Conditions that prevail in Sudan today — environmental degradation, drought and famine, civil war, repression, and sharp deterioration in economic and living conditions for the majority of the population — reflect a long process of bad leadership in the country since independence in January 1956. A succession of sectarian governments, civilian and military, have contributed to what we can call a “consolidation of underdevelopment.” For example, the policies of mechanized farming by absentee landlords, who share the same origins as the clique that has monopolized state power since independence, are largely responsible for the famines that have plagued the country since the mid-1980s. [1] And successive regimes have, except for a truce between 1972 and 1983, perpetuated conditions of civil war that have steadily worsened over the last several years.

Sudanese greeted the coup led by Omar al-Bashir on June 30, 1989 with profound indifference. Few regretted the departure of Sadiq al-Mahdi’s supposedly democratic regime, but they did not expect any change for the better from the new Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC). Ordinary people have come to believe that any change in Khartoum is invariably for the worse.

Many Sudanese immediately suspected the hand of the National Islamic Front (NIF) in the 1989 coup. The timing was significant: The coup was clearly intended to abort crucial peace talks between the government and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) scheduled for four days later, on July 4, 1989. These talks were to pave the way for the convening of a national constitutional conference tentatively fixed for that September. Huge crowds had turned out at Khartoum airport seven months earlier, in November 1988, to welcome the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) when they returned from Addis Ababa after signing a peace initiative with the SPLM/A. Except for Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi and the NIF, all political parties, trade unions and professional associations in the country had endorsed it. [2]

This was the situation when al-Bashir seized power. Since then, political and economic conditions in the country have deteriorated. Sudan is now a regime at war with its people.


Repression has prevailed in Sudan in every period, but whereas earlier it had targeted particular groups, the present regime spares no sector of society. Previous governments have operated on the basis of the same dogma of Islamizing and Arabizing the country, but they have felt constrained, for a variety of reasons, from vigorously enforcing their cultural and political hegemony. The regime of Omar al-Bashir has shed all constraints and hesitancy. [3]

From its first moments, the new regime declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. They banned political parties, trade unions and professional associations, and confiscated their assets. Newspapers and periodicals were closed down. Political activity was made punishable by ten years’ imprisonment, or by death if arms were involved. [4]

The coup-makers moved decisively and quickly to alter the judiciary. The ruling junta appointed a new head of the judiciary, contravening constitutional procedures which gave that role to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Judicial Council, and set up three-man military tribunals known as Special Revolutionary Security Courts. When a delegation of eight former leaders of the banned trade unions and professional associations presented a memorandum to the junta on August 1, 1989, protesting these moves, the regime arrested them. When civilian judges organized a strike, the RCC dismissed 57 of them, including five Supreme Court judges and four from the Court of Appeals. [5]

The regime moved systematically to dismiss summarily thousands of civilians, military and other security personnel from their posts, on suspicion of not being supportive of the regime. By the end of 1990, after 18 months in power, the regime had dismissed an estimated 20,000 officials. An additional 50,000 civil servants faced dismissal, ostensibly in compliance with IMF austerity demands.

The regime arrested more than a hundred political and trade union leaders, lawyers, medical doctors, journalists, poets and writers. Typically the detainees are not informed of the reasons for their arrest, and they are routinely denied access to legal counsel. Some prisoners have died in detention, reportedly from torture or denial of proper medical attention. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Salman, president of the Secondary School Teachers’ Union and a diabetic, was arrested immediately after the coup and held in Kober prison in Khartoum. He was later transferred to Shalla prison in Darfur, where his health deteriorated further, and then was returned to Kober where he died. [6] Many prisoners are kept in secret “safe houses” where they are tortured.


The Bashir regime came to power with a simplistic perception of economic issues. It began by mounting a vigorous campaign against the “black” market. Officials raided warehouses holding hoarded goods, forcing vendors to sell charcoal, for example, for about a quarter of its prevailing price. These populist measures soon backfired, though, and led to shortages of all basic commodities.

