Civil society has always played a key role in Sudan’s long ongoing struggle for political reform and the National Congress Party, which has ruthlessly clung to power for nearly 30 years, is cognisant of this.
Very few political analysts could have predicted what has transpired in Sudan over the past four months. On 19 December, a small protest ostensibly over a treble price hike in bread triggered a domino effect of protests across the country, including in former ruling party strongholds. It soon became clear the initial protests lit a powder keg within Sudanese society, frustrated at 30 years of authoritarian rule with mass corruption and an unwieldy security apparatus --Sudanese citizenry have had enough. Civil society-led protests continued despite former President Omar al-Bashir’s declaration of a state of emergency on 22 February, when he dissolved national and regional governments and replaced them with military and security officers. A massive protest sit-in at the army headquarters and residence of President Bashir started on 6 April and eventually led to the former president’s removal from power five days later. After his overthrow, protestors continued to demonstrate against Bashir’s replacement, General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, who took over as the first head of the military transitional council, insisting he was a tool of the former regime. In less than 24 hours Ibn Auf stepped down and a new military council head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has taken over. Remarkably, these developments were civil-society driven in a country where the former government authorities routinely cracked down on these catalysts for change.
A history of civic activism
The state’s repression of its citizenry and abject mishandling of the economy has induced unprecedented numbers of Sudan’s citizenry to join a young, organised civil society movement to call for the idiomatic expression, Tasgut Bas (“Fall, that is all”). Armed with social media and a massive, disgruntled population willing to self-sacrifice for change, the umbrella civil society organisation, the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), was formed. The SPA has played a major role in toppling a president who had managed to survive multiple rebel insurgencies and an international warrant for his arrest. But whether this dynamic, grassroots civil society movement will attain its final goal remains to be seen.
Already in October 1964, when the Doctors’ Union, Bar Association and Khartoum University Teacher’s Union banded together, a movement ousted General Abboud’s regime of the day in just two days. The revolution’s first martyr happened to be a Khartoum University student, Ahmad al-Qurayshi, after clashes between students and police erupted on campus. Similarly, professional unions led the march to oust President Jafa’ar Nimeiri in 1985.
With this legacy, the ruling National Congress Party under President Omar al Bashir has been determined since seizing power in 1989 to suppress and control efforts made by civil society in Sudan. The new president declared a state of emergency, banned political parties, replaced professional unions with government-controlled entities, and dismissed over 70,000 government employees. In late 1989 when the chair of the doctor’s association, Dr. Mamoun Mohamed Hussein, called for a general strike, Bashir sentenced him to death.
After the International Criminal Court announced charges against Bashir for crimes against humanity in Darfur in 2009, the ruling party increasingly targeted international aid agencies alongside local civil society organisations, especially those perceived to collaborate with international charities. That year alone, Sudan expelled 10 international aid groups working in Darfur. The government had already passed the Organization of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act in 2006 (or more commonly termed, the “NGO Law”) that ensured security forces controlled non-profit organisations through the state’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), including who can operate within the country and on which issues.
Whenever foreign or local organisations attempted to counter this suppression, the ruling National Congress Party would retaliate. In September 2013, authorities killed an estimated 200 peaceful demonstrators in the capital Khartoum and other cities. A year later, security forces detained 48 activists, news reports said. Then, the following year security forces confiscated at least 16 newspapers and over 21 journalists were detained. Even the handful of independent publications that have managed to survive faced pre-censorship. “An official from the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) would be at the printing press for every newspaper, and they censor before printing,” said Shamael Elnour, a journalist with the independent Al-Tayyar newspaper.
Public legitimacy through merit and social services
In light of this crackdown on organised civil society in Sudan, including labour and trade unions and professional syndicates, civil society started to operate outside official state regulations. In this setting, civic groups such as the Sudan Journalist Network, the Sudan Doctors’ Committee, and the Darfur Bar Association grew in public legitimacy through membership and merit rather than government approval.
Abdul-Rahman El-Gasim, a lawyer and founding member of the Darfur Bar Association, worked on exposing war crimes in Darfur and South Kordofan. “I was arrested by NISS while in Khartoum, and I ultimately had to flee the country in 2012,” El-Gasim said. Even though El-Gasim was working on cases with the UN Human Rights Council, this was not enough to protect him from the wrath of Sudan’s security apparatus.
Civil society earned further legitimacy from the public by providing services that would normally fall under the government’s docket – in some cases, even protecting the public from the state. The service industry that includes tea ladies as an example, saw increased violations by local authorities and so-called “Public Order Police” who would routinely target women using the archaic Public Order Law to extort fines. As a response, Awadia Kuku formed the Women's Cooperative Union (see picture at the top of the article) that aimed to not only protect tea ladies and other street vendors from state harassment but set up daycare centers and formed a literacy program. There are many organisations like Awadia’s that naturally developed from Sudanese social tradition. The concept of “nafeer”, for instance, is the Sudanese custom of communal support and volunteerism that stems from the Arabic word meaning “a call to mobilise”. When flash floods affected thousands upon thousands of citizens in and around Khartoum in 2013, for instance, a youth-led volunteer initiative quickly formed to help the victims where critics claimed the government response was insufficient.
In 2013 “Emergency Road” was started, which is a volunteer initiative that was meant to fill the void in Sudan’s troubled healthcare sector. In July 2015, a chapter of Emergency Road started in Fao locality of Gezira state, and within its first three weeks provided patients with blood transfusions, daily breakfasts for malnourished children, and dinner for patients in hospitals. On August 16, 2015, the Fao locality government office froze the initiative’s bank account and assets of the local chapter, reported them to national security, and accused them of working for Israel.
