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Political Economy of the Regime and Revolt

Middle East & North Africa


What role does the economic factor play in triggering demonstrations?

Raphaëlle Chevrillon-Guibert: Since the independence of Southern Sudan in 2011, it is very clear that the economic crisis that hit the country is an unprecedented factor in the current protest movement. We can even say that the various shortages, especially of fuel, as well as the explosion in prices of some products, which were previously subsidized by the state, were the sparks that set fire to the uprising. We can realize how the daily life of the Sudanese people has become unbearable if we think of the spectacular rise of the price of bread or transport, which are essential to the population because the great majority does not have the use of a private vehicule.

In addition, the country is particularly big and the urban sprawl is very noticeable in a city like Khartoum. We must remember that the independence of the South meant the end of the oil income for the North because most of the country’s oil wells are in the South. This oil windfall accounted for more than half of the state’s budget and most of its cash flow. As a result, since 2011 the Sudanese government no longer has any means of carrying out its projects nor can it support certain social services or basic commodities, and it must find solutions to an unprecedented monetary crisis along with an exploding inflation rate: 40% in 2018, 70% at the beginning of 2019, and a dramatic lack of cash assets.

All economic sectors were affected by the crisis, but also all regions, including the peaceful ones located North of the capital, along the Nile, in the states by the Red Sea, as well as in Butana and Gezira which lie between the two Niles and had experienced a relative improvement as of the year 2000. Today, the state no longer has the means to support the poorest people, nor the middle classes which have been hit hard by the crisis even in structurally favored central regions.

The Sudanese regime seems to have alternated between a liberal austerity policy and developmental voluntarism (especially in the 2000s). How true is this statement and what have been the historical effects of these policies on the Sudanese economy?

The broadening of the protest to the regions that are structurally favored is fundamental to capture the unprecedented nature of the demonstrations that began in December 2018. This indicates a real break with previous protests which were largely founded on the denunciation of a center – peripheral model.

To understand this break, we must go back to the strong, regional asymmetries which mark Sudan’s trajectory. They are part of the long-term history of Sudan and especially the colonial pattern which concentrated political and economic resources in the central regions.

The colonial development was organized both around an export-oriented agriculture located mainly in the central regions as well as the intellectual education of the elites from these same regions, who logically took over the country after independence. The southern regions or Darfur have therefore been completely marginalized by the central government and have not benefited from any socio-economic development policies since their incorporation into Sudan, although their human and economic resources were widely used by the central regions. This predatory model is at the origin of the armed protests of the south and Darfur, which denounce this monopolization of wealth and power by the “center.”

“The radical change introduced in Sudanese society by the Islamists rested primarily on the active transformation of individuals, and not on changing the structures of the state and its economy.”

The Islamists, many of whom were from Darfur, strongly denounced this model before they came to power. Just as the socialists did when they seized power in 1963, Islamists condemned this colonial legacy, and accused the mainstream parties and their elites of maintaining it during their rule of the country, as well as the ethnicized power relations it was based on. Indeed, whatever were the reasons that led the British to educate this or the other group, and to let them participate in the colonial state, ultimately at the time of independence the cards were not reshuffled. The Sudanese agents of the colonial administration invested the new independent state because of their education and knowledge of state machinery.

Since the end of the Sudanese kingdom for Sudan in general, the historical block, composed of the political and economic elites coming from the areas bordering the Nile, took over easily in 1956.1 The two major traditional parties, the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, which were linked to the brotherhoods of Madhiyya and Khatmiyya and were dominating the young Sudanese political scene, were the most visible expression of this hegemonic alliance stemming from the colonial state.

Nevertheless, unlike the socialists, once they came to power the Islamists did not seek to modify this heritage in an active way by introducing a new voluntarist development planning which could have structurally modified the economic organization of the country. The radical change introduced in Sudanese society by the Islamists rested primarily on the active transformation of individuals, and not on changing the structures of the state and its economy. In the minds of the Islamists, the advent of Islamized citizens was meant to “naturally” correct the criticized inequalities. This does not mean that there was no economic planning, but the one that was conceived was designed not to break with previous plans, but rather to allow Islamist militants to access the entire apparatus of the economy.

