Widespread protests that erupted in Sudan on December 19 over the rising prices of bread and fuel have morphed into calls for the kleptocratic and murderous Bashir regime to be removed from power. As expected, government security forces have unleashed live ammunition and tear gas into unarmed crowds. Amnesty International is reporting that at least 37 people have already been killed, but the death toll is now likely much higher.
Sudanese dictator and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir is pushing wild conspiracy theories that the protests are actually being driven by "traitors" and "foreign agents" and are not the result of his regime's reckless and devastating economic and security policies. He is now also blaming U.S. sanctions, ignoring the fact that they were lifted over a year ago. Other government officials who have long track records of being anti-semitic are blaming Israel. All three of these excuses are commonly used by the Sudanese government to try to whip up support when just about anything does not go their way.
In the following, we'll provide some background on why these protests are happening and why they are so important. And at the bottom of this post are a few ways you can get involved with empowering the Sudanese people.
Since 1989, Sudan has been oppressed by one of the most violent, racist, and paranoid dictatorships in history. From launching devastating wars and genocides in the periphery regions of the country to supporting terrorist groups to oppressing civil society, the Bashir regime has spent the past 29 years enriching itself and a small elite while isolating the country from much of the international community. BRIEF OVERVIEW »
This latest round of protests in Sudan were triggered by rising bread prices, but they have roots that go back to the beginning of the Bashir regime. Since seizing power in 1989, the dictatorship has severely mismanaged the economy, even as it has fought costly and deadly genocidal wars in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and what is now South Sudan. It is estimated that roughly 70% of government spending goes to the military and the oppressive security services. Oil revenue kept the economy largely afloat throughout the 1990s and early 2000s despite senseless spending, mass corruption, and US sanctions due to the government's support of international terrorists and their war crimes. When South Sudan became independent in 2011, the oil crutch largely left with it.
Sudan's economy has been in trouble ever since, but the past few years it has entered into a free-fall. Inflation has soared to almost 70%. Prices on basic commodities keep rising, even as government services continue to decrease. ATMs and banks in major cities often times cannot provide cash. And fragile ceasefires in the periphery regions of the country are barely holding together.
Simply put, oppressive and catastrophic governance has led to some really bad results. And the chickens are coming home to roost.
Al Jazeera's Inside Story has a great piece that is worth a watch if you would like a deeper dive into why these protests are happening. Watch it here:
Where Protests Currently Stand
This is not the first time Sudanese citizens have protested the Bashir regime. 2011-2013 saw several protest movements of various sizes emerge. In September of 2013, government forces began killing protestors on a larger scale to repress open challenges to the dictatorship.
But current protests definitely look and feel very different than past ones. For starters, crowds are much larger and more widespread across the country. Protestors are not backing down in the face of the regime's use of live ammunition, tear gas, arrests, and torture. The protests really took off on December 19 when protestors torched the ruling regime's offices in Atbara. The few, vague promises Bashir has made about addressing the legitimate concerns being voiced by citizens have not calmed anyone down.
On December 25, thousands of Sudanese attempted to march on the presidential palace and demand a new government, but a massive deployment of troops, police, and government militia turned them back after unloading tear gas and targeted live ammunition into crowds. The demonstrators were chanting, "Peaceful, peaceful against the thieves" and "The people want to bring down the regime" before police opened fire.
Credible reports are beginning to emerge that government snipers are being deployed and have been given shoot to kill orders. Newspapers are being heavily censored or shut down, and the regime is blocking internet access to keep many Sudanese from uploading photos and videos so the outside world can get a clearer picture of what is happening at the street level. International journalists are being blocked from covering the protests. And, as is often the case when Sudanese protest the government, the regime's brutal National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is arresting journalists and other civil society leaders.
Where The Regime Currently Stands
The inner workings of Bashir's National Congress Party and the security services (military, police, NISS, Rapid Support Forces militia) have always been pretty opaque. Senior members of the dictatorship publicly and regularly voice their support for Bashir; however, Bashir has found himself in an increasingly weakened position the past several years. Between the International Criminal Court arrest warrants, self-inflicted collapsing economy, never-ending genocidal wars, grand corruption, and general out-of-touchness with the population, it is not that hard to understand why Bashir is so unpopular and reviled.
It has long been rumored that political divisions exist within the regime, but the nature of such distrust is largely unknown. It is well known that many senior army officers are guilty of participating in the Darfur genocide and hope to avoid prosecution for their crimes, which is a primary reason they have remained loyal to Bashir. Further down the command-and-control structure is a much different story, as many junior officers have long been sick of fighting the regime's senseless wars. It is possible that if army units are ordered to attack protestors on a larger scale, some of them may mutiny or refuse to obey orders.
