By Amjed Fareid Eltayeb
For three days in November 2016 (starting the 27th), Khartoum and other urban areas in Sudan were ghost cities. Silent streets, empty if not entirely absent public transportation vehicles, and closed shops were the normal scenes of the day during the three days of the so-called Civil Disobedience.
Sudanese people chose to follow a call for civil disobedience that went viral in social media following the announcement of the latest economic measures. The unbearable increase in the cost of living included a massive surge in the prices of some critical items like food and medicines. The vast success and wide response to the first call for the three-days public strike of November inspired another one. Social groups called for another one day civil disobedience in the 19th of December. This second call received public support from mostly the entire political and syndicalistic spectrum in Sudan.
Mr. Jones of Sudan and his Snowball
The enraged momentum was slowly building up before the propagation of the disobedience’s call. Sudanese doctors went in a nationwide strike that continued in an interrupted manner during the months of October and November. on the 27th of October 2016, Security Services (NISS) started detaining doctors in the leadership of the strike. Doctors were demanding the government to provide the basic life-saving equipment in public hospitals and to increase its expenditure on the health sector and services which is very tiny (varies between 2% to 4% of the annual budget compared to 70% of the budget directed to sovereign, security, and defence sectors). This miniature expenditure is preventing doctors of saving lives in emergency departments due to the lack of basic equipment and drugs. The Central Committee of Doctors (CCD) raised an attractive slogan for their demands; (For the Citizens) which appealed to people and availed huge popularity and support for their movement.
Concurrently, on the 23ed of October, popular and political forces announced a public strike in Algerif Shariq suburb of the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The citizens of this eastern extension of the capital alienated themselves from all aspects of government authority for three consecutive days. The area witnesses a longstanding dispute between the government and the locals over land ownership. The government is trying grab the traditionally owned, fertile agricultural lands on the banks of the Nile from the local citizens and sell it to investors.
On the third of November, the Government of Sudan announced its new economic measures. The measures included floating of the Sudanese Pound which led to a huge surge in the prices of almost everything. The increase in the prices of medications and drugs was the most notable. The cost of essential life-saving drugs went over the roof with an average increase of 150%. The measures were announced against a public pledge from the government when passing 2016’s annual budget in the parliament of no increase in prices during the year. This pledge had gone with wind long ago before these latest measures as soon as the end of January 2016 witnessed a threefold increase in the price of cooking gas.
Political forces strongly opposed and criticized these measures publicly. The government responded by launching a wave of detentions of political leaders. The list of detainees included most of the leading staff of the Sudanese Congress Party and the Secretariat of the National Consensus Forces alliance in addition to tens of political activists. The detainees’ list continues to grow massively. Estimates of their numbers reached over 200 in different areas of Sudan by the second week of December.
However, several demonstrations against the economic measures took place in Khartoum, Madani, Gadarif, Atbra and other cities of Sudan. The impact of the measures on the pharmaceutical products launched another trade-unionistic response. Pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies went on a one day strike objecting the new unbearable prices of drugs. Over 200 pharmacies closed its doors on the 19th of November, all over Sudan. The Pharmacists Association called to a public meeting which was addressed by the State Minister of Health (Sumia Okud). The minister tried to defend the economic measures by proposing alternatives for poor classes. Many of the pharmacists including representative of the pharmaceutical companies responded back, exposing the falsehood of her speech with numbers from the current market. Later, the majority of the meeting attendees walked out accusing the minister to be delusional. Yet, another hashtag demanding to restore subsidies to medications went viral in social media and gained extensive coverage in Arabic and Middle Eastern traditional media.
This political build-up was very close to the public mood. Calls for resistance spread all over social media groups. On September 17th, Social female group in Facebook called and conducted a symbolic protest in Africa Street in the centre of Khartoum near the premises of the ruling National Congress Party. The protest raised slogans against the increase of the prices. Security forces attacked the protesting women with its usual brutality and excessive violence. That treatment provoked people to join the protest. NISS forces arrested tens of the protesters on that day. Wondering on how to deal with this new type of social activists who have little if any political affiliations, NISS handed them to the police who presented them to trials on charges of public nuisance. Further demonstrations took place by secondary schools’ students all over Khartoum North city of the capital in the 24th of November. NISS reacted to that by raiding schools, arresting teachers and accusing them with sedition.
On the 23ed of November, a call for action started to take over the social media platforms. A call for civil disobedience by staying homes and boycotting works and business from the 27th to 29th of November grew rapidly. On the 27th, the striving call translated to reality. Streets were empty and shops were closed in most of the urban areas of Sudan. It was obvious that the call reached an extra mile further than the normal outreach of the internet. The word of mouth participated largely in increasing the outreach of the call, reflecting another sign of the extent of people’s frustration with the government.