From the onset the slogans deployed by demonstrators go beyond socio-economic concerns to directly challenge the legitimacy of the political order. ©Elsadig Mohamed

The liberal nature of the choices that were made was never central to the ideology of the regime, and we can observe that there were strong hesitations in the first years of power. During the 1990s, it was indeed the development means that mattered more than the results in the eye of the regime. In the first place, the Islamists chose to encourage practices that they considered “Islamically” good because they were the only legitimate ones in their opinion.2 

The shape of this development (public projects, charitable associations or private projects, etc.,) as well as its concrete results, which were sometimes contradictory with the political project of the Islamic movement, were therefore, secondary: they counted for the political agenda of the government, but they were not embedded in its civilization project, the pillar of the Islamic Revolution to which they aspired.

While the 1990s were marked by a general lack of development due to the economic crisis, as of 1999, the oil exploitation (when the Port Sudan oil terminal was opened) offered new opportunities. However, far from balancing regional injustices, the oil income has on the contrary emphasized the asymmetric development between regions. The regime’s new financial capacities gave way to major investments, particularly in infrastructure projects primarily focused on the capital and the country’s central regions.

“During the 2000s, the regime not only claimed a religious legitimacy, the one of the Islamic Revolution, but also and above all a modernizing legitimacy where the state was considered a developer.”

Moreover, the oil sector adopted a rather typical enclave economic structure based on the exercise of direct control by national authorities and, within them, by certain groups in power. The strategic partnership with China, unscrupulous in terms of financial transparency, favored income monopoly and gave free rein to those who supported the regime to definitively establish their domination and oust their opponents.

The choices of the Islamist regime have, therefore, perpetuated regional inequalities and the asymmetrical formation of Sudan as well as generated injustice and conflict. This enables us to understand the persistence of the armed protest in Darfur, especially since the regime could have taken advantage of the oil income to conduct a proactive policy to fight against regional inequalities.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to understand that the oil economy of the 2000s changed the situation because it deeply reorganized power relations between the state and society: during this period, the regime not only claimed a religious legitimacy, the one of the Islamic Revolution, but also and above all a modernizing legitimacy where the state was considered a developer. In this model, leaders justified their power position through their ability to transform the economy and the material benefits that stemmed from it. This transformation favored conflicts centered on development because it placed results, rather than means, at the heart of the debate concerning its legitimacy.

We have seen that certain central and northern regions (Atbara / Gedaref / Port Sudan / Gezirah), which are the true economic heart of the country, have taken the lead in this uprising. Can a “geography of anger” be connected to an “economic geography”? How does this mobilization connect with the economic policies pursued by the Sudanese regime?

The importance of the results of the policies of development enables us to understand the frustrations that nourish the current protest and the different geographical aspects of these protests.

On one hand, the blatant inequalities maintained by the regime continue to generate deep frustrations and feelings of injustice among Darfurians and others who are excluded from development. This partly explains the reluctance of the Darfurian population to massively join the current protest which was launched, this time, by populations they consider as privileged.

On the other hand, there are the privileged populations, those of the capital and central regions, who have expectations toward the policies of development of a regime that turned into a state developer. This time, these are the ones who started the uprising.

“Popular resentment has also been maintained by a growing awareness of the injustice of the regime’s patronage practices.”

In fact, we can see that the demonstrations started in regions structurally favored by the government, i.e., in the territories which had, beyond a trajectory of development already historically in their favor, fully benefited from the economic improvement during the oil income years. Indeed, the state built bridges, roads, installed electricity massively. It is also in these regions that people were able to work, carry on their business and possibly get rich during the 2000s. At the same time, peripheral regions such as Darfur were becoming poorer because of war and massive population migrations.

