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Sudan’s Civil Disobedience: Africa’s latest "Hashtag Revolution"?

by Suliman Baldo

November 29, 2016

“Because of the nature of the dictatorship we are under, you are forced to embrace the use of social media, . . . It’s not secure to try and use the tactics used in the ‘90s — demonstrations openly or on a daily basis — because we can never match the current government when it comes to violence. So we have resorted to a peaceful, constitutional revolution, which we are precipitating through the use of social media.” That was a Zimbabwean activist by the name of Mlambo, speaking to a correspondent of National Public Radio on October 21, 2016.

Mlambo’s words could have been uttered by any of the anonymous youth activists in Sudan this last week as they covertly and efficiently organized a campaign of posters and carefully crafted slogans to invite the Sudanese to undertake a three-day civil disobedience campaign starting Sunday, November 27. The call was prompted by dramatic increases in the prices of medicine, fuel, electricity resulting from a new government monetary policy that effectively devalued the national currency by more than 100 percent.

Such was the level of public outrage at the spiraling cost of basic necessities that the anonymous campaign took off immediately when launched on Thursday, November 24. Thousands of Sudanese citizens and the ever-ready and keyboard-committed Sudanese diaspora relayed the message to their networks, even though the identity of the initial organizers remains unknown. The Sudanese public credits the same anonymous activists for mobilizing the public protests in September 2013 against an earlier wave of misguided economic liberalization policies, including discontinued subsidies and austerity measures. The ferocity with which the regime of President Omer Hassan al-Bashir repressed that uprising—including the deployment of militias with instructions to use lethal force against protesters—accounts for this change of tactic urging would-be demonstrators to instead protest by staying at home.

Media reports declared the first and subsequent days of the stay-home shutdown a large success. Watching the grassroots movement take the initiative, established opposition parties scrambled to join the mobilization, and by inviting their followers to participate, they contributed to its success.

Beyond its immediate trigger, the abrupt increase in prices of basic commodities, the civil disobedience campaign in Sudan showed similar deeper political roots to its precedent in Zimbabwe. The longevity of the two autocratic regimes—36 years of rule under Robert Mugabe and 27 under Omer al-Bashir—and the corruption of their elites had brought the economies of both resource rich countries to the brink of collapse. In fact, President al-Bashir said the recent monetary measures were necessary to preempt the collapse of the state. The two regime’s trampling of democratic values and practices is notorious and their brutal repression of dissent is well documented.

In addition, generations of youth who grew up under al-Bashir’s regime are deeply offended by the hypocritical conduct of its leaders when measured against the Islamic values they proclaim guide their rule. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed youth, and others who cannot earn living wages even when employed, are leaving the country in desperation, many to undertake the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea to southern Europe. The organized among those who stay behind have grown increasingly creative in finding effective means for mobilizing the population for a democratic transition, and hopefully, transparent governance. Chief among their aspirations is to bring about a peaceful end to Sudan’s many civil wars.

Theirs is therefore in essence a peaceful, political mobilization for democratic change, and not a mere passing protest against the lifting of subsidies as largely reported in the international media on the first day of the civil disobedience campaign.

This initiative poses serious challenges to the traditional political structures of the opposition and of the ruling regime alike. Allied under different and partially overlapping alliances between the political opposition and armed movements fighting the government for greater recognition of the political, economic, and cultural rights of the Sudanese living in peripheral areas of the country, the opposition was taken by surprise and did well by rallying and relaying the call. However, the success of the initiative should encourage the opposition to undertake serious self-examination for having locked out from its leadership ranks Sudan’s rising generations of political activists. Indeed, these activists have proved more adept in reading the mood of the public and earning its trust and following when asked to act. Without the necessary rejuvenation of the opposition rank and file and the modernization of its mobilization tools, the opposition will condemn itself to marginalization and irrelevance.

