Spirit of Revolt Drifts South as Austerity Protests Rock Sudan
After years of neoliberal reform, authoritarian rule and increasing misery, further austerity measures drive the people of Sudan back into the street.
For the second time since the split between Sudan and South Sudan in 2011, large protests have broken out across the country. The epicentre of the protests is in the capital Khartoum, with thousands of people taking to the streets on a daily basis. Ever since the government announced on 22 September that fuel and cooking gas subsidies would be cancelled, public anger has risen to a boiling point, with demands for the re-institution of the subsidies quickly transforming into demands for the fall of the regime and an end to Al-Bashir’s 24-year rule.
Protests have been going on for over a week and dozens of protestors have reportedly been shot by the state’s security forces. The head of the Sudanese Doctor’s Syndicate, Dr Ahmed al Sheikh, reported that most injuries were caused by bullets in the head or the chest. In a recent statement, Amnesty International condemned the state violence and stated that “Shooting to kill – including by aiming at protestor’s chests and heads – is a blatant violation of the right to life.” Whereas the official government figures claim that 33 people, including police officers, have died, Al Sheikh estimates that as many as 210 people have been killed so far.
The unrest started in the city of Wad Madani, south of Khartoum, where the first death was reported on 23 September, but quickly spread to the capital and its twin city Omdurman. The protests escalated when early in the week government buildings, gas stations and police stations were set ablaze by angry mobs. However, in an interview with VICE, Amjed Farid of Sudan Change Now claimed that the individuals “vandalizing” public property were not representative of the larger civil movement, and even went so far as to claim that the fires were started by provocateurs “to stigmatize the protests and say the protesters are destroying the country and it’s not true.”
From the very start the protestors have made it quite clear that the popular indignation is about much more than the rising fuel and gas prices alone. Just as the protests in Turkey were about so much more than a few trees, and the massive rallies in Brazil were not just about a rise in bus ticket fees, the protests in Sudan cannot be analysed in the context of rising fuel prices alone. Rather, the current unrest is the consequence of years of neoliberal reform, authoritarian rule, rising costs of living in combination with high levels of inflation, spreading poverty, poor educational systems, and so on.
Ever since the country began exporting oil in 1999, the entire economy has been centred on the oil industry. After the coup that brought al-Bashir to power in 1989 relations between the country and the International Monetary Fund were renewed. Despite several set-backs Sudan has closely followed a neoliberal route map set out by the IMF and the World Bank over the course of the 1990s. The combined effects of austerity measures, price controls, and the opening of the country’s borders to foreign investors led to high inflation, soaring unemployment and enduring poverty.
The combination of oil abundance, authoritarian rule and a government with a positive stance towards free market policies made Sudan an appealing candidate for foreign investors. Of the foreign direct investment that flowed into the country in the 2000s, three quarters was reserved for the oil industry. With 80% of the population working in the agricultural sector, and almost half of the people living below the poverty line, Sudan quickly turned into a classical example of a rentier state. The political, military and business elites enriched themselves at the cost of the country’s development. Of course the IMF did not mind. In 2006 and 2007 Sudan’s economy grew more than 10% per year, providing evidence for the “ignorant” and “short-sighted” of how neoliberal policies had brought money and prosperity to the country.
This Sudanese bubble burst when in July 2011 South Sudan became independent, taking with it about three quarters of the oil reserves. From one day to the next, Sudan plummeted into a depression. The country has still not recovered from this severe blow to its revenues, and is as a consequence subjected to a series of very strict austerity measures demanded by the IMF.
The initial package of austerity measures was implemented in June 2012 and was also met with a lot of popular resistance. Students played a central role, and for weeks on end they took to the streets. Thousands of students armed with sticks and stones were met by hundreds of police who tried to control the crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. After almost two months of protests and about a dozen deaths the police finally cracked down and arrested thousands of people in order to end the unrest.
The current protests differ from last year’s in terms of the police violence being used to crack down on the dissidents. Where last year’s protests saw a dozen deaths after two months, the current death toll already stands at a shocking 200 after only a single week. This might signal the government’s fears of the uprising turning into an actual revolution after two years of increasing misery, austerity, poverty and inequality.
Not only has the physical violence reached unprecedented levels, the crackdown on the media is another signal of the rising discomfort of the country’s ruling elite. Sudan’s biggest newspaper, Al-Intibaha, was forced to close, as were several other newspapers. News broadcasters Al Arabiya and SKY News Arabiya were forcibly shut down. In justifying this move, the foreign minister said in an interview with Al Arabiya that “the media make revolutions,” and that “if the revolution is created by the media, we have to be serious in dealing with it.”
So far, the protestors remain defiant, just as much as the government seems determined to stamp out all signals of dissent. Opposition groups, youth organisations and trade unions have organized themselves in the Coordination of Sudanese Change Forces and have demanded the dissolution of the executive and legislative branches of government, and for the regime to hand over power to a transitional government that would administer the country during an interim period until elections can be held.
Whether this will be the end of Al-Bashir and his crooks will have to be seen. But one thing we can say with certainty is that it would take a long time for the martyrs to be forgotten, and for the people to crawl back into their hiding places once they have tasted only the tiniest bit of freedom. With Sudan being the most likely candidate to be affected by the spillovers from the Arab Revolutions, the explosion of this semi-Arab, semi-African nation might well signal the start of a southern drift of the global wave of revolutions that have thus far left sub-Saharan Africa all but untouched.