*The following report is from #SudanRevolts, a media team providing updates on the situation in Sudan to the international media. The group has a membership spanning the front-lines of Sudan to the Sudanese diaspora.
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.
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.
Events of the Last Month: June-July 2012
The June 16 protests at the University of Khartoum led to similar events at the University’s various colleges and at other universities nationwide. Because of the protests’ unprecedented success, other (non-student) members of society joined the demonstrations. On “Sandstorm Friday”, June 22, 2012, citizens were called upon to congregate in mosques and take to the streets after Friday prayers. The mobilization efforts were successful, and a long day of mass protests ensued lasting well into the night across Khartoum and other cities throughout Sudan, such as El-Obeid and Port Sudan.
In the ensuing two weeks, the momentum continued with several other themed protests (‘Elbow Licking Friday’ on June 29th and ‘Outcast Friday’ on July 6th). On the international level, the Sudanese diaspora in many countries organized solidarity demonstrations. Worldwide protests were scheduled for June 30th, marking the 23rd anniversary of the NCP’s coup d’état and challenging the usual celebrations held by the Party. The most notable of these global protests took place in London, attended by an estimated 1000 people.
The last of the large protests during the first month came on July 16th when hundreds of lawyers from the Khartoum Criminal Court marched to the presidential palace to submit a memorandum urging President al-Bashir to order an end to violence against the protesters and an immediate release of detainees. The lawyers displayed placards denouncing violations of law and human rights by police and security services and chanted slogans calling for the restoration of democracy and regime change. Lawyers in the western region of Darfur held a similar protest outside the house of South Darfur state’s governor.
Far from the scale of Tahrir Square, the protests in Sudan have been relatively small in size, leading to frustrations that the revolution may be stillborn. The government response to the protests has been swift, involving tactics ranging in brutality in order to quickly dissipate the formation of a large, coordinated movement. Demonstrators have responded with a concerted effort to evade and wear out the disproportionate security response in the hopes of gradually building momentum. The struggle for traction has, however, been an uphill battle.
Challenges Facing the Movement
The security response has played a pivotal role in stifling the protests’ momentum. The government has deployed several containment measures ranging from the use of riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets, and, in a few cases, live ammunition. Retaliation by security forces has been indiscriminate and unrestrained, with attacks on mosques and homes, particularly in the Wad Nubawi district where protests have been the strongest.
Over the past month, the NISS has tracked down and arrested scores of activists, individuals involved in mobilizing the protests, and political figures. While exact numbers are difficult to verify, the Sudanese Commission for the Protection of Rights and Freedoms estimates that approximately 2000 people have been detained. The vast majority of those arrested are being held without charge and due process.
Lack of judicial oversight over the NISS’s activities is particularly concerning. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued a joint call for urgent action demanding the unconditional release of Sudanese activists, including citizen journalist and blogger Usamah Mohamed, GIRIFNA member Rashida Shams al-Din, and now released student activist Mohammed Salah, all of whom were being held incommunicado.
Testimony given by released detainees confirms the use of multiple torture methods, including electrocution. Anonymous testimony from one ex-detainee details his abduction by plain-clothed officers “on suspicion” of participating in protests. Although he was, in fact, attending a wedding ceremony with friends, he was transferred to a NISS building where he was beaten to the point of vomiting and loss of consciousness. His torture was so severe (he was at one point threatened at gunpoint) that he was released by the NISS for fear he would “die on their hands”. Following release, he sought medical treatment but was turned away from hospitals under a standing directive from the NISS forbidding hospitals to attend to protestors. As confirmed by the Sudanese Committee of Doctors and Vice Specialists, the NISS prevented the provision of medical aid to protestors and intercepted ambulances carrying the injured to hospitals.
Several of those detained in cities throughout Sudan, including in Gedarif, Atbara, and Medani, have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their detention and demand their right to due process. In some cases, the NISS has fabricated charges against activists, referring them to court. These cases include that of Magdi Akasha and GIRIFNA activist Rudwan Dawod. Akasha was released on July 2 but charged with attempted murder. Dawod, whose eight-month pregnant wife was recently interviewed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulous, was arrested along with his father and now PTSD-stricken 18 year old brother on July 3. Faced with charges of terrorism that, if proven, could have led to the death penalty, Dawod’s case was dismissed as “ridiculous” by the presiding judge on August 13, 2012. Flouting the rule of law, the NISS immediately rearrested Dawod outside the courtroom.
