Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir yesterday threatened to give South Sudan's government "a final lesson by force". His comments mark the latest escalation in violent rhetoric between Khartoum and Juba, which has increased sharply since South Sudan occupied the Heglig oil field near the border earlier this month. Bashir's government is engaged in armed conflict with rebels in Sudan's southern and western states (Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur), and conflict with South Sudan on its border. In also faces a shifting group of opposition parties, a languishing economy and a restive population. Bashir has been in power for nearly 23 years.
If the SPLA withdraws from the Heglig oil field, it would significantly reduce (but not eliminate) tensions, boosting the chances of talks. Overall economic conditions will deteriorate further in Sudan, affecting the poor most of all. Resumption of oil production in South Sudan will be further postponed.
The government will pursue a growing military campaign against South Sudan and rebels. In the absence of reinvigorated international mediation or a new peace process, the conflicts will become more entrenched and violent, and Sudan's economy will contract further.
Despite the pressures they face, Bashir's government and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are not on the brink of collapse. The government was strengthened in November by the decision of some members of the opposition to join it, notably the sons of the leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Umma Party. However, it still has a number of vulnerabilities:
- The government has been trying to reduce the risk of a popular uprising, by indicating that Bashir may not stand at the next elections (due in 2015) and by aligning itself with the post-revolution governments in Egypt and Libya. However, economic difficulties could yet be a rallying point for a new wave of protests.
- Sudan's Islamist movement is not unified in supporting the government. The formation in February of an Islamic Constitution Front offers one avenue for trying to broaden political support for the government. However, some Islamists feel the government is discredited by corruption.
- South Sudan's take-over of Heglig has encouraged the regime in its habit of trying to use external threats to justify and galvanise internal unity. Nonetheless, the government may ultimately cause internal and public opposition to it to mount if it pursues a path of ever-increasing confrontation with South Sudan, not least because such confrontation would prolong the country's economic crisis and difficulties for the population.
The army has always been privileged by Bashir, a military man. The army benefited greatly from Sudan's economic boom years in the mid-2000s. Nonetheless, the army remains unable to dominate and control rural areas, and thereby defeat rebel forces:
- The sheer size of Sudan, the weakness of the road infrastructure, and the manner of guerrilla warfare make it possible for rebels to hold out for long periods and to make gains if they have enough hardware.
- Some tensions exist within the army's leading ranks between those who favour an aggressive policy towards rebels and South Sudan, and those who are concerned about overstretch and therefore favour pragmatism.
There is no evidence of a significant risk of a coup; it is not obvious how a challenger to Bashir would secure a better deal for the army or resolve the various crises facing the government.
As usual, the mainstream opposition parties are divided in their opposition to the government and their policies about how the government should be confronted or in what circumstances it should be supported. Through the forum of the National Consensus Forces (a loose alliance), the Umma Party, the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and some minority parties criticised the take-over, saying they were opposed to war between the two Sudans. However, Umma Party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi remains at odds with PCP leader Hassan al-Turabi about the question of seeking regime change. The government still suspects Turabi and the PCP of coordinating with rebels in Darfur and the rebel alliance formed in November, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Public discontent about the government has increased as the economy has deteriorated. However, efforts last year to copy the protests and popular uprisings in North Africa were forcefully repressed, and the security forces continue to use force, detentions and intimidation to try to deter any escalation in protests. Any sustained escalation will only happen if there is bold leadership from activists and opposition party leaders.
A concerted and sustained campaign by the main rebel groups, whether or not under the banner of the SRF, would severely strain Sudan's army and government. The strongest rebel force is the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N). Key SPLA-N leaders such as Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu and Malik Agar -- in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, respectively -- are veteran guerrilla fighters. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Minni Minnawi, are members of the SRF and have proven military capability. The SPLA-N and the SRF more broadly are benefiting from their mobility in South Kordofan and South Darfur, and the availability of shelter and support in South Sudan. JEM's raid on Khartoum in 2008 provides one model for how a combined rebel force could potentially try to topple the government. However, as with opposition parties in politics, rebel groups in Sudan have normally found it difficult to maintain a concerted front.
Economic and international factors provide only limited support for the government. However, a renewed peace process with South Sudan would provide some relief for the government, and ease conditions in the country.
The suspension of oil production in Heglig has roughly halved Sudan's output of around 115,000 barrels per day -- most of which was refined and sold for domestic consumption. Combined with the current lack of oil transit fees for exporting South Sudanese oil, this will only further weaken the economy. The only recent prospect of relief has been a promise of a 2 billion dollar loan from Qatar, intended to prop up the Sudanese pound.
The Sudanese government has benefited from a degree of international support for its claim to Heglig, with the UN, the African Union and others calling for South Sudan to withdraw its forces. However such support is tempered by international criticism of Sudan's conduct in Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur, and by awareness that Sudan has been provoking South Sudan by supporting rebels in South Sudan and sporadically bombing targets across the border. After the events elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States do not wish to see an uprising and revolution in Sudan.
A negotiated settlement to the growing conflict with South Sudan, and the conflicts with rebels, would transform prospects for the Sudanese government. However, without sustained high-level talks, such a settlement is not in sight at the moment
- Oxford Analytica
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