Uprising in Sudan: What we know now

By Eric Reeves

September 26, 2013 (SSNA) — [Update, 5:40pm EDT:  I have in the past hour received two reports, from reliable sources, that ministers of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime have begun to leave Khartoum or have sent their families outside Sudan; specifically, it has been reported the Foreign Minister Ali Karti sent his family out of Sudan two days ago.  Such exits would confirm that senior officials have abandoned President Omar al-Bashir and that the regime will fall soon.]

The Khartoum regime has long heavily censored news coverage by Sudanese journalists.  Newspapers have been punishingly fined or put out of business, and there is a long history of harassing, even arresting journalists for reporting what they have seen.  Similarly, the regime has long imposed severe travel restrictions on international journalists, preventing travel to Darfur, to eastern Sudan, and more recently to Blue NileSouth Kordofan, and most of Abyei.  There is no nongovernmental access to broadcast media in Sudan, and a great deal of electronic information of various sorts is consistently blocked (my website is one example, but there are countless others).  The wholesale shutdown of Internet access on Wednesday (September 25) reveals the lengths to which the regime will go to prevent any sharing of news via social media.  In this case the tactic seems to have been hastily conceived, since the shutdown itself generated widespread news coverage.  The regime has at least temporarily allowed Internet connectivity to resume.  But this can be reversed at a moment’s notice, and the shutdown will surely be re-imposed if events continue on their current trajectory. Events following Friday evening prayers tomorrow (September 27, 2013) may be telling.

The consequence of such tight state control of news, news media, and journalists is that it is often the case that events of major significance are covered from very particular vantages.  Interviews are provided to some, but not others.  For example, the BBC contacted the director of the hospital in Omdurman, who confirmed at least 21 deaths; others did not, and this one reasons of many why initial casualty figures were sometimes low and contradictory. 

And because journalists for foreign news services have no presence in most regions of Sudan, the impression given by most current dispatches is that the protests are concentrated in Khartoum/Omdurman.  This is not so, and in fact demonstrations began in Wad Medani, Gezira State.  Major demonstrations have also been reported in North KhartoumPort SudanNyalael-Obeid, Gedarif, Kosti, and Damazin. The long dispatch from Radio Dabanga (below) offers the most comprehensive account of locations and activities.

The number of people killed by live-round bullets fired by security forces has been rising steadily.  But any census is bound to be constrained by access to information.  We have no way of confirming the estimate offered by Yasir Arman, the Secretary General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, earlier today:

From Nyala to Medani, and Khartoum up to the late evening of September 25, 2013, the estimated death toll of the peaceful demonstrators is more than 139, and hundreds of wounded. They were all shot by live bullets by the Security, the Police and the militia of the ruling National Congress Party of Sudan. [This figure has been updated through the day today: it now stands at "over 140," according to AFP’s report on Arman’s current figure.] (all emphases in all reports have been added by the author; place names and proper nouns are generally in bold on first mention)

And indeed, late today Amnesty International reports that it has confirmed, along with the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (September 26),

…that at least 50 demonstrators were killed on Tuesday and Wednesday after being shot in the chest or head. Local sources and activists have put the figure much higher, in excess of 100, and at the time of writing the two organizations were still receiving reports of shootings and excessive use of force. "Shooting to kill—including by aiming at protesters’ chests and heads—is a blatant violation of the right to life, and Sudan must immediately end this violent repression by its security forces," said Lucy Freeman, Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International. 

Such a figure should have been expected, given the larger number of those already killed or wounded, as well as the slow and limited access to those who have died in hospitals and elsewhere, it is likely that Arman’s estimate is much closer to the truth than what has been reported in most quarters.  What we do know from a variety of sources is that the violence generated by the demonstrations was entirely expected.  On September 18 the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) ordered all reporting on the impending cuts in fuel "subsidies" to toe the regime’s line; there was to be no reporting of "bad news," even if in fact the news would be very bad indeed—and felt immediately by the poorest Sudanese.  For not only is inflation already running in excess of 50 percent according to most economic analysis, but lifting the "subsidies" almost doubled the cost of fuel—including vital cooking oil—overnight.  Subsequently, on Wednesday September 25 NISS,

…summoned in Khartoum editors-in-chief of different newspapers demanding them to cooperate with the government during the current "economic crisis" or have their papers shut down. Journalist Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, editor-in-chief of El Ayam daily paper, told Radio Dabanga he refuses to cooperate with the NISS and announced during Wednesday’s meeting he would close down his media house and stop publishing from Thursday onwards. [Salih was the 2005 winner of the Golden Pen Freedom Award for press freedom—ER]

There are certainly many good reasons that the regime doesn’t want any independent reporting on the economy, for there is a great deal that has yet to make its way into the thinking of ordinary Sudanese or outside observers (for a highly informed discussion of the so-called fuel "subsidies, for example, see excerpt below of comments by Professor Hamid El Tijani of American University in Cairo).  What we know from various NISS actions is that the firestorm of protest was anticipated and inevitable. 