Demand for Accountability
Mobilization of volunteer movements around health, as Emergency Road popularized, helped bring up questions about the failed medical industry. In October 2018 corruption charges were brought against 32 fake medicine importing companies, due to the import of medicines not up to regulatory standards. This led to price hikes and which triggered a civil disobedience campaign in November 2016. The public outcry started bringing results and opened up spaces - important steps towards successful civic engagement.
A ruling party perennially unaccountable to its citizenry naturally led to increased public support to civil society and alternative, people-driven solutions to socio-economic challenges. Perhaps the most extreme example of this takes place in Darfur. It is estimated that Government-aligned militias and soldiers killed 300,000 people in Darfur and displaced 3 million people in a bid to suppress the rebellion in the area between 2003 and 2019 and reward pro-government ethnicities with confiscated land. Similar to the marginalised communities in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, the Darfur conflict created a massive spike in civil society activism in Darfur, especially among those displaced.
One prominent example is Hawa Salih, who worked with IDPs in North Darfur under the harshest conditions and won the International Women of Courage Award in 2012 for exposing the harrowing security situation in Darfur, as well as Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile. Darfur University students in Sudan have also been at the forefront of the political struggle against the Bashir government ever since the 2003 Darfur conflict erupted. Instead of being centers of learning, campuses have become microcosmic battle zones between students supported by the ruling party, backed by NISS, and those aligned to Darfur student groups. Darfur student organisations such as the Darfur Student Association and the United Peoples Front (UPF) have acted as a lifeline for Darfur youth in higher education.
“What else could women do but protest?”
Like Darfur, it is the most vulnerable, repressed demographics that have contributed the most in numbers to Sudan’s civil society and the latest efforts to topple the ruling regime, namely, women and youth. In a country where girls as young as 10 years old can legally be wed and women and children comprise the largest internally displaced population, it is little wonder that Sudanese women have contributed significantly to the protests to oust the regime. While Sudanese women have always played a part in the country’s protest movements, it was the 2016 civil disobedience protests that cast a far wider net of female participation in demonstrations against the regime. Price hikes on commodities such as medicine and cosmetics and mobilization through social media encouraged many more Sudanese women who had not participated in protests previously to play a central role in defying the government in late 2016. It is these same women, seeing no improvements under Bashir since then, who are an integral part of the current protests and contributed to the unprecedented levels of demonstrators seen today. “It became too much for Sudanese women,” explains Sudanese activist Sarah Ahmed. “The government has repressed us for decades. The economy has literally collapsed making life unliveable...what else could women do but protest?”
One of the greatest achievements of the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA) in the struggle to topple Bashir has been to merge different civil society groups together. The coordination and collaboration under the SPA were made possible due to the expansion of and access to the digital sphere. Starting in the late 2000s, civic engagement started to migrate to digital platforms with the increased usage of blogs, and the new potential unleashed by social media. Since the mid-2010s, when the internet penetration went from approximately 10% to 30%, this form of organisation can now engage with a much larger audience, as well as organise with ease.
This spike in social media-led participation, especially among women, made attempts to brutally suppress demonstrators –as witnessed in 2013 - less tenable. Fearing a backtrack in western foreign relations, where the ruling party managed to lift US sanctions in exchange for anti-terrorism intelligence and earned fiscal and political support from the European Union for allegedly curbing migration, the ruling party grew wary of using its time-tested violent suppression tactics against the latest, widespread protests. Further, Bashir lacked the far-reaching support he needed to remain in power amidst internal squabbles within the ruling party and after middle to lower ranking army officers refused to support his calls for protest suppression.
There is still considerable work to be done, though, before the SPA can announce victory. Sudan’s historical civil society-driven protest movements, while successful, have been short-lived. The SPA must break a vicious cycle that has existed since the 1960s: military rule followed by an incompetent civilian rule under the same tired political class. The latest announcement from the Transitional Military Council – an interim military-led body meant to uphold the protest movement’s demands for regime change to democratic rule - denies any involvement of the former ruling party in the interim government. While not directly affiliated, however, many of the senior military leaders and other members of the security sector connected to the transitional authority were until very recently directly affiliated with and personally utilised by the former president. The commander of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan (aka ‘Hemeti’), for instance, was given the military rank of Lieutenant General – a status equivalent in power to that of the defense minister. Rewarded for his loyalty to Bashir and ruthless attacks against his enemies, Hemeti rose through the ranks despite leading one of the bloodiest campaigns in late 2014 and early 2015 in Darfur, and violence as recent as April 2019. Bashir was a skillful operator, capable of balancing disparate security forces to remain in power – often at the cost of Sudan’s citizenry.
SPA’s greatest challenge going forward may prove to be the ushering in of genuine political reforms while the transitional authority will be preoccupied with maintaining security, including the appeasement of these political-military aspirants. The complex web of security forces “need money, which is in short supply and will no longer be so ably distributed by al-Bashir,” writes Alex de Waal, Director of the World Peace Foundation. “Any paramilitary commander dissatisfied with his lot has no shortage of options for using violence to bargain for a better deal.”
But there is still hope. With remarkable discipline and determination, the SPA has managed to mobilise large swathes of ordinary Sudanese, greater in number than past efforts, to force the downfall of a long-standing military ruler. Sudan has never before witnessed such civic courage via a largely young population, far more cognisant of the political intrigues and challenges the country has faced - thanks in part to Sudan’s relatively recent embrace of digital media. “We are not going anywhere,” says Sarah Ahmed, who remains determined to continue the protests at the army headquarters. “Until things change we are staying put,” the recent female university graduate said.