- Created: Friday, 24 May 2019 17:30
- Written by Mark Moncada
On 11 April 2019, Sudan’s military leaders executed a coup against the government, overthrowing president-of-30-years Omar Al Bashir and taking power as the Transitional Military Council (TMC). Mass protests against Bashir’s government had been continuing for months, but the military’s action was in direct response to thousands of people surrounding Sudan’s military headquarters in the capital Khartoum on 6 April. The protesters raised barricades and began a sit-in which continues as we go to press. The movement has rejected the cosmetic changes which the TMC proposes and is fighting for real change. The people of Sudan are showing the way in mass popular and militant action against their government and are facing more violent repression from the military.
The people demand the fall of the regime
The protests began in Atbara on 19 December 2018 and are some of the longest and most widespread since Sudan won independence from Britain in 1956. They were triggered by cuts to subsidies for bread and turned into broader anti-austerity protests, from which a countrywide anti-government struggle quickly emerged, calling for the overthrow of president Bashir (see: Sudan in Revolt). Whilst unorganised working class youth were the first out on the streets, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) has become a dominant force in the protests, representing the ‘professional class’ whose living standards are also being undermined. Protesters set fire to the headquarters of Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) in two locations, threw stones at banks, demonstrated outside police stations, went on strike and marched to the presidential palace to submit The Declaration of Freedom and Change. In response, security forces used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse and kill protesters. A new upsurge in the protests came with the 6 April sit-in calling for the fall of Bashir and the formation of a transitional civilian government. Bashir once again sanctioned the use of live bullets to clear protesters. Within the first few days 20 people were killed; however sections of the military began to disobey orders, broke ranks and stepped in to defend the people.
The military leaders, who were clearly protecting their own hides, arrested Bashir on 11 April and established the TMC. The military did not communicate their coup plans with the leaders of the protest movement and have refused to give way to a civilian transitional government. This is the same military that murdered protesters and kept Bashir in power for so long. Bashir has now been imprisoned in solitary confinement in maximum security Kober prison, built when Sudan was a British colony. He is currently under investigation for money laundering after millions of pounds were discovered in his house and was charged on 13 May with the killing of protesters.
Initially, Bashir was replaced by coup leader and NCP Vice President and Defence Minister, Ibn Auf. However, this did not have the desired effect of removing protesters from the streets. Auf is implicated in crimes against the Sudanese people and has close ties to Bashir. He was seen by the movement as a continuation of the old government. In response, the SPA called on more people to come out and join the demonstrations. Tens of thousands did and Auf was forced to resign on 12 April, after just one day in power. Another concession was won the following day as the director-general of Sudan’s infamous National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah (aka Gosh) resigned. Gosh was seen as responsible for the arrests, torture, wounding and murder of protesters. Auf has been replaced by Lieutenant General Abdel Al Buhran, who was the inspector general of the Sudanese armed forces and the third most senior general. He also oversaw Sudanese troops that fought in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Despite this, he is not seen to be as closely linked to Bashir. He came out to speak to protesters, lifted the curfew, pledged to release all arrested protesters and promised that the ‘old regime’ will be rooted out. He is trying to play a conciliatory role. However, under his command the military has since used live ammunition on protesters again, with at least five killed on 17 May.
The Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces
Deadlocked on-off negotiations continue between the military and an alliance of protest leaders. At issue is the membership of a sovereign council that will govern for three years before elections will take place - both sides want a majority in this top tier of power. The protesters are represented by the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) which is an alliance of opposition parties and the SPA. This alliance has so far secured two-thirds of the seats on a future legislative council, with the remainder going to parties not in the alliance.
The SPA is a major component of the DFCF and has gained significant influence through the protests. It has galvanised large sections of Sudanese society into a secular movement. It was formed in 2014 in order to campaign for a living wage for families and better working conditions. It is an umbrella organisation of various trade unions, in particular a union of university lecturers which was formed in 2012, and began talks with the Teachers’ Committee and the banned Sudanese Doctors Syndicate which was revived the same year. The traditional unions were allied to Bashir, so alternatives were formed. This was one year after the secession of South Sudan which triggered an acute financial crisis, pummelling the economy. This seismic shock has affected huge sections of Sudanese society, including the better off sections of the working class – the professional class. As well as a shortage of goods and price hikes, there has been a cash shortage. The response of the government was to set low limits on cash withdrawals from ATMs. The shortage of medical supplies, the deteriorating conditions in hospitals and the impact this has had on access to care has been an added motivation to move doctors to organise.