Arguably, the lack of coordination and absence of a centralized leadership body have been the greatest constraints on the Sudanese demonstrations. The heavy security crackdown has severely hindered efforts to form a centralized youth leadership to manage the movement. While this lack of centralization has allowed activists to operate under the NISS’s radar, questions remain as to how successful the current, uncoordinated revolt can be. Centralized leadership may be the only viable way of credibly challenging the NCP’s stronghold.
Sudan’s Opposition Parties
Sudanese opposition parties have further complicated matters. While traditionally these parties should have played an instrumental role in organizing mobilization, Sudan’s opposition groups are weak and fragmented.
On July 4, 2012, these groups signed the Democratic Alternative Charter (DAC), a document that unequivocally supports regime change and outlines how the country should be governed after the government’s ouster. The actions of these opposition groups, however, tell a different story. Unsure of the prospects for success, these parties have not taken a definitive stance on the revolt and have instead opted to remain on the fence until the outcome of these events become clear. Understandably, this approach has angered protestors.
Two opposition parties that have historically enjoyed the largest support, the National Umma (NUP) and Democratic Unionist (DUP) parties, fear the political landscape has changed and lack confidence that their followings are sufficiently unified to rally behind the protest movement. In addition, both groups have developed beneficial ties to the regime they seem unwilling to risk. The DUP is a minority member of the current government. Chairman of the Umma Party, Sadiq Al Mahdi, whose eldest son is an assistant to President al-Bashir, has been openly critical of the regime but has called for reform rather than confrontation, fearing the likelihood of Syrian-like bloodshed and instability.
The oppositions’ apparent ineffectiveness is in no small part due to regime efforts to divide these parties and other organized groups perceived as political threats. As a result, the Sudanese opposition is characterized by archaic parties and youth groups with little to no political inclination or experience. With the aid of the regime’s propaganda machine, many have come to question the credibility of the opposition.
Internal dissent against these parties and their decades-long dominance by older generations has long festered and may have now risen to the surface. Large swaths of opposition party members, especially among the youth, have chosen to align themselves with the current revolt while rebuking their parties’ lack of support.
The oppositions’ disengagement might eventually prove to benefit the movement, given the public’s lack of confidence and mistrust of its polarized leaders. While most people are hesitant to take to the streets for reasons of safety, with these leaders in mind, many have justified their reluctance to join the movement with one question: ‘who is the alternative?’
In Sudan, it is not “who” but “what” alternative is possible. Democratic change is not simply a matter of exchanging one dictator for another, but rather requires changing the entire system of governance. It is not Omar al-Bashir who brought Sudan to where it is now, but rather a sequence of failures and fraudulent policies from a government ill-equipped to run the country. It is this system that has brought Sudan 3 new wars, a bankrupt economy, a dismal education and health system, political detainees, internally displaced people, and tense relations with its neighbors.
The alternatives to this broken system should not be feared as they could not possibly bring worse consequences to the country. The Sudanese people must think outside the box and understand that, just as the current movement for change has been ignited by the people, so to can the solution.
Sudan is blessed with a high caliber of politically neutral professionals with the skills to create an alternative system during a transitional government. During this period, a caretaker government serves the needs of the country and helps lay the foundation for the nation’s democratic future. As Sudanese history has shown, transitional periods are a consistent feature of revolutions.
All these views could have been communicated to the Sudanese people if the movement had enjoyed adequate media coverage. Media attention to the Sudan uprising has, however, far from satisfied the needs and expectations of its activists. The western media appears to perceive those Sudanese not from Darfur, the Transitional Areas, or border regions as supporting the regime. In reality, however, they are just as much the victims of the country’s dictatorial regime as people from these other regions.