The economic implosion in Sudan, which has now resulted in an explosion of popular anger, has long been evident, but too little discussed in assessing the policies and decisions of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party.  The inflationary spurt of this week, coupled with the desperate flight to hard currency, may produce not simply greater inflation but a ruinous hyper-inflation.  Hyper-inflation will destroy an economy quickly, given the circumstances that have prevailed for well over a year, and indeed may reasonably be dated to the loss of crude oil sales, and following the independence of South Sudan.  Subsequently, Khartoum’s perversely shut-down negotiations over a reasonable transit fee income; the regime did so in January 2012 by asking an extortionate $36/barrel, the equivalent of sabotaging any possible agreement.

Beyond this, the loss of oil income—either through the sale of crude or transit fees—denied the Sudanese economy access to foreign exchange currency.  There is almost no hard currency with which to purchase food, other commodities, even the most critical equipment needed by functioning sectors of the economy.  The belief that gold could be exported in sufficient quantities to offset the loss of oil revenues was always misguided, for a variety of reasons, and has now been hurt badly be the slump in gold prices.  The agricultural sector has long been neglected and now requires major investments of precisely the sort the regime is in no position to fund.  And all the while the value of the Sudanese Pound against hard currencies continues its relentless and precipitous decline.

In short, the economy is in a shambles and has no possibility of near-term improvement.  Wildly premature discussions of debt relief for Khartoum seem myopic, given the spending habits of the regime, which annually devotes well over half the budget to the military and security services, and another large percentage to the government itself.  Sudan will have to continue to bear the debilitating costs of an external debt that now exceeds $42 billion—a level of debt that cannot be serviced, let alone repaid, even in part.

The consequences of economic implosion

Coupled with anger over the economic crisis and financial mismanagement is the growing political discontent among various constituencies that have heretofore at least acquiesced before the regime’s policies.  The old, enfeebled, not to say moribund traditional northern political parties are looking on with unease, and may attempt to sit out the current crisis; but this will earn them only additional contempt, especially among younger Sudanese who find themselves without jobs or prospects of employment, even if highly educated.  The system of cronyism that has supported the NIF/NCP politically for so many years cannot itself be sustained, let alone expanded.

The various reports (below) that we receive on the response of the Sudanese people to current realities should all have this as context: the extreme distress of the Sudanese economy and the regime’s iron-fisted control of the news whenever it feels such to be necessary. 

Some of the most striking reports from the past three days include:

[The director of] Omdurman hospital told the BBC’s Arabic Service that 21 people sent to his hospital had died, and that about 80 were injured. "All have gunshot wounds, some in the chest," he said. Sudan has not seen a wave of anti-government unrest on the scale of that experienced in neighbouring Egypt. Protesters have been angered at a jump in fuel prices after the government’s decided to lift fuel subsidies Also on Wednesday, sources at Khartoum Bahari hospital told the BBC that the facility had received three bodies "shot by live bullets earlier today."  (BBC News Africa, September 26, 2013)

It should be noted that the total of 24 deaths is just for Omdurman and Khartoum; it does not reflect reports of deaths elsewhere in Sudan.

Agence France-Presse reports from Khartoum (September 25, 2013):

Demonstrations spread on Wednesday to several districts of the capital, some of them near the centre, an AFP correspondent reported. "Freedom, freedom," and "The people want the fall of the regime," chanted the protesters, many of them students, borrowing the refrain of the Arab Spring protests which toppled several governments in 2011. Police fired tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators. Shops were shut in Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman, with several roads cut by protesters who burnt tyres, sending black smoke billowing into the sky, and blocked access with tree trunks.

We glean some sense of the regime’s sense of the duration of protests from this additional reporting from AFP: "The education ministry said schools in the capital would remain shut until September 30."