Another wildcard is commander "Hemeti" of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the regime's genocidal paramilitary force. He is a murderous, narcissistic, and power-hungry opportunist who is loyal only to himself. You can get a good look at who he is here in one of our previous weekly e-newsletters. On December 25 and clearly not thinking things through, Hemeti declared to a group of RSF fighters stationed just outside of Khartoum that he and the RSF would soon be the new power to reckon with in Sudan. Later that day, he attempted to backpedal his comments and relink himself to Bashir regime and army. Regardless, Hemeti has already made it clear that he is willing to turn the RSF against the government for his own gain.
Because these protests are so different and there are early signs that some of the regime's security forces may be willing to turn against him, it is not a stretch to question how Bashir survives much longer as Sudan's dictator. But while Bashir’s fall from power would deal a significant blow to this brutal regime as it is currently structured, it would not guarantee the immediate end to the governance and economic catastrophe plaguing Sudan. Other dangerous and kleptocratic individuals within this paranoid dictatorship will never embrace their responsibility to protect the Sudanese people and, at least at the moment, it is largely those individuals who are lined up to seize power after Bashir goes.
How The International Community Is Responding
As has often been the case the past few years when it comes to international policy towards Sudan, the response to current protests and conditions in Sudan is far from good.
The Troika countries (Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the European Union have expressed only mild concern about the regime's targeting of protestors and other civic institutions in Sudan.
The U.S. State Department, which commonly speaks on behalf of the U.S. government concerning situations like the one right now in Sudan, has been mute outside of the Troika statement. Current actions by the Bashir regime represent many flagrant violations of the poorly structured U.S.-Sudan sanctions-lifting agreement and even more confusing next steps of improving the bilateral relationship as laid out by the Trump Administration. There are no signs that the current crisis in Sudan is even on the U.S. government's radar in any serious way.
Most disturbingly though, the European Union has directly funded the Rapid Support Forces for years as part of its efforts to curb migration into Europe. There are no signs that such support has stopped, which means the EU may now be funding RSF units that are currently shooting and beating unarmed protestors.
While it is true that it is ultimately up to the Sudanese people to decide the future of their country, the lack of smart and engaged public support from the international community to the protestors is deeply concerning. In the past, the Bashir regime has read such a lack of real engagement as license to increase its own brutality.
Where The Situation Is Heading
It is still too early to tell where these protests will take Sudan. It is increasingly difficult to imagine Bashir surviving this moment; however, he has spent the last several years avoiding arrest and trial at the International Criminal Court, staying ahead of possible coup attempts, and surviving past protests. He may be getting backed into a corner now, but that does not mean he is finished.
And if Bashir does fall, it is still unclear exactly who would take the reins of power in Khartoum, or if anyone would be able to at all.
What is clear is that this seems to be a breaking point for Sudan. The regime, specifically Bashir himself, has everything to lose by being forced out of power. More and more Sudanese have less and less to lose by demanding and fighting for real progress. This could all end with the beginnings of positive and lasting change in how Sudan is governed, or it could lead to even more bloodshed as a desperate and paranoid dictatorship clings to its last vestiges of power.
The people of Sudan are overcoming two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today: war and genocide. Operation Broken Silence is accelerating their ability to generate lasting change by funding storytelling and movement-building, education and emergency response, and grassroots advocacy programs. Here are a few ways you can join us:
1. Share This Post Online. The current protests in Sudan are getting very little media coverage. With the dictatorship beginning to block internet access for protestors, the Sudanese are relying on people following this story to help them spread the word. Copy and paste the link to this article to Facebook and Twitter.
2. Double Your Impact. When you make a one-time gift to the new high school we are helping to open in Yida Refugee Camp, your gift will be matched by a small group of private donors! Your donation will help put Sudanese teachers back to work and Nuba students back into a classroom. GIVE HERE »
3. Start Fundraising. You can start a personal fundraising page for Mother of Mercy Hospital in Sudan's war-torn Nuba Mountains and ask your friends and family to give. This is the best way to support healthcare work in the Nuba Mountains and get your community involved as well. START FUNDRAISING »
Mark began working on Sudan issues in 2007 after an eye-opening conversation with a genocide survivor from Darfur, Sudan. Since 2011 he has overseen the steady growth of our organization. Today, he serves as our Executive Director.
Mark makes sure our on the ground programs stay on the rails and that our movement remains focused on our end goal of closing our doors one day. He’s one of only a few Americans to have visited frontline areas in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan during the war.