Beset by economic problems and civil war, the government of Sudan faces a possible military takeover. Saturday's break-up of the coalition civilian government heightens concerns among some political analysts here that only the military may be able to make progress on solving the two major challenges Sudan faces: the war in the south and economic morass.
Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi intends to set up a new national government by Sept. 7, but increasingly he is losing the support of the public. Sudanese diplomats and military officials readily express concern that antigovernment protests may be on the horizon. If unrest breaks out, the military would likely step in, bringing an end to 18 months of civilian rule in this vast country, which is sandwiched between anti-Western Libya and Ethiopia.
An early evening walk in downtown Khartoum, the capital, reveals the economic disintegration that is a key source of public discontent.
On the street corners, men in turbans and women with colorful scarves wait for buses. But by the time the occasional bus comes, the crowds are so large only a portion of those waiting are able to shove their way on board. On a lot at one edge of this city of mostly unpaved, garbage-strewn streets with deep potholes, more than 300 dilapidated buses sit idle.
A shortage of spare parts - and of foreign exchange to buy any that are available - is only one of the signs of a deteriorating economy. Gasoline, tires, sugar, and soap are in short supply, and inflation is gobbling up any meager gains in low salaries.
But the economy is not the only reason for growing public discontent. The prime minister's failed efforts to end an expensive war against rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan is also a sore issue. About a third of the nation's annual budget goes to fighting the war, which, after 11 years of peace, was renewed in 1983 when former ruler Jaafar Nimeiry imposed Islamic law on the predominantly non-Muslim south.
``People are for democracy,'' a Sudanese political leader said in an interview. ``But if democracy fails to satisfy the people, no one will speak up against a military dictatorship,'' he added, asking not to be identified.
Similar sentiments were expressed by political, military, and other Sudanese leaders from various parts of Sudan and by foreign residents.
``Most Sudanese believe if the drift on government policy regarding the war and the economy continues, and there is disorder, there will be a point when the military will step in to stop the drift,'' said one foreign diplomat who requested anonymity.
When his party won elections in April 1986, Mr. Mahdi was widely expected to take steps to end the war and improve the economy. Despite some efforts, he has made little progress on either front.
Recently, Sudan and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed ``in principle'' to additional funding for Sudan. But, there has long been widespread public disapproval of IMF intervention here. A key reason for this is that IMF additional credits are usually given on the basis of promises of reforms, such as cutting price subsidies that keep consumer prices low at the farmers' expense.
It was food price hikes in 1985 that helped spark demonstrations leading to the overthrow of Mr. Nimeiry.
Regarding efforts to end the war, there have recently been some informal contacts between southern Sudanese political parties and representatives of the rebel SPLA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The SPLA, under the leadership of Col. John Garang, has been fighting the government in southern Sudan since 1983. The SPLA is demanding that Islamic law be abolished and that the south be given a share of power under a new, secular constitution. So far, however there have been no breakthroughs between the adversaries.
The challenges Mahdi faces are enormous. Sudan has suffered from low world prices on its main commodity export, cotton; from a major drought and famine in l984-l985; from high international debts; and from the burden of more than 1 million refugees and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons among its population of 22 million.
In addition, the country is a mix of Arab and African ethnic groups, of Muslim, Christian, and traditional religions. These divisions have been largely responsible for ongoing civil war.
The public, ``had a lot of trust in Sadiq when he came to government in l986,'' says a professor at the University of Khartoum. But according to Sudanese analysts, groups from all sectors, many of whom demonstrated against Nimeiry, are now increasingly likely to make a stand against Mahdi. Already, professionals and students have instigated strikes to protest the poor state of the economy.
The breakdown of the coalition government, is likely to spark comment that the government is spending more time on internal squabbles than on governing the nation. The breakdown came after the ruling Hizb al-Umma Party (Umma) outvoted its coalition partner, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in the selection of a replacement for a DUP seat on the five-person council of state. The head of the council serves as president, though real power is with the prime minister. This sparked Umma and DUP discourse on a possible realignment with the opposition National Islamic Front (NIF).
Because Sudan is highly tribalized, says Hassan al-Turabi, NIF secretary general, there is a growing ``fear of Sudan becoming a Lebanon,'' - divided into sections under local military control of factions. And analysts here say that further demonstrations now might give the military added reason to step in.
After massive civilian protest two years ago against Nimeiry's autocratic rule the military took over in a coup. One year later, in an act highly unusual in Africa, the military, as promised, handed that power over to a civilian government.
Many top military officers ``feel it is too early to bring in a military dictator,'' says an Army general. But there are two conditions under which it might be persuaded to intervene, he notes: a coup ``by lower officers;'' or a request by civilian political leaders that it do so.
The general adds, however, that any military government would itself remain unstable in this nation unless it can end the war and reverse the economic decline - something the most recent military ruling council was unable to do.