Sudan: ‘The army’s duty is to protect its people, not to govern’

Alaa Saleh addresses protesters in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum on April 10.

Green Left Weekly’s Sam Wainwright spoke with Sabrine Ali, Samah Suria, Nidal Saeed and Nagi Kodi, all Sudanese youth living in Perth, about the powerful movement in Sudan.

What did this movement learn from previous waves of protest in Sudanese history?

Sabrine Ali: Without having a proper foundation of how to run a revolution, it is going to collapse. The Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) has basically organised the revolution, the protests and … that has helped a lot with it having the proper foundation.

Why was the protest movement successful this time compared to the past?

Nagi Kodi: This time people understood who al-Bashir is after 30 years and they said, 'All of us are Sudanese people and we’re just going to go in front of his palace and stay until he steps down'.

Can you explain a little bit about how an understanding that the protest movement remain peaceful and disciplined was achieved?

Sabrine Ali: People have realised that … fighting [the government] back the same way they have been hurting and killing our people [for 30 years] is not the way to retaliate … In anger there are a lot of actions that can be taken that we can regret in the future.

Throughout all of this there has never been someone who has gone out and actually shot at an army officer … because they know that the majority of these army officers are just people like ourselves.

Some of them that aren’t part of the government are just normal people. They go out and come out to the protests and can find their family members within the crowds.

Another striking thing about the protests was the intensive involvement of women and youth. Could you describe the diversity and inclusivity of the movement, particularly the involvement of youth, women and ethnic minority groups in this protest wave?

Sabrine Ali: The youth, women and the minority groups are the ones that have been oppressed the most. Women in Sudan, the majority of the time, didn’t have the voice to speak previously.

In the universities, the youth tried to speak up, but because it was a small number of people who used to protest previously, it was easy [for the government] to detain them and to kill them, because there weren’t millions out on the street.

The women thought if they kept quiet they were out of harm’s way.

The youth have had a big impact on this revolution as they are the ones who have been oppressed a lot. The same with women and the ethnic minority groups.

For example, the people of Darfur, some of them live way out in the rural areas so they don’t feel as though they have a voice. Previously they weren’t listened to, they weren’t heard, because of the colourism and tribalism within Sudan…

Now that the other ethnic groups have realised the discrimination and mistreatment of the government towards the people, they have realised that they need to make a movement and that they should have done that during the Darfur genocide, for example.

I heard that one of the chants during the demonstrations was “We are all Darfur!” in response to attempts by the regime to divide the movement.

Sabrine Ali:  The protest movement pushed people to think like that because previously, if someone was Darfurian you wouldn’t think “Ok, I am Darfurian too, if they stand for something I am going to support them”.

There was way too much tribalism for people to move forward from that. The government knew that people had that instilled in them so they used that as a way to manipulate everyone and to have them support the government and turn away from the Darfurian people and other ethnic groups.

Now people have realised that, for example, when people are shot in the street, you are not worried about where this person is from and what religion they are, or what colour they are. You are more focussed on that we’re all here, we have the same drive, we want the same thing and … that the government have been using tribalism to manipulate us for way too long and they need to let go of that.

Samah Suria: Basically, people have been suffering for 30 years and they realise that it is much better to come together as a united front instead of fighting their own separate battles. Because at the end of the day they are fighting the same monster, the same common enemy and there is strength in unity. They have decided to come together because people are fed up and really just want the best for Sudan.

Would you say the same thing has happened around the place, the profile and the confidence of women in Sudanese society? Has this protest movement lifted that confidence?

Sabrine Ali: Yes it has, because previously women would keep quiet.

[In the protests] Alaa Saleh got onto a car and was chanting. She is one of the ones who is popular with this revolution. Before her there have been women who have been arrested, who have been detained, who have been killed, who have been kidnapped [because] they also have tried to speak out.

This revolution has also given women more of a voice. They feel like they want to speak out. They don’t want to be kept quiet anymore.

It has also allowed the younger generation to see their potential … The new generation have [raised expectations] of what we want.

Do you think this movement will increase the confidence of women to raise their issues and demands in Sudanese society?

Sabrine Ali: Yes, definitely.

In the past there was a girl called Noura Hussein who was married and was raped and put under the death penalty [for killing her husband]… Although it was before the revolution you could see how the new generation spoke up and wanted justice [for her].

Not only us but even our mothers [have] opened up their eyes to what they should expect — whether it is [about] violence within families, outside in the community, anything like that — they know their rights and what they deserve and what they should speak up against, if it occurs.

