Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Sudanese youth, emboldened by an unlikely political victory, dare to dream of a brighter future

Young Sudanese feel they control their future for the first time in their lives

A Sudanese protester gets his face painted during their sit-in outside the army headquarters in Khartoum on May 9, 2019. AFP 
A Sudanese protester gets his face painted during their sit-in outside the army headquarters in Khartoum on May 9, 2019. AFP 

They hold their heads high and walk with confidence down streets once crawling with the security men they grew to fear. Their words brim with the bravado of victors.

A month after an uprising led by youths prompted the military overthrow of authoritarian ruler Omar Al Bashir, Sudan’s young men and women continue to bask in the glory of their unlikely victory.

They celebrate their hard-won freedom with an optimism made brighter by their previous years of despair and helplessness.

Even the thought that it will probably take years, perhaps even decades, to overhaul an economy ravaged by years of mismanagement and corruption does not seem to stop Sudan’s young from entertaining dreams of better days.

"There is a condition of clear optimism among the youths, especially those in their twenties,” said Ubai El Gazouli, 38, an activist and dentist.

“You can see it in the way they walk. It's different from that of others. It has nothing to do with age. It's spiritual. They feel that they control their future for the first time in their lives."

A five-week sit-in outside the Sudanese armed forces headquarters in Khartoum exemplifies that optimism.

In the evenings, crowds swell into the tens of thousands, creating a carnival atmosphere that shows the positive new mind-set among the youth.

While tirelessly asserting their willingness to maintain the sit-in until the generals who ousted Mr Al Bashir on April 11 agree to hand power to a civilian government, the protesters have displayed the euphoria that comes with triumph over a dictator once thought to be invincible.

The joy is all the more real because the young protesters brought to an end what is widely thought to be the darkest chapter of Sudan's modern history, with civil wars, atrocities and an economy in tatters.

The wars have displaced millions and left the army and security forces swallowing a large chunk of the country's meagre resources, leaving little for development and services.

The economic difficulties and the iron fist of Mr Al Bashir and his security agencies forced tens of thousands of recent graduates to leave to find work in the Gulf region or illegally attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe after perilous journeys across the desert to Libya.

Those who stayed behind joined the ranks of millions of unemployed, did odd jobs to help their families out or depended on remittances from relatives and friends overseas.

"It's gonna be alright at the end and I will wed a kandaka," goes the refrain of a song composed after Al Bashir's removal and popular among young men at the sit-in.

A kandaka is the name given to ancient Sudanese Nubian queens, but the contemporary use denotes beauty, grace and dignity in a woman.

The song is not so much about romance as about the angst that comes from economic difficulties stopping them marrying.

While recent events seem to justify their optimism, many counsel patience, arguing that it will take time before dreams come true.

"The regime has not fallen yet. The same regime is still in power, but it has different faces," said Mohammed Ahmed, 27, who had to take a full-time job to pay his way while studying for an online law degree.

Single and still living with his family, Mr Ahmed took a job at the Khartoum branch of a regional rights group. That protected him from a life of poverty but slowed his academic progression.

"The first step towards economic recovery is to dismantle the economic institutions created and run by members of Al Bashir's National Congress Party," he said. "We then must strip the former ruling elite from its ill-gotten assets."

Mr Al Bashir's removal followed four months of street protests against his rule across most of Sudan.

The demonstrations were sparked by price rises and shortages of basic items such as bread and petrol, before they shifted to calling on Mr Al Bashir, 75, to step down.

Fuel and bread are now available in Khartoum, thanks to $3 billion (Dh11.01bn) in aid from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Power cuts have become rare since the start of Ramadan.

But this dramatic improvement in living conditions cannot conceal the grim realities of the Sudanese economy, in which problems deepened when the mainly animist and Christian south seceded in 2011, taking with it three quarters of the country's oil wealth.

With more than half the population under 19, youth unemployment reached 27 per cent in 2018. Inflation is about 30 to 35 per cent. The Sudanese pound now trades at 45 to the dollar, half its value of a year ago.

But these macro-economic statistics only tell half the story.

The country's economic woes and decades of neglect are on full display in Khartoum, from 45-year-old Japanese-made taxis to potholes the size of snooker tables in poorly lit streets.

Wind-blown sand accumulates in drifts alongside unswept roads. Thousands of Sudanese eke out a living on the pavements making tea, shining shoes, washing cars or hawking odd items such as radio batteries and mobile phone accessories.

Beggars abound and most shops have limited merchandise on sale.

In nearly three decades of Mr Al Bashir's rule, the Khartoum landscape remained unchanged, barring about a dozen metal-and-glass towers that seem out of place in a city whose beauty is drawn from its two rivers – the Blue and White Niles – the abundance of greenery and an unmistakable rural feel.

Tales of the extent of corruption in Mr Al Bashir's regime are now freely exchanged in today's Sudan.

True or not, they speak of millions stashed in foreign bank accounts, school dropouts given senior government jobs through connections and forged academic certificates, secret goldmines with output clandestinely sold abroad, and black market and currency rackets.

They are fantastic tales that would challenge investigators to prove, but they have been given a measure of credibility after more than $100 million in various currencies was found at Mr Al Bashir's Khartoum home last month.

Several of the former president's relatives have also been arrested on corruption charges.

Mr Al Bashir is being held in a Khartoum jail and questioned on charges of money laundering and sponsoring terrorism.

"I think corruption was an integral part of Sudan's economic structure under Al Bashir," said Yassir, an activist in his 20s.

"That included the dismantling for the benefit of Islamist-owned businesses of several national projects viewed as key to Sudan's future prosperity."

He gave the example of the huge Al Jazeera agricultural project south of the capital and plans to overhaul and modernise river transport and the railways.

"But we, the youths of the revolution, will press on with our revolution for a better future."

Updated: May 14, 2019 02:24 AM