Unpacking Sudan’s power dynamics

Each branch of the ruling troika has a vested interest in preventing the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir.

Omar al-Bashir speaks to the military
Al-Bashir's government reportedly spends more than 70 per cent of its budget on Sudan's military [AP]

The ongoing protests in Sudan have shaken the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to its core. These protests are the strongest challenge to President Bashir since he took power 23 years ago in a coup. For the first time, significant and sustained calls for the “fall of the regime” have come from within Khartoum, the seat of power in Sudan.

To understand the complex challenge the Sudanese people face, it is imperative to unpack the ruling NCP and its internal components. 

 Listening Post: Is the media ignoring Sudan’s uprising?

Fundamentally, the NCP administration is an amalgamation of three distinct yet inextricably linked entities: the Sudanese military, the Islamic Movement in Sudan (Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood) and the ruling party (or the clique of individuals and businesses under Bashir).

The troika 

The military, or the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), is the backbone and most important component of the troika, with military and defence expenditures accounting for more than 70 per cent of government spending. Of the three entities, the military is the most opaque, and little is known about its internal dynamics or the individuals that make up its commanding body, the Qiadat al-Arkaan, or Joint Chiefs of Staff. What is known is that this body is made up of approximately nine to 13 individuals that are constantly rotated every few years and are said to be handpicked by President Bashir himself. The SAF has a vested interest in the survival of the regime, as it is given carte blanche and absolute budgetary priority.

The second component of the NCP’s troika is the Islamist Movement (IM) of Sudan, embodied in the Sudanese version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the tutelage of Hasan al-Turabi, the father of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan and the mastermind of the 1989 coup, the regime branded itself as an “Islamic government” and labelled itself the National Islamic Front (NIF). Throughout the 1990s, Sudan became a haven for extremists such as Osama bin Laden and a training ground for groups such as al-Shabaab, the Islamist group fighting in Somalia.

The Islamist Movement in Sudan was an instrumental actor in the first and second popular uprisings of 1964 and 1985, both of which toppled military dictatorships. The IM has always had its own command structure and maintains a semi-autonomous leadership, in the form of a “Shura Council”. At the top of the movement is Sudan’s first vice-president, Ali Osman Taha.

The third and final component of the NCP troika is the ruling party itself, a clique of political hardliners, businessmen and those brought into the fold under the wide and complex patronage network developed by the regime. Though not easily distinguishable from the first two components – as most of these individuals are ideologically Islamist and some have military backgrounds – this component of the troika needs to be differentiated because it is the executive arm of the regime. Through myriad businesses and corporations, and by fusing private and state industries, these individuals have enriched themselves by turning the state’s coffers into their personal bank accounts.

Within this component lies the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the apparatus through which the regime imposes its control over the people. It reports directly to the presidency and effectively operates above the law.

At one point in the late 2000s, the NISS rivalled the military in its decision-making power and could have been considered as its own, fourth, component of the regime. After 9/11 and throughout the past decade, Bashir tasked the NISS and its then-director, Salah Gosh, with leading anti-terrorism cooperation with the United States. However, in 2009, Gosh appears to have became a threat and was reported to have had the capability and willingness to carry out a coup against Bashir and the military. The SAF gave Bashir an ultimatum and as a result, Gosh was demoted and the NISS was relegated from an entity that shaped national security policy to its enforcer. If the military is the regime’s backbone, the NISS is its muscle.

Bashir at the nexus

The three components described above have been able to successfully create a triune marriage of the armed forces, religious establishment and a corrupt political and business clique to form the National Congress Party. At the centre of this troika is President Bashir, who is the only individual that has his foot in each camp, is trusted by all three, and can keep all three content within the marriage. Each component has a vested interest in keeping President Bashir in power; if he is removed, no single individual can fill the nexus at the centre of the regime. 

“Put simply, the [International Criminal Court] did not sentence President Bashir to a prison in The Hague, but rather condemned the Sudanese people to a lifetime of Bashir in the Republican Palace in Khartoum.”

However, President Bashir’s removal is complicated by the 2009 indictment and arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged role in the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur. His popularity surged after the arrest warrant was issued, as he was successful in framing the ICC as a Western and neo-colonial entity – an affront to the Sudanese nation and its sovereignty.

Put simply, the ICC did not sentence President Bashir to a prison in The Hague, but rather condemned the Sudanese people to a lifetime of Bashir in the Republican Palace in Khartoum.

If President Bashir were removed from the centre of the troika, the Islamist Movement would likely be the first of the three components to pull out of the marriage. They would try to reposition themselves to ensure their survival and inclusion in any new dispensation of power in Khartoum, post-Bashir.

 South Sudan progress hampered by corruption

This process has already begun – as earlier this year the Shura Council of the IM released a scathing memo, criticising the rampant corruption and mismanagement of the country’s wealth. The Islamists have a significant support base, and if they pull out of the troika, they would lend a significant boost to the protest movement.

Though it is not interested in the devolution of the troika, the military will be left with no choice but to pull out if the ongoing protests escalate.

The third and final component of the regime – the ruling clique and the NISS – will not likely be able to maintain its hold on power if one of the two other components of the NCP troika withdraws its participation.

The major challenge for the military will be to ensure that the fall of the regime does not equate to the collapse of the Sudanese state writ large. This is critical, as collapse in Sudan will affect Nigeria, Mali and every country in the East and Horn of Africa, especially the nascent country of South Sudan.

Whatever the outcome of these protests, it is clear that the Sudanese people’s struggle will continue far beyond the collapse of President Bashir and his regime. If and how that collapse takes place, are two elements largely in the hands of the Sudanese military and the protestors in the streets of Khartoum and Omdurman.

Ahmed Kodouda is Senior Programme Associate for the East and Horn of Africa Programme at Freedom House.