Initially, it was called the “bread revolution” but soon the wave of protests that is currently inflaming Sudan led to an unprecedented uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir.
Rallies started on 19 December in the city of Atbara, in the northern part of the country. Thousands of Sudanese took to the streets protesting against the dramatic economic situation of the country where the inflation rate has reached 70% and prices have rapidly become prohibitive. In a few months the price of just one loaf of bread increased from one half to three Sudanese pounds. A similar trend has hit the cost of public transportation, often the only way to reach Khartoum for those living in the outskirts of the capital. Fuel shortages have been ongoing for weeks with people queuing overnight at petrol stations hoping to get their cars refueled. Those who try to withdraw money from the banks are sent away with a maximum of 2,000 Sudanese pounds per day – approximately $US 42 at the official exchange rate - and ATMs are often out of cash.
Sudan is not new to street protests, but this time they are getting more widespread and prolonged. Demonstrations have been held in twenty-five cities covering almost the entire country.
Frustration over skyrocketing costs of living and deteriorating living conditions has been the trigger for the protests against the repressive government of Omar al-Bashir. After almost three decades in power, the Sudanese are now demanding he resign.
Omar al-Bashir, leader of the National Congress Party, seized power in 1989 with a military coup overthrowing Sudan’s last democratically elected government. An indictment by the International Criminal Court was handed down in 2009 for his role in the Darfur genocide. Despite this, he has been moving freely outside the country while stipulating political and economic alliances with different countries including Russia and Turkey. A few days before the protests started, Bashir visited President Assad in Syria, renewing support from the Sudanese government. Sudan is expected to vote in 2020 and Bashir has already announced that he will run for a third mandate, violating the two-mandate limit stated in the constitution.
Young people and students, historically at the core of protests in Sudan, have lived their entire lives under Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship.
The Sudanese president can count on the support of the military and paramilitary forces – such as the fighting arm of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the Rapid Response Force – who have never hesitated to threaten and use force against protestors. In December 2016, in a climate of civil disobedience, Bashir stated “If you want to overthrow the regime, why don’t you criticise us in the streets? I will tell you why. We know that you will not come, as you know very well what happened in the past.” (Radio Dabanga). He was referring to the violence of September 2013, when around 100 people were reportedly killed in a wave of demonstrations against elimination of fuel and cooking gas subsidies.
The army and the police are responding by using tear gas and live ammunition against protestors. Amnesty International is monitoring the situation and has already reported 37 casualties (as of 24 December) calling for an immediate investigation. In the attempt to prevent videos and photos of the demonstrations from circulating, social media are officially blocked but they have become the main source of information and the strongest way to shed light on what is happening in Sudan. Local newspapers covering the protests are often confiscated by the NISS.
Journalists, doctors, and trade unions have joined the rallies, calling for strikes and for a nationwide work stoppage.
In response to these unprecedented anti-government protests, Sudan’s president first declared that these were acts of sabotage by "agents, mercenaries and traitors" and then vaguely promised “real reforms to ensure a decent living for citizens”.
The Sudanese economy has been struggling since the 2011 creation of South Sudan, when most of the oil reserves went to the newborn country. In October 2017, a glimpse of optimism was triggered by the long-awaited lifting – although only partial – of the economic sanctions introduced in 1997 and 2006; and yet the lift did not have the expected positive impact on the economy. Sudan and the Sudanese remain economically isolated – for example, it is impossible to trade in foreign currencies – and Sudan remains on the list of states held to be sponsors of terrorism.
In recent months prices have been changing, in some cases by the hour, and the Sudanese pound is rapidly falling against the US dollar: in a single year, it changed from $US 1 for 17 Sudanese pounds to 47.5 at the official rate, and 80 pounds for a dollar is the exchange rate on the black market, which remains extremely large and volatile. Under such circumstances, living conditions are deteriorating, making it difficult even to buy food and medicine.
The security situation in the country remains critical. Many schools and universities are closed indefinitely and states of emergency and curfews have been declared in many cities. The international community, widely present in Sudan, has expressed its concern for the indiscriminate use of violence against protestors. The European Union “expects the government of Sudan to respect the right of people to voice their concerns and respond to grievances”. In a joint statement, the United States, Norway, the United Kingdom and Canada have urged “the Government of Sudan to respond to demonstrations appropriately, through uniformed police acting in accordance with Sudanese and international human rights law”. The UN Secretary General has called on the authorities “to conduct a thorough investigation into the deaths and violence”.
The Sudanese diaspora also showed its support, and peaceful demonstrations were held in front of the Sudanese embassies in Toronto, Washington, London and Paris, among others.
Entering the fourth week of protests, it might be time to think about the next move. People living in Sudan, an extremely ethnically diverse country, have united against a common enemy; now it is necessary to find a reason and a way to keep standing together. An eventual resignation – more or less forced – of President Bashir is likely to leave the country in chaos, and someone needs to take the lead to avoid further instability.
People in the streets are asking for a new chapter in the history of Sudan; now it is time to see who – in a political scene that has been forged by one of the longest dictatorships in Africa – will be able to write it.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)