Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 24 December 2018

Sudan’s days of rage

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By Magdi El Gizouli

Over the past five days in Sudan decades of history have been compressed into a momentous surge. Without prior warning, protestors taking the ultimate risk made it a national competition to burn down the offices of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the government administration in a serial wave of revolutionary activity criss-crossing the country.
This ongoing wave of rage commenced in Atbara out of all places, the historic capital of the now decrepit Sudan railways and a storehouse of working-class political culture long announced dead. River Nile State with capital in al-Damer across the river from Atbara was chosen by the government as an experimental field, probably on the assumption of political reliability, for the lift of bread subsidies. The price of bread tripled in Atbara overnight from 1 to 3 Sudanese pounds for a 40 grams piece and the Atbarawis were obviously not amused.

The government chose to restrict subsidised flour to populous Khartoum, wary that an increase of bread prices in the capital would carry too much political risk, and exported austerity to the provinces. The assumption of political reliability brought interesting surprises. Demonstrators in Atbara, al-Damer, Berber, Karima, Dongola and Gedaref claimed the streets as their own, torched the NCP headquarters in their towns, ransacked offices of the NISS and even brought down imams who called for obedience to authority from mosque pulpits with commendable Bolshevik vigour.

Soon enough, a sort of revolutionary sport was on display, people in Aba Island and Rabak on the White Nile, and in al-Nuhud, al-Rahad, al-Obeid and Um Ruwaba in Kordofan followed the Atbara example with envious precision. The NCP was declared enemy of the people and President Bashir’s name synonymous with oppression, misrule, corruption and violence. The security forces were initially astonished by the daring and valour of the protestors. A day passed when government buildings where free game. In al-Nuhud and al-Gedaref, demonstrators stormed the depots of the Zakat chamber and claimed stored flour and foodstuffs for themselves.
The bureaucracy of violence soon picked up with the protesters. Armed NISS units in the style of Assad’s infamous shabiha were deployed in speeding pickups with mounted machine guns to terrorise protestors. Salah Gosh, the head of the NISS, told the press in Khartoum that his men were given no orders to shoot. So far, they managed, allegedly even without orders from Salah, to kill 23 people including a 10 years old child in Aba island.

The Atbara precedent was hard to replicate in fortified Khartoum. NISS units responded even to incidental fires in the landmark trash container of the capital with a show of force suitable for invading troops. A nightly pattern emerged in the capital’s poorer outskirts and on major crossroads of exhausting cat and mouse chases between demonstrators equipped with Molotov cocktails and armed NISS units. In al-Haj Yusif, a populous working class neighbourhood east of Khartoum, NISS units were so exhausted by the back and forth that they began racing in their pickup four-wheel-drives though narrow streets shooting volleys of gunfire from mounted machine-guns at teenagers.

The streets of the urban monster that Khartoum has become over the years remain hard to control. Frequent, geographically dispersed and small protests continue to challenge the security forces. When protestors announced a plan to march out of a football game in Omdurman on the evening of 23 September the authorities deployed an estimated 2 thousand troops around the stadium. Buses were ordered to transport the football spectators to their residential areas free of charge in a crowd control measure intended to appease. Those who did not go home marched the five kilometres until the bridge across the White Nile to Khartoum chanting slogans against the regime. My personal favourite is "bullets don’t kill but submission does".

The authorities ordered the shutdown of all schools and universities in the capital and major provincial towns and ordered students to evacuate their dormitories. As is the case under extraordinary conditions when state authority emerges as the clear enemy, a sense of basic communist solidarity prevailed. People invited stranded students into their homes and a crowd-funding initiative emerged to pay the bus fares of students wishing to travel home. The same communist spirit probably informed the division of zakat spoils.

President Bashir, the proverbial naked king, was forced to cancel a trip to Wad Medani in Gezira State this Monday. The official government line is that a minority of violent agitators trained by the Israeli Mossad and flown in from a neighbouring country acting in liaison with Darfuri rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement led by Abd al-Wahid al-Nur and city ‘niggers’ (the racist slur is used to refer to gangs of petty thieves in Khartoum) had taken advantage of the situation. The government topped this fantastical account with the claim that it had apprehended ringleaders of the conspiracy in Khartoum.

Salah Gosh, the head of the NISS, blamed the administration of the recently appointed prime minister Mutaz Musa for the catastrophic policy mix that resulted in severe bread and fuel shortages, a cash deficit and a continually depreciating currency. Salah said the NISS would take over distribution of subsided flour to the provinces to ensure adequate supplies. Many interpreted Gosh’s intervention as a manoeuvre to position himself as a saviour of sorts and Musa as a likely scapegoat. Khartoum’s rumour mills produced a more florid version suggesting that Gosh might take over power any moment and yet more juicy details about President Bashir suffering a heart attack and his deputy Bakri Hassan Salih fighting for his life after a bullet injury. The government was obliged to put out a statement denying the imaginative stream of counter-propaganda.

