Sudan’s National Congress Party (NCP) regime is facing rising dissent after a new round of youth protests began on June 16 against austerity measures, spreading throughout the week to cities and towns across Sudan.
Protesters and security forces have clashed daily as the government of President Omer Al Bashir struggles to prevent a widespread uprising.
Sudan’s economy has been in a downward spiral since South Sudan’s secession last July. Most of the two countries’ combined oil reserves are located in the south, so Khartoum lost about 75% of its oil income after the split. Inflation reached 30% in May and the cost of basic necessities has rocketed, devastating the already impoverished population.
In a June 12 meeting, the National Consensus Forces (NCF), which comprises the major opposition parties including the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and the National Umma Party, decided to initiate a mass campaign to topple the regime in response to the planned removal of fuel subsidies. It discussed an interim plan for a three-year transitional period after the regime’s projected downfall.
Bashir announced the far-reaching austerity plan on June 18, including the lifting of fuel subsidies. In a statement released on June 20 condemning the move, the SCP said that the more than 70% of the budget dealing with the military and security remained untouched by the cuts.
The party said the only solution was for people to take to the streets to overthrow the regime.
Daily protests began on June 16, when women students at the University of Khartoum launched a protest from their dormitories and marched through the campus where they were joined by others.
Protests continued to escalate on the days that followed, with police and armed NCP supporters repeatedly attacking the students. Tear gas, rubber bullets and batons were used against students and many sustained injuries.
A June 18 statement by the youth group Sudan Change Now said: “Riot police as well as civilian dressed militia who are said to be part of the national intelligence security forces have met the protests with excessive violence. Yesterdays’ violence was one that has not been witnessed in many years in its excess and brutality.”
The security forces have targeted protest organisers, arresting countless leaders and activists from opposition parties and student groups. The NCP regime is also furthering its attacks on the press in an bid to limit the spread of the protests, confiscating the June 17 editions of Al Ahdath, Al Watan and Al Jarida after printing. The SCP’s paper Al Midan was ordered not to publish for the next month.
Local and foreign journalists have been arrested while covering the protests.
The suffering caused by the rising cost of living is particularly difficult for people to digest while the NCP continues to divert most of the national budget to defence and security spending.
War on South Sudan
In addition to the continued attacks on Darfur in Sudan’s west, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are waging war on the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile State in Sudan’s south. Sustained aerial bombardment, including the use of cluster bombs, has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee the region, creating a major refugee crisis. Khartoum has blocked humanitarian aid from reaching those in need.
Deputy head of the MSF mission Jean-Marc Jacobs said a “nightmare scenario is beginning to unfold” in the camps, which face shortages of water, shelter and essential goods.
MSF nurse Chiara Burzio described the situation facing the refugees in the camps on June 18: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Most are dehydrated; many have diarrhea. Everybody looks ill and exhausted. Many have just arrived after walking for 30 km or more on foot … if they were lucky enough and strong enough, they made it to one of these camps. And if they weren’t, then they died along the way.”
The resistance in South Kordofan and Blue Nile State is led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), which before South Sudan’s independence was part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), now the ruling party in Juba. The status of these regions, which largely sided with the south in Sudan’s two-decade-long civil war, was not resolved by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war.
Last November, the SPLM-N formed the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) with three Darfur rebel groups. The alliance wants a nationwide solution to the country’s crisis, and has called for opposition parties to work with the SRF and combine armed struggle with mass protest to defeat the NCP government.
In addition to its multiple domestic crises, Khartoum has failed to resolve the ongoing conflict with South Sudan over oil, borders and other issues arising from South Sudan's independence last July. The NCP and SPLM government have come under increased international pressure to reach a resolution following South Sudan's occupation of Heglig (known in South Sudan as Panthou) in April.
Khartoum claimed the occupation was an unprovoked act of aggression targeting Khartoum’s oil reserves (the area accounts for 70% of Sudan’s oil output), and Juba faced intense global condemnation. But Juba said its army took control of the area in self defence after several incursions into its territory by the SAF during March and April, in addition to the ongoing aerial attacks.