In September 1989, Finance Minister Sayyid ‘Ali Zaki called for emergency measures to redress a budget deficit of 7.5 billion Sudanese pounds, resulting mostly from the collapse of customs receipts since the coup. [7] Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund was pushing for repayment of $60 million out of more than $1 billion the country owned. [8] Anxious to impress the IMF, the government announced a 25 percent increase in the prices of bread, cooking oil, soap and petroleum products — 24 hours before the annual September meeting of the IMF in Washington.

The government next held a three-week National Economic Salvation Conference in October-November 1989, where it pushed wide-ranging measures conforming to IMF demands — a review of the performance of state concerns and banks, the effect of subsidies, measures to increase direct and indirect taxes, cuts in spending, and the possible introduction of user fees in health and education. Authorities increased the price of bread a further 15 percent and instructed bakers to mix sorghum with wheat to reduce import costs. Foreign exchange reserves then stood at just $21.4 million.

In February 1990, the government announced a new exchange rate for cotton exporters (8.3 pounds = $1), an effort to keep cotton earnings in the official economy and boost foreign exchange reserves. [9] Washington threatened to ban all new economic and military aid to Sudan starting in March 1990. [10] The government opened talks with the IMF in mid-May 1990, after being given until July to begin settling debt arrears to the Fund of $1.15 billion or face expulsion. By mid-1990, one quarter of Sudan’s external debt of more than $13 billion was due for repayment. The regime cut bread subsidies and ended sugar imports to save around $400 million per year. It reduced wheat imports by half and repaid $15 million to the IMF. Strict measures were introduced to curtail illegal foreign currency transactions.

In April 1990, the regime chose a new finance minister, an NIF stalwart named ‘Abd al-Rahim Mahmoud Hamdi, who had been director of the Baraka Investment Bank in London and before that deputy director of the Faisal Islamic Bank in Khartoum. He put together a National Economic Salvation Program for the period July 1990-June 1993. The program aims at reestablishing the economy on an “Islamic” basis. Donors reportedly liked a number of aspects on the program, which owes as much to IMF orthodoxy as to Islam and includes a very liberal investment code, especially regarding repatriation of profits by foreign investors, envisaged to be largely Arabs and Muslims. [11]

Proclaiming that self-sufficiency is the first priority, the regime coined the slogan, “We eat what we produce and we wear what we manufacture.” Wheat was planted in areas traditionally devoted to cotton: Around 2.5 million feddans (1 million hectares) in 1990 were devoted to wheat, compared to 200,000 in 1986. The Bank of Sudan requested all banks to devote 40 percent of local currency funds to agriculture. Islamic organizations have also been attempting to revive the cooperative system by renting machinery to farmers at low rates which can be repaid in produce.

Privatization of state and partially state-owned (parastatal) firms and liberalization of trade is another pillar of the program. The underlying privatization agenda is to entrench the NIF in the country’s economy. Public-sector enterprises — for example, the White Nile Tannery and Sudan Textiles — are being sold cheaply to members or supporters of the NIF. Sale of other factories likewise appears to depend on the ideological acceptability of aspiring purchasers as well as their access to capital.

The regime’s trade policy aims at expanding its urban base, marginalizing the big merchant families and creating a new commercial class from those Arab Muslims who had neither the capital nor the connections to rise above petty trade. These new businessmen are young, often university graduates, and hail from the lower and middle bourgeoisie. They are not necessarily Islamists themselves, but they are content to cooperate both with the government and with the Islamic banks, which supply the necessary cash and baraka (blessing). This new social group complements a small group of well-established merchants whose Islamist sympathies or pretenses have paid off handsomely, allowing them to gain a near-monopoly of foreign trade.

