Sudan is no longer the ‘bread basket’ of the Arab world

While Sudanese authorities have always been able to easily counter armed insurgency, they find it difficult today to deal with a leaderless popular movement.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Sudanese protesters chant slogans as they march during anti-government demonstration in Khartoum, December 25. (Reuters)
Different times. Sudanese protesters chant slogans as they march during anti-government demonstration in Khartoum, December 25. (Reuters)

I’ve been to Sudan several times. During one of my visits, I met with President Omar al-Bashir. At that time, the man had ended his partnership with former President Hassan al-Turabi and was trying to get rid of his Islamist image. Al-Bashir also wanted to get rid of the legacy of his hostility towards the United States and seemed open to the outside world.

In one corner of the exterior zone of the presidential palace in Khartoum, some colleagues and I were contemplating a memorial to the death of British General Charles George Gordon, who was killed at that very spot by Sudanese rebels who had surrounded the capital, stormed the palace of the British governor and killed him. Al-Bashir saw us and, with a smirk on his face, signalled to our Sudanese friends to tell us that story.

Gordon was assassinated on January 26, 1885, while serving as the British governor-general to Sudan. He was killed after a siege of Khartoum that lasted 317 days. He had arrived in Khartoum less than a year before that to organise the departure of British forces and civilians. The event shocked London. The man was a legend there, known for his victories against all odds and yet he met his end at the hands of a band of ill-equipped and inexperienced rebels.

We are in January 2019 now and, like all Sudanese, al-Bashir takes great pride in celebrating the anniversary of the Sudanese rebellion. This time, however, he risks having the crowds surround his own palace. While Sudanese authorities have always been able to easily counter armed insurgency, they find it difficult today to deal with a leaderless popular movement.

It seems the Sudanese president would rather have the familiar opposition forces in Sudan, including those belonging to the Mirghani and Mahdi political families, regain centre stage in the Sudanese political scene because it would be easier for him to deal with them either by co-opting, repressing or deporting them.

Since his 1989 coup, al-Bashir has ruled the country with no rival in sight. He has expanded his sphere of influence by wiping out major traditional parties that have long occupied the Sudanese political space.

He started out with an extremist form of Islamism that gave protection to the infamous Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden. He surrounded himself with the stars of anti-US ideologies, causing the United States and Israel to take a couple of swats at the heart of Sudan.

He has shown toughness and rigidity in dealing with his enemies in the south and Darfur but then operated a pragmatic 180-degree turn and kicked out bin Laden and handed Carlos over without batting an eye.

Today, the Sudanese street is revolting against al-Bashir himself. During the season of the “Arab spring,” there were demonstrations motivated by purely local demands but when some demonstrators imagined that they could go beyond that and started shouting the well-known slogan “the people want to topple the regime,” other demonstrators silenced them. No one in Sudan wanted to topple the regime.

This time the situation is different. That “Arab spring” slogan was openly echoed and people want the president to go. Al-Bashir responded by brandishing a readily available Arab weapon.

The Sudanese president has exposed his opponents. It’s, of course, Israel that has never stopped to conspire against his rule. It’s Israel that is pulling the strings of the Sudanese people, just like it has pulled the strings of the south, in Darfur, and of many other places before that. It’s the same Israel that was doing in Sudan exactly what Syrian President Bashar Assad and Libya leader Muammar Qaddafi told us it was doing in their countries.

Al-Bashir talked about agents who infiltrated the demonstrators, a mysterious band of space creatures that can cross continents, infiltrate demonstrators and hijack their demands. In his fantasy tale, if these creatures had chosen to land specifically in Sudan, it was because they were after “sabotaging” the whole of the Islamic umma.

Al-Bashir’s rule of Sudan has aged. The man can no longer pull rabbits out of his hat. It is time for a regime change in Sudan. Al-Bashir’s faithful allies are leaving him one by one. Even his close advisers have been neutralised or have neutralised themselves.

When I visited Sudan long ago, I was a witness to a development fever sweeping the country like never before. I heard and saw more than once that Sudan was the food basket of the Arab world and that it was looking forward to being Africa’s portal to the world.

The Chinese were building high-rise buildings in Khartoum and irrigation dams on the Nile. The people in power talked about a mountain of shining uranium in Darfur and about gold and diamond mines waiting to be plucked. Visitors were shown reduced models for an international new metropolis at the junction of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, similar to modern Dubai.

Many years later, we find the Sudanese taking to the street demanding bread and the Sudanese rulers promising them to reduce bread prices. This is happening in the 21st century. There is no more talk of the “Arab bread basket” and of Africa’s main gateway, of mineral and hydraulic riches and the genius of geography. People just want bread, 138 years down the road from General Gordon’s death.