Nachricht | Economic / Social Policy - North Africa - East Africa It’s the Economy (Too), Stupid!

For Sudan’s revolution to succeed, the country must industrialize and democratize its economy



Muzan Alneel,

From the revolution of December 2018 to the turbulences of its short transitional period and the ongoing resistance to the military coup of October 2021, Sudan was rarely absent from regional headlines for the past three years. In reality, however, the country’s instability dates further back into its recent history.

The decade preceding the December 2018 revolution included several popular uprisings that were repressed with different levels of violence and brutality. The decade before it was one of genocides in Darfur. Before that, the longest civil war in African history took place in South Sudan prior to its independence.

Muzan Alneel is a cofounder of the Innovation, Science and Technology Think Tank for People-Centered Development — Sudan and a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, focusing on a people-centric approach to economy, industry, and environment in Sudan.

These episodes of turmoil share a common economic root: a rentier economy inherited from colonization that ensures quick revenue generation for the country’s elite and suffering for its people. It’s an economic model that renders all attempts to stabilize the country a failure. The last three years of Sudan’s history are the best proof of that.

Rentier Austerity and Its Discontents

Economic and material concerns have been the driving force behind popular discontent in Sudan for decades. The year of the revolution, 2018, began with the announcement of a new austerity budget, what some called a “budget of hunger”. It differed from its predecessors in degree, but not in nature. Reducing subsidies for basic goods like bread, sugar, and fuel was the government’s go-to measure under Omar al-Bashir whenever their economic policies scored another failure.

Bashir was a dictator, and had been in power for almost 30 years by then. The frequency of austerity measures had increased since 2012, and while they could be attributed to the independence of South Sudan in 2011 — which caused the north to lose access to the majority of oil fields — that did not explain why the state’s coffers were so empty. Oil revenues were not utilized for diversifying wealth creation or even maintaining and developing the oil production sector itself.

The government focused on collecting rents — oil revenues — just like governments before it collected rents on unprocessed agricultural exports, continuing the colonial model forced on the country by the British. This rentier model provided a small and limited amount of wealth that served the hierarchical elitist structure established by successive governments led by the ruling class.

The curse of the rentier economy is not absent from discussions of the Sudanese people or analyses by Sudanese economists, but is rather a well-known and heavily discussed root cause of the country’s problems . However, it is hardly mentioned in international discussions claiming to pursue stabilization of Sudan, including the latest futile UN-led “consultations” in the country.

By its very nature, the limited resources available within the rentier economy require a system of oppression to ensure its survival. It was only logical that economic demands would trigger oppression, more military spending, and the creation of militias across the country’s rural areas. The protests that took place in June and July 2012 and September 2013 against increases in fuel prices — leading to a general increase in the cost of living — and the 2016 strikes against the rise in medication prices are clear indicators of the pivotal nature of economic policy in triggering popular uprisings in the country.

The year 2018 presented a new level of economic hardship. The value of the Sudanese pound to the US dollar dropped from 18 pounds at the beginning of the year to 80 by the fourth quarter, triggering a snowball effect in a country that manufactures little and imports most of its necessities. Long queues were the norm in bakeries, gas stations, and even banks due to a scarcity of cash that appeared to be the result of inflation.

It was therefore not a surprise that the spark ignited by high school students protesting in the beginning of December spread like wildfire across the country. The students’ protest was ignited by the doubling of the price of bread, effectively a hunger sentence. Once the people of Sudan started protesting for their right to a decent life, they didn’t stop for months. Economic grievances were not limited to the latest budget, but included a history of land grabs by the private sector in several parts of the country, displacement from gold-rich areas for the benefit of mining companies, and the destruction of national agricultural projects that employed hundreds of farmers and agricultural workers, among many other symptoms of a typical rentier economy.

The pivotal nature of these economic issues and demands were clear in the people’s expectations of their government after the overthrow of Bashir. The government’s inability to reduce bread prices became a running joke about the “mighty bread loaf” that withstood all that the transitional government tried to present as wins for the revolution, such as initiating debt relief processes or being removed from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism, while bread prices never went back down and in fact continued to rise.