The regime’s sympathy for Iraq in the Gulf war has alienated Sudan’s major lenders — Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the West, as well as the multilateral institutions dominated by these countries. This has cut the regime off from capital badly needed for investment in the rural sector, where the NIF has been intent on dislodging the Umma Party. The regime has been trying to cope by redirecting its foreign relations to Iran as well as Libya, but neither is likely to meet the requirements of the present Sudanese economy. [12] The near-complete isolation of the regime has led to reports that Sudan’s economy may effectively be handed over to the Bahrain-based Sudan Development Fund (SDF), a consortium of “Islamic” financial institutions headed by the Baraka Bank. [13] The SDF would supervise structural adjustment in Sudan, providing Khartoum with a grant to buy back some of its commercial bank debts. The SDF would also take control of all imports and exports and inject funds into newly privatized industries. In July 1990, the regime authorized the Baraka and Faisal banks to purchase all of Sudan’s agricultural imports, on the generous condition that they also take over the buying and selling of Sudan’s main agricultural crops — the only collateral these banks were willing to accept. [14] The two banks were allowed to charge no less than 27 percent on the buying and selling of Sudanese produce, and brokerage fees on agricultural production imports of between 10 and 20 percent. Because Islamic banks are precluded from charging interest, these were labeled “handling” and “service” charges.

These “Islamic” banks, though, have not been terrifically successful in aiding the “Islamic” regime in Khartoum. Their Saudi owners failed to honor a pledge to provide a $400 million soft loan to the regime. [15] When they approached the Jidda-based Islamic Development Fund for a loan of $200 million, they were told that Sudan had already received its full quota of assistance. The prospective source for the other $200 million, a fund established by Sudanese Nationals Working Abroad, was also not interested in the bonds the two banks were trying to float.

Famine and Relief

Indications of the current famine in Sudan were clear as early as the first half of 1990, and by August 1990 could no longer be denied, yet the government persisted in denying the impending emergency. [16]

While nature, both physical and human, has laid the groundwork for the famine, its most proximate cause is the failure of the government to put the lives of the Sudanese people above its political and military agenda. [17] As late as October 1990, al-Bashir dismissed foreign media reports of impending famine, saying they were “aimed at distorting Sudan’s image. They constituted attempts either to pressure Sudan or to create difficulties for it by agitating parasitic capitalism, which was likely to profit in the event of crop shortages.” “Sudan is not suffering, under any circumstances, from famine,” he declared. [18] In February 1991, al-Bashir attacked foreign relief organizations for “defaming Sudan by begging on behalf of the Sudanese people.” [19] For Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the NIF:

the tens of thousands of deaths from starvation would be a small price to pay for upholding the Islamic revolution in Sudan. The international community wants to humiliate the Islamic revolution by insisting that it beg for international aid before granting it…. The Soviet Union was receiving Western aid without having to declare a famine or any economic problems. Why should Sudan be considered differently from the Soviet Union? [20]

In August 1990, the government seized all stocks of sorghum, including those awaiting distribution under Operation Lifeline, while it undertook a census to establish national stocks. These stocks were then to be rationed through cards issued to families living in officially recognized residential areas — excluding from entitlement approximately 1 million internal refugees living in “non-planned” areas in and around Khartoum. [21] These are precisely the people hardest hit by shortages and famine, but as most are from the south the regime regards their presence as “polluting” the character of the capital of “Arab” Sudan.

In 1985 and again after the disastrous floods of 1988, when relief finally came those who benefited most were the well-to-do in the bureaucracy and their associates. This time, the NGOs determined to press the government to adopt a plan of action to meet real needs. While the wrangling between the government and the international community continued, the famine worsened in scope and intensity. When the government finally did appeal to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in March 1991 for food relief to meet some “temporary shortfalls,” the FAO insisted that the government declare an emergency and allow relief shipments to be distributed through international bodies. The government at first refused to comply with these FAO conditions, but the Sudanese embassy in Washington claimed soon afterward that the government had established a high-level committee comprised of ministers, donors and NGOs, exempted all relief aid from customs duties, and applied an exchange rate of 12.3 Sudanese pounds to the dollar to relief operations in order to remove black market incentives. Soon thereafter the World Food Program appealed for $25 million in emergency assistance, declaring 7.6 million people at risk. [22]

War and Peace

In January 1991, the Bashir regime declared Sudan a federal country with nine states, corresponding to the provinces existing at independence. Federalism, or some form of effective decentralization, has been the demand of southerners since before independence, but not the kind of federalism that this regime has in mind. What matters is the dismantling of the structures of internal colonialism, and popular participation in decision-making. As it stands now, the federal president appoints the leadership in the states, including the governor and the secretary-general of the state civil service. [23] The powers of the states are vague, effectively allowing the unrestructured federal government to abrogate virtually all powers, including land and natural resources and “foreign information.”