The Sudanese people achieved an amazing thing by overthrowing two tyrants in 24 hours — first the dictator al-Bashir, then Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. Now there is a new lieutenant general (Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan) at the helm. Does he present a problem, an opportunity, or a challenge for the movement?

Sabrine Ali: Regarding Burhan … if he is under the same party [as al-Bashir] then obviously he is going to find ways to protect the people he stands with.

In the speech that he made he did not actually tell us what actions he was going to be taking, he didn’t tell us what is happening to al-Bashir, [Ali] Osman [Taha] and the rest of the people in that party who have been responsible for all the killings and for the dictatorship in Sudan for the past 30 years.

I feel as though he is part of this whole problem, so I don’t feel like he could be trusted unless he is willing to let go of this party and actually run Sudan for what the people want and not for what he wants and not for what his party wants.

After Bashir fell, there was effectively an attempt to replace him in a palace coup with Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf — an attempt to engineer a cosmetic change. Was a move like that expected from somebody within the military? Why did it fail?

Nagi Kodi: The Sudanese people knew that it was going to happen, so as soon as Bashir stepped down from office, he brought Ibn Auf in. The Sudanese people said “No, we don’t want him!” so that is why he failed so quickly, because they knew he was from the same party.

This protest movement has gone on for nearly five months and people are still on the streets. How much longer will people remain mobilised and what are their demands?

Samah Suria: People aren’t going home yet because there hasn’t been a 110% guarantee of their safety. Tomorrow we might wake up and another of [al-Bashir’s] political members might be president, so people are not stopping until they are guaranteed that Sudan is a safe place and that the country has stabilised.

They are not backing down without a fight until they are 100% guaranteed that Sudan is a safe place and a country where we have absolute freedom.

One of the key organisations has been the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a new independent trade union movement. What are the strengths of this new organisation and what other forces have been involved in this movement?

Nidal Saeed: The SPA group was formed by workers and professional people … like nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, labourers, who have come together to take a more organised, collective, stronger front for the revolution, because it was not organised and it had been pockets of different groups fighting their own battles.

The strength I believe that the SPA has now is that Sudanese people can trust in them because these are their fathers, their brothers, their uncles, their mothers. These are people who represent them. They have no political agenda, no other interests but their own and to stabilise the nation and they are all working towards the same goal.

Was this a new thing in Sudan — to have an opposition organisation to help organise a movement across political and religious lines?

Nidal Saeed: Yes it was. For 30 years we have had different pockets of groups, of different organisations for different purposes trying to fight their own battles, trying to make their voices heard and it has been falling on deaf ears. It has come to a point where the people feel that their needs are not being met and so the SPA have taken on board the movement, have united everyone and so now they have strength in numbers.

What other organisations have been working with the SPA?

Nidal Saeed: The student and youth unions, who have from the beginning been rallying and demonstrating on the streets. They were the ones who triggered these protests. And also women’s rights groups — actually two-thirds of the protesters are women and young girls. They have been fighting since Sharia law was put in place for their own rights and they have been targeted by al-Bashir’s government.

Other allies include the Nuba groups and Darfur [groups], who have also been targeted by the al-Bashir government during the genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Now the dictatorship has fallen and a transitional government is beginning to take shape, what are its challenges? In what way is it democratic and representative of the Sudanese people?

Nidal Saeed: The transitional government is the preferred government of the Sudanese people and is based on who is the best person for the job. It is not a democratically elected government. It is the government that will sit in to stabilise the nation in time for elections and for political parties to assume their places and campaign for the people’s choice.

Right now it is going through a challenge because Lt Gen Burhan and his forces have already insisted that they will take power and will take control for one year to stabilise the government, which is unacceptable.

You cannot clean up 30 years of bloodshed and corruption in a year, so the Sudanese people have proposed a government that includes the SPA, where they have professional people for the job, no political agendas, people who represent them and have their best interests at heart to come in and have seats at the table and be heard in the transitional government and can take their rightful place to stabilise the government for four consecutive years, which is a more ideal timeframe.

It seems like there are some significant challenges in establishing a transitional government where civilian authority is dominant. What will it need to do with the pro-Bashir militia and the other elements in the army and machinery of government that remain, even though al-Bashir is gone?

Nidal Saeed: Well, the army’s duty is to protect its people. Its duty is not to govern and what the people have said is that they do not want a military-based government, they want a civil-based government … but because the army is from the former government, they cannot put their trust in them.

The SPA have asked that instead of the military taking its place as the governing body, they want them to protect them while they continue to protest and continue to demand that their needs are met and that al-Bashir is held accountable, because he needs to answer for his war crimes and his bloodshed and his corruption.