The continuation of harmful mining policies also became a source of confusion for the population of gold production areas, as a citizen of Kordofan explained in a conference held in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in January 2021, stating that, “When Bashir was overthrown, we went to the [gold] company’s site. We expected them to be removed — that’s what the end of Bashir’s dictatorship meant to us.”

Old Wine in New Bottles

Bashir-era economic policies increased the suffering of the people, destabilized the country, and eventually toppled him, yet they continued under the transitional government (TGS) which ruled the country from August 2019 to the coup in October 2021.

This government was formed as a result of an agreement between Bashir’s security committee, which later renamed itself the “Military Council”, and a coalition of political parties that assumed the leadership of the protest movement. Within it were members with interests tied to the existing economic model — the army had an economic conglomerate of investments to protect. The Rapid Support Forces led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as “Hemedti”), which claimed to receive funds from the EU to “combat human trafficking on Sudan’s borders”, were to a large extent in control of gold mining, while several of the sectarian opposition coalition parties depended on maintaining the hierarchal system of tribal land ownership.

Despite initial claims by the prime minister regarding increasing local productivity and self-dependence, the following two years presented a different reality. The first budget for 2020 included more aggressive economic liberalization and de-subsidization, high dependency on international grants, and failed to put forward a national economic and industrial policy. Grassroots resistance organizations in neighbourhoods and institutions (and, specifically, the Ministry of Finance) known as resistance committees formed a strong front against the budget, forcing the government to put it on hold and agree to a National Economic Conference on the country’s future.

The first nine months of 2020 were a time of intense activity by grassroots organizations, engaging in deliberations and drafting economic alternatives for a budget they regarded as harmful to the people. This included initiatives proposed by public sector employees and their committees as well as others by grassroots organizations, such as the Fair Mining Initiative, which includes alongside safe working conditions for miners includes a proposal to eliminate middle-men and brokers selling fuel to mining operations in exchange for subsidized fuel for productive sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing.

It was clear that industrialization was on many Sudanese minds, even if the word was rarely mentioned. It was also clear the transitional government did not share this sentiment, as it signed a memorandum with the IMF committing to de-subsidization even as the National Economic Conference was taking place. The TGS pushed forward with its liberalization plans, leading to inflation of over 300 percent by the third quarter of 2021. In 2018, 2 pounds for a loaf of bread ignited a revolution — now, that same loaf cost 20 pounds.

Throughout two years of impoverishment and the World Bank’s futile cash-transfer poverty reduction “solutions”, which functioned more as propaganda than anything else, the TGS also racked up failures in other areas like peacekeeping and improving the rule of law. The neighbourhood resistance committees, which focused on organizing protests during the first six months of the revolution, took on new tasks with every government shortcoming of TGS, whether organizing bread distribution during the bread crises or maintain schools, as the TGS seemed to never have money for them. They also demonstrated in carefully calibrated protests, treading a fine line between advancing the goals of the revolution and minimizing the risks of their protest being used by the military as justification for a coup.

Restoration and Resistance

Nevertheless, on 25 October 2021, a coup took place. The head of the coup, General Abdelfattah Alburhan, who also led the military, the transitional sovereign council, and the revived military council, cited “political and ethnic fragmentation” within the TGS at his first press conference. He committed himself to the economic policies of the TGS, which he described as “bright achievements” that the military supported and intended to advance alongside normalization of relations with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Despite not being able to form a cabinet or appoint a prime minister due to the continuing protests, the military coup council advanced a budget for the year 2022 that includes total liberalization of energy prices, implementing a 500-percent increase in electricity tariffs as previously announced by the TGS. This proved to be a dire mistake, as it provoked the kind of resistance that the opposition had been reluctant to deploy against the TSG.

