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Less than two months in office, Sudan’s new prime minister is facing immense challenges in his endeavour to lead the country out of 30 years of economic stagnation, political chaos, civil war and crippling corruption.
Abdalla Hamdok, 63, was named as prime minister by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella organization of 17 trade unions that led the protests in early 2019 that saw the ouster of long-time dictator President Omar al-Bashir.
Hamdok’s task is complicated by the fragile power-sharing deal signed between the civilian cabinet and the army generals who claim to have sided with the popular uprising against their former leader.
Despite the fact that the ruling Sovereign Council led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan consists of five generals and six civilians, the military and security agencies still overtly and covertly dominate a significant part of the country’s failing economy, supported by the remnants of the previous regime at different levels of the central and state governments.
The role of the army generals during the 39-month transitional period until an election is controversial, particularly among the youth who led the revolt.
However, Hamdok, a seasoned economist both at home and abroad, appears optimistic. “With the right vision, with the right policies, we will be able to address this economic crisis,” he told reporters after being sworn in on 21 August. He vowed to devise an urgent recovery programme addressing the shortages of basic commodities that have plagued Sudan, and he confirmed that making peace with rebel movements in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains will be a top priority.
In the longer term, Hamdok emphasized the need to improve productivity and rebuild the banking sector, which he said was on the verge of collapse.
Avoiding the sinking ship
Hamdok made headlines in September 2018, when he formally declined al-Bashir’s offer to appoint him finance minister. Hamdok’s decision not to jump onto what was already a sinking ship garnered him considerable respect that guaranteed his approval by the different opposition groups when he was nominated as prime minister a year later.
Nevertheless, it was ironic that the ruling Islamists even considered Hamdok for finance minister, as the administration fired him in April 1990 after ten years as an economist in the same ministry. At the time, the Islamists were waging a wide campaign to purge their actual and protentional political opponents from public service.
Hamdok was targeted, at least in part, for being an active member of the Sudanese Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s, although he left the party in the early 1990s. When he lost his job, he was studying for a master’s degree in economics from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. He subsequently finished his master’s and earned a PhD in the same field in 1993.
Unable to return home while al-Bashir was in power, Hamdok started his international career in Zimbabwe in 1993 as the head of the public sector group at Deloitte & Touche Management Consultants. He worked for the International Labour Organization as chief technical advisor from 1995-1997, then served International IDEA as regional director for Africa and the Middle East from 2003-2008. He moved to Ethiopia in 2011 to become the deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
During his time in Ethiopia, he was credited with shaping some of the policies that spurred that country’s rapid economic growth. He has maintained excellent professional and personal relations with the leaders of Ethiopia, which is an important partner for Sudan, particularly regarding regional security and Nile water management.
Throughout his career, Hamdok has focused on addressing diverse economic and development challenges across Africa in the fields of public sector reforms, governance, regional integration and resource management. This extensive experience in the international arena is an indispensable asset for Sudan, which is emerging from decades of political isolation and economic sanctions.
Hamdok has already requested $2 billion from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the falling Sudanese pound. This could have a political price at home, however, as many political players have repeatedly warned of the social cost of the structural reforms demanded by international financial institutions, especially eliminating food and fuel subsidies. However, the new cabinet has promised to replace commodity subsidies with direct cash transfers to poor families.
Political turning point
Despite the immense challenges Hamdok faces, his appointment can be seen as a turning point in Sudanese politics. He has been unanimously accepted by opposing civilian and military leaders. Furthermore, he does not belong to the traditional Sudanese elite. He was born and raised in the poor village of al-Dibaibat, South Kordofan, which was hit hard by successive civil wars, and unlike most of Sudan’s prominent politicians, he is not a member of a major tribe.
Hamdok is married to Muna Abdalla who holds a master’s degree in development studies from Leiden University in the Netherlands and has also worked for international organizations for many years. She has already attracted the attention and criticism of conservative Islamists for making her first public appearance without covering her hair, as has been the norm for the last three decades. The couple has two grown-up sons.