The National Umma Party (NUP) is also a member of the DFCF. The NUP is the main opposition party to what was Bashir’s NCP. NUP’s leader, Sadiq Al Mahdi, was educated at Oxford University. He was ousted by a military coup that brought Bashir to power in 1989. He returned from Sudan after a period of self-imposed exile on the same day the protests started. He has brazenly stated that he believes the intentions of the military are good and that they are not interested in a military government. Divisions within the DFCF are likely to intensify.
Forces of the future?
Within the protest movement there are also independent forces which are resolutely opposed to compromise, even if this puts them into confrontation with the SPA. On 27 April, a large meeting of the Consultative Council of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) – which was part of Bashir’s coalition government – was surrounded by hundreds of young people, chanting, ‘No place for Islamists.’ The meeting was clearly seen as an attempt by the old regime to organise to take advantage of the transition negotiations. As such it was broken up by protesters. The military piled 143 members of the PCP into trucks and escorted them to Kober prison ‘for their own safety’. As the trucks passed they were attacked by protesters. The PCP members were released later that night. The DFCF issued a statement condemning the attack, adding they believe in the right to assembly and expression for all. They stated that ‘although the PCP is responsible for a great deal of what has happened to Sudan in the past thirty years, any form of physical or verbal abuse will not establish a nation that abides by the Rule of Law’. Imams who have denounced the protests have been turned on by worshippers and forced out of mosques.
Women played a major role in the attack on the PCP meeting. After decades of oppression under Bashir’s government, women have been at the forefront of protests. Despite the dangers of being involved and potential repercussions, women are unafraid and are gaining confidence. In February and March students of the women-only Ahfad University for Women played a major role protesting within their campus and on the streets. Women enjoy widespread support from men on the protests, in contrast to being kept subservient and dragged to police stations for wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothing before the ousting of Bashir. An organisation called ‘No to Women’s Oppression’ is demanding women representatives make up 50% of any new government.
Fighting imperialism’s wars
The TMC has committed Sudan to continuing fighting in the war on Yemen. Lieutenant General Mohamad Hamdan Daglo (Hametti), Deputy Head of the TMC, stated, ‘We are sticking to our commitments to the coalition and will keep our forces until the alliance achieves its objectives.’ British soldiers have been training the Sudanese armed forces since 2014; they have subsequently played a leading role in the war on Yemen since it began in 2015. An estimated 14,000 Sudanese troops are fighting in Yemen at any one time, as well as ex-Janjaweed militias (including children). Sudan is the only country in the Saudi-led coalition that has been willing to send in ground forces anywhere near this magnitude and duration. They brought with them tanks, fighter jets and armoured vehicles. Despite an EU arms embargo on Sudan, the Saudi-led coalition has received arms licenses worth £860m from the British state. Without Sudanese troops, there would be no-one to fire the weapons. Sudan is blocked from debt relief and access to loans as it is on the US state sponsors of terrorism list. The TMC have made their commitments in Yemen to change that. The UN has called the war on Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, forcing 12 million to the brink of starvation and killing 85,000 children. Glaringly, there have been no calls by the DFCF, the SPA or opposition parties, to pull Sudanese troops out of Yemen.
Hametti is also Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force used by Bashir’s government to patrol the border with Libya and round up migrants trying to reach Europe in a 2015 deal with the EU worth $200m. He is a former Janjaweed militia leader. The Janjaweed, forerunner of the RSF, have been accused of war crimes in Darfur. Hametti now holds the second most powerful position in Sudan. Hametti, like Abdel El Sisi in Egypt when he took power through a military coup in 2014, has the backing of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have pledged $3bn worth of ‘aid’ to Sudan. This is a lifeline for the military leaders and is a transparent attempt to increase the power of these Gulf states in Africa. Protesters have chanted, ‘We don’t want your aid!’ Sisi, as chair of the African Union, brokered an extension from 15 days to three months for the TMC to hand over power to a transitional civilian government. Thousands marched on the Egyptian embassy in Khartoum chanting slogans against Sisi, demanding an end to his interference in their country’s affairs.
Fighting for change
What has been crucial in keeping the popular movement alive is the fact that protesters have remained mobilised on the streets in huge numbers for over five months. A huge operation of food, water and bedding distribution has been coordinated, organised and delivered by the protesters. The protesters remain on the streets, pushing for progressive change and finding out for themselves how to remake a society built on decades of imperialist exploitation and division. The movement has quickly overcome regional, racial, religious and gender-based divisions, fomented by Britain, the US and Norway (the Troika) in order to fragment Sudan into North, South and West (Darfur), in order to maintain their influence and diminish that of China. Divide and rule has met its match in the unity and resistance of the oppressed.