Officers of the Sudanese army were captured on smartphone cameras mingling with protestors in Atbara and Gedaref and almost immediately rumours of an impending army-orchestrated palace coup to sideline President Bashir were the headlines of people news on WhatsApp groups and social media. A twist was added saying army officers intervened to protect demonstrators from the police, the NISS and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This is the background for the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) statement on 23 December affirming support for President Bashir and joint responsibility with other security formations including the NISS and the RSF for maintaining security. The authority of the government is not only threatened by angry protestors but by their inventive rumours.

President Bashir is probably having a difficult time figuring out how to reinstate the elements of his success formula in heartland Sudan. Over the years he had refined a version of austerity with costs exported to distant peripheries converted into theatres of war and benefits concentrated in the heartland coupled with a racist ideology of riverine chauvinism and Islamist bigotry. The novelty of these days of rage is that they demonstrate the exhaustion of this formula. Headquarters of the NCP are being burned down this time around in al-Damer, Berber, Dongola and Gedaref, i.e. in NCP heartland, and not Darfur’s Kas or Taweela or the Blue Nile’s Geissan or South Kordofan’s Talodi.

To demonstrate this critical point. Dongola Higher Secondary is where Bakri Hassan Salih, President Bashir’s deputy and longtime confidante and a native of nearby Hafir Mashou, went to school. It is the hometown of leading Islamist figures like Mustafa Osman Ismail, once foreign minister and now ambassador in Geneva, and the late Ahmed Ali al-Imam, once advisor to President Bashir and prominent jihad veteran of the 1990s. Zubeir Ahmed al-Hassan, the current general secretary of the government-aligned Islamic Movement and former finance minister is a graduate of Atbara Higher Secondary. Awad al-Jaz, many times minister and oil lord was already in Merowe Higher Secondary a prominent student leader. Merowe is also the birthplace of Abd al-Raheem Hamdi, the mastermind of Sudan’s austerity policies. Salah Gosh, the NISS chief, is a native of Nuri close to Karima. Berber gave Sudan the prominent Islamic banker al-Bagir Yusif Mudawi, former chairman of Faisal Islamic Bank and deputy governor of the Bank of Sudan, now in disrepute in relation to accusations of grand corruption.

Salah Gosh’s statements blaming the violence on Mossad-trained Darfuri rebels and criminal lumpenproletariat elements is an attempt to play this race and class card. The government indeed does not miss an opportunity to remind its heartland audience of the security they enjoy compared to the country’s war zones or further afar, the calamitous wars of Syria and Yemen. The shock of the past few days is that the very people, to whom the government has long appealed as the guardians of northern Sudanese chauvinism and beneficiaries of riverine advantage, are drumming with their feet for the overthrow of the regime. Salah Gosh’s Mossad-planned Zionist-Fur-Nigger conspiracy is hard to sell, even in his own Karima.

The weak link in Sudan’s revolutionary surge is its notoriously reluctant petit bourgeoise. As soon as protesters were on the streets in Atbara, the propertied classes of Khartoum were rehearsing the procedures of a palace coup to get rid of evil President Bashir and quickly restore social order. An army coup is the shortcut they trust most to deliver the outcome they prefer: a transitional period of procedural democracy with the pillars of state authority secured, the sanctity of property relations guaranteed and political power recycled into the hands of allegedly noble army officers and recognisable faces from the political mainstream in some formula or another. In this vein, the recently established Sudanese Professionals Association called for a march to the Presidential Palace on 25 December to submit a memorandum demanding the transfer of power to a transitional government of bureaucrats and calling on the Sudan Armed Forces to take their side, the same army already in power.

The blueprint for this exercise is the 1985 intifada against Jaafar Nimayri when the then army chief, Abd al-Rahman Siwar al-Dahab, orchestrated a palace coup displacing Nimayri from power but aborting the maximalist demands of the intifada, immediate peace with the rebels in southern Sudan, abolition of the 1983 sharia laws, complete dissolution of Nimayri’s state security bureau and reversal of economic austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on Nimayri’s bankrupt government. After this transitional period of counter-revolution, Siwar al-Dahab handed over power to the elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi, the same man calling today for the restoration of status quo ante of over 30 years ago.

A longue durée view of events could project President Bashir’s government as a continuation of Siwar al-Dahab’s counter-revolution in alliance with the Islamic Movement, Siwar al-Dahab’s partners against the intifada masses. Sadiq al-Mahdi in this context is simply the tragic face of an interlude of political bickering and indecision. Today beyond the gentle age of 80 years, Sadiq al-Mahdi would be happy to play the same role again. Indeed he dismissed the protestors of today as political novices but is keen to reap the fruits of their action.

For now, as long as the SAF remain behind Bashir he might well be able to temporarily retain his throne but the modality of governance he has developed over the years is in shambles. No wonder, he was humbly conciliatory on 24 December. In a faceless statement, he called on the angry protesters to refrain from damaging property and on the security forces to respect the right of protest. Almost the same statement was made by a British diplomat in Khartoum. His Majesty’s government urges protesters to avoid damage to property, and the government to ensure reports of human rights abuses and use of excessive force are independently investigated, he wrote on 23 December. The irony is hard to miss.

The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at m.elgizouli@gmail.com



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