And AFP also gives us eyewitness accounts of what is happening:

Vehicles were burned in the car park of a luxury hotel just 500 metres (yards) from the international airport, and a petrol station in the area was also set alight. Police made around 20 arrests and sealed off a section of the main road to Khartoum airport. In Khartoum North, a witness said six cars were torched, as public transport across the capital ground to a halt.

On Tuesday, September 23 AFP reported:

On Tuesday, protesters ransacked and then torched offices of the ruling National Congress Party in Omdurman, witnesses said. An AFP correspondent said around 1,000 demonstrators spilled into Omdurman’s heavily populated Al-Thawra district and were confronted by anti-riot police. The Omdurman protests lasted until around dawn on Wednesday. The protests first broke out in Wad Madani, in Gezira state south of Khartoum, scene of the first death on Monday. They have also spread to Nyala, capital of South Darfur state. A Nyala resident told AFP by phone that thousands of students filled the streets of the city and blocked a main road. 

The torching of the NIF/NCP offices in Omdurman is a particularly striking symbol in the course of the uprising. 

Associated Press reports today (Khartoum, September 26, 2013):

Sudanese authorities on Thursday deployed troops around vital installations and gas stations in the country’s capital following days of rioting over gas price hikes that claimed at least 30 lives. The army also reinforced positions around military headquarters in Khartoum and along the city’s university road, which is close to the presidential palace….  Hospital officials and activists said at least 30 have been killed since in street violence, mostly in Khartoum. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to the media. Protesters torched 20 gas stations in Khartoum and elsewhere, and set fire to several police stations. Stores were looted in several parts of the city.

In perhaps the most geographically detailed and highly informed account of the events of recent days, Radio Dabanga reports (September 25) the following:

[I]n Omdurman, some troops of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are reported to have joined the demonstrators. In Gezira state, an army Major who refused to suppress the demonstrations reportedly resigned. An unknown number of people have allegedly been killed and injured in demonstrations across Sudan, which have spread to the major cities of the country including greater Khartoum, AtbaraKassalaPort SudanEl ObeidEl FasherKosti, and Damazin. According to activists in Khartoum, more than 1,500 people were arrested in the capital.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of SAF forces joining the demonstrators, or further resignations by mid-level officers (colonels and majors).  This evening, Inter Press Service (in Khartoum) indicated it has received reports that "elements of the Sudan Armed Forces are refusing to carry out orders from President Omar al-Bashir to control the situation on the streets." If this happens rapidly and in substantial numbers, the regime may be toppled very quickly.

Witnesses reported of large demonstrations in various neighbourhoods of Khartoum, like HalfayaSamiraabDurushaab and El Fitihaab El Shagla, and Sahafa Sherig. Sources affirm that six protesters were shot dead by the police in three separate incidents. In Sahafa Sherig protesters reportedly burned a police station. Others occupied the large El Mina El Barri bus station and the Central Market in the south of the capital. Almost all of the main roads in Khartoum were blocked by burning tires. In the neighbourhoods of Mayo and Kalakla, south Khartoum, demonstrators set fire to a police post, chanting slogans demanding the "overthrow of the Al Bashir regime and his National Congress Party." In the Salama neighbourhood, also in southern Khartoum, witnesses reported that two demonstrators were shot dead by the police. In the large district of Umbadda, hundreds of protesters blocked the road between Dar es Salaam and the Libya market of Khartoum. In Dar es Salaam two petrol stations were torched.

One of the demonstrators told Radio Dabanga that in the large area around the Libya market citizens took to the streets in large numbers at around 9am shouting "Down with the regime." Police forces fired tear gas, but the number of demonstrators was so large that the police had to flee. The protesters set assets on fire on the road to the Libya market and broke into the premises of the court nearby the market, during which two demonstrators were killed by police bullets. 

In the area of Haj Yusif in Khartoum North, witnesses told Radio Dabanga that four protesters were shot dead by "government forces," which led the demonstrators to set fire on the municipality of Haj Yusif. It burned down completely. Protesters also surrounded the police station of Haj Yusif, where police used tear gas and bullets. Witnesses told Radio Dabanga of the demonstrations in Haj Yusif broke out at 8am in the morning. Demonstrators burned tires.

Giving a much fuller sense of the scope of the uprising, Radio Dabanga also reports:

In Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile, hundreds of citizens went out to the streets chanting slogans demanding to bring down the regime. One of the protesters informed Radio Dabanga that a group of citizens and students demonstrated on Wednesday condemning the huge rise in fuel and commodities’ prices. The police then fired tear gas, dispersed the demonstrators by force, and arrested more than 20 of them.

