Omar Zaki provides an overview of the protests in Sudan, arguing that they’re the only hope for the country.
A depressed economy
There have now been 14 days of protests across Sudan: in the capital Khartoum, the biggest city Omdurman, Port Sudan, Madani, El Obeid, Kosti, Kassala, and other major towns. The protests began following the government’s austerity measures that it implemented to close its budget deficit of 2.4 billion US dollars. Following the independence of South Sudan on 9th of July, 2011, the Republic of the Sudan’s economy began to heavily decline. In May, according to the IMF, growth slowed to 2.7% , current inflation of food prices increased to 30%, and the black market of US dollars increased. Sudan lost 75% of its oil revenue, meaning a 36% budget deficit, 4% of Sudan’s GDP. On the 27th of January 2012, South Sudan stopped its oil production, meaning that Sudan stopped receiving funds from oil transit fees. In addition, South Sudan’s unexpected and heavily condemned 10 day occupation of Heglig in April meant a temporal end of 50% of Sudan’s 110,000 barrel a day output of oil and billions of dollars of damage to its oil refinery there.
The Ministry of Finance should have been preparing a plan of action to save the economy and assist growth before South Sudan separated. But as a result of the governments heavy dependence on oil following the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War the economy began to decline fast and in turn increase resentment among the people.
The protests which occurred on the 22nd of January 2011, at the height of the Arab spring, were organised solely by University students, and did not involve anyone else. The protesters numbered a few 100s in Khartoum, and included a few organised groups such as ‘Girfna’ (We are fed up) and Sudan Change Now. However, the current protests have been more encompassing of general Sudanese society and more widespread, thus showing a clear consensus that more people are becoming tired of the government.
In fairness the government implementing austerity measures is a logical and necessary strategy to deal with its deficit, though it will heavily impact the poor – the majority of the population. Just like the Sudanese government, with the state of the global economy, more governments are implementing austerity measures. The government has even made harsh cuts to the state and the dominant National Congress Party representation; as part of the measures the ruling NCP party relinquished 30% of its share in the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government. The NCP bloc dominating the parliament voted in a bill cutting fuel & food subsides which the state can’t afford due to its loss of oil, but in turn the parliament requested the government make reforms to mitigate the effects. This included reducing number of cabinet ministers from 31 to 25, ending privileges of ministers, government officials, public spending and construction of government buildings and the privatisation of public companies. The government said it would give more benefits to poor households, increasing the number of households receiving state support from 500,000 to 750,000 and offered specific grants to poor workers and retired employees.
The removal of the fuel & food subsidies is the key trigger factor of these protests and, as the University of Khartoum’s Professor of Economics, Issam Bob, sums up, ‘implementing those measures without the consent of the people and in such a forceful manner can only be described as political suicide.’
The government faced this dilemma before; either it does not push through these austerity measures, becomes bankrupt and creeps further into debt, or it implements the austerity measures but becomes unpopular and risks being toppled.
An easy point to make – why does the government direct 70% of its budget to the military, yet only 5% to education? Well, as with any dictatorship, it naturally directs a large budget to the military and intelligence. Sudan has three rebellions ongoing in three states, thus naturally, for the government, it has to crush these rebellions to maintain peace and its control.
However, there has seemed to be some confusion among people and the media as to the nature of these protests; are they protesting against the austerity measures or do they want to overthrow the government? The answer – it’s both, but the main aim that has emerged is to peacefully overthrow the government. This opportunity is being seized by opposition parties and groups that tried to ignite protests during the peak the of the Arab Spring.
On the 23rd of June SPLM-N (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement – North section) rebel leader Malik Agar said that they would end all fighting once the government collapsed, stating his ‘willingness to proclaim a strategic ceasefire on all the military fronts after the fall of the regime to create a conducive environment for the peaceful transition of power.’ This is quite significant. In 1985, when Jaafar Numeri’s regime collapsed in Sudan’s second uprising, while the second Sudanese Civil war was still going on, the SPLM rebel group did not cease its military activity and the war continued under democratically elected Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi. It gives greater assurance because it indicates the current fighting would hopefully end and avoid the risk of the states of South Kordufan & Blue Nile separating.
