Frustrated by economic hardship and seeing no hope in the future, angry Sudanese thronged the streets of major cities, chanting “Freedom,” to call for the resignation President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir.
The protest movement has refused to leave the streets until their goal is achieved. But this may be a herculean task as the man in the eye of the storm remains defiant. The protesters had once tried to march on the Republican Palace, the official residence of the president, but were thwarted by security forces. The slogan of the protest movement, organised by a coalition of independent professional unions, is instructive: “Together we can rebuild everything and climb the ladder to progress and civilisation, let us all unite. Come and join so we can realise the will of the people.”
The organisers said they want the “president’s immediate resignation in response to the uprising by the Sudanese people . . . (and the) formation of a transitional government.” In December, when the protests first started, there was panic in government quarters after the ruling party’s building was set on fire. The ministry of education was forced to close some schools and universities across the country. The government also suspended the use of internet and access to social media. This is the first time there would be such a massive turnout of anti-government protesters in the Muslim-dominated country since Bashir came to power.
Bashir may have deliberately refused to face the realities of the time and interpret the writing on the wall with a constructive mind. Rather, he has blamed foreign powers and the opposition for instigating the uprising. He has also challenged the opposition to meet him at the polls.
“(To) those who are seeking power, there is one way, which is in the ballot box, through free and fair elections,” said Bashir to his supporters.
He spoke just as government security forces were confronting protesters chanting, “Freedom, freedom, peaceful against the thieves.”
Bashir has ruled the country for 29 years. He came to power in 1989 in a military coup that ousted former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Bashir transformed from a military head of state to a civilian dictator through manipulated elections and has since ruled the country with an iron fist, never tolerating the opposition and never allowing freedom of speech.
Though the immediate cause of the protests is the economic hardship in the country, particularly a recent increase in the price of fuel and bread from “one Sudanese pound to three (about $0, 02 to $0.06),” the government has indeed lost its relevance to the people. This is the hard fact Bashir and his cohorts are not willing to acknowledge. Of course, toughness is a common characteristic of sit-tight leaders, especially in Africa.
An observer, Hiba Morgan, aptly summarised the situation when he said: “The people seem to be frustrated not just by the economic crisis, but by the way the country is being run and they want to see change.”
Though endowed with rich natural resources, Sudan has remained one of Africa’s poorest nations.
Challenging the opposition to test their popularity at the ballot box was a clear indication that Bashir was unwilling to heed the voice of reason and allow the popular will of the people to prevail. Of course, the people have no faith in the country’s electoral process, as Bashir has always influenced the decisions of the Election Commission, which has hindered the conduct of free, fair and credible elections. The people know this too well, hence they have resorted to street protests to demand ‘change.’
But the change they want could be catastrophic for a man who has been declared wanted by the International Criminal Court. Though Bashir had repeatedly told the world that Sudan was not a signatory to the ICC treaty, it is obvious that he lives in fear of arrest. He has been cautious in his choice of foreign trips. He knows his arrest will be a done deal once he quits the throne.
Apparently, he has chosen to use the people as a shield against arrest. His arrest could trigger unprecedented violence by Sudanese extremists. But the ugly implication of such tactics is that the people would remain Bashir’s hostages until ICC drops the criminal charges against him. The situation in Sudan is further compounded by the fact that Bashir does not trust others, particularly members of the opposition. Certainly, he suspects that the opposition would not hesitate to hand him over to ICC should he lose power.
The experience of former Liberian President Charles Taylor cannot be forgotten easily. The government that succeeded Taylor allegedly colluded with external forces to surrender him to ICC, where he is currently serving time in prison.
Already, there are speculations that Bashir plans to stand for re-election in 2020 even though he is currently serving his last term in office. The country’s new Constitution allows only two terms for the president. But his loyalists in parliament are reportedly lobbying for an amendment of the Constitution to allow him contest the presidency in 2020. The move has raised concerns in the opposition.
Undoubtedly, the ongoing protests are a clear message that Bashir’s time is up. The people would no longer go to sleep with their two eyes closed until the president surrenders. Whatever be the calculations of Bashir, it is without dispute that the unity and progress of the nation must supersede the selfish interest of an individual. Parochial considerations must not be allowed to impede the wheel of Sudan’s development and growth.