In the city of Port Sudan, hundreds of citizens and students went to the streets on Wednesday condemning the increase in prices and demanding the downfall of the regime in Khartoum. The demonstrations led to the shut-down of the city market, government buildings, shops, and restaurants. Public transport was cancelled. Witnesses in Port Sudan told Radio Dabanga that a number of demonstrators was arrested. Other sources from Port Sudan informed Radio Dabanga that pupils and students of basic and secondary schools, as well as university students, went out to demonstrate and were joined by dozens of citizens.

In El Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan, demonstrations of secondary school and university students together with citizens reached the Soug El Kabir, chanting against price increases. Witnesses in El Obeid told Radio Dabanga on Wednesday that the police took to excessive violence to disperse the demonstrators.

In Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, demonstrations of students on Wednesday morning were quickly dispersed by police forces. The Deputy Governor and minister of Education of South Darfur state, Mahdi Bosh, closed the basic schools and secondary schools in the city until Sunday. [Gedarif and Sinnar have also been reported by Amnesty International as sites of demonstrations—ER]

The economic ripple effects of the demonstrations, the violent crackdown, and the pervasive sense of insecurity and uncertainty are going to be powerful. The first signs are already evident:

Shops and businesses in Sudanese capital Khartoum remained closed for the third consecutive day on Thursday amid concerns about renewed anti-austerity protests. "Trade activity has been almost paralyzed since the announcement of the latest package of economic measures and the ensuing protests," Mohamed Abdel-Rahim, owner of a Khartoum cell-phone shop, told Anadolu Agency.  He said most local traders had suspended business until the security situation was resolved, calm was restored and the "confused" economic situation became clearer. "Through its unstable economic policies, the government has launched a war on the livelihoods of the people," he said….  Khartoum’s four main fuel stations remained closed on Thursday.

Further details on the situation in the streets today (Thursday, September 26) come from reports by various Arabic-speaking journalists for The Niles, part of the Guardian Africa Network:

Now authorities have deployed more security forces in the streets of Khartoum. Rumour has it that they will put police vehicles in front of the gates of mosques across the capital on Friday. The expectation is that protests will flare up when worshipers exit Friday prayers. In addition, the capital is in the throes of a fuel crisis. A third of our petrol stations were shut down amid fears they may be burnt down or because they ran out of fuel. Authorities have blocked off gas stations by installing members of the military and police force. Some neighbourhoods are short of basics. In some areas citizens are pushing each other out of the way to get bread.  Three newspapers did not go to press on Wednesday because they refused to deliver a one-sided report on the demonstrations, as demanded by the security forces.

Again, events following tomorrow’s (Friday’s) evening prayers might be of an even greater magnitude and precipitate a greater and more violent response from the security forces, heightening the crisis.

On Wednesday, September 25, there was a massacre in Khartoum and neighbouring areas. Sources who have been to morgues and hospitals suggest that far more than 30 people have been killed. Maybe two or three times as many. People died in Omdurman as well as in Khartoum Bahri [Hospital].  Security has impeded the media from reporting on the death toll. Daily newspapers can only use police information in their reports, creating a one-sided version. Farouk Abu Issa, chairman of the opposition National Consensus Forces, said that security agents threatened opposition leaders this morning, Thursday, September 26, in front of the Ismail Al-Azhari’s house in Omdurman, forcing them to cancel their meeting.

[from Port Sudan]  The protests in Port Sudan began on Wednesday, September 25, with dozens of people protesting near the central market. Students from the Red Sea University and as well high school students joined the demonstration.  The police responded with tear gas, dispersing protestors up to 4:30 in the afternoon. The situation has led to a complete paralysis of the transport system in the city until Wednesday evening. Today the protests began at 11:00am. The police dispersed the demonstrators again by firing tear gas, the traffic was again paralysed and a number of students and activists were arrested. Demonstrators during yesterday’s and today’s protests were chanting slogans such as "No to high prices" and "the people want to overthrow the regime."

Consequences going forward

It is of course impossible to chart the future course of the uprising in Sudan; but it is already a much more serious, much more deadly, and much more widespread expression of popular anger and resentment than the demonstrations of June/July 2012.  What we will almost certainly see is a continuation of heavy use of tear-gas by security forces, the use of "live" ammunition, and more widespread and brutal arrests.  The regime is desperate: it knows that the free fall in the economy can’t be halted by any means politically available, and thus believes that military force is the only way to respond to the uprising, given its causes.

