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Sudanese government reshuffle

26 February 2019 Jihane Boudiaf

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on 24 February reshuffled the cabinet and 18 provincial governors, replacing the ministers and governors with senior army and intelligence officers. The changes were made after Bashir declared a year-long nationwide state of emergency (SoE) on 22 February, prompting new protests involving thousands across Sudan.

There is likely growing opposition within Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to President Bashir's planned re-election bid in 2020, with the cabinet and governor changes aimed at ensuring the military's loyalty by improving officers' access to diminishing economic rents. In the reshuffle, Bashir removed as first vice-president General Bakri Hassan Saleh, a long-serving figure who participated in the 1989 coup which brought Bashir to power and replaced him with close ally Minister of Defense Lieutenant-General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. We had previously assessed that Saleh represented Bashir's most likely appointed successor, should he choose to step down or if his health deteriorated ahead of the scheduled 2020 presidential election. Saleh's removal suggests that Bashir faces growing opposition from within the ruling NCP, which he is trying to counteract by consolidating support from his few remaining allies, including in the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which controls the 20,000-strong paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to prevent an attempted military-led coup attempt. The NISS's head, Major-General Salah Abdallah Gosh, has so far proved largely successful in filling Saleh's role of managing discontent and will probably remain loyal given his access to scarce economic rents via the NISS control over key economic sectors, such as electricity, fuel, and water distribution.

The loyalty of security forces is likely critical to Bashir's ability to hold on to power, as funding from the Gulf states is unlikely to be sufficient to enable Bashir to pay security forces' salaries. Bashir will likely continue prioritizing the disbursement of more than 70% of the government's budget on defense, including paying security forces' salaries, despite austerity measures, to retain the loyalty of the military and the police. Bashir's ability to maintain such high levels of government spending on defense and security would seriously be challenged in the increasingly likely event that international financial aid, particularly from the Gulf states, were reduced. For instance, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided USD300 million of financial aid in January 2019, down from the USD1.4 billion provided in March 2018. IHS Markit assesses that the appointment of Lt-Gen Auf, who previously favored Qatar over Saudi Arabia and the UAE, increases the likelihood of Bashir's government receiving financial support from Qatar. This was indicated by two bilateral meetings which were held between Sudanese and Qatari officials in the past few months (the latest on 22 January).

Protests led by the opposition coalition demanding Bashir steps down and the NCP be replaced by a transition governing arrangement will likely defy the state of emergency. These will increase the likelihood of death and injury risks, as well as property damage, particularly targeting government buildings in the capital, Khartoum, over-stretching key security forces units. Security forces, which have already resorted to using live fire to disperse protesters since December 2018 when the protests started, will likely prioritize protecting Bashir's government (the presidential palace) and key strategic infrastructure such as Port Sudan, where protesters are likely to rally. Protests would only be likely to successfully force Bashir out of power in the, as yet, unlikely event that security forces were overwhelmed by tens of thousands and could not prevent protesters from reaching the presidential palace. This would be more likely if concurrent protests in regional cities drew deployment of RSF units, key to government stability, to the regions, leaving the capital vulnerable. Commercial assets, such as shop fronts near targeted government property, face severe risk of collateral damage. Hotspots include Khartoum, Omdurman, Atbara, and Port Sudan.

Indicators of changing risk environment

Increasing risk

  • Protests defying the state of emergency (in Khartoum, hundreds protested following the delivery of Bashir's declaration of the SoE on 22 February) involving up to 10,000 protesters and extending to the ruling NCP's centers of power, such as River Nile state and Shendi.
  • Muslim spiritual leaders, such as the leader of the largest Sufist order in Sudan, Mohammed Othman al-Mirghani, calling on the public to join the protests, increasing participation in northeastern states and likely support of former Beja militants. (Comment: Indicator partially activated: on 18 January, an imam with influence over the NCP constituency, Sheikh Abdel Hay Youssef, met with Bashir and raised concerns on the protests and the security forces' violent crackdown; imams criticized the security forces' violent crackdown in February).

Decreasing risk

  • An International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant against Bashir that is likely to provide Bashir with a "soft landing option", thereby encouraging him to step down, although this is moderately unlikely now that he has promoted Lt-Gen Auf, who is under US targeted sanctions on Darfur.
  • Sudan maintains its military forces supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, increasing the likelihood of Sudan receiving financial aid from the Gulf, thereby safeguarding the government's ability to pay salaries, particularly for security forces. (Comment: Indicator partially met: the UAE has reportedly announced on 18 January USD300 million in financial aid and the supply of 1.12 tons of fuel to Sudan.)
  • An offer by a third country, such as Saudi Arabia, to grant Bashir asylum, allowing him to avoid an ICC indictment, and indicating increased likelihood of Bashir stepping down and an orderly transition of power.

Posted 26 February 2019 by Jihane Boudiaf, Analyst, Country Risk, IHS Markit

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