Nationwide protests in Sudan have entered their second month, triggered by economic scarcity and the collapse of the economy.
The year 2018 was dominated by images of endless queues in Sudan. Social media was filled with images and videos of scores of people lining up for cash in banks and ATM machines, at bakeries for bread, while cars formed endless lines at fuel stations.
Lighting the spark for the protest was the price of bread tripling overnight, and so the cash crisis seemed inevitable. Professor Steve Hanke, an applied economist at Johns Hopkins University, tweeted that inflation soared to 85% and the government “ran up an enormous budget #deficit on the back of endless subsidies.”
The public anger which was directed at the economic crisis in the first few days, soon demanded the toppling of the ruling regime, with unprecedented protests in terms of geographical scale and number of people taking to the streets in spite of the excessive use of force by pro-government forces.
An initial count of the number of towns and villages that joined anti-regime protests since December 13th in Sudan has exceeded 70. Sudan’s minister of Interior Ahmed Bilal Osman told parliament on January 7th that 19 persons were killed in the protests and 816 arrested.
Amnesty International said on January 18th that 40 protestors were killed in five days of anti-regime protests and at least 1000 persons arrested. Activists claimed that over 2000 persons have been arrested.
The excessive use of force against protestors was also coupled with a crackdown on media. Social media platforms and WhatsApp messaging were blocked in Sudan from December 19th. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) ordered print media not to cover protests and the practice of prior censorship came back into effect.
On January 22nd, Reporters Without Borders documented more than 100 cases of violation of press freedom in the past month, including 66 cases of arrest of journalists, 34 cases of seizure of newspapers before distribution and the revoking of credentials for six Sudan-based correspondents of international media.
Suliman Baldo, Sudanese analyst and Senior Policy Advisor for Enough Project, a US based NGO, told 7Dnews that the protests are a predictable outburst against 30 years of continued oppression and come as a result of political, economic and social pressure.
He said, “the future for young people in Sudan has reached a dead end. Qualified young persons cannot find employment opportunities. Those who have jobs are unable to meet their families’ needs because of the inflation. Women are playing an active role in this uprising because of the daily subordination, being a target for public order police, and lack of appreciation of their contribution in the society.”
He added, “This is a revolution against corruption and failure in managing the economy. The protestors chant ‘Our protest is peaceful, against the thieves’ and ‘We stand up to those who have stolen our wealth’. The current crisis is directly linked to corruption and the government has protected those involved in corruption. In 2016, Al Bashir ditched a bill calling for revoking immunity of government officials accused of corruption.”
The Legacy of September 2013
In September 2013, thousands of people took to the streets in protest against austerity measures and demanded regime change. The government used live ammunition to contain the protests, with 185 protestors killed with direct gunshots to head and chest which was new to people in urban areas like Khartoum. The unprecedented mass protests in 2013 quickly faded, and justice is yet to be won for those who lost their lives.
Baldo said this uprising is different because, “It started from the villages and towns, then spread to Khartoum. The circle of fear has been broken, they know the authorities have an oppression machine that would silence any peaceful protest. The regime did not also provide any political solution to the protestors, except of re-electing Al Bashir in 2020, which means reproduction of the regime’s failures. People can sense the weakness of the regime that has only its security apparatuses functioning.”
Another element contributing to the sustainability of the protests is the lack of convincing narrative from the government side on who is killing the protestors. The government promoted an image of the protestors as violent vandals who have planned riots and the destruction of public properties. General Salah Mohamed Abdallah, head of NISS, said in a press conference on December 24th, that rioters are affiliated with Sudan Liberation Movement/ Army-Adel Wahid Nour, a rebel group active in Darfur. Footage of young men from Darfur was broadcast on national TV, calling them “vandals”. This sparked anger as many of the acclaimed “vandals” have been recognised by activists as university students from Darfur.
Ahmed Kodouda, a researcher and doctoral student at George Washington University, said the use of the narrative that protestors are outsiders to the mainstream Sudanese society did not pay off this time, but rather created an awareness of what has happened in Darfur and brought people closer together.
He said, “Showing those students on TV has left a bitter taste on everyone. People know they are the ones taking to the streets against the regime. People are hungry, they do not have cash. The government is no longer able to lie its way out of this.”
Baldo said all the active sectors of Sudanese society are behind the current organisation and protests are highly coordinated. “Young people, professionals, and even the political parties and coalitions which have a long history of internal divisions have realised the importance of the moment and co-led the uprising.”
Kodouda said a crucial element in the ongoing organisation is the existence of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a coalition of informal trade unions that was launched mid 2018 and have been steadily advocating a rise in the minimum wage in Sudan.
He said, “It is a front that people can coalesce around. The trade unions’ leadership of political change is embedded in the history and the sentiment of the Sudanese people. The trade unions led the revolutions in 1964 and 1985. People are hungry for an alternative that will lift them out of this trap. They put their hopes in the SPA.”
The protests are likely to continue until there are clear political and economic reforms that bring justice and wide popular participation, said Baldo. However, the current ruling party seems unwilling to let such change happen at a low human cost.