Pro-democracy civil resistance continues in Sudan

Civil resistance mo­vements have been taking place all over the world for the past year. Venezuela, Spain, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Thailand have been in the headlines. Now Sudan is featuring in the forefront of this evolving paradigm. World attention has been drawn once again to pro-democracy civil resistance demonstrators being subjected to military force in Sudan. Reports have alleged that this latest action (from live bullets fired by law enforcement authorities on 3 June) in Khartoum has led to the death of nearly 60 demonstrators and serious injuries to more than 100 persons. 

It would be useful at this point to recall how the pro-democracy movement has evolved in this country- almost ten times the size of Bangladesh with about 19 per cent of its population.

Demonstrations began in December of last year, initially focusing on the deteriorating economic situation, but soon escalated to demand that the authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir—who had ruled the country for nearly three decades—step down and that democracy be restored. By January, the protests had spread to the capital of Khartoum, gaining support from youth and women’s movements as well as a number of opposition parties. During the third week in February, the government declared a state of emergency, increasing their arrests of oppositionists and censorship of media coverage of the movement. Despite the growing repression, as well as a cabinet shakeup and other measures to appease the opposition, protests continued.

Protests erupted in Khartoum, Sudan on 19 December, 2018 after fuel and bread price rises were announced. Continuous demonstrations till 22 February 2019 led the former President Bashir to dissolve the government. However protests continued with security forces randomly responding by firing live bullets. On 6 April activists began their sit-in at military headquarters, vowing not to move until Mr Bashir stepped down. On April 6, the Association of Sudanese Professionals led a march of hundreds of thousands onto the Army headquarters in Khartoum and began a sit-in, demanding resignation of al-Bashir and the return of democratic civilian governance. Despite scores of protesters being killed over the previous months, the movement was clearly growing. Less than a week later, on April 11, the military removed al-Bashir from office and subsequently placed him under arrest. General Awad Ibn Auf, who had served as al-Bashir’s Defense Minister became head of the Transitional Military Council in Sudan. He declared himself interim President, announced the release of some political prisoners, declared a state of emergency (including a dusk to dawn curfew), and promised elections in two years.

The protesters however rejected continued military rule and the long delay in democratic elections. They defied the curfew and demanded an immediate transition to civilian rule and early elections. Less than 30 hours later, Ibn Auf resigned and was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Abdulrahman Burhan, who—unlike Ibn Auf—was neither implicated in war crimes nor was as closely associated with al-Bashir’s repressive rule. The curfew was lifted, additional political prisoners were freed, and some of the more notorious military, police, and intelligence leaders, as well as leading prosecutors, were dismissed. A half-hearted attempt by the army on April 15 to disperse the ongoing sit-in failed.

Talks between pro-democracy leaders and the interim government continued with a number of important concessions regarding banning members of al-Bashir’s party and the inclusion of pro-democracy leaders in the interim government.

On 14 May military authorities and civilians announced another deal for a three-year transition period. There was some relief but the process came to a halt when talks were postponed once again as military demanded the removal of some barricades from in front of their Headquarters.

On 3 June activists after the latest round of violence, have announced the suspension of talks with the military, accusing them of using force to disperse their sit-in. Sudan, presently governed by a Transitional Military Council (TMC) has however denied using force to break up the main protest site. The TMC spokesman Lt Gen Shams al-Din Kabbashi has told UAE-based Sky News Arabia TV channel that "Sudanese forces did not disperse the sit-in outside the army headquarters by force, but rather targeted a nearby area which has become a threat to the safety of citizens".

Nevertheless, BBC has reported that the Transitional Military Council head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has stated that they had decided to "stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on". An election will now take place in nine months time under "regional and international supervision", he added.

This changing scenario has reiterated that the powerful pro-democracy civil insurrection in Sudan which has ousted a longstanding dictator and his successor is still in progress, but Sudanese are hopeful for a full democratic transition.