The regime stresses the need to maintain the supposedly national character of the armed forces and other institutions, such as public corporations and universities. [24] In the spheres of culture and education, the regime’s “federal” scheme emphasizes the primacy of Arabic language and culture and privileges Islam. One can fairly conclude that the regime’s motive is to institutionalize a “Federal Islamic Republic of Sudan” which, as defined by the NIF, is intrinsically oppressive, discriminating against non-Muslims, women, and secularist and non-fundamentalist Muslims. The regime’s claim to exempt the south from Islamic law cannot be taken seriously: In the event of conflict between national and regional laws, the supreme law of the land — shari‘a — would prevail. Furthermore, between one and two million southerners settled or working in various parts of northern Sudan would be subject to these laws.

The stand of the regime on the issue of war or peace was clear from the first day of the coup, when Sudan Television aired a documentary about a battle where al-Bashir had led a unit which regained Mayom garrison from the SPLA. Although the new regime renewed for a month the ceasefire then in place, it also declared all peace initiatives then on the table invalid, notably the November 1988 agreement negotiated by the Democratic Unionist Party and the SPLA.

When the regime held its own “National Dialogue on Peace” conference in September-October 1989, with its selected delegates, it came up with the initial version of its so-called federal scheme. Even while this conference was underway, massive shipments of heavy arms began to arrive in Khartoum. From the end of September to the end of December 1989, long trains loaded with heavy armaments were unloaded in an open space southeast of the University of Khartoum, northwest of Khartoum airport. A further consignment was made in January 1990. [25]

The regime did send a delegation to Addis Ababa in August 1989 to discuss with the SPLM/SPLA what it calls the “southern problem.” By the time the regime came to power, though, most Sudanese had come to agree with the SPLM/SPLA that the problem is actually a national one: the ruling clique’s neglect of the majority of Sudanese. All political forces in the country by now accepted the need for a national constitutional conference. Toward the end of December 1989, Jimmy Carter chaired a meeting in Nairobi with representatives of the regime and those of the SPLM/SPLA. Again the issue of shari‘a led to the collapse of the meeting. The ceasefire, meanwhile, had broken down in October 1989, when the regime embarked on its dry-season offensive to recapture SPLM/SPLA-administered territory. The battles lasted until March 1990, leaving the SPLA in complete control of Sudanese territory bordering Uganda and parts of the Sudan-Zaire border. The regime’s offensive never touched territory east of the Nile, its primary target.

Toward the end of March 1990, Washington proposed a disengagement of forces to agreed upon positions, setting up an international monitoring force, and convening a national constitutional conference. Each side made amendments to the initial American proposals, but in May 1990, on his return from an Arab summit in Baghdad, al-Bashir announced Khartoum’s rejection of the US initiative. Since then there has been no other serious peace proposal. Since independence in 1956, the regimes in Khartoum, with their ethnically and religiously narrow base, have never addressed the fundamental issues of building a prosperous united Sudan without requiring everyone to become a Muslim or an artificial Arab. The non-Arab and the nomadic Arab populations are the main victims of this catastrophic vision. The lack of concern for those outside the culture of the ruling clique is expressed most intensely against southerners, who have consistently stood for the development of their indigenous cultures and have been resisting the policy of trying to homogenize the country through Arabization and Islamization. Removal of the regime is not likely to alter this situation. Power must be fundamentally restructured in the country.

