Op-Ed: Sudan protests are set to intensify, here’s why

PUBLISHED: Mon, 07 Jan 2019 09:35:20 GMT

By Jared Jeffery, Political analyst at NKC African Economics 

Popular protests, which began in mid-December and spiked on December 19 after bread prices tripled and queues for petrol began to stretch around city blocks, are expected to increase in intensity over the week ahead.

On Thursday, January 3, an opposition coalition called for nation wide demonstrations on Friday, a march on the presidential compound on Sunday, and another march on Wednesday to call for regime change. Footage shared over Twitter showed demonstrations already on Thursday in Port Sudan.

President Omar Al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) have responded to the civil disobedience with characteristic force: rights groups estimate that around 40 people have been killed in protests so far. Curfews are being enforced in some cities and classes at schools and universities have been suspended in many areas.

While the tipping point that led to unrest may have been the worsening economic plight of citizens, the government’s promises that the 2019 budget would maintain many state subsidies, raise wages and assist the poor are unlikely bring an end to the anger.

Furthermore,Mr Bashir’s promises of better days ahead, with greater “transparency,effectiveness and justice in all our national institutions”, made at independence day celebrations on January 1, are likely to fall on deaf ears.

The president – in power for 30 years this June, if he makes it – and his government have lost the credibility to make such promises. To stay in power,they will have to use violence or the threat thereof.

A sign that the NCP ship may really be sinking is the fact that a coalition of opposition parties that took part in the 2016 ‘National Dialogue’ has decided to drop all ties to the government and to call for a transfer of power to an interim authority so that a democratic transition can be organised. The group calls itself the National Front for Change (NFC).

Other opposition groupings – the National Consensus Alliance, Sudan Call, the Unionist Gathering, and the Sudanese Professional Association – have welcomed the defection of these opposition parties, but they want regime change rather than a gradual transfer of power. The schism in the opposition between gradualist parties looking to change the system from within and more revolutionary parties has existed for some time, but it appears the groups are coming together to take advantage or the public’s current discontent.

They seem to sense that this time is different – especially with the election in 2020 and Mr Bashir looking to change the constitution so he can run again factoring into their calculations.

For its part, the NCP has downplayed the defection of opposition parties from the National Dialogue; the ruling party’s Political Secretary Abdel Rahman Al-Khider says that only eight parties have defected rather than the 22 reported.

Among the parties in the Sudan Call coalition is the National Umma Party of Sadiq Al-Mahdi – the prime minister Mr Bashir overthrew in a coup in 1989. Mr Mahdi returned to the country in December just as protests began. His daughter,Zainab Sadiq Al-Mahdi was reportedly among those detained during protests on Monday, December 31, in Khartoum.

Reports from Associated Press state that almost two dozen other opposition leaders have been rounded up by security forces. The Sudan Tribune has reported that arrests of civil society activists and journalists took place on Thursday, December 3.

However,the protests have been driven by grassroots organisers for the most part and so it is unclear that the arrest of opposition figures or these activists will slow their momentum. Authorities are well aware of this grassroots nature of the protests, and so popular social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook have been blocked to top such bottom-up organisation.

Posts on Twitter, however, confirm that many have been able to work around the blocks using a virtual private network (VPN).

Momentum behind the protests has not dissipated despite promises that the economic situation will improve and threats of violence. While the security service shave used lethal force in attempts to keep order, the death toll remains lower than during protests in 2013.

Whether this is due to greater restraint is difficult to determine, but commentators have noted that the demographics of those protesting is different this time around. While in 2013 the demonstrators were mainly the youth and marginalised groups (like Darfuris), this time they are reportedly drawn from a broader cross-section of society (women, children and the elderly have reportedly participated in scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprisings, according to the Financial Times).

That may make authorities pause before granting the use of deadly force.

Bloomberg reports that the government is desperately looking for foreign help to gain access to hard currency to mitigate the economic crisis (Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have aided in the past), but even if such loans could be made in time to make a difference to the weakening pound and rising prices, there is no guarantee that this would convince citizens to call off their protests.

One key factor to watch out for remains the loyalty of the military and other security services. So far, we have only come across one report of soldiers siding with protesters. Neutrality by the military may be enough to spell the end of the regime.

Should protests dwindle and stability under Mr Bashir and the NCP be restored, there is no guarantee that it would last.

With the president attempting to change the constitution so that he can stand for election again in 2020, it seems instability is on the cards over the short- to medium-term no matter what.

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