What is behind Sudan’s cabinet reshuffle?
Amid deepening crisis, President Omar al-Bashir is trying to buy time ahead of the 2020 elections.
Late last week, the Sudanese regime was greatly embarrassed when Dr Abdalla Hamdok, Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, declined to accept the position of finance minister.
Hamdok, a renowned Sudanese economist with a leftist background, was named finance minister by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in the latest reshuffle of his government. His appointment was aimed at winning the good will of international financial institutions and the West and securing support for the ailing Sudanese economy.
After Hamdok’s refusal, the position was given temporarily to the new prime minister, Moataz Moussa, al-Bashir’s cousin. Two other people who were offered ministerial positions turned them down.
So far al-Bashir’s new cabinet, which is meant to take urgent measures to prop Sudan’s collapsing economy, has produced only confusion and criticism.
The changes it introduced, including the cutting of ministerial positions from 30 to 21, will not result in any meaningful reforms or usher in any lasting solution for Sudan’s political and economic crises.
The reshuffle is simply part of a strategy of political survival al-Bahir is pursuing which is unlikely to succeed.
New government, old faces
One of the biggest problems with the new government is that it’s almost completely like the old one. The majority of the 21 senior ministers were members of the dissolved cabinet, including the new prime minister, Moussa, who previously served as minister of irrigation and electricity.
General Bakri Hassan Saleh, al-Bashir’s long-term confidante, who was prime minister and vice president in the previous government, remains in the position of first deputy to the president. The ministers of defence, foreign affairs and presidential affairs have also kept their posts.
Although the government has remained almost the same, there have been a few interesting changes. Hassabu Mohamed Abdel Rahman, who belongs to the Mahria clan of the Arab Rizeigat of Darfur and who was linked to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), was removed from his position as second vice president.
He was replaced by Osman Yousef Kibir, former governor of the North Darfur state, who hails from the (non-Arab) Berti ethnic group and is regime loyalist.
The Darfur conflict pitted Arab tribes supported by the government against various ethnic African groups and the swap between Abdel Rahman and Kibir could mean that Bashir is seeking to build the image that the Darfur conflict has been resolved.
There was also an important change in the Khartoum state’s governorship. Gen Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, Bashir’s long-term aide, was removed from the governor’s post and for the first time since 1989 will not be part of the government; he was replaced by Police Lt Col Hashimi Osman, also a regime loyalist.
The reshuffle in the government was also followed by a limited purge of the top ranks of the army. The Chief of Staff, Ali Mohamed Salim, his deputy and a number of other high-ranking officers were retired and replaced by people seen as loyal to al-Bashir.
Although the US sanctions on Sudan were lifted in October 2017, creating much expectation in the general population that the economy would improve, the situation in the country has continued to deteriorate. According to the government, the inflation rate reached 64 percent, while experts say that in reality it could be as high as 100 percent.
The prices of food, fuel and other basic commodities have more than doubled since last year, and the Sudanese pound has depreciated threefold against the US dollar during the same period. Unemployment is also increasing and currently is around 20 percent. Meanwhile, the government has done little to combat endemic corruption; Sudan is perceived as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 175th of the 180 countriesin the Transparency International’s 2017 report.
As a result, over the past five years, Sudan has witnessed regular waves of mass protests, which the government has violently cracked down on. In 2013, when thousands of people protested against fuel price hikes, the RSF and other militias responded with force, killing more than 200. Earlier this year, three people were killed during popular protests against the rising price of bread.
Over the past year, al-Bashir failed to secure much needed financial support from the Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in return for Sudan’s ongoing participation in Yemen’s war, which has additionally exacerbated the situation.
His decision to reshuffle the government, however, is too little, too late and is unlikely to change much on the ground. Sudan needs major reforms and genuine political change in order to pull itself out of the current crisis.
Al-Bashir is trying to buy time
Undoubtedly, al-Bashir recognises that the economic crises poses an existential threat to his regime. He fears that these mass protests could eventually develop into a full-fledged popular uprising that could remove him from power. But he is unable and unwilling to introduce major changes to the economic and political sphere
For that reason, al-Bashir is currently pursuing a strategy of buying time. The cabinet reshuffle, therefore, should be seen in that context: not as a genuine attempt to improve the situation but as a distraction from the ongoing crisis.
At the same time, the reshuffle – along with the purge in the army’s top ranks – is meant to consolidate the president’s power ahead of the 2020 presidential elections. The changes in government have effectively marginalised a group of Sudanese officials who oppose al-Bashir running for re-election and rewarded loyalists.
However, the cabinet reshuffle could also prove problematic in the long run. More specifically, the cutting of a number of ministerial positions will inevitably cause some disaffection within the political elite and may lead to some defections and disunity.
The removal of Hassabu Abdel Rahman from the post of vice president may trigger anger and tensions among some Arab groups in Darfur because they see having “one of their own” occupying the position of the second vice president as a reward for their loyalty to and defence of al-Bashir’s regime.
In the end, the strategy the Sudanese president has adopted is unlikely to succeed. The Sudanese people are yearning for real change and the current economy cannot sustain the status quo for long. Given how bad the situation is, a popular uprising is the best case scenario; the worst – implosion, disintegration and another conflict.
Al-Bashir should be wiser about his choices and what he does next. Pursuing a re-election in 2020 is definitely not the right strategy to ensure his political survival.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.