Small Wars Journal

Sudan: African Sequel to the Arab Spring?

Fri, 03/29/2013 - 3:25am

Following the Arab Spring’s sweep through North Africa, many observers questioned if the unrest would spread to southern Africa. While that has not come to pass, the Arab Spring winds are strongly buffeting Sudan. It occupies a unique place in the geopolitical landscape of Africa. Sudan is the Sub-Saharan country that most resembles those of North Africa, with its shared religion, culture, and language. An Arab Spring in Sudan could result in a more authoritarian dictatorship, a theocracy, or a failed state in which extremists are free to train and operate.

Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, despite having many authoritarian regimes where living conditions remain mired in poverty and high single digit GDP growth, has proven resistant to the widespread social protests that toppled regimes in North Africa. Despite similar political environments in many northern and southern African nations, there are important reasons why the Arab Spring has not spread south of the Sahara[1].

In Africa, most governments are formed on traditional social hierarchies, relying upon devolved power to local elites at multiple complimentary levels such as tribe, clan, and social class. Sub-Saharan countries do not often possess the highly centralized state structures found in North Africa. There are many reasons for this, but key traits are homogenous ethnic identity and shared religion. Despite significant exceptions to both in North Africa, the diversity of religions and ethnicities in Sub-Saharan Africa is much greater.

Many Sub-Saharan countries have widespread corruption, governments intolerant of personal freedoms, and stifled political opposition. However, these conditions alone do not lead directly to an environment conducive to abrupt political change. One must have a catalyst, such as Bouazizi’s sacrifice in Tunisia that gives people the motivation to put their lives at risk to affect change. One also needs a way to spread the call to action – a task much easier in North Africa, with its much deeper penetration of social media and higher rates of education.

Many Sudanese view the Arab Spring’s ‘successes’ with envy. Sudan is more susceptible to influence of the Arab Spring than other Sub-Saharan African nations is its Arab culture, linguistic and identity ties matter. Sudanese feel it is their time to choose a government representative of their own desires. However, the lack of political space has stifled almost all legitimate protest or dissent, leaving the population little choice, but to use other means in its challenges to the ruling regime.

 Sudan is deeply affected by legacy ideologies from the Cold War. It’s highly educated urban population are increasingly informed about the wider world through the same lens as their North African cousins via television channels such as Al Jazeera. Additionally, Islam had been intertwined with the political development of Sudan through both its direct and indirect involvement in politics[2]. This created an autocracy wrapped in Islamist trappings. Both Qaddafi’s Libya and Sadat’s Egypt claimed to be Islamic but were essentially secular in governance.  

The National Congress Party (NCP) leads the government in power in Sudan. It derives its platform directly from the Muslim Brotherhood, the name it went under in the 1970s[3]. The party came to power in 1989 during a military-coup, led by Omar al-Bashir, who is currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur. Much like Mubarak in Egypt, Bashir’s power base in Sudan is grounded in a vast system of patronage within the military and other security apparatus.  These stakeholders are heavily invested in Sudanese industries. Sudan’s systems of patronage and control resemble the “Deep State” under Mubarak in Egypt or the Generals in Turkey.

Since independence in 1956, most of Sudan’s history has been marked by civil war. Following two prolonged periods of conflict, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence. South Sudanese petroleum production provided approximately 75% of revenue for Sudan[4]. The years of war and the loss of South Sudan have left the government in Khartoum destitute.

Additionally, the scale and scope of the wars left infrastructure underdeveloped, as the diversion of resources to the military over such a long period resulted in underinvestment in the population. Today, Khartoum remains engaged in multiple concurrent armed and political conflicts internally and externally, such as in Darfur, where, due Their presence highlights Sudan’s unresolved internal stability problems, which also include many internally displaced persons throughout the country.  These conflicts distract the government from delivering services and opportunities for prosperity. This particularly affects the urbane, Islamist, and increasingly connected urban population that forms the NCPs support base. As dissent is met with repression, the currents of discontent are strengthened; eventually these could become self-defeating[5].

Focused on multiple simultaneous conflicts, the stilted NCP government cannot produce meaningful improvements in quality of life. Political isolation of Sudan keeps away most donors except for Chinese parastatals, whose main interest is in extractive industry, not development. For a country where 42% of the population is below the age of 14, problems associated with lack of economic opportunity will compound difficulties in the future.

Highly stove-piped state institutions have formed very narrow power bases for important ministers. The dependency of the government’s ministers and stakeholders on Bashir increases daily as Sudan remains isolated. Increasingly the government controls the only revenue streams available to serve as sources of patronage. The lack of broad popular support has created a precarious situation where the government is strong, but rests upon a weak foundation. Even Islamist parties are abandoning the NCP; this is striking for a party that was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and in a country Al Qaeda once called home[6]. Many of these same parties serve as the base of support for Bashir and the NCP.

Recent events in Sudan show the social strain influenced by the Arab Spring. Protests initially broke out in Sudan in early 2011, reflecting the unrest throughout much of the Arab world. They have continued off and on since then, through 2012, and into 2013. The epicenter for these protests has been Khartoum[7]. The regime draws most of its support from the “Arab” tribes of the central region of Sudan. These are also the most populous groups in the country.