40 people have died in the protests, according to Amnesty International. Veteran opposition leader, Mahdi, 83, has called for a “national and international investigation” into the deaths. He reportedly said the protest movement “is legal and was launched because of the deteriorating situation in Sudan.”
Since its independence in 1956, the country has been bedevilled by civil wars and conflicts, fuelled by ethnicity, bad government, political rivalry, corruption, rights abuse and terrorism.
Of course, the exit of South Sudan had a catastrophic impact on the socio-economic for- tunes of the country as it lost three-quarters of its oil output to the new emerging state.
Besides the civil war that culminated in the independence of South Sudan, the Darfur conflict and the South Kordofan conflict, lack of infrastructure and democratic values have stifled the country to the extent that the ordinary people are groaning in abject poverty.
Over time, Bashir had used the dreaded Arab militia, the Janjaweed, and his secret service apparatus to cow perceived political enemies. It is no wonder that the president has been accused severally of spending more on “defense, security, salaries and perks for senior officials”to the neglect of vital sectors such as infrastructure and agriculture. But this is not surprising as it is in the character of African dictators.
Mahdi, who was the last democratically elected prime minister of country, has vowed to not to give up the campaign for the removal of Bashir from office. He has pledged that his National Ummah party would establish “a new social contract.” He braved all odds on December 15, 2018, to return from a self-imposed exile in the UK.
His supporters had expressed fear over his safety as a result of the charges made against him by the State Prosecutor, “accusing him of joining armed groups seeking to violently overthrown the government.”
The media quoted an unrepentant Mahdi as saying: “It’s not a matter of geography, you could be in danger wherever you are on the planet, if I wanted to remove the threats against my safety that means I would have to give up all political activity and activism, something that, for now, I am not prepared to do.”
Mahdi has gone on exile three times. Also, “he has spent more than eight and half years in prison for his opposition” to Bahsir’s “dictatorial government.” But he is not perturbed. He is not alone. Other political parties have vowed not to rest until the fall of Bashir’s government.
It is instructive that the overwhelming public support the protest movement received came from all sides of the country. For example, soccer fans at a stadium in Khartoum’s suburb of Omdurman reportedly chanted “slogans demanding that Bashir step down.” It was on the occasion of a match between a local club, the al-Hilal and a Tunisian side in the African Champions League. That the stadium was turned to an arena for anti-Bashir protests was a significant phenomenon. The fans reportedly chanted the most popular slogan of Arab Spring uprising of 2010 and 2011, “The people want to bring down the regime,”just as the chant of “freedom”also filled the air.
Importantly, two great ex-players of al-Hilal, Haytham Mustafa and Faisal al-Agab motivated the fans. Al-Agab had tweeted before the match: “Let the television networks hear your chants against the government. Go out and march to make the nation victorious and rewrite history again.”
On his part, Mustafa tweeted afterward: “Thank you al-Hilal fans, you have really shown that you are the true sons of the club of patriotism and freedom.” Al-Agab went further to call on the fans of Merreikh, another notable football club “to protest during and after a match scheduled for the next day in Khartoum. What the active participation of football fans meant was that the ordinary people in Sudan were tired of the government. They showed audacity when they stood their ground in the face of police tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse them.
Interestingly, Sudanese medical doctors in the United Kingdom lent their total support to the protest movement. President of the Sudan Doctors’ Union in the UK, Sara Abdelgalil, reportedly warned that, “Sudan is headed for a total shutdown if there’s no change in leadership.”
She called the protests “the tip of the iceberg.” She was emphatic when she told Al Jazeer, “I don’t think people on the streets are protesting just because of fuel and bread. They are protesting because there is an overall failure of the whole system.”
For example, she gave a gloomy picture of the medical sector thus: “For the medical sector, there is complete destruction of infrastructure, for the access of health services, for the cost of treatment, for the absence of life-saving medication, so the health sector is similar to education and other sectors in Sudan, where there is an overall failure from the current government, therefore, they have to step down and hand over to a government that can lead and can provide a better life for the people of Sudan.”
It would be reckless for the president to take the protesters for granted. Bashir would be making a gross mistake if he believes that his support for the European Union over the blockade of African migrants trying to cross to Europe would protect him from the rage of the people. EU and the United States and indeed the civilised world strongly respect the rights of the people and democratic values. The voice of the people is the voice of God (vox populi, vox dei). Bashir must allow the people to decide who rules them. He must bow out in honour without further bloodshed in Sudan.