This is bad news for much of greater Sudan as well.  An October Abyei referendum held under these circumstances—though entirely justified by all agreements previously reached and comporting with the referendum plan of the African Union—may well spark very serious violence between the Misseriya Arabs and the indigenous Dinka Ngok.  Such clashes could quickly lead to involvement of Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the South’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army.  The African Union Peace and Security Council seems unwilling to support the proposal it had previously endorsed, as presented by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), led by the expedient Thabo Mbeki.  This is an extremely dangerous situation (see excellent analysis by Tim Flatman today at Sudan Tribune).

If civil war or anything approaching it should break out in Sudan, the fate of future oil transport from the South to Port Sudan is deeply imperiled.  Cross-border trade and travel may come to a halt.  And again, the conflict could easily become international.

In Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan there is much to fear from a likely decision by Khartoum to expel all humanitarian organizations as well as peacekeeping operations: UNAMID from Darfur, and UNISFA from Abyei (the UN Interim Security Force in Abyei is served from Kadugli in South Kordofan, Sudan).  Precipitous withdrawal of either peacekeepers or humanitarians could have catastrophic consequences for many hundreds of thousands of acutely vulnerable civilians.  There will be enormous pressure on Juba to permit a cross-border humanitarian corridor to be created into the Nuba Mountains, whose people continue to face a campaign of genocidal annihilation.

There are many other threats that may emerge in the near-term: Khartoum, if it finds itself confronting more desertions, or resignations of the sort by the SAF major in Wad Medani, knows that the military tables could be quickly turned.  In such circumstances the regime will be grasping for any military ally or assistance.  For example, a grim deal with Chad’s Idriss Déby may be fashioned for the western part of Darfur; or Islamic extremists from the region may be invited to join in the regime’s newest jihad.  The possibilities are numerous.

For its part, the United States seems content to play a neutral role, issuing an overwhelmingly banal and meaningless statement (in Arabic) yesterday: "We call on all sides not to resort to force and to respect civil liberties and the right to peaceful assembly. In these difficult moments, it is necessary for all sides to show restraint and prudence."  This banality and tonelessness sadly is of a piece with the Radio France Internationale interview given today by U.S. special envoy Donald Booth, who when asked about the NIF/NCP regime in Khartoum, could only say that following his recent three-day visit, "I don’t think I’m in a position to speak in an expert manner on the NCP."  Well, we may almost certainly take him at his word, given the vacuousness of the responses offered during the interview.  It would appear that the Obama administration is still committed to a morally reprehensible policy of "moral equivalence" in speaking about issues and parties in Sudan.  This comports with continuation of a policy priority of gathering counter-terrorism intelligence from Khartoum’s security services—a policy priority that requires bargaining with a regime of génocidaires

At this defining moment in Sudan’s history, Americans have a right to expect of this administration more than banality and expediency.  Such expectations, however, seem doomed to be disappointed.


Radio Dabanga, September 18, 2013, interview with Professor Hamid El Tijani, on "fuel subsidies" in Sudan:

Professor Hamid El Tijani, an economy expert at the American University in Cairo, has described the government’s announced intention to lift subsidies on fuel as "a big lie." He explained in an interview with Radio Dabanga that "What the government is currently doing is actually an imposition of new taxes on basic consumer commodities, rather than the lifting of subsidies—which are in fact not in place to lift." He added that Sudan is witnessing an economic collapse, with an increase in expenses and a deficit in the revenues. This negative development has prompted the ruling National Congress Party to resort to "borrowing from the people," in the name of lifting subsidies. He stressed that the government, by "lifting subsidies," just intends to impose new taxes on citizens El Tijani explained that the Sudanese government spends about $6 billion and $300 million on the security sector with average of $10 million dollars per day, as well as spending approximately $ 4 million a day for the presidency and the sovereign sectors. He noted that the government has options other than the ongoing procedures, including a cut in spending on the security and sovereign sectors. This in turn requires a political will to stop the current wars in DarfurSouth Kordofan and the Blue Nile State. This would be an essential step in the restoration of confidence in the Sudanese economy. However, El Tijani stressed that any economical solution in the current situation through which Sudan is going may be of no avail. He rather believes that the solution lies in the radical change of the regime.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.

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