In the favored regions, and despite being undemocratic, the 2010 elections made it clear that the regime had gained wider support, which rested both on the regime’s patronage and different mechanisms. These were related to the fact that in some regions, the development provided by the oil income satisfied the populations’ expectations toward the regime, especially as it claimed legitimacy as a state developer.3 However, these populations are precisely the ones who demonstrated in the streets in December 2018 alongside with more historical opponents such as members of unions or local opposition parties.

Sudan has to currently contend with an unprecedented monetary crisis and a spiraling inflation rate. ©Ali Jaffar

These populations were also hit by the economic crisis and, little by little, the effects of the crisis fueled a growing resentment against the regime which failed to find adequate solutions to the independence of the south and cease the downward spiral which followed. This resentment has also been maintained by a growing awareness of the injustice of the regime’s patronage practices. These already existed in the privileged regions before, but the economic improvement had made them tolerable for these populations.

In recent years the phenomenon has become accentuated since the two economic sectors encouraged by the regime to eradicate the crisis were developed in these regions: mining and agriculture. While mines (mainly goldmines) can be found in all regions, agriculture mainly concerns the areas bordering the Nile. However, by developing mining activities, or export-oriented agriculture, the regime did not fail to maintain its partisan networks nor make choices which were locally criticized. Major social conflicts erupted, especially about the preferential allocation of public contracts and licenses to carry out mining or agricultural activities. Other conflicts were related to the environmental pollution created by the regime’s choice to allow the installation of treatment plants for gold mining waste, facilities that use highly polluting chemicals for the environment.

These conflicts and this resentment are the foundation of the protests in certain regions, thus making them converge with those of the peripheral regions like Darfur, but also those of Khartoum, which were also hit by the crisis. The lack of opportunities offered to the capital’s youth by a regime prone to cronyism and authoritarian practices, has favored a combination of resentment coming from different sources.

The mobilizations were punctuated with slogans against corruption like the famous “Down with the government of thieves”. What do you think these slogans reveal? Are we witnessing, along with the economic crisis, a crisis of patronizing forms of redistribution? What does this say about the conception of what is “fair” and “unfair” for Sudanese protesters?

We have already mentioned the regime’s inclination to patronize since the important matter was to control the mechanisms of the economy and the state as well as to place people considered as “Islamically” adequate. But we must understand that the regime’s crucial lack of money has greatly undermined the scope of its possibilities of action.

It no longer has the means to widely buy support, nor to maintain vast networks of patrons. For a few years now, patronage practices have tightened around a small group in power: the ruling party’s main leaders, the National Congress Party (NCP) and the security apparatus, as well as al-Bashir’s brothers. In a climate of general impoverishment, these practices generate strong indignation.

But this limitation of the regime’s redistribution policies and its patronizing networks have mainly moved the lines of the “fair” and the “unfair,” for the populations of the central regions, and a little less for those of the peripheral regions, who were already suffering from the consequences of asymmetric development policies, but also significant discriminations and exacerbated repression. Again, this enables to explain why, at the beginning of the latest demonstrations, the districts of the capital where the Darfurian populations live, did not gather massively.

Their distrust in the central regions’ population who, in their eyes, seemed to discover — only at that moment — the unfairness of a regime that they had nevertheless lived under on a daily basis for years could play a role, as well as a certain survival reflex against a regime who never hesitated to fire on the peripheral regions’ populations. Nevertheless, not many demonstrations were necessary for convergence to occur despite past differences.

The different armed and security forces account for nearly 70% of the expenses of a state that has lost its oil income with the separation of South Sudan in 2011. Thus, is the crisis connected to the perpetuation of a war economy and military privileges?

You are right to ask about this issue: it is essential to underline the importance of the security apparatus within the regime, and especially the evolution of its position – since the Islamist coup d’étatin 1989, the militaries are at the heart of the regime – and its various subdivisions: the army, the internal security and militias (more or less institutionalized in this apparatus).

