16 Apr Sudan and the People’s Revolution: Out with the Old…
Many thought this day would never come, and I consider myself one of them. Last week President Omar al Bashir became former President Omar al Bashir after months of citizen led protests and a definitive intervention by the Sudanese Army. The remarkable power of citizen protests and the dogged determination to topple a corrupt regime has been inspirational to observe but it has also raised many questions about the uncertain future of the Republic of the Sudan.
The revolution begins
The protest began on the 19th of December 2018 as the cost of living in Sudan soared making basic commodities, like bread, unaffordable for the average person. The protests, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) and other organisations continued and slowly morphed into calls for Bashir to step down. Protestors from all walks of life and in various cities in Sudan took to the streets eager for a change in leadership.
2018 turned into 2019 and protestors continued to show unwavering determination, whilst being strategically organised and well coordinated. Despite being subjected to tear gas, rubber and live bullets they remained undeterred. By January 2019, Amnesty International reported that at least 59 people had been killed and thousands had been arrested.
Finally, on Thursday the 11th of April, the Army intervened and placed Bashir under house arrest announcing that he was no longer president. Defence Minister Awad Ibn Ouf, made the announcement on National television, declared a state of emergency, and stated that a Transitional Military Council, led by him, would supervise a two-year transition period.
The intervention by the army was undoubtedly definitive but the protests themselves remain significant and extraordinary not just for the change they have put into motion but also because of the demographics of protestors. The significant presence of women at protests and marches is one of the noteworthy aspects. It is estimated that 70 percent of the protestors were women. Sudanese women have experienced severe discrimination resulting in their subjugation and repression. They have also been strongly discouraged from taking part in any form of political activism. Their courage and tenacity to go out in their numbers and be part of this historic moment is both inspirational and promising in its representation of what may be an important societal shift.
In addition to the presence of women, the presence of the youth at protests is also significant as a number of protestors constituted the generation that has only known one leader and never experienced true democracy. To see them in their masses signals powerful momentum for genuine change and hopefully the days of only seeing men over the age of 50 in political leadership roles are coming to an end. 61% of the Sudanese population is under the age of 24.
History repeating itself?
Sudan is no stranger to protests and military rule. There have been two mass protests that led to regime change. In 1964 General Ibrahim Abboud was ousted and the nation enjoyed five brief years of what was known as its “Second democracy” until there was another military take over resulting in General Nimeiri seizing control. In 1985 Nimeiri saw his rule come to an end after 12 days of protests. In both cases influential factions of the military were instrumental as they supported the people’s revolution. However, the sequence of events always seems to be: a spirited protest, brief periods of democracy then a military take over. This time around perhaps it will be different.
After Bashir was removed, protestors remained on the street paying no regard to the military issued curfew and repeating their call for the creation of a civilian led Transitional Council. In addition, the protestors made it clear that being led by a formerly close ally of Bashir’s in the form of Defence Minister Awad Ibn Ouf would simply not do. Defence Minister Awad Ibn Ouf had no choice but to step down on Friday 12 April making way for a less controversial General, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan. Burhan lifted the curfew and has initiated talks with protest leaders.
Bashir himself came to power in a coup in 1989 and has ruled with little regard for human rights waging wars that have resulted in the deaths of thousands.
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against his own citizens in Darfur. The conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when two rebel movements the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), in their quest for equal and fair treatment of the predominantly non-Arab Sudanese groups in the region, launched an attack against the Khartoum government. The response was deadly and merciless as women, children and innocent civilians were tortured and murdered. By 2013 UN figures estimated that 300 000 people had been killed in the conflict. Bashir is yet to answer for his alleged crimes as he has remained the most notorious fugitive of international justice.
Through his continued defiance of the ICC’s arrest warrant Bashir has made a nuisance of himself with his visits to African states that are Rome Statue members. He has visited Chad, Malawi, Djibouti, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria and generated volumes of jurisprudence on their failure to arrest him and on the thorny issue of head of state immunity.
Having personally advocated and litigated in favour of Bashir’s arrest during my time at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, I must admit that news of his fall from power did momentarily raise hopes that he may find himself on trial at the ICC but the Transitional Council has indicated that Bashir will not be sent to the Hague. Instead, they say he will face domestic justice which is always preferable insofar as it is fair, impartial and transparent.
Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur are not the only crimes committed under Bashir’s watch. He has inflicted other forms of suffering on his people including the conflict between South Sudan and Sudan which left 2 million people dead as a result of famine, violence and disease. During his tenure, grave violations were committed in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states and Sudan also faced crippling public sector corruption.
Recipe for staying in power
Despite all of this Bashir managed to stay in power for 30 years, how one might wonder? The fear, oppression and intimidation kept the people subdued but the support (wittingly and perhaps unwittingly) from powerful states contributed significantly to Bashir’s longevity. Russia is reported to have sent mercenaries to advise Bashir’s security forces on how to suppress the protests.
In return for entering the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia reportedly gave Sudan 2.2 billion USD not to mention the EU and Bashir becoming bedfellows in a bid to reduce the flow of migrants to Europe. Some reports indicate that EU funds were used by Sudanese government entities complicit in human rights violations.
This petition states, that “the EU, since 2015 has invested more than US$ 200 million in Bashir and his ‘Rapid Support Forces’ on the understanding that they prevent migrants and refugees from crossing Sudan and heading north towards Europe. The Rapid Support Forces now receiving EU funding are the same militia commonly known as the ‘Janjaweed’ – the militia responsible for a campaign of murder, torture, rape and forced displacement in Darfur” a perspective shared here as well.
The story is rapidly unfolding as protests continue. Who knows what will happen, but what is clear is that Bashir’s removal is momentous and could herald a new day for Sudan. The state apparatus he used to terrorise and control remains in place and for lasting change to materialise, major adjustments to that apparatus are indispensable. As many African people are realising – removing one man is not always enough. A luta continua Sudan!