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Sudan’s Suffrage⁠—A Deep Blue Quest For Democracy

After it was established as a democratic republic in 1956, Sudan went on to experience an endless cycle of internal conflict and short-lived civil governance—a result of mismanagement and ethnoreligious differences between the northern and southern regions of the country. In 1989, Omar al-Bashir, who served as a brigadier in the Sudanese Army at the time, rose to power overthrowing an elected government. As the President, al-Bashir reorganised the country’s political system through a series of changes that included a tighter grip on civil liberties, a revival of religious orthodoxy and a concentration of power within the top brass. Al-Bashir eventually went on to rule the country for the next 30 years as a dictator legitimised by dubious elections, strengthened with support from religious institutions and the military. Furthermore, al-Bashir was responsible for a series of war crimes, human right violations and an era of unstable oil-driven economic growth, causing his popularity to fall amongst his fellow ranks and the civilian populace.

As a result of poor monetary policy and oil-rich South Sudan’s secession in 2011, Sudan’s inflation rate had risen to 73% by the end of 2018, the second highest in the world. The shortage of cash in circulation and the skyrocketing prices of essential goods, aggravated by the government’s economic austerity, led to increasingly strained public relations in a time where progressive ideas and demands for improved welfare were amidst civilian discourse. The protests that were led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA)—a coalition of trade unions comprising of doctors, lawyers, journalists and various other occupations—are described as one of the most organised movements in the Middle East and Africa. The movement is aimed at the restoration of democratic rule, the improvement of human rights and the introduction of economic reforms in the country.

Protest at the Military Headquarters in Khartoum on 6th April 2019.

Omar al-Bashir was overthrown this February, as a result of his waning popularity and inability to control the civil unrest—the same reason for which he deposed his predecessor, Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989. Lieutenant General Ahmad Awad Ibn Auf, who held the positions of both Vice President and Defense Minister, took up reigns of the state and set up the Transitional Military Council (TMC) to govern it. Auf soon placed restrictions such as curfews on the civilian population and called for the dissolution of their protests, while scrapping central and state legislatures across the country. Facing protests himself, Auf soon stepped down in favour of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the General Inspector of Sudan’s military and one of the first officers to reach out to protesters. With the sacking of several tainted officials, the removal of restrictions and the release of al-Bashir’s political prisoners, the decision was received well among protesters and proposals for the establishment of a civilian government were soon invited by the TMC, who claimed that it would be implemented in due time.

On the other hand, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) serve as a contrast to the relatively cordial public relations maintained by the army and have a history of barbarism in past conflicts. A quasi-governmental force that grew out of tribal militias devoted to pro-Arab radicalism, the force went on to carry out mass arrests and harassment. Furthermore, they scalped victims and raped over 70 women and men in an attempt to subdue the population’s demands for self-governance. The violence comes in just two months after the military’s celebrated oust of President Omar al-Bashir from power, only to soon become oppressors themselves despite proclaiming support for the civilian movement.

Through peaceful demonstrations such as sit-ins and internet activism, the people of Sudan have been able to spread awareness of their plight and rally international support.

Mohammad Hashim Mattar, aged 26, was one of many killed by government forces at a peaceful demonstration in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum on 3rd June 2019. Beginning with family and friends grieving his death, his favourite shade of blue soon spread over social media, becoming a symbol of the pro-democratic agitation that had taken over the country, and the world over, a token of solidarity with the people of Sudan. The perpetrators of the attack—the Rapid Support Forces—are responsible for over a hundred casualties and injuries.

The struggle has swept across the country, lending support for various causes such as women’s rights, encouraging them to stand up to the government and raise themselves to the standing of men. Darfur, a region populated by indigenous non-Arabic speakers, has long witnessed bloodshed under the Sudanese government, which has been carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the populace. A recent arrest of Darfur students by intelligence forces prompted the protesters’ slogan “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!” aimed at al-Bashir, a pledge for support towards the Darfur cause. Seeking mass reformation and improvements across many areas, the protests which started in response to hyperinflation, expanded to encompass various issues across the country and aims to be inclusive of everyone.

An engineering student at the Sudan International University, Alaa Salah rallies crowds through songs and poetry in her protest against the government.

Despite the promise of civilian rule and increased cooperation between the military and protesters, demonstrations at the military headquarters in Khartoum continued as a means of keeping the TMC proactive with their promises. With altercations resulting in many casualties over several days and a build-up of security forces towards the end of May, the SPA alleged that the TMC had been planning to terminate their protests with excessive force, a prediction that came true with the massacre on June 3rd. The situation in the country remains unclear owing to the internet shutdowns and a grip on the press. Estimates on death tolls vary widely with each source, the numbers further confused by attempts to underplay the atrocities by methods like the dumping of bodies in the river Nile. The attacks, however, failed to demoralise the populace, with the SWA calling for a massive civil disobedience movement that resulted in nationwide strikes between the 9th and 11th of June. As a result, the TMC resumed negotiations and promised accountability against perpetrators.

With different sentiments and exclusive lines of command among Sudanese forces, there have been reports of clashes among the forces as some were seen protecting civilians from others harassing them, at a protest. The military council admits having ordered the dispersal of protesters but claims that it had no hand in the use of violence. On 14th of June, TMC spokesperson General Shams Eddin Kabashi stressed that no leniency would be shown towards aggressors regardless of their rank if proven guilty. Kabashi further mentioned that progress had been slow due to the opposition’s outright rejection of the TMC, a surrogate which military leaders believe is a necessity for peace and stability until the set up of a full-fledged civilian government.

The aftermath of violence in a Darfur village.

The situation in Sudan is just one of over a dozen conflicts in the region that has struggled to attract apt global attention. Its young neighbour is not doing very well either. South Sudan is in the midst of a gruesome civil war soon after independence, registering nearly half a million deaths since 2013. The last decade has seen civilians across the region fight their governments for greater freedom and improved governance in a series of protests collectively termed as the Arab Spring. Few examples of positive outcome exist, foreign involvement having for a large part pitched sides against each other, often prolonging the conflict and leaving it to an endless rot—a fate that may well be awaiting Sudan as well. With authoritarian states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates pledging aid to the tune of three billion dollars to Sudan’s military council, uncertainty seems to overshadow the country’s passionately fierce quest for a better future.

Featured Image Credits: France 24

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