Friday, April 19, 2019

Popular Protests in Sudan: End of the Military Rule?


Abdul Rahman

“Tasgut bas” (Must go, full stop!) is the slogan of ongoing people’s movement in Sudan against the long serving regime led by Omar al-Bashir. Though Bashir has already resigned and has been arrested, the military’s control over the power in Sudan is still intact. The new interim head of the Transitory Military Council General Abdul Fatah al-Burhan may have to move aside and let a civilian government take over for a transition period. This remains the major demand of the demonstrators.    


The Events
The protests started in mid-December last year after the Bashir government imposed a series of austerity measures including the withdrawal of the wheat subsidies. This withdrawal led to a massive increase in the prices of bread in the country forcing people to take to the streets. The bread demonstrations soon acquired a new strength on April 6, 2019 when the protesters decided to surround the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum. April 6 is a significant date in Sudanese history. On this very day in 1985 Sundanese people had forced the then military dictator Gaafar Nimeiri to resign. 

When all the attempts to oppress the protests failed because most of the young officers in the military expressed their sympathy with the protesters and international backers of the regime refused to come to the aid, Omar al-Bashir resigned on April 11 and was soon kept in house arrest. He has now been shifted to a prison and would be tried for violence against the protestors. The military announced the formation of an interim transitional government for 2 years, first under General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, who was the defence minister in the Bashir government.  When protesters refused to accept him, he too had to resign within 24 hours. On 12 April General Abdul Fatah al-Burhan was appointed as a head of the Military Council. He is seen a member of younger officers who played a crucial role in Bashir’s resignation. Though the protests are still going on with the demand of a joint military and civilian transitional government most probably there will be negotiations between the opposition and the military regime to chart the future of the transitional regime.  

The Background
Sudan, once Africa’s largest country, has a long history of popular movements against the government. The current agitations have been preceded by two major popular protest movements in 1965 and 1989. On both the occasions common people took to the streets against the military dictators and forced them to leave the power. However, on both the previous occasions military eventually took back the control. Omar al-Bashir came to power precisely under one such circumstance in 1989 coup done against the transitory government formed after the anti Gafaar Nimeiri protests. Since then Bashir has been ruling Sudan with a mixed approach of patronage and oppression. His National Congress Party has been winning elections ever since 1995 marred by the allegations of oppression of the opposition and cheatings. It survived through explicit backing and participation of the military in the government. Bashir won the last elections in 2015 and was slated to be the candidate in the next elections scheduled in 2020. Apart from military, Bashir had created a lot of additional security apparatuses such as National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) directly under his control. He enjoyed the support of Islamists such as National Islamic Front and Hasan al-Tourabi’s Popular Congress Party since the beginning of his rule. The oil revenues coming from the reserves in the southern Sudan, now a separate country, and different kind of foreign aid coming from countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE sustained a widespread welfare regime in the country. 

Bashir’s regime was also sustained because of the continuous unrest in its peripheral regions. The separatist movement in Southern regions which ultimately resulted in the creation of a new state in 2011 with the mediation by the US, EU and Norway was the longest such conflict in the world’s history. Its western region of Darfur faced a long period of armed conflict as well. Such security challenges provided legitimacy to Bashir’s government. His regime using brutal force against the rebellion in Darfur became an international issue and Bashir was tried and convicted for crime against humanity in the International Criminal Court in 2009. The reason that nothing happened even after that was Bashir’s willingness to agree to various demands of the US. Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement Sudan has become a very crucial state for the American geo-strategy.

Though the internal opposition to Bashir has been increasing in the years after he was convicted in the ICC, it became stronger since the series of protesters against the established military and authoritarian regimes in the Arab world in 2011 solely because the US and its allies stood with the regime. When people mobilised against the regime, for example in 2013, the Bashir government suppressed them with brutal force.  

The Opposition
The movement against the military rule is led by a loose set of groups including the Sudanese Professional Association, an umbrella group of different middle-class professionals and trade unions, opposition parties united under the banner of National Consensus Forces (NCF) which includes the Sudanese Communist Party,  The ex-militants who fought with the regime forces in Darfur and other parts of the country under the banner of Sudan Call and a number of young activist groups under different banners such as Girifina (1) (we had enough!). The Sudanese communist party is one of the leading opposition parties in the protests. 