After 10 days, Juba withdrew its forces and committed to negotiating with Khartoum. However on top of Juba’s suspension of oil production in January in response to the NCP regime's demand for exorbitant transit fees and theft of South Sudan's oil as forced collection of these fees, the Heglig incident led the United Nations and the West to treat Juba and Khartoum as bickering neighbours with equal responsibility for the conflict. This is despite Khartoum’s record of bombing South Sudan, among other aggressive acts.
West's blame game
Princeton Lyman, United States special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, said the “governments in Khartoum and Juba are committing collective suicide”, in the June 14-20 edition of Al Ahram Weekly Online.
A May 2 UN resolution condemned the “repeated incidents of cross-border violence between Sudan and South Sudan, including seizure of territory, support to proxy forces and aerial bombing”, declaring that “Sudan and South Sudan must immediately cease all hostilities, withdraw forces, activate previously-agreed security mechanisms, and resume negotiations under threat of sanctions”.
John Andruga Duku, South Sudan's ambassador to Kenya, told the May 30 Africa Report: "The international community unfairly condemned South Sudan for shutting down oil production in January.
“They said we were committing economic suicide, but they never condemned Khartoum for stealing the oil in the first place … And then came the Heglig incident. There was lots of condemnation against us but none for the north. There's a double standard being applied here."
Another government member highlighted the fickle nature of Western support, “the ganging up against the South was a move perhaps to get concessions from the North. That we can be bombed, called insects [by Bashir] and then be equally condemned shows how dispensable we are to some of our old friends."
The occupation of Panthou/Heglig fuelled South Sudanese nationalism. People across the nation signed up to help defend the country against Khartoum. Dozens of civil society groups joined a Popular Committee for Mobilisation in April.
In Sudan, Bashir utilised the incident to divert attention from his government's failures, presenting Juba as the enemy of the Sudanese people and the cause of the country's economic woes, declaring anyone who failed to condemn the Heglig occupation was a traitor.
The most recent talks between Juba and Khartoum collapsed due to lack of consensus over the maps that should form the basis of establishing a demilitarised zone along the border. Khartoum refuses to compromise on its version of the border, while Juba is seeking international arbitration to resolve the issue. The negotiations resumed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on June 22.
South Sudan in crisis
Like Sudan, South Sudan is facing a severe economic crisis. A confidential World Bank report leaked in May suggested South Sudan’s economy was likely to collapse by July as a result of the shutdown of oil production, which accounts for 98% of the national budget.
World Bank donors ordered Juba to resolve the oil dispute, threatening that they would not fill the gap left by the sharp cut in income. The June 14-20 Al Ahram Weekly Online reported that South Sudan president Silva Kiir said officials in his government had embezzled $4 billion during the past seven years.
In addition to constant attacks from the north, South Sudan has been riddled with internal conflicts including historically driven ethnic violence, fuelled by scarcity of resources, which has killed thousands. Juba is paying its army wages from the country’s reserves, which are set to run dry in the coming months.
Juba’s best hope for ending conflict with Khartoum lies with the overthrow of the NCP government, which is digging its own grave by trying to wage simultaneous wars on its neighbours, outlying regions and citizens across the country. The NCP is also facing increasing internal divisions as it clings to power after 23 years of rule.
Youth groups and opposition parties have vowed to continue the current protest wave. In a June 20 article at Muftah.com, Yousif Mubarak and Sara Elhassan said: “While the University of Khartoum and the student population have been the heartbeat of this recent mobilization, the protests have now spread to markets, districts, and other governorates.
“The numbers and frequency of protests have steadily grown over the last four days. The protesters remain resilient, bravely fighting back, unarmed, against the oppressor’s brutality, and returning for more the next day.
“Whatever the outcome may be, the situation in Sudan has become untenable and the ‘fiscal austerity’ program … will make it terminal. There will be no escape from the tidal wave of popular uprising.”