Many factors played significant roles in the success of this three-day general strike. The accumulation and build-up of the dissenting notion to the government over the previous weeks was among the reasons of the quick positive response to the call. The fear of the repetition of the 2013 massacre - in which the governmental security forces killed over 200 peaceful protesters who were demonstrating against similar economic measures announced by President Bashir - was another factor. The call for the so-called civil disobedience provided a safe alternative option for resistance. Ridiculously, earlier in December after the second call to disobedience spread, President Bashir challenged those who call for the disobedience and toppling his regime to come out and meet (…his forces) in the streets, accusing them of cowardness if they don’t, because they tried before and knew what will happen to them, in refence to the September 2013 massacre.
Another factor of success was the decentralized manner of the call, which is largely related to the passive nature of the action its self (Do nothing and do not go out of your home). Everyone was a leader and every group and area was a centre. The social media groups had polls for almost everything related to this civil disobedience. Hashtags were voted for. Daily names of the group were publicly discussed and voted for. Political debates reverberated in the FaceBook group that was formed to launch the call. Everyone in the group that attracted over hundreds of thousands of members in less than a week time expressed their opposing views to the government. Demands such as Bashir resignation, stopping wars, dissolving the ruling party, and other demands were discussed and expressed publicly. Information about the widespread corruption was exchanged between the members of the group. Recognizably, the demand of government withdrawing its latest measures was popularly rejected on the ground that the problem is deeper than only these measures.
The huge success of the call re-established the public trust on the strength of their collective action. On the other hand, the populist notion of the call and its lack of organizational structure although facilitated the quick spread, did prevent the formulation of specific, concrete, and rational desired outcomes. Nevertheless, the 27th of November was a public vote of No to Bashir’s regime and his government. The government can claim very little legitimacy in representing the people of Sudan after that day, if any at all.
The Civil Disobedience paved the way for further political momentum. In the 30 of November, Political entities including National Consensus Forces parties and the Civil Society Initiative delivered a well-articulated note to the presidential palace demanding President Bashir to step down. In December, 1st, The Sudan People Liberation Movement issued a statement reconfirming the preannounced stoppage of all negotiation with the regime, calling for unified centre for the opposition and the stepping down of Bashir to open the window for discussing transitional arrangements. Even the Popular Congress Party and other progovernment parties that participated in Bashir’s National Dialogue criticised the government’s latest economic measures. Let alone the abandoning rat of the regime’s sinking ship, Ghazi Salah Eldin who took the opportunity to play all the cards again – after his recent re-joining of the joke of the National Dialogue- and saluted the disobedience and those behind it without frankly supporting the call for the next one.
It became obvious that any entity that align its self with regime now is committing a political suicide. It was recognizable that the president spent most of the time of these events outside the country in foreign visits. The latest visit was during the days of the disobedience to the UAE in what seems a failed attempt to attract foreign aid. About $2.1bn has been deposited in the last two years to Sudan’s central bank by Saudi Arabia and other friendly states after Sudan cut its diplomatic and security ties with Iran, but it failed helping to improve the collapsing economy.
Economy 1.0.1: You Can Not Run, You Can Not Hide
The government’s recurring austerity measures to stabilize the economy seems to be just like Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills. No economic measures could solve a crisis that is political in nature. Similar measures have been announced in 2012, and 2013 (the latest fuelled an uprising during which the government killed over 200 protesters with evidence established of shoot to kill orders in the streets in order to calm it down). With an inflation rate that increases averagely by 40% a year since 2011 and just about $800m of foreign exchange reserves left in the central bank according to the IMF, Bashir’s regime is seriously crumbling this time.
The price of the political failures of Bashir’s regime is very expensive. The direct cost of war in darfur alone is around 5 billion US dollars a year. The war in the two areas is expected to be more costly. the funding of the paraformal militias which guard Bashir’s reign is taking place outside the accounting systems and formal financial structure of the state, opening a large door for corruption and venality. The shortage in funding the public and social services is increasing with the majority of public funds directed to military and security sectors. However, the economic crisis of the current Sudanese government seems to be deeper and more structural in nature than the burden of wars alone.
The current Islamic Government of Sudan silenced multiple waves of public demonstrations triggered by the economic hardship with excessive force and violence since it came to power. Following the 1989’s coup, the National Islamic Front (NIF) government decided to take the Sudanese economy on the path of free market economy. In 1992, the government formally adopted the Economic Liberalization Policy. A policy aimed at treating the economic stagnation of the country by restricting the role of the state to policymaking and reducing the expenditure of the public sector in social services sectors. Furthermore, the framework of this policy also included an extensive program of sale and liquidation for the state-owned institutions and companies. This led to severe reduction of the government income because of the liquidation of the profitable state-owned investments. The main reason behind selling these profitable investments was the wide spread of the corruption practices that was protected by senior governmental officials.