This is not the first time that the people of Sudan have risen up in a largely nonviolent pro-democracy insurrection against a dictatorial regime. In 1964, when the country was ruled by military dictator Ibrahim Abboud, large protests coalesced into a crippling general strike that forced him from power. A series of unstable civilian coalitions governed the country until a military coup in 1969 led by Jafaar Nimeiry, but his repressive rule was ended during the spring of 1985, when two weeks of largely nonviolent demonstrations and a general strike led to his ouster by the military. Protests continued until the military agreed to hand power over to an interim civilian government and allow democratic elections.

Divisions within Sudan’s broad-based coalition government made it vulnerable to pressures from the military leaders and right-wing Islamists who, led by al-Bashir, seized power in 1989. In subsequent years, the regime decimated Sudanese civil society, including the country’s once-vibrant trade union movement, and imposed an ultra-conservative Islamist system backed by a brutal police state. Despite the severity of the repression, a series of aborted uprisings and mass protests swept the country, most significantly in 1998, 2011, 2012, and 2016. A pro-democracy coalition known as Girifna (Arabic for “We are fed up”) persisted despite many of their leaders being arrested or killed.

Analysts have provided some interesting takeaways on Sudan’s current civilian protests. They are pointing out the following: -

(a) Non-violent tactics normally do not work when undertaken against highly repressive regimes. Sudan, in this context has generally been ranked among the most bloody, violent, totalitarian regimes in the world. Former President Al- Bashir along with some other top military leaders was indicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. It has also been pointed out in this context that unlike the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in which the largely nonviolent movements also included rioting, arson, and violent confrontations with security forces, protesters in the Sudanese capital have made a conscious choice to remain nonviolent; (b) Civil resistance has difficulty in succeeding in impoverished countries with high illiteracy, little Internet access, and poor infrastructure; (c) Successful nonviolent struggle is difficult to achieve  in countries with serious ethnic divisions or ongoing violent conflicts. Sudan, it may be recalled has suffered from violent internal conflict and civil war for most of the period since its independence in 1956. 

In fact, war waged by separatists in the south led to that region’s independence in 2011, but fighting still continues on both sides of the new border.

The Sudanese have remained steadfast in demanding civilian leadership and a minimal political role for the country’s armed forces. Refusing to be placated by concessions that the transitional government is offering, they are still demanding that they also step down as a high-risk/high-reward strategy.

Western political commentators are concerned about this continued process of civil demonstration in Khartoum. Irfan Siddiq, the British Ambassador in Khartoum has called for an end to the violence. The UN Secretary General António Guterres has urged the Sudanese authorities to facilitate an independent investigation and to hold those responsible accountable. In other reactions, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has described the action as "an outrageous step that will only lead to more polarization and violence" and that the military council "bears full responsibility". The African Union has also called for an immediate and transparent investigation. In response, Sudan’s Public Prosecutor has set up a Committee to investigate the violence.

Several UN agents operating in Sudan- the WFP; FAO, UNDP, UNIDO, UNICEF, UNHCR, OCHA, and the IOM are all worried. They are particularly anxious because the Sudan’s regular Armed Forces have grown in strength over the last decade. It is now a well-equipped fighting force, thanks to increasing local production of heavy and advanced arms.

Those watching the unfolding engagement have consequently hinted to the demonstrators that in the past the leadership of the Sudanese army has shown its willingness to order ruthless crackdowns and large-scale massacres. They are hoping that this will not happen again. Tomi Oladipo, BBC's Africa security correspondent has in this context made a relevant comment- “What matters is which faction of the security forces has the upper hand in the TMC. The hardliners, particularly the Rapid Support Forces - led by the deputy head of the regime, Mohamed "Hemeti" Hamdan Dagalo - appear to be leading the way and could display more ruthlessness than has been seen so far”.

However, pro-democracy forces are hoping that—even if orders are given, ordinary soldiers and an emerging younger generation of more moderate middle-level officers would refuse to carry them out.

With thousands of Sudanese still on the streets, the pro-democracy movement believes that they have the winning hand. One can only hope that their belief and expectations, consistent with human rights and good governance will not perish in the dust.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.