Caption: Only the head remains; by: Khalid Albaih
On Sunday 8 December, and after weeks of anticipation, the National Congress Party (NCP) announced the biggest shakeup in the cabinet since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The reshuffle resulted in the departure of some of the regime’s heavyweights, most importantly Vice President Ali Osman Taha. His replacement, Bakri Hassan Salih, is a longtime confidant of President Bashir and the only remaining military officer of the Revolutionary Command Council that carried out the 1989 coup that brought the regime to power. Additional departures included longtime Petroleum Minister Awad Ahmed al-Jaz, and Presidential Advisor Nafi Ali Nafi – who also lost his position as vice president of the NCP. Defense Minister Abdurrahim Mohamed Hussein and Foreign Minister Ali Karti survived the shakeup. All of the important ministries remain firmly in NCP hands, including the strategic sovereign, security and economic ministries (Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Agriculture and Irrigation, Industry, Oil, etc.). The reshuffle affected the National Assembly, where the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and Committee Chairs have been replaced. President Bashir pledged before Assembly members to also reshuffle elected state governors, a move of doubtful constitutionality if carried out.
Ostensibly aimed at bringing “new faces” into the government after the violent crackdown on protests in September 2013 which damaged the government’s legitimacy, the reshuffle is a clear shift in the balance of power within the regime. Throughout its time in power, the regime maintained a delicate balance between its dual components – with the army acting as a façade for Sudan’s radical Islamist Movement that pulls the levers of influence. Overtime, however, and particularly since the 1999 palace coup against Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi, the spiritual leader of the Movement and the architect of its ascendency, the Islamist Movement gradually lost control to an inner circle of army and security officers and a new class of business elites. Clan and tribal links replaced ideological and religious allegiance, and the regime contracted out the business of counterinsurgency to proxy tribal militias.
The total takeover of state institutions and the national economy by the privileged members of the inner circle weakened all state institutions, especially the military. When the Islamists took the helm, they purposefully weakened the independence of Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF), effectively to neuter the same entity which they used to ascend to power. The creation of ethnically recruited paramilitary forces, such as the infamous Janjaweed, Border Intelligence Brigade and Central Reserve Police, drew away valuable resources from the army, contributing to its weakening and denting its reliability as a credible fighting force. Further, large weapon purchases and military infrastructural projects also fell prey to rampant corrupt practices, with the cumulative effect of accelerating the decline of the SAF. Although it has been deliberately weakened by the regime, the SAF was always a crucial symbol from which the regime aspired to buttress its faltering legitimacy to govern the country.
Promoting Bakri Hassan Salih to Vice President and maintaining Abdurrahim Hussein as Defense Minister is widely interpreted as a significant repositioning of the military, at least symbolically, back to the heart of regime. A man of few words, Salih is very close to President Bashir and has never left the upper echelon of influence. However, it is doubtful that this move will succeed in quelling the unrest in the officers’ corps that already spilled out into the open after the failed coup attempt of November 2012. The failed attempt centered on high-ranking Islamist officers who had unchallenged loyalty to the regime, yet sought to topple the leadership, citing its corruption and deviation from its professed principles.
The shakeup therefore indicates the definitive sidelining of the historic civilian Islamist leadership associated with the regime since its inception. The resignation of Ali Osman Taha and Nafi Ali Nafi from government, who were competing to succeed Bashir, opens the door for an even larger change. The departure of a large group of the leaders of the Islamist Movement from government – an almost synchronized departure – is alluding to a final divorce between the Movement and the party/regime, which was a demand of many of its own reformist cadres, such as the Sai’hoon.
In conclusion, strategic concerns surrounding Sudan, whether internal or external, will remain unaffected by the leadership reshuffle. The regime will continue to push for elections in 2015 while ignoring calls for agreement on prior constitutional reforms that would level the grounds for all stakeholders in the next electoral process. The regime has little stomach for introducing genuine economic reforms which are desperately needed to reduce the impact of the country’s chronic economic crisis. The regime has vested interests in maintaining the economic control of its national security agency, the ruling party, and the vast patronage network it has created. Regime survival is its ultimate goal, and until proof to the contrary, the recent reshuffle of the leadership is only a facelift. Only genuine transformation of economic and governance policies and willingness to seek an end to war in Sudan’s peripheries through negotiations and not the barrel of the gun would argue to the contrary. Due to these tragic failures of its rulers, Sudan is not about to extricate itself from the quagmires in which it has drawn itself for the last quarter century.