An assessment of the non-violent campaign for change in Sudan
By Nico Plooijer
Late last month, many people in Sudan took part in a three-day campaign of civil disobedience. People stayed home from work, school or any other activities in order to protest government policies, in particular the recent lifting of subsidies for fuel and gas. This led to enormous price hikes. Prices of basic commodities have risen so much that people can barely afford to pay for food, transportation or medicine.
Did the campaign of civil disobedience succeed? According to media coverage of the protest, it did not. There simply was not much to see, certainly no mass demonstrations in the streets. This was because Sudanese activists had learned their lesson: in September, 2013, the government cracked down on mass demonstrations, leading to the deaths of more than 200 protestors.
However, the media coverage overlooked the impact on the government or on the country as a whole. As this form of protest is new to Sudan, it can be difficult to measure its impact. But the campaign did elicit a reaction from President Omar al-Bashir himself. He called the campaign a “one million percent failure”.
A non-violent campaign for change
Last month’s protest was only the latest of a number of events expressing opposition to the government. In April, large scale student protests erupted at the main universities all over the country, sparked by the killing of a student. In October, doctors went on strike citing unpaid wages and the need for improved working conditions. In November, the pharmacists followed, protesting the decision to remove a subsidy for imported medicines, leading prices to double or in some cases triple. Independent of these developments, the Sudanese Congress Party has been actively pursuing a non-violent campaign, it’s members giving speeches on buses and trains and at public markets. The speakers raise awareness of people´s rights and how these rights are not respected by the government.
The non-violent campaign did not end with last month’s three days protest, either. Small-scale demonstrations are still going on and an online campaign using WhatsApp and other similar apps aims to mobilise more people.
In response, the government has been quietly repressing the nascent movement. More than 90 people have been arrested, and are being held in secret locations with no possibility to communicate with the outside world.
But the question remains, is it successful?
According to the “Checklist to end tyranny” developed by Peter Ackerman and Hardy Merriman, there are three key capabilities of successful civil resistance movements: the ability to unify people, operational planning and nonviolent discipline. How does the current campaign in Sudan measure up to this checklist?
To achieve unity, non-violent campaigners need a shared and inclusive vision, and a leadership that is seen as legitimate. While many see the need for fundamental reform in the way Sudan is governed, a unifying and mobilising vision has yet to emerge.
The recent three-day protest was triggered by price hikes, but long before that it has been clear that many people are unhappy with the way this government has been running the country for the last 27 years. The government´s stock defence that the US sanctions and the loss of oil income after South Sudanese independence are the reasons for the dismissal economic and political situation is no longer credible. People wonder what happened to the billions of dollars of oil revenue the government has earned from concessions to oil companies since the 1990s, since it has not been used to develop the country. And people who can´t afford to buy food resent the fact that 40 to 70% of the national budget is spend on security, including ongoing conflicts in Darfur, the Blue Nile region and the Nuba Mountains. President al-Bashir went even further recently in a speech at the headquarters of the Sudan Air Force, saying that even if the entire government budget was spent on security, it still would not be enough.
Given all of the above, activists confer frequently about formulating a unifying message to protest the mismanagement of the country.
As for leadership, the campaign was instigated by people not directly connected or representing any institutional group or party. That makes sense given the history of repression of organized labour. When the current regime came to power, it moved quickly to dismantle the labour unions that had been at the forefront of popular uprisings in October 1964 and April 1985. Al-Bashir had learned his lesson, and sought to prevent labour unions from playing a mobilising role again. In response, people have organized themselves separately from the unions, leading to well-organised professional groups. In addition, people organize around specific issues such as hydroelectric dam projects, women tea sellers and neighbourhood groups addressing issues of land grabbing and the lack of basic service delivery.
Sudan also has protest movements such as Grifna and Reform Now that were at the forefront of protests in 2013 and were keen to join the recent call for action. The traditional opposition parties and armed movements have been slower to join the recent campaign. Activist are cautiously reaching out to these groups in order to ensure their commitment, although the core of the activist leaders refuse to give up control of this non-violent movement to these traditional actors.
In the current situation in Sudan, it is strategically wise to keep a decentralised and multi-layered leadership structure, instead of relying on one or two leading figures. This makes it more difficult for the regime to supress the leaders of the protest movement.
The second element in Ackerman and Merriman’s “Checklist to end tyranny” is operational planning. The current protest movement’s operational planning is, like its leadership, local and dispersed. Different activities and initiatives are developed throughout the country. Despite the prevalence of government monitoring of communications, people are able to share their thoughts and initiatives. For instance, lists have been distributed of pro-government singers and journalists so that people can boycott them. There have also been calls to boycott the visits of government officials. These are low risk ways of showing support for the campaign and are difficult for the government to supress. Planning is mostly done online. The government does at times manage to infiltrate online groups, leading to conflicts online between pro-government ´keyboard warriors´ and anti-government ‘electronic chickens’.
One indication of how well this system of de-centralized planning works is the relatively quick agreement to hold another day of civil disobedience on December 19 – the anniversary of Sudan’s declaration of independence in 1955..
The third element on the “Checklist to end tyranny”, remaining non-violent even when provoked, is an important indicator of the success of such a movement. To date, the current campaign has maintained a disciplined, non-violent, peaceful movement. Even efforts by the security forces to lure people into violent confrontations in the streets have been unmasked and ridiculed online. The armed movements in Sudan have publicly supported the civil disobedience campaign. The question remains whether the armed groups will continue to commit to the non-violent action, whether people will have the patience to continue the non-violent campaign, and whether they will continue to have confidence in the effectiveness of non-violent methods. Some may give in to the feeling that they need to use violence to protect the people and the protests. This would play into the government´s hand, since the government clearly has the advantage when it comes to violent clashes.
If people don’t obey, the rulers cannot rule.
In conclusion, the current campaign has all the ingredients to be successful. It is too soon to say whether or not it will succeed, but it has more potential than the armed rebellions of the last few decades. The question remains whether Sudanese activists will be able to build a campaign that will provide opportunities for broader support, and whether they can define short-, mid- and long-term objectives under a united vision while maintaining nonviolent discipline.
Non-violent struggles are similar to armed struggles in that they are not won overnight. Last month’s three days of civil disobedience are a starting point showing that many Sudanese people desperately want change are willing to run risks to obtain it.
Non-violent action is based on the insight that social, political, economic and military power is dependent on the consent and obedience of the people. On December 19, we will see how many people in Sudan understand this fundamental insight and are willing to voluntarily engage in a struggle for peaceful change.
The author is PAX programme leader