By the mid-1990s, militias and the security units, two groups which were more politicized than the military, developed almost exponentially since the regime sought to protect itself against any attempt to overthrow in a complicated economic and political context (economic crisis, banishment from the international community, etc.). The exclusion of Hassan al Turabi, the great Islamist leader and architect of the coup d’état, was a success for the security units, and more specifically the army, even if it did not mean the departure of all the Islamists of the regime, quite the contrary.

The new context of the 2000s – especially the oil income- allowed the Islamists to recover, and, in particular, to develop an internal security in which they occupied a broader position than in the army whose recruitment procedures limited although not entirely, the massive interference of members of the Islamic movement. Nevertheless, the internal security’s growth did not exclude the other groups within the security unit (army, militia) which also benefitted not only from the expanding state budget, which was largely reserved for them, but also from the personal implication of members of the military unit in business.

“The control of the emerging economic sectors, specifically mining, was the privileged area of competition between members of the NCP and the different subdivisions of the security unit.”

The oil income was, therefore, widely used for the benefit of this security unit, whether it was the state budget for defense activities ( accounting for nearly 70%) or for its members’ personal affairs, such as the construction of villas, the direct financing of patronage networks, or the allocation of contracts and preferential measures (tax exemptions, advantageous exchange rates, allocations of public contracts, etc.,) in all sectors that developed with the oil boom (telecom, banks, various infrastructures, construction building, etc.).

The economic advantages personally gained by the members of the security unit, in all sectors of the economy, converted them into unavoidable actors, whether or not the military budget was reduced because of the economic situation or the political hazards.

We must consider the importance of the members of the security unit in order to understand the difficulties that protesters meet today with the military councils that took over after Omar al-Bashir. How can one reduce the importance of these men who played a pivotal role in the regime and with whom these people are precisely fighting against, when there is an existential need for security in order to avoid chaos? And the question arises especially if we consider that these men occupy the main structure of the economy.

The development of the security unit’s economic role in the 2000s also contributed to the exacerbation of tensions between its various subdivisions – i.e., between the members of the ruling party, the NCP, and those who belonged to different institutions constituting the security unit (army, police, internal security and militia forces) – by opening a new field for their internal competition.

The 2000s reinforced the importance of security personnel within the regime, but also divided them. Moreover, the drying out of the oil income at the turn of 2010, and the country’s economic reorientation towards new economic sectors of exportations, such as agriculture and mining, have increased the divisions. All these actors sought a privileged position within the new sectors of development, in order to mitigate the impact of the economic depression. The control of these new sectors, specifically mining, was the privileged area of competition between members of the NCP and the different subdivisions of the security unit. It was particularly achieved through the allocation of exploration and exploitation licenses, as well as others in the very lucrative field of artisanal miners’ waste processing.

Conflicts (as well as their resolutions) about specific transactions, or around the control of certain commercial areas, such as gold markets, outline the rivalries of the security unit’s different subdivisions and their evolution within the regime.

 An exemplary case is Jebel Amir, in Darfur, who led the expulsion of the militia leader Musa Hilal, a move which benefited the person who is today one of the heads of the second military council, Mohamed Hamdam Dagalo, nicknamed “Hemmeti”.



  1. Niblock T., 1987, Class and Power in Sudan – the dynamics of Sudanese Politics 1898-1985, New York, State University of New York Press. ↩︎
  2. Raphaëlle Chevrillon-Guibert,– (2017) « Charity and Commercial Success as Vectors of Asymmetry and Inequality: The Unconceptuali- sed Elements of Development in Islamist Sudan during the First Republic », in B. Hibou et I. Bono (eds.), Development as a Battlefield, (Leiden: Brill Nijhoff). ↩︎
  3. Jones J., Soares B., and Verhoeven H., 2013, “Africa’s illiberal state-builders”, RSC Working Paper Series 89, Oxford, University of Oxford. ↩︎