On the evening of June 16, 2012, female students living in the University of Khartoum dormitories demonstrated against increasing accommodation costs and the government’s general price hikes. Unable to afford a basic meal or bus fare, they took to the streets in protest. Along the demonstration route, the girls passed the men’s dorms where they were joined by their male counterparts.

After marching a few blocks from campus, the peaceful protestors were met with violence as police forces attempted to forcibly disperse the group. While the female students returned to the dorms, they were soon on the streets again, resuming their demonstrations. This time pro-government students affiliated with the National Congress Party (NCP) and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) officers raided the dorms, verbally abusing students and bombarding the surrounding area with teargas.

Many have debated Sudan’s perceived reluctance to join the Arab Spring, as the country’s situation has arguably been the most conducive to sparking revolution. This impromptu protest by the University of Khartoum’s female students may prove to ignite Sudan’s long overdue uprising.

In the past month, demonstrations have grown beyond student protests to include other youth groups and citizens intent on toppling the regime. This all-encompassing popular movement is not the first of its kind in Sudanese history. Rather, it is a “Sudanese Summer” inspired by previous uprisings in 1964 and 1985 against military dictatorships in Sudan.

Context on the Current Uprising

While the exorbitantly high cost of living compounded by the latest fiscal austerity measures has certainly triggered recent events in Sudan, it would be remiss to view these developments as the sole driving forces behind the revolt. Over the last 23 years, a series of failures have culminated to create conditions conducive to revolution, including:

  • a failure to move beyond divisive politics of ethnicity;
  • the cynical exploitation of ethnic differences to suppress challenges to the ruling regime;
  • a failed economic strategy that has squandered the country’s natural resource wealth, enriching elites connected to the regime, but leaving vast swaths of the population without basic services, employment, shelter and health care; and
  • the politicization and dismantling of institutions, including within the civil service, health and education sectors, which had been among the best performers in Africa;

The NCP, headed by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, came to power through a military coup on June 30, 1989. The Inqaz, or ‘Salvation’, regime (as it came to call itself) combined military dictatorship with ideological fundamentalism under the banner of Islamic rule.

In the years that followed, the regime dismantled Sudan’s civil service and trade union movements using twin policies of ‘For the Public Good’ and tamkeen, or empowerment. The strategy aimed to ensure regime loyalists would hold complete control of both the public and private sectors. The media, school curricula, and even school uniforms were changed to reshape public perception under a policy of ‘Reformulating the Sudanese’.

These efforts were fortified and enforced through the deployment of the Public Order police to further control personal freedoms, particularly those of women. In 2008 alone, 43,000 women in Khartoum were charged under the Public Order law for an array of misconduct crimes. To maintain its power, the regime systematically curtailed basic freedoms, detained and tortured opponents, and maintained a policy of divide and rule fueled by religious discrimination and racism.

NCP policies of patronage and coercion extended to the economic sphere. The regime assumed control of banks, foreign trade, and much of the farm and industrial production sector through the discretionary use of policies favoring businessmen loyal to the regime.

As oil revenues filled state coffers, the NCP captured much of this revenue through a variety of mechanisms, including:

  • through establishing businesses owned by government officials affiliated with the ruling party, or quasi-private enterprises owned by entities such as the Military National Economic Corporation, the Charity Corporation for Supporting the Armed Forces, and the Holding Group of the Security Authorities;
  • favoring NCP-affiliated companies or those headed by former officials in large public tenders; and
  • introducing regulations that enshrined private monopolies, such as Sheikan or Mungash, and that required all state entities to use these companies, in the case of these two companies respectively for insurance and conducting auctions.

The regime capitalized on religious rhetoric and declared jihad to buttress the Sudan Armed Forces in the civil war in the South, a conflict that resulted in the death of over 2.5 million people. While the NCP eventually signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with Southern secessionists in 2005, it failed to implement many of its commitments. Instead of working toward peaceful co-existence, the government cheated the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) of oil accounts and financed proxy wars against it, assuring that 99% of Southern voters would support an independent state in the 2011 referendum.

The relationship between the NCP and the GoSS continues to be contentious. The NCP has failed to finalize post-independence arrangements, which have contributed to the outbreak of conflict with the Republic of South Sudan in the Higlig border area.

When it signed the CPA, Sudan had a world of possibility before it, enjoying peace, substantial revenue, and a boom in Foreign Direct Investment. However, because of inept economic management, these opportunities have been squandered. Sudan increased its dependence on the oil sector, despite the obvious signs that this revenue source was drying up. By 2007, foreign investors grew weary of ongoing political risk and high levels of corruption, resulting in a decline in investment levels.

Meanwhile, the government borrowed to fuel its expenditure binge. It allowed unchecked expansions in public spending. Most of this money would be destined for the security and political sectors, with only a small share going to infrastructure development, industry, and social safety nets. The regime failed to build any type of sovereign fund for future generations or develop its hard currency reserves despite unexpectedly high oil prices in 2007 and onwards. Instead, it managed its currency to bolster GDP through increased consumption, supplied by imports.

Wars in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan that, by the government’s own admission, have cost Sudan approximately US$4 million per day are depleting resources that the country can ill afford in the midst of an economic crisis caused by the loss of oil revenues and litany of other fiscal maladies.

Artist: Khaled Albaih. All rights reserved.

Protests against austerity measures are not about short-term price increases, but the rejection of government attempts to force the poor and middle classes to pay for a decade of economic mismanagement. The regime’s management of oil revenues, which could have transformed Sudan into an emerging economy, has instead become glaring evidence of its pervasive corruption.

Despite US$60 billion in oil exports, the country’s external debt has risen by US$15 billion since the advent of oil production, reaching US$40 billion overall. Agriculture and other productive sectors have been neglected alongside health, water and education. These factors have all contributed to Sudan’s woeful Human Development Index, ranking 169 of 187 overall, the lowest of all MENA countries.

The loss of oil exports has had a resounding impact on the economy: the current account balance has drastically turned into a large deficit, estimated at US$2.4 billion, and the Sudanese pound has depreciated by approximately 125 percent since secession. Inflation continues to accelerate, partly due to the rising cost of basic imported goods, which in turn has increased economic hardship for the poor and vulnerable.

Today, Sudan exhibits the signs of the Resource Curse – an increasingly narrow export and employment base, with manufacturing and agriculture in long-term decline. In an attempt to address its bottom line the government amended its budget for 2012, embracing a comprehensive austerity package of fiscal adjustment and currency depreciation.

These measures have exacerbated the already high cost of living and brought the economy to a tipping point.  In the process, fear and apathy have melted away, and the nation’s youth have risen up in rejection of this storied web of regime failures, employing new techniques of political mobilization and civil resistance to circumvent the regime‘s iron grip.