Throwing their previous caution to the wind, farmers in northern Sudan sealed off the main road to Egypt with barricades. Their demands began with cancelling the tariff increase and grew to include health services, redistribution of mining revenue, and ending military rule. But they were not the only ones connecting political, social, and economic demands. Residents of the Hagar Dorm, a dormitory for female students located in the capital, Khartoum, began a sit-in on 25 January in protest of the administration’s handling of a rape case. Their demands included a serious investigation of the outrageous incident as well as a new housing model for all students in Sudan.

Both fronts — the northern farmers and the female students — received the support of the now mighty resistance committees organizing the ongoing protests which continue to cripple the coup.

Industrialization Now!

The people demand systemic, inclusive change. That much is clear both in these incidents as well as in the proposals of new political charters for a revolutionary coalition presented by a number of committees. To realize their rights and achieve the revolution’s objectives, the Sudanese resistance is now aware of the need for a new model of wealth distribution. Simply put, Sudan needs a model in which the government spends money to provide for the people’s basic needs and rights.

The reality of the Sudanese economy, however, does not support achieving such goals. An extractive rentier economy is by definition one in which the majority of the population is negligible in the main supply chains, and in which generated revenue falls short of providing for national development. In the case of Sudan, these extractive resources (primarily gold) are in the hands of the security forces and militias, which further exacerbates the state’s inability to support democratic developmental plans. The social and health impacts of the gold and oil sectors are also experienced by several communities in Sudan, and thus even if revenues were fairly distributed, those communities would still pay a higher price in the form of their lives.

There can be no just redistribution of wealth if its production comes at the expense of the oppressed. Thus, it is clear that the new wealth distribution model requires a new model of wealth production in Sudan as well.

In recent human history, there has only been one way to produce the necessary wealth for rapid development and provision of basic economic rights for the entire populace of a country: industrialization. To produce the surplus value necessary to establish an inclusive health, energy, education, housing, and employment system, revolutionary Sudan must embark on a planned and government-led path to industrialization.

The details of this economic transformation must be based on a people-centred approach that minimizes harm to people and their lives, provides decent employment, and produces in a way geared towards developmental aspirations. Industrialization will also include a much larger portion of the population in wealth creation, expanding their leverage over future governments and thereby cementing democratic principles in the economic foundation of the country.

Industrialization will not be backed by any international financial organization, which have long been committed to competitive-advantage theories designed to cage developing countries in the role of raw material providers. It will also not be supported by the American and European think tanks that export pro-business labour and investment laws to Sudan.

These governments and organizations must be carefully managed in Sudan by a unified front with a well-structured understanding of the economic interests of all players, as well as internationally by highlighting the role of the economic policies they force on Sudan in furthering violence and instability in the region. But who, then, can and should implement these policies? The Sustainable Development Commission proposed in some of the political charters issued by resistance committees is perhaps a suitable choice. It is the appropriate public body to overlook the details of designing and implementing industrialization policies and projects within the people-centred guidelines and under the monitoring of a people-powered legislative council.

Sudan’s international allies can aid this process by asking “What is my government spending its money and political capital on in Sudan? And why?” From workshops to negotiations, campaigns, and investment projects, they all can support the revolution — or the counterrevolution, depending on their designs and objectives. As for the economic transformation and industrialization of Sudan itself, this is a decision and commitment that requires a revolutionary, visionary, and serious government held accountable to its people by revolutionary tools such as the local councils proposed in some of the political charters. Having the right government in place, untainted by counter-revolutionary interests, enables utilization of existing revenues and technical skills to establish a new model of wealth creation — an industrial Sudan.

The path of industrialization could create a Sudan where the provision of basic rights for all its people is technically and financially feasible, as well as structurally sustainable. A long list of regional and international enemies will create obstacles along the way should Sudan embark on such a journey. The list includes all those benefiting from the country’s dependence on selling its raw material to the world, and even its land to agro-investors. It will require internal planning and commitment, as well as the support of international revolutionary allies in holding their governments accountable if and when they deploy the usual economic blackmail against Sudan.

Ultimately, the new Sudanese economy is a revolutionary necessity to which the path is clearer than that put forward by the international community, which promises dialogue and peace with the country’s oppressors.