Sudan’s current “leaderless” mobilization also shares several characteristics with neighboring Ethiopia’s mass protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions in 2015 and 2016. There, as in Sudan and Zimbabwe, organizers mobilized for protest through social media. While the ruling Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has strived over more than two decades of near total rule to deliver economic prosperity and development gains to the population, levels of rural poverty have remained high and resentment among marginalized groups gained momentum fueled as they were by ethnic tensions. The protests exposed the failure of the EPRDF to earn legitimacy, despite its economic and development successes. Faced with massive protests, but with no recognizable leadership to target, the EPRDF resorted to the declaration of a state of emergency, under which it proceeded to detain 11,000 youth. It also severely restricted access to the Internet since mid-October, curtailing public use and making allowances only for businesses and official use.

The regime in Sudan has failed miserably in delivering economic stability and basic goods and services to the public. Instead, it has further impoverished the country by destroying preexisting institutions and neglecting the traditional sectors of the economy that provide livelihoods for a majority of the Sudanese people: agriculture, livestock and the industrial sector.

Khartoum’s regime was overtaken by the speed with which the events of the November protest unfolded from the first call on Thursday November 24 to the actual abiding by millions of Sudanese to take a common stand rejecting the regime’s economic policies and challenging its legitimacy. Crucially, the stay-home campaign deprived the much feared National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and militias operating under its command from their usual tools of interventions: mass detentions, torture of “agitators,” and the use of lethal force against unarmed protesters, as happened in 2013. The regime has invested considerable resources in Cyber Jihadist squads within NISS, precisely to neutralize the risks to its power from online political and human rights activism and to diffuse the exposure of the massive corruption of its leaders. These human and resource investments notwithstanding, democracy, human rights, and transparency advocates have proven that they have broken through to the public and earned its trust.

The disobedience campaign and the buildup that led to it have created their own heroines and heroes. These include doctors who waged a rolling strike for weeks protesting the collapse of the public health system in the proceeding weeks; a mother who broadcast a recorded message inviting revolution against daily humiliations; secondary school girl students and neighborhood women protesters who were the first to take to the streets in rejection of the price hikes. NISS agents detained those it deemed most influential among the organizers of these protests, including leaders of the opposition Sudan Congress Party who have adopted direct public addresses in marketplaces, neighborhoods, and public transportation centers as means of political action. To suppress the coverage of events, NISS agents confiscated the post print editions of Al-Ayam and Al-Jareeda, Al-Tayar and Al-Youm Al-Tali newspapers on November 28. They also ordered a private television channel broadcasting in Omdurman off the air and issued a stern warning to a second broadcaster, Sudan-24.

It is evident that Sudan is at a critical crossroad. The regime has little to no maneuvering room to find sustainable remedies to the severe economic crisis it has inflicted on the Sudanese people after nearly three decades of political misrule and ill-advised economic policies that have undermined the productive sectors of the economy. Given the massive corruption of its leaders and their families and the high cost to the national economy of the patronage system which underpins the regime, no corrective policies of the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Sudan can reign in the galloping inflation and likely collapse of the national currency.

The political opposition has yet to adapt their tools of mobilization and alternative building to the reality that the mishandling of the economy is the government’s Achilles Heel, as I argued in a recent Enough Project report. To make up for lost time, the opposition needs to humble itself and learn from the successes of the independent youth movement, including the ongoing civil disobedience campaign.

Last, but not least, the “cyber revolutionaries” and the traditional political opposition should heed the warning from the Arab Springs. There is no tangible evidence today that either would be ready to take over in the event of a sudden collapse of the regime either as a result of the cumulative effects of their war of attrition against it; or under the weight of the economic crisis that’s of the regime’s own doing; or in the event of a health crisis that would suddenly remove President al-Bashir from effective control. With no clear succession plan for the President that we know of, and given the deep structural damage that 27 years of his regime had inflicted on the country, lack of preparation for an orderly transition would spell further destabilization for Sudan.

Suliman Baldo is a Senior Policy Advisor to the Enough Project. See Khartoum Economic Achilles’ Heel, an Enough Project report, here: http://www.enoughproject.org/blogs/new-report-khartoum’s-economic-achilles’-heel.