Government violations against journalists have not helped either, with several reporters, including Bloomberg’s Salma Al-Wardani, arrested and later deported. In light of these punitive measures and fearing reprisals, many activists have not engaged in sufficient media outreach. Local media is censored and, while BBC Arabic, Sky News Arabia, and Al-Arabiya in particular have done an admirable job of covering events, none are as powerful and far-reaching in Sudan and the surrounding region as Al-Jazeera and the other indigenous Arabic media outlets.
Al-Jazeera is state-owned and its initial neglect and later damaging portrayal of events on the ground in Sudan seems to indicate that other forces have influenced its coverage. Given the well-known ties between the Qatari government and Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s portrayal of the Sudan revolts has likely succumbed to political pressures.
The movement has compensated for the lack of media coverage by using social media. In Sudan, the effectiveness of social media as a mobilization tool is not as clear as in Egypt or Tunisia. With just under half of the Sudanese population (46.5%) below the poverty line, estimates place internet users at 10-25% of the overall population. As such, relaying information from social media to the masses remains a challenge, while also reinforcing perceptions about the elitist nature of the current uprising.
Social media has, however, proved a useful medium for communicating and documenting events. As one blogger proclaimed, “Dear Media, just as we’ll uproot the tyrants ourselves we’ll report it ourselves.” Here, the Sudanese diaspora has played an active role. Through Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs, the diaspora has spread the word and garnered international media attention for the Sudan revolts. As compared with their domestic counterparts, members of the diaspora have greater freedom to engage in on-line activism. The NCP’s “Electronic Army” polices social media and other websites, blocking news sites and discussion forums within Sudan and gathering intelligence on anti-government sentiment. Many inside Sudan have been taken from their homes solely for the opinions they have expressed online.
Prospects for the Future
Ramadan is here – a time for gatherings and daily prayers, and a golden opportunity for recruitment and daily protests after “Taraweeh” prayers. Nevertheless, the communal spirit of the month, as well as continuing restrictions on mobilization and media, have prevented this result from materializing.
While the movement has brought together a broad spectrum of people it remains somewhat elitist, with the most downtrodden sectors receiving little information about the revolts due to media restrictions. Nevertheless, various youth groups inside Sudan have made strides in synchronizing efforts, and some independent unions (doctors, lawyers, transport workers and journalists) are starting to take form.
These professional bodies could potentially play a major role in coordinating strikes and other forms of civil disobedience. For the movement to truly gather momentum, however, all involved parties must agree to support organized change and have a unified vision for the formation of a transitional government made up of independent, qualified technocrats. This would streamline the movement and help combat prevailing doubts, encouraging mass mobilization and increasing pressure for media coverage.
One thing is clear: while there is no ‘magic bullet’ for 23 years of oppression, the process of change is inevitable. The economic outlook for Sudan is dreadful and new developments that add to the deterioration and hardship occur on a monthly basis. In addition to recent austerity measures, which have increased fuel, sugar, VAT, customs and excise duty, and that have devalued the Sudanese pound by 63%, on July 22, 2012, the cost of electricity increased by approximately 300%.
Inflation also reportedly reached 37.2% in June 2012, double the level in the same month one year ago. The cost of food items has also jumped 41.4% from a year earlier while the price of meat, all of it local, has risen by 150% – today, a kilo of meat costs 50 pounds ($11.4 at the official rate) as opposed to 20 pounds one year ago. For July, figures just released by the Central Bureau of Statistics indicate a staggering year on year inflation of 41.6%.
An oil deal recently reached between the Sudanese government and the Government of South Sudan could potentially provide the regime some relief. Details of the deal, however, remain sketchy and will take time to implement and take effect with oil pipelines currently shut down and Southern exports halted. The deal also stipulates that before the oil flows the two governments must first conclude a deal on security to tackle disputed border areas, an issue that has long held up negotiations.
The Sudanese government can ill afford these delays. In the interim, the movement must and will continue. To keep the revolution alive, coordination and momentum will be key. Unplanned, anarchical change may cause damage exceeding that witnessed in Egypt, Libya, or Syria, and must be avoided at all costs. A perturbing precursor to this may have come on July 31, 2012 when 12 people were shot dead and 80 injured by security forces in a high school protest in Nyala. Events like this will do little but further entrench Sudan in a cycle of violence and suffering.