north of the country the people who had lived and farmed there have sought other places to go, and this in fact was one of the key causes of the Darfur conflict.

Although the new state of South Sudan controls most of the oilfields now, the refineries and port where this oil can be put on tankers are in Sudan and thus co-operation is needed to ensure the oil still flows. However, South Sudan plans to build a pipeline through neighbouring Kenya, meaning that Sudan could be shutout of a share of the oil revenue. So to maintain the standard of living that many Sudanese have become accustomed to another source of income may have to be found. Again, the removal of Bashir and the establishment of a democracy in Sudan might make it a more appealing place for foreign investors and aid. However, as global economic woes continue the amount of aid money available will be reduced, and foreign investment relies on something to invest in. In an economy facing regional climate change in the form of desertification, an economy which is 80% agricultural looks like a bit of a problem.

If Omar al-Bashir can be removed it will be a victory for human rights and international justice, and if Sudan can develop stable democratic structures then the country will better placed than it now is to deal with its myriad issues. Nonetheless the examples of Egypt and Libya have shown that the transition from dictatorship to democracy is never easy, and Sudan’s challenges are if anything bigger than either of those. Optimism is a good thing but its easy to get carried away. Of course, the Sudanese people have to actually get rid of Bashir first, and I doubt that there will be any appetite in the West for a Libya-style intervention in this case. And then if Bashir is ousted, what is to stop conflict flaring up again between groups looking to take over from him?

Sudan’s future looks bleak, and so does that of South Sudan. Ironically, people in both countries may have been better off in the long-term if they had stayed as one state. All hail the law of unintended consequences!

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