On June 28th the latest rebel group to give a similar statement was the Sudanese Liberation Movement. Its spokesperson Nimir Abdel Rahman stated they support the protestors against the regime and they would not attack the capital during the protests to create chaos. This gives further reassurance that Sudanese rebels group would not manipulate the protests to launch further attacks as was done by separatist groups in Yemen at the start of their revolt. One of the primary aims of these rebels groups was to overthrow the regime by force, but if the government collapsed as a result of peaceful protests it could finally close the circle of violence in Sudan.
Government & Global Response to protests
The main figures of the Sudanese government controlled by the National Congress Party have tried to ignore the protests and create the view that they are not widespread or increasing. On the 24th of June, Omar Al-Bashir was giving a speech to a women’s association in which he briefly mentioned the economic situation, saying that the ‘entire world is facing economic crisis, we are a part of that world’. In another speech the next day he stated that these protestors were a strange and small minority and threatened to bring in ‘Mujaheddin’
First Vice President Ali Osman Taha described the protestors as ‘doom mongers’ and Presidential advisor Mustafa Osman Ismail described them as ‘bats’. On the 30th of June, as if nothing was wrong in the country, Omar Al-Bashir opened a new mall in central Khartoum.
The government has now applied all the oppressive weapons of control from its arsenal. The first 10 days of protest saw large deployments of riot police across Khartoum and around the University of Khartoum arresting protestors en masse. Chief of Police, General Hashem Othman Al-Hussein, ordered his forces to end protests ‘firmly and immediately’. There was fear the government would shut down the internet, but surprisingly they haven’t so far. The Sudanese National Telecommunications Company blocked the website of the Hurriyat Sudan. Police began detaining journalists, police deported Bloomberg’s Egyptian journalist Salma El-Wardany to Egypt for no reason. Yesterday, the AFP office in Khartoum was raided by police and photos confiscated. Several Sudanese bloggers and activists have been arrested and detained in the governments infamous ‘Ghost houses’. There have even been repressive measures, such as this man being lashed in Al Aelfon for protesting
Last Friday was named ‘Elbow-Licking’ Friday by anti-government groups, using President Omar Al-Bashir’s jibe against himself. Thousands protested from mosques and police responded with tear gas and live ammunition outside of Wad Nabawi mosque. So far one man, Amir Bayoumi of Omdurman, died from the effects of teargas. The following day saw demonstrations outside Sudanese embassies in 14 cities, including London, Cairo, Washington DC, Dublin, Dallas, Toronto, and New Delhi.
John Baird, Canadian foreign minister, stated: “We condemn the arrests of bloggers, journalists and political activists that have taken place over the last week and call for their immediate release,” Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the government to avoid “heavy-handed suppression” of protests and to release those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The US State Department and UK Foreign Office also condemned aggressive response of police and use of tear gas towards protestors.
Future of the protests
Sudan is a unique country within the wider Arab world impacted by the Arab Spring. For one Sudan is much more diverse in ethnicities, it’s not an Arab country, the majority of the population is African. But the main unique aspect is its history: Sudan was born as a democratic state in 1956, unlike the other Arab states. It has experienced 3 sets of democratic rule with three series of military dictatorships. Two of them were overthrown, Ibrahim Abboud in 1964 and Jaafar Numeri in 1985, both by massive civil unrest, strikes and the support of the military. Therefore this is nothing new for Sudan, while for Tunisia and Egypt it was.
Thirdly, Sudan experienced a long civil war and continued military conflicts which have massively affected the mental state of the country. People were hopeful war would end with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which the Bashir government helped to construct. The People were tired of the 21 year civil war, followed by the 10 year Darfur conflict, and now the conflict in South Kordufan & Blue Nile State. There are those who believe peace is more of a priority than regime change, but most are realising that the main obstacle to peace, prosperity, success and greater rights has been Omar Bashir and the National Congress Party. Lastly, because of Sudan’s past democratic periods there is an established opposition group which has still been active even during the dictatorship of Omar Bashir, such as the Sudanese Communist Party, the Umma Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and others. These could easily form an opposition which could lead negotiations for a peaceful power transfer. However they are old and unfamiliar with the Sudanese youth.
The main ways for the Sudan revolts to succeed is a consistent and continued series of protests across the state to pressure the government and with international pressure from some of Sudan main allies and neighbours (Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia and the Gulf states of Qatar and the UAE). Sanctions won’t work as Sudan is already under them. With these two aims firmly in place the so called ‘Salvation Government’ can disappear from the scene, along with 23 years of oppression, war, extremism, embarrassment, rape, murder, racism and pain.