“Your country is burning and being looted and people are now living in [a] dire situation where there is no medicine.” – Sudanese protester interviewed by Al-Jazeera on November 27, 2016
Civil Disobedience Campaign
Sunday marked the first day in a three-day civil disobedience campaign across Sudan. Although the Sudanese government dismissed the level of participation as insignificant, local reporting in Khartoum shows that many Sudanese people joined in the first day of this campaign. Numerous shops remained closed in Khartoum and Omdurman and many parents kept their children home from school. Although the government tried to portray Sunday as a typical day in Khartoum, the difference was evident in the lack of automobile and pedestrian traffic in normally congested areas. As one driver in Khartoum’s largest public transportation station said in the Sudan Tribune: “the streets are empty as if the country is on a holiday.”
This decidedly grassroots campaign is a response to the government’s gross mismanagement of the country’s economy and its misplaced spending priorities that privilege the already bloated security and military sectors at the expense of the country’s underfunded health and education sectors. As several activists noted, this campaign is driven by popular support and everyday Sudanese people that blame the government for their increasingly difficult economic situation.
Last Thursday, mostly anonymous actors began calling for this three-day effort over social media. Opposition political parties and armed groups then instructed their members to join this campaign. Thus far, the government’s response has been muted, although President Bashir has been traveling the last few days and Sudanese activists have expressed concerns over an escalation of violence upon his return. The specter of state violence continues to hang over all public protests after the killing of at least 170 people in 2013. Like the current civil disobedience campaign, the 2013 protests resulted from economic grievances, including the discontinuation of economic subsidies and the government’s ill-timed attempt to implement austerity measures.
Economic Crisis and Citizen Response
On November 3, the Government of Sudan announced a cut in its fuel subsidy program. The lifting of these subsidies increased the price of fuel by 30 percent. The government also increased the cost of electricity. At the same time, it announced a 20-percent raise for public sector workers, even though half of the Sudanese population lives below the poverty line.
In addition to the fuel subsidy cut, the Central Bank of Sudan lowered the commercial exchange rate to mirror the unofficial exchange rate. After maintaining an official exchange rate of 6.7 Sudanese pounds (SDG) to the U.S. dollar (USD), the Central Bank lowered the rate to SDG 15.8 to $1 USD. Even though the lowered commercial exchange rate demonstrates a devaluation of the Sudanese pound, the official fixed exchange rate is still SDG 6.2 to $1 USD. This rate is more significant to most Sudanese and a lack of hard currency reserves and continued inflation suggests that the economy will not improve in the short or medium term. The country’s currency reserves is slightly improved from last year, but this improvement is mostly due to large infusions of cash from the Saudi government, likely in exchange for Sudan’s continued participation in the Saudi coalition fighting the Houthi opposition in Yemen. This arrangement is not sustainable and the continued reliance on economic remittances from abroad shows just how weak the Sudanese economy has become since the country’s loss of oil wealth in 2011.
The combination of large public sector raises and harsh austerity measures provoked a predictably negative response from Sudanese citizens struggling to meet basic needs such as food and housing. While the country faces a troubling fiscal deficit as well as a potential foreign currency crisis, income inequality is perhaps even more of an issue and certainly resonates with the Sudanese people. Unsurprisingly, these austerity measures encountered immediate resistance.
Throughout November, Sudanese authorities deployed police and security forces to contain the protests. Nonetheless, they quickly spread across Sudan, taking root within various sectors as well as schools and universities. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) agents also targeted newspapers reporting on the fuel subsidy cuts and confiscated every print copy of al-Jadida, al-Tayar, and al-Watan newspapers on November 6.
Growing Public Resistance
While the civil disobedience campaign is a response to the government’s economic failings, the campaign emerged after several weeks of public resistance to the regime’s inability to provide basic social services and its corrupt economic practices. These developments show just how frustrated the Sudanese people are at their government and the prevailing mood throughout the country as it becomes increasingly difficult to pay for basic necessities and more Sudanese live day-to-day as the economy continues to decline.
On October 6, Sudanese physicians initiated a strike over poor work conditions and security concerns. The independent Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors led this strike, demanding free health care for patients suffering an emergency and improved utilities within hospitals. Sudan security agents began arresting doctors in late October and international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, documented how NISS detained striking physicians without disclosing their location and the risk of torture that these doctors faced. NISS authorities finally released all but one of the abducted doctors on November 22.
October also saw protests over a land grab in the East Jreif district of Khartoum. This peaceful protest turned violent when riot police fired tear gas at protesters. A similar protest in East Jreif left one protester dead in 2015, as the Sudanese government has shown little interest in providing landholders compensation for their property.
On November 18, about 200 private pharmacies also went on strike after the Central Bank announced that it would not provide pharmaceutical importers an official import exchange rate of 7.5 SDG to $1 USD, instead requiring importers to pay the unofficial rate of 17.5 SDG to $1 USD. This decision raised the price of medicine between 100 and 150 percent. The government has since claimed to reverse this decision, although critics argue that the government’s order will only decrease the costs of a few drugs and that most will remain significantly more expensive.
Although the civil disobedience campaign is the largest protest challenging the regime’s austerity measures, smaller protests in Wad Madani, Port Sudan, and Kassala occurred throughout November. By November 22, the government had already put peaceful protesters on trial through catchall charges such as disturbing the peace and public annoyance. Two days later, numerous students joined for a protest march in Bahri. These acts of public resistance set the stage for the civil disobedience campaign currently underway in Khartoum and across Sudan.
As the civil disobedience campaign continues, concerns over a violent government response only increase. The shadow of 2013 looms large, providing a vivid reminder of the brutality that this regime and its various proxies are willing to unleash on peaceful protesters and citizens.
At the same time, Sudanese activists wonder if this campaign and the acts of resistance that preceded it might signal a tipping point of real change. As one activist noted, the current mood is different that the past: “It feels revolutionary.”
Activists also said that now more than ever, they need help telling these stories as the government’s repression of civil society and the press intensifies. Indeed, the worst the economic situation gets, likely the more difficult reporting on this situation will become. Outside of Sudan, concerned human rights organizations must do their part to continue telling these stories and supporting those activists courageous enough to stand up to this authoritarian regime.