Sudan: This time it's different

Sudan: This time it's different
Comment: This is the first protest movement of its kind to demand regime change from the outset, writes Reem Abbas.
7 min read
22 Jan, 2019
Sudanese demonstrators gather in Khartoum's twin city, Omdurman, 20 January 2019 [AFP]
Al-Fatih Al-Nimeer passed away last night at Royal Care Hospital making him the third casualty of Thursday's protests in Burri, in the Eastern Part of Khartoum, Sudan's capital city. 

When his death was announced, thousands marched from his house to the cemetery in his hometown of Omdurman, Khartoum's twin-city, and the protests lasted well into the night. He entered the hospital on Thursday night with a bullet that entered through his right eye that settled into his skull.

The government refused to allow his family to travel abroad to seek better healthcare options, not wanting this bullet to leave the country.

In fact, something like an unofficial travel ban on protestors with bullets still inside their bodies is now in place.

Ammunition taken out of the lungs, arms and abdomens of protesters has been confiscated by armed security agents at hospitals. Doctors are being threatened, and one protester - blogger Yasir Ali who still has a bullet lodged in his lungs - was arrested to stop him from leaving the country. He remains in detention.

The government's reactions to the ongoing protests in the country is extraordinarily heavy-handed because this is the strongest and most sustained protest movement of Bashir's three decades of rule.

This is the strongest and most sustained protest movement of Bashir's three decades of rule

It is also the first movement to demand regime change from the outset.

The waves of protests that shook the country in 2012, 2013 and January 2018, have now evolved into calls for regime change, whereas initial demands responded to the lifting of subsidies on bread and fuel. They were limited in geographic scope and led primarily by political parties and pressure groups.

The first in this new wave of protests erupted in Atbara, a city in River Nile state in Central Sudan on 19 December. It was both organic and spontaneous, and the people called for regime change after months of frustrating bread shortages and the constant price hikes.

The protest grew to an unprecedented size for that city, and hours later, demonstrators set fire to two government buildings, including the National Congress Party's HQ.

In a matter of days the people of Al-Demar, Shendi and Berber, all in River Nile state, were on the streets. The government was dumbfounded. It had lost its stronghold and imposed a crack down, killing protestors and imposing a curfew in Atbara.

Gedarif, a city in Eastern Sudan, was next and the quiet water-deprived city saw the largest wave of protest in its contemporary history. Social media commentators had to note the name of the state next to cities that were unknown around the country, until they took to the streets.

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a body composed of independent trade unions of doctors, engineer, lawyers and other professionals, emerged and called for a march from Abu-Jinzer square in central Khartoum to the presidential palace to submit a memorandum calling for the president to step down.

The march did not reach the palace, but it was the largest crowd to protest in the city's capital in decades, and this was the turning point.

The crowd was not just activists; it was students, young people and professionals who came to chant for the regime's overthrow. There was a consensus on social media that this was the beginning of the end for the NCP.

#JustFall vs. #JustStay

A hashtag started by activists soon went viral. #JustFall (a translation of the Arabic hashtag) presented the core demand of the protestors and the movement in general.

It quickly carved out a space inside Sudan's popular culture as it was inserted into songs performed at weddings, emblazoned on t-shirts and chanted at all protests inside and outside Sudan.

Government affiliates and the ruling party quickly countered this hashtag with their own - #JustStay. Those arrested during the protests were beaten if they refused to say "just stay!" instead of "just fall!".

To many of his people, Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir has overstayed his welcome

To many of his people, Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir has overstayed his welcome.

He came to power through a coup in 1989 and for over 60 percent of the population who were born during his tenure, he's the only ruler they've ever known. He governs with an iron fist, using religious dialogue to control and manipulate constituencies and using war to justify sinking over 70 percent of GDP into security and defense.

An oil boom in the 1990s helped him remain in power. Some basic funds were poured into infrastructure and the country stabilised economically even when conflict continued to rage.

When South Sudan separated in 2011, Sudan lost over 70 percent of its oil revenues and due to lack of investment in other industries, and the country had no other alternatives. The economy began crashing desperately between 2011 and 2017. The government's stabilisation efforts involved taking out loans, selling and renting vast tracts of agricultural lands, selling raw gold abroad, and printing money. A lot of money.

Bleeding the country dry

US sanctions were lifted in late 2017, and there was no longer any excuse. Sudan fell into economic trouble because of grossly disproportionate expenditure on warfare instead of development. Corruption scandals implicating government officials made it clear that the issue was not a lack of money, but its final destination.

But Sudan's debt continued to climb to over $50 billion and it found itself ostracised from regional and International grants and loan-provision programs and it just could not afford to print more money without gold reserves to match.

The country ran dry.

Banks stopped giving people cash and in turn, clients stopped depositing money. Between January and September 2018, searching for a working cash machine meant hunting all over social media and getting there asap.

Even transport to the cash machine has become difficult, as the fuel shortages that hit the country last March are ongoing. An ordinary day consisted of queueing at the cash machine, at the petrol station and then at the bakery to get bread that may or may not be rationed, depending on the current wheat shortage.

Businesses found it difficult to operate as transport of goods became prohibitively expensive. Traders stopped selling products in bulk due to the constant plummeting of the Sudanese pound to the dollar. Prices changed sometimes on a daily basis.

When these protests began, the Sudanese pound had plummeted and the new finance minister - conveniently the cousin of the president - had failed to improve the dire economic situation since he joined the government when President Bashir promised change, and reshuffled his cabinet in September 2018.

People are fed up of failed promises, and are convinced that the government is unable to solve the country's ills

He also began actively working towards running for the 2020 elections, and this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

People are fed up of failed promises, and are convinced that the government is unable to solve the country's ills. They are tired of suffering, standing in line and feeling degraded while trying to access basic services.

As the protests entered their second month and the death toll continues to rise, it's clear that there is no going back from the streets or on the call for Bashir and his government to fall.

Last week, a day before protests were expected in Bahri, dozens rushed to the main hospital to donate blood, expecting the next day to be the normal bloodbath with government forces shooting live ammunition.

One of the most popular chants in the protests remains "the bullet does not kill, a person's silence does," and although the bullet has killed students, doctors, teachers and community organisers in the last month, an adamant people is determined to break the silence, and keep protesting until the  regime "just falls".

Reem Abbas is a freelance journalist, award-winning blogger and communications consultant based in Sudan.

Follow her on twitter: @ReemWrites

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.