Various student movements have played a pivotal role in leading protests. It must be noted that previous popular revolts, in both 1964 and 1985, have resulted in removals of government. In both 1964 and 1985 popular uprisings overthrew Sudanese governments[8].  This influences every decision made by the NCP government regarding how to contain on-going protests.

In September 2012, Sudan, like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and countries throughout the Muslim World, was wracked by violent protests in response to the release of a film seen by many Muslims as blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed[9]. In Khartoum, both the US and German embassies security walls were breached. The missions were vandalized heavily and lit on fire. This protest involved an estimated crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 people. Coming just after the US Ambassador to Libya’s killing in Benghazi, these protests attracted significant attention internationally.

During the protests, Sudanese government security forces intervened to protect the two embassies and three protesters were killed. As news of the protester’s deaths spread, the crowd turned from anti-Western to anti-Bashir chants[10]. Direct criticism of Bashir has been rare during previous periods of unrest. Ironically, the Sudanese government itself had called for protests, albeit peaceful ones. The storming of the embassies and quick turn of the crowd to anti-Bashir chants shows the political volatility underlying Sudanese society. It is apparent that strong popular currents of dissent exist. Residual protests continued throughout 2012 into late December.

What could tip the balance in Sudan to spark more widespread protests? Clearly, economic pressure will directly impact the population. In an already poor country, additional fiscal burdens could drive many unemployed people to extremes[11]. This is particularly true of young unemployed men. The near tripling of the minimum wage will severely limit job growth in 2013. The huge deficit in the annual budget will also impact the ability of the government to provide basic services.

The increasing frequency of protests in Khartoum could indicate a lessening of fear towards the regime. The examples from the revolutions in North Africa, coupled with the loss of South Sudan and inability to end fighting in Darfur could make the once unthinkable a viable future course of action. If history is a guide, the Sudanese regime’s reaction will not deescalate the situation in any meaningful way.

The NCP is unwilling or unable to make the compromises necessary to address the long-term political and economic fixes that address legitimate grievances[12].  An unforeseen variable will provide the specific catalyst that could eventually lead Sudanese protests to resemble those of their northern neighbors. It is inevitable that any subsequent regime will also be Islamist inspired. The Islamist movements are more highly organized than pro-democracy ones and Sudanese civil society is highly religious in its own right. In the event of a revolution, Sudanese civil society would have to ensure Islamic extremists do not hijack their future.

An African sequel to the Arab Spring in Sudan would most likely resemble those in Egypt and Tunisia. The majority of the regime’s supporters would simply quit acting against their own countrymen. Internal collapse of support for the NCP government would provide a brief window of political uncertainty. Competing stakeholders, from regime revanchists to radical Islamists, will maneuver for dominance when the Arab Spring winds stop blowing.

Sudan lies at the heart of the greater Horn of Africa and East Africa, with many ongoing and frozen conflicts. Future challenges of religious tension, resource scarcity, and international geo-political competition are all represented in microcosm in Sudan. The international community must be prepared to provide political and development support, while ensuring the country can continue to provide security for its people. Failure to address these challenges could result in Sudan’s becoming a conduit for an immense wave of societal change throughout the continent. Many Africans, increasingly connected to the global community, are watching the winds of change blow.

[1] Joseph Siegle, “Some Small Signs That The Arab Spring Is Spreading Into Africa,” Africa Monitor, Christian Science Monitor, November 07, 2011.

[2] Ismail bin Matt, “Toward an Islamic Constitutional Government in Sudan,” presented at the 35th Annual AMSS Conference, Hartford Seminary, October 27-29, 2006.

[3] See overview of Sudanese political parties at, Significant People and Organizations,, accessed January 18, 2013.

[4] CIA World Fact Book, Sudan, Economy,, accessed January 18,2013.

[5] Igihe News, “Anti-Bashir Protests Sweep Through Khartoum,” June 29, 2012.

[6] “Sudanese Islamist Figure Announces Movement to Opposition Ranks,” Sudanese Tribune, January 6, 2013.

[7] “Sudan Protest: UN Urges Restraint and Respect for Human Rights,” Sudanese Tribune, June 29, 2012.

[8] “Revolution in Sudan: The Spectre of Sudan’s Popular Uprising,” Economist, February 18, 2011.

[9] Matthew Weaver, Haroon Siddique, Tom McCarthy, “Protests Over Anti-Islam Film and Mohammed Cartoons - As It Happened,” The Guardian, September 21, 2012.

[10] Khalid Abdelaziz, “Three Killed As Sudanese Storm US, German Embassies,” Reuters, September 14, 2012.

[11] “Bashir’s Lifting of Minimum Wage Leaves Sudan’s 2013 Budget Subject to Amendments,” Sudanese Tribune, December 31, 2012.

[12] “The New Dawn Charter Represents a Crucial Moment for Sudan,” Sudanese Tribune, January 15, 2013.