As bad as the current situation is, the scenarios for the near future are also bleak. There are efforts by all the groups opposed to the present regime to work together under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance, but there is a wide gap in the understanding of the root causes of the crisis, particularly between the most effective opposition group, the SPLM/SPLA, and the groups which hail from, and subscribe to, the dominant culture. Some key figures in opposition now, such as Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi, Sadiq al-Mahdi’s minister of interior, were sympathetic to the NIF when they were in power. The relatively progressive elements from the dominant culture, although not Islamists, are Arabists.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Umma do not have fundamentally different programs from that of the NIF. Restructuring of the central government, autonomy of the regions, development of the indigenous cultures and languages, and reorientation of the country’s foreign policy have no appeal to them. Their main quarrel is over who should rule and be credited for implementing shari‘a. Even the DUP, once the rival NIF and Umma put Islamization on the agenda, does not oppose it. The SPLM/SPLA articulates a perspective that speaks for the majority in the south and an increasing number of marginalized people in the north who see the existing order as fundamentally unjust and oppressive.

Those who oppose only the NIF regime will turn to condemning those who continue to fight for deeper change. Many elites, particularly in the cities in the north, will be so frustrated that they will call for separation of the country if the war continues. The squabbling of political factions in Khartoum, the endless debates about the role of Islam in the state and the incapacity of any transitional or partially elected government to resolve the underlying issues will frustrate the masses and many in the middle class.

Whether the SPLM/SPLA will prove itself able to salvage a Sudanese state will depend somewhat on its ability to provide basic services in the areas under its administration. The future will also depend on whether the army remains intact, and whether the national economy will be able to support even a rudimentary state. At the moment, it does not appear likely that there will be any significant external intervention to force a settlement.


[1] See Mark Duffield, “Absolute Distress: Structural Causes of Hunger in Sudan,” Middle East Report 166 (September-October 1990).
[2] The involvement of the NIF in the al-Bashir coup was first made public by Hasan al-Turabi, the overall leader of the NIF, when he was touring Europe in 1990. He repeated it on March 13, 1991 when addressing NIF youth in Khartoum.
[3] Africa Watch, Denying “the Honor of Living”: Sudan, a Human Rights Disaster (March 1990).
[4] Sudan Democratic Gazette (April 1991), pp. 4 and 8.
[5] Africa Watch, op cit., pp. 28-30.
[6] Sudan Democratic Gazette (March 1991), p. 6.
[7] Arab Organization for Human Rights, Newsletter 22-23 (November 1989), pp. 3-4, 7.
[8] Ibid.
[9] “Sudan: Fundamentalist Economics,” Africa Confidential, January 25, 1991, pp. 6-7.
[10] Under a law prohibiting all but humanitarian assistance to non-elected governments that have not moved toward democracy within eight months of taking power.
[11] The main objectives of the program are summarized in Africa Confidential, op cit.
[12 Sudan Update, April 22, 1991, pp. 3-4.
[13] Ibid., p. 4.
[14] Sudan Democratic Gazette, September 1990, pp. 3, 5.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Africa Confidential, November 9, 1990, pp. 4-5; Sudan Update, April 8, 1991, pp. 1-3.
[17] Duffield, op cit.
[18] Foreign Broadcast Information Service, October 30, 1990, p. 13.
[19] Horn of Africa Bulletin (March-April 1991), p. 27.
[20] Sudan Democratic Gazette (April 1991), p. 4.
[21] Millard Burr, “Khartoum’s Displaced Persons: A Decade of Despair”, US Committee for Refugees Issue Brief (August 1990).
[22] Horn of Africa Bulletin (March-April 1991), pp. 28-29.
[23] Sudan Democratic Gazette (April 1991), pp. 3, 6-8.
[24] See Pewr Nyot Kok, “Peddling Defective Merchandise: The National Dialogue Conference One Year On,” Sudan Democratic Gazette (November 1990), pp. 4-5; “Cutting the Foot to Fit the Shoe,” Sudan Democratic Gazette (March 1991), p. 5.
[25] Some arms from China contracted by the Mahdi regime arrived in this period, as well as shipments from Iraq. The Chinese arms were said to have been financed by Iran. Sudan Democratic Gazette (July 1990). Also see Africa Confidential, November 17, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Benaiah Yongo-Bure "Sudan’s Deepening Crisis," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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