Sudan's new leader an experienced economist who promises reform

Abdalla Hamdok has a long history with international organisations but ending war and fixing the economy will take political sensitivity

Sudan's new Prime Minister in the transitional government Abdalla Hamdok, addresses a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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Sudan’s new prime minister has landed what could easily pass for the most unenviable job in his vast and unfortunate country. That popular expectations are running high four months after the removal of a longstanding dictator may not be helpful to the 65-year-old economist.

Abdalla Hamdok arrived in the Sudanese capital from Ethiopia on Wednesday. Hundreds of supporters, many waving Sudanese flags, were waiting at Khartoum airport to wish him well as he prepared to tackle the Herculean task ahead of him.

Mr Hamdok, who has a master’s degree and a PhD from the University of Manchester in England, was sworn in later on Wednesday. After the ceremony, he told reporters that his top priorities would be to stop Sudan’s wars in the west and south and to end the suffering of millions displaced by these conflicts.

The economy is another top priority. Sudan’s needs to be “based on productivity rather than grants and loans,” he said.

In theory, Mr Hamdok has the expertise and qualifications to improve the country’s tattered economy. He worked in the finance ministry in the 1980s and spent the past three decades working for international consultancy firms and specialised UN agencies across Africa.

But, still, he says, he will not be able to achieve results unless the people of Sudan come together like they did when they rose against military dictatorships in 1964, 1985 and in December 2018, when street protests demanded the removal of authoritarian ruler Omar Al Bashir.

“Let us work together for the sake of a nation, a plural democratic system in which we respect our diversity,” he told reporters after he was sworn in.

Since independence in 1956, Sudan had “failed to create that national project that unites us all”, he lamented.

In the following 63 years, Sudan has had little respite from war, political upheavals, economic woes and institutional corruption. Mr Al Bashir’s 29-year reign gave the country the darkest chapter in its modern history. The 75-year-old Islamist put loyalty ahead of competency, staffing the government and military with cronies. Sudan lost a third of its territory under his rule, as the mainly animist and Christian south seceded in 2011, taking with it most of the country’s oil wealth. He brought his country shame and disgrace when he was indicted in 2010 by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide.

The months preceding his removal in April witnessed the worst economic crisis of his rule, precipitating his eventual downfall. Now, the Sudanese pound is trading on the black market at around 60 to the dollar, compared to an official rate of 45 pounds. Inflation and unemployment are in double digits and the country’s infrastructure is on its last legs.

Bread lines are back in Khartoum and motorists must wait for up to an hour to fill up. Power outages are common, lasting for hours at a time.

The road to recovery will have to begin with the removal, or at least reduction, of unaffordable subsidies on basic items. But such reforms will be politically sensitive for Mr Hamdok.

Like subsidies, defence and security spending consume a significant portion of the budget, and the new prime minister might be tempted to reduce them to make funds available for health care and education. But, again, a move like this must be coordinated with the military and security forces to avoid a backlash.

“We will be guided only by the supreme interest of the nation,” Mr Hamdok said on Wednesday. “We are looking to establish a nation of law, transparency and justice.”