The first years of implementation of these policies took the country through very serious hardships. Rapid rising of the actual inflation reached 166% by year 1996 . The value of the local currency showed similar deterioration. With the absence of any foreign support, the burden of dept. continued to rise to reach reached about $ 17 billion in 1996. The GDP showed low level of annual growth that reached 1% in year 1994 .
The oil production achieved a relative economic stability. This had a larger significant role after the signing of the CPA that ended the long civil war in the South. The bless of oil production came with its curse. Since the first shipment of Sudanese oil exported in 30, September 1999, Sudan started to show the symptoms of the “Dutch disease”: the overdependence on natural resources discovery that leads to large increase in revenues associated with decline interest in focusing or developing of other sectors. Sudan witnessed total decline in the productive sectors, both industrial and agricultural with increase dependence on Oil export revenues. Petroleum sector represented 80% of total national export earnings in 2002, where formal financial reports showed a terrible decline in the rest of the goods especially cotton and oilseeds.
long-term social impacts resulted from these policies. The government expenditure did not put in account any measures to ease the hardships of its policy on the general population in the short or long terms. For example, 1998 annual budget allocated only 18% to goods and services and 7% to development . Most of the budget was directed to security and defence sectors in addition to the degenerative effect of the wide spread corruption in the absence of any accountability measures. The revenues of oil production were not used to support long-term improvements of the economy but it was rather used directly to support the budget deficit resulting of increasing governmental spending and import financing.
The independence of South Sudan that come to effect on the 9th of July 2011, created a new reality that exposed the structural and political crisis of the Sudanese economy. Sudan lost about one third of its land and 25% of its population. Most of the oil resources were in fields situated within the new country.
The loss of oil revenues was a major cause of unpredictable directions of Sudanese economy post 2011. Sudanese government tried to replace Oil export with export of raw gold. However, the progovernment militias control most of the gold mining fields. Government is leaving this control to the militias in order to buy and maintain their loyalty and continue using them in its extended civil wars. This prevented any actual use of gold revenues to achieve real improvements in the Sudanese economy. The burden of the debt is putting further hardship on the economy. It reached $48.2bn, 86% of which was in arrears at the end of 2015. This accounts to over 70% of Sudan’s GDP. It is important to recognize that the principal debt was 16.1 billion, and the rest are interests and delayed repayment penalties. The accelerated growing rate for these debts returns to four basic factors;
• The rising of interest rates for the debt.
• The exports decline.
• The spending of these debts on non-productive projects.
• The wide spread corruption within the government officials.
With the political deadlock in the country, the current economic crisis seems to be the undoing of Bashir’s regime. The accumulation of the public anger and unrest and the joining of new social groups to the active resistance against the regime are signs of the inevitability of change. The Khartoum Based National Dialogue proved to be just another tool of power centralization in the hands of President Bashir. The collapse of the AUHIP RoadMap agreement due the government’s stubbornness in reaching humanitarian aid arrangement killed all hopes of reaching a peace deal with the fighting rebels. The Government proclaimed victory and end of war in Darfur is endangered by the fact that land ownership issues and militias attacks on local farmers and IDPs continue to take place.
The scene is open to many scenarios. The most dangerous scenario is an internal coup within the regime. The ongoing friction between the army and Rapid Support Forces -that strives to confirm its position as a legitimate and independent force- is a major hazard. Any military move to grasp the power seat this time will be faced with resistance from other institutionalised militarily forces.
With lack of other options for the government, the only safe exit for the country is Bashir agreeing to stepping down political arrangements for transitional period to take place. However, the government might succeed to do some relieving cosmetic measures, but it is doubtful to have long term impacts. The foreign powers who decide to support these cosmetic measures will be opposing the expressed will of the Sudanese people. Something that people do not forget easily. The international community continue to make remarks about the fear of chaos in the country if sudden change took place. These remarks ignore the fact that chaos is where Bashir’s regime is leading us. Almost one third of the country is in a state of active war while the cost of life in the rest of the country is becoming increasingly unbearable. Let alone Sudanese people do have the right like the rest of the people of the world to choose who run their country.
Bashir mentioned before that he read Macbeth -actually his exact words were that he read for Shakespeare and Macbeth but who could question the intellect of a tyrant? - it might be time for him to recognize that Birnam Wood is actually moving this time.
The author is the spokesperson of SudanChangeNow