About the Author(s)

Major Jason B. Nicholson is a US Army Sub-Saharan Africa Foreign Area Officer currently posted to US Embassy Uganda. His previous posts include US Embassy Tanzania, the Army Staff, and the Joint Staff. He particularly follows stories connecting the Gulf and Levant to Sub-Saharan Africa.


Reference: Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan Province/2002; Juba/2008; Uganda/2010

The National Congress Party was previously called the National Islamic Front for reference to earlier days of the Bashir government.

That said, Sudan (the North) will feel the affects of an independent south as the south develops its oil distribution channels. The issue of oil in the south is trasnportation..from the source to a port. The Lake Albert find in Uganda of some months ago is only 100 miles or so from the South Sudanese border; once Uganda develops its pumping stations, South Sudan could use the lake Albert facilities to trans ship their oil (in Uganda pipelines)to Mombasa. A major terminal and storage, plus refining operations should now be more than in the planning stages in Mombassa. Another large port is being built in northern Kenya.

So, how do these developments impact Bashir and Sudan, particularly Khartoum?

Indeed, the Arab Spring has impacted Sudan with more challenging issues in the coming months which will be severely problematic for the Bashir government. But, when and how will the change occur is another question.

No doubt, as in most countries in this area..some sort of governmental takeover by those close to Bashir who feel compelled to act in some way for self benefit or for the state. The rally of Islam to the masses is now falling on deaf ears..the population is worm from the years of fanatic discourse-

Independence in the south as July of 2011 was the hammer which broke Bashir's hold on Sudan... certainly from an economic perspective...and this will become more pronounced in the future.

Sudan has few friends (except for the Chinese..but, the Chinese will go where the oil is)...certainly not Uganda, once the prime antagonist to Sudan..certainly not both Uganda and DRC felt the impact of Sudan's support of the LRA and Kony. And what about Egypt..well, from my experience..many Egyptians do not consider most Sudanese as "Arabs" and as such..the Egyptians have their own problems.

RH (Nuba Mts (with SPLA)/2002; Afghanistan/2003; Iraq/2005; Juba, Sudan (with SPLA)/2008;Uganda/2010..and now on my boat in Key West, Florida-

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 03/31/2013 - 7:12pm

Populace-based political unrest is coming to every system of governance that sustains itself in power through artificial systems of stability. This is the mark of our times. People are both empowered and encouraged, and they will not long be denied.

This has little, IMO, to do with "...shared religion, culture and language" and far more to do with similar conditions of poor governance as perceived by elements of populations subject to such systems of governance.

Some governments apply nearly pure security to keep the people in check, others some mix of social bribery and state security. For me a critical metric is found in the division of labor of the state security forces. Those places where such forces spend the majority of their efforts and focus on protecting the current systems of governance from the people they affect are fairly labeled as "artificially stable." In places more naturally stable one finds the security forces spending most of the their eefforts protecting individuals from other individuals so that all may have reasonable opportunity to pursue "live, liberty and happiness" such as it is within the context of their particular culture, time and place.

Buying off population groups with social programs paid for with public debt are only better in tone, but not nature, to those reliant upon brute force. We see Western nations increasingly trending toward this velvet lined trap in modern times. No religion, culture or language is immune.

The cures are simple to explain, yet difficult to attain. Primarily because they must be attained primarily by the people they affect, and equally must be tuned to the specific cultures and expectations of each.

What is justice in one culture is tyranny in another, but when any populace perceives the rule of law to be just in application on their terms one is well on the way to stability.

Equally so with concepts best couched under those broad banners of "Legitimacy" and "Sovereignty." Does this populace recognize the right of the systems of governance (foreign or domestic) that affect their lives to do so?? Equally do these populaces perceive that such systems of governance are acting in a way deemed as appropriate by the same??

We tend to focus too much on the legality of things, and to do so is to fall into same trap to which so many governments over the ages have succumbed. Legality is too often neither just nor legitimate. Something the West would be well served to remember as we seek to exert our own influence onto foreign lands and the people who live there.

Then there is the simple concept of human dignity and respect. In far too many places there are those who because of some immutable factor of race, religion, family, legal or social status, etc are treated differently than other similarly situated segments of the population. Such conditions exist in virtually every country, and are always a breeding ground of discontent and typically provide the base of popular support for any insurgent movement.

But there is an off-ramp. Those governments who have such conditions and wish to ward off their own “Arab Spring” and that wish to transition from brittle, artificial systems of stability to more flexible, durable and more natural systems can begin with one simple step. Give up control. Risk change. Determine what system makes sense within the context of your own culture and embrace it and extend it across one’s entire population. Ensure that all perceive they have trusted, legal and certain means to affect governance to a degree deemed as reasonable within that same culture.

Foreign king-makers and homegrown tyrants live in hard times. We should not fear that fact of “the new normal” we live in today. Change is messy though. But that mess can be mitigated by embracing the need to change early, and most importantly by understanding the fundamental nature of the type of change necessary to get to more naturally stable conditions.

Those sellers of narrow definitions of values or democracy as the “right” answer are not helping. Nor are those simply bringing in aid to mitigate the harsh edges of existing systems, or those who merely build security force capacity dedicated to that same end.