The National Consensus Forces (FNC), a broad alliance of opposition parties was formed in 2009 by the initiatives taken by the Sudanese Communist Party. It gave call for greater political freedoms in Sudan in a document called ‘Sudan Call’ published in December 2014. The call was issued jointly with the Sudanese Revolutionary Forces’ leader Minni Minnavi. The group had categorically demanded the right to freedom of expression, formation of a national unity government and cessation of hostilities against the rebels subsequently. During the current agitation 22 parties gave a united call for the resignation of the Bashir, dissolution of the parliament and formation of the new transitional government called “National Consensus Council” of 100 members in January 2019. The other parties included the National Umma Party, Reform Now, the Ba’ath party and the Darfur Community Forum. They formed a new front called National Front for Change. Reform Now was also a part of the Bashir government till then.

Economic Distress is the Root
The opposition groups have been organising the popular protests since 2009, forcing the Bashir government to initiate a failed National Dialogue in 2014. Today, it has acquired a pan-Sudan character because of the failures of the Bashir government to maintain the economic health of the country. After the independence of the Southern Sudan in 2011 Sudan has lost 75% of its oil revenues. Global financial crisis has prevented any large-scale foreign assistance promised in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to the country which has created a huge foreign debt. As per the latest estimates Sudan has $56 billion’s external debt which is 62% of its GDP. According to the African Development Bank in 2018 Sudan had 18% unemployment rate despite the fact that its economy grew over 4% in the same year.(2)  Bashir tried to pre-empt the anger of the people against his government and sacked his entire cabinet and massive reshuffling of the provincial governments in September 2018 leading to the removal of some long term allies such as General Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein from the post of the governor of Khartoum and Hassabu Abdel Rahman from the post of the Vice President. Such removals paved the way for further popular mobilisation against the government because the new government was unable to do anything about the economic problems faced by the people.  

Current agitations started in mid-December 2018 after a series of economic hardships faced by the common people. The inflation rose to 68% and most of the ATMs were dried for a long time due to the lack of printed currency. The government, in order to ease the pressure of external debt initiated a set of austerity measures leading to cut in the government spending. This was the reason for the withdrawal of subsidies on wheat which in turn led to the huge rise in the prices of bread.(3) This was opposed by the working classes in some remote cities later supported by the Communist Party and Professional Associations and Trade Unions. When protests persisted in the new year Bashir government tried to use force and started a massive oppression of the opposition. The secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party, Muhammad Mukhtar al-Khatieb along with 16 other Central Committee members of the Party were arrested among leaders of other political parties. The NIS has been alleged for torturing and killing people. According to various media reports almost 20 people have been killed in the firing done by Bashir loyalists on the protesters. In late February a state of emergency and night curfews were imposed.  

The people protesting on the streets have given the call of “Freedom, Peace, Justice, the revolution is the People’s Choice!” and want nothing less than the formation of a civilian transitory government. General Burhan has reiterated the same assurances as Auf which includes two years transitory government led by the military council and a dialogue with the protesters. He has also assured complete freedom of expression to the people. However, it looks like opposition parties are still not satisfied. 

What Lies Ahead?
Omar al-Bashir, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and toppling of the Mubarak, Ben-Ali and Gadhaffi’s governments in neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, had realised the importance of the US protection. His support for the American initiative in Southern Sudan provided him one round of relief from the execution of the conviction in Darfur Case. Bashir joined Saudi coalition in Yemen against the Houthis in 2016 and got the long-term US sanctions withdrawn in 2017. He was hoping that these international forces will protect his regime from any popular uprising as well. However, it has not happened as per his wishes. After pressurising Bashir to resign Saudis and UAE appealed the Sudanese protesters to give military council a chance in “national interest” which was a clear indication of their backing of the military. However, the people might not buy such tactics. Nevertheless, a transitory government will have a lot many domestic and international pressures to cope with which includes the status of Sudanese engagements in Yemen.   

It will be naïve to speculate about the future of the present agitations. There are equal changes of its going the Egyptian way given the larger structural constraints in Sudan. Islamists are not much active in the demonstrations and given their support to Bashir government in the past, it will be very difficult for them to win the popular support. However, the lack of a united opposition, lack of any alternative economic plan and virtually no experience of any political formation of running a government in the opposition means that the role of the military in the Sudanese politics will be crucial even after the transitional period.

The author is Assistant Professor at TISS, Hyderabad


1. a movement of young activists started in 2010 and mostly run by people based outside the country.
3. Abdulaziz Khalid (2018), “Cash runs out in Khartoum as Sudan tries to Halt Economic Crisis”, Reuters https://in.reuters.com/article/us-sudan-economy/cash-runs-out-in-khartoum-as-sudan-tries-to-halt-economic-crisis-idINKCN1NH1N4

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