26/09/2013 13:22 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Sudan: Reform or Face Destruction

Every country's leaders should heed the Prince of Lampedusa's advice. In his 1958 masterpiece, "The Leopard," the Sicilian writer warned, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." He meant that if a ruler offered his people sufficient reforms, thereby sacrificing a little power and privilege, he could prevent total revolution, during which he would lose everything.

Thousands of Sudanese citizens are taking to the streets in revolt against their regime's economic and political mismanagement. Their president, Omar Bashir, must allow reform, or face destruction. Since Monday unarmed civilians have braved bullets and tear gas to protest against the removal of fuel subsidies. It is believed twenty nine people have been killed, although there are reports of more than a hundred dead. Since the internet has been cut and private TV stations closed down, it is hard to verify the scale of the repression facing protestors.

Sudanese have plenty of reasons to demonstrate against the disastrous state of the country's finances; inflation is running at 40% and years of oil revenues have been frittered away. Beyond the capital, Khartoum, there has been little investment in infrastructure, education or heath facilities. Unemployment and under-employment have demoralised those millions who do not benefit from the crony capitalism that has sustained the ruling elite for decades.

Sudanese are also aware that the regime has brought its economic problems on itself. After years of jihad against its non-Muslim and non-Arab citizens in the southern third of the country, in 2011 those they had ruthlessly targeted voted by 98% to secede, taking 70% of the oil with them. Opposition leaders claim the regime still spends $3 million a day fighting long-running wars against rebels in Darfur and the marginalised regions. This ethnic cleansing, coupled with years of regime support for terrorist groups, as well as Iran and Hezbollah, have been rewarded with international sanctions, making the economic situation even more precarious for all but the favoured few.

However, it is a yearning for long-overdue political change which now threatens Khartoum's totalitarian dictatorship, in power since a 1989 military coup. The regime's interpretation of Sharia law antagonises people who resent the interference of the security services in their private lives. For instance, young women are routinely harassed to deter them from going to school and college. Moreover, Sudan is ranked by Freedom House among the ten most repressive governments in the world.

This is not the first time Sudanese have risen up. In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept through Sudan's northern neighbours, thousands protested against Khartoum's incompetence, corruption and cronyism. Their peaceful demonstrations were put down with unhesitating brutality. This time there are rumours that elements within the Sudanese military may side with the demonstrators.

The way forward for President Bashir and his colleagues is plain. In 2005 Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which led to the eventual secession of South Sudan, in what was optimistically hoped would end Africa's longest running civil war. The CPA contained an interim constitution guaranteeing Sudanese citizens the freedoms they are now calling for. But instead of abiding by its commitments to the CPA, Khartoum dumped the interim constitution in favour of one reflecting its repressive and twisted interpretation of Islam.

An end to widespread and ubiquitous human rights abuses and the opening up of Sudanese society would breathe fresh air into the current rotten system. However, the economy will continue to disintegrate while Khartoum wages war in the marginalised regions of Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Reform, coupled with the constitutional protection of minorities, must bring some form of federalism, giving those outside the capital a stake in the nation.

When Khartoum stops slaughtering its own unarmed citizens, international sanctions will be dropped, and its vast debt will be negotiated away. How many courageous Sudanese civilians must risk their lives before those clinging to power in Khartoum grasp that the game is up?