Sudan largely dropped out of the news after the secession of South Sudan. Independence for South Sudan came on the heels of reduced conflict in Darfur and, earlier, the inward turn of the Islamist Al-Ingaz (or “Salvation”) regime. These events seemed to portend a turn for the better in Sudan. Unfortunately, the Al-Ingaz missed their opportunity. Instead of making things better, they made a bad situation worse.
Multiplying regional conflicts, a decline in oil revenue—due as much to the loss of oil-rich South Sudan as to lower oil prices—and the failure of Al-Ingaz domestic policies aimed at developing Sudan’s economy all herald a return of Sudan’s darkest days. The consequences do not simply threaten Sudan internally. With linkages of peoples and problems across the Sudanic belt in Africa, the continuing failure of Sudan’s state threatens regional disruption as well.
Sudan’s Islamist regime had a window of opportunity to improve Sudan’s lot early in the first decade of this century, after a disastrous period in the 1990s immediately following the takeover of the Al-Ingaz. In the early 2000s, President Omar al-Bashir isolated the spiritual and intellectual leader of Sudan’s Islamist pivot, Hassan al-Turabi, and exorcised his influence over the government. The end of international sanctions seemed within reach, oil revenues began filling government coffers, the government seemed intent on devoting revenue to building the nation’s infrastructure, and al-Turabi’s removal suggested the end, or at least the toning-down, of the Al-Ingaz’s bitterly divisive Islamization and Arabization policies.
While the Al-Ingaz may have lost its true commitment to Islamization after al-Turabi’s removal, that did not prevent it from keeping political power in Sudan firmly in its own hands. Sadly, for Sudan and for the region, Al-Ingaz’s governance has been disastrous for the country, and the future promises no improvement.
First, while the magnitude of conflict has decreased in Darfur, conflict continues in the region, and its causes continue to be ignored. But Darfur is not the only region of the country in conflict with the national government. Vicious conflicts between the national government and different groups exist in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions as well.
Sudan has a long history in which the national “center” around Khartoum exploits the Sudanese peripheries, extracting resources and revenues from these regions without corresponding returns. Al-Ingaz has continued this exploitation; the wealth extracted helps sustain the regime’s support among important groups in the center. The historical grievances have prompted continuing low-level conflict between the periphery and the center, but the additional stress of Al-Ingaz Islamization and Arabization policies have provoked open conflict. South Sudan represents only the most extreme example.
Khartoum has been more successful in the other regions at playing groups and tribes off one another, facilitating vicious local conflicts so that no regional power could become powerful enough to force Khartoum to share resources. But once the national government initiated conflict, it has not always been able to control the groups they set against each other. Darfur remains the best known conflict, but the center pursues similar strategies in its other regional conflicts.
A key part of the regime’s calculus to maintain power involves playing the regional groups off one another while keeping groups in the center compliant with resource transfers. The Al-Ingaz depends for continued power on the support of the center—support among groups not necessarily enamored of the regime’s explicit (if diminished) Islamism. Bankers, military officers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and others in this region form a core of support for the regime, but support among this critical group is more a matter of economic performance than of Islamist ideology.
The secession of South Sudan, and with it the bulk of Sudan’s oil resources, cut off a significant source of revenue the regime had used to keep control of the periphery while at the same time keeping supporters in the center happy.
The regime had the opportunity to solidify its position in Sudan before the South’s secession. After the turn away from Islamist internationalism around the year 2000, the regime focused attention on what political scientist Harry Verhoeven termed Al-Ingaz’s “competence agenda.” This agenda saw significant investment in large infrastructure projects, such as dams for irrigation and electrical generation.
Sadly, according to Verhoeven, Al-Ingaz’s competence agenda turned out mainly to be an incompetence agenda: The domestic initiative has been a bust, with projects running spectacularly over cost estimates, failing to produce the promised development and economic benefits, and further stressing the relationship between Sudan’s center and periphery.
With the failure of this initiative to promote sustainable development, and with South Sudan’s secession (and the oil revenue that went with South Sudan), it is doubtful that Bashir and the Al-Ingaz have the resources to continue to pay off client groups in the center while suppressing the periphery.
But a more-extensive failure of the already-failed state that is Sudan, while a tragedy for the people of Sudan, is not the only outcome on the horizon. If the center collapses, it is an open question whether the country will exist in any real form or will devolve into a jumble of unstable regional powers vying for power within those regions and against each other. Given the linkages of peoples and groups in Sudan with those across the Sudanic belt, the risk is that destabilization in Sudan might spread conflict throughout that region.
While Sudan’s troubles predate the Islamist Al-Ingaz takeover in 1989, it is almost certain that in just about every respect, Al-Ingaz governance made Sudan’s troubles dramatically worse. Given the Al-Ingaz appear intent on hanging on to power as long as possible, it seems likely the country’s wretched condition will worsen before there is hope of improvement.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.