Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 February 2020

‘I will feed the revolution to my children:’ a year of change in Sudan is only the start

Twelve months after protests against Omar Al Bashir began, the nation has changed dramatically. But those who led the change say there is no place for complacency.

A year after Sudan’s uprising began against the country’s dictator of 29 years, Ghadeer Hamdi says the revolution continues to live inside her.

Only if it lives on, she says, will its motto of "freedom, peace and justice" finally become a reality.

“For the revolution to die, we must all die first,” said Ms Hamdi, 28, a self-employed graphic designer. “I will spread the revolution and I will feed it to my children.”

She told The National of her first street protest.

It was on April 6, four months into the uprising, when she joined tens of thousands of protesters who endured tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds to reach the headquarters of the armed forces and start a sit-in protest.

They wanted the generals to remove Omar Al Bashir, Sudan’s president. The leaders of the military obliged five days later.

The sit-in remained as the focus shifted to pressing the military to hand over power to a civilian administration.

For nearly two months after the sit-in began, Ms Hamdi designed posters and banners that were hung up at the sprawling site.

They ranged from revolutionary slogans to hygiene tips and words of caution against the sexual harassment of women protesters.

The encampment remained for 58 days. Then elements of the security forces violently broke it up on June 3.

“I left my phone behind at home and stuck in my pocket a piece of paper with my father’s name and phone number, in case I was killed,” Ms Hamdi said. “I was thinking, ‘I will either die or we all move forward’.”

This December 17, 2019 photo shows Sudanese activist Ghadeer Hamdi speaking to The National about her recollections of the uprising that started a year ago against the now-removed dictator Omar Al Bashir. Photo by Hamza Hendawi for The National. 
Sudanese activist Ghadeer Hamdi. Photo by Hamza Hendawi for The National

An official government investigation into the events of June 3, led by prominent lawyer Nabil Adib, is expected to report its findings early next year.

In some ways, Ms Hamdi’s memories of her personal contribution to the uprising and her enduring commitment to its principles romanticise a historic event that will probably be remembered as much for its violence as for the sweeping change it brought.

But her assertion that the revolution lives on to this day is not empty talk.

The neighbourhood committees who played a vital role in organising protests throughout four months of unrest are still organising today.

They identify and fight corruption, and make sure Al Bashir loyalists do not regain the power and influence they wielded for years.

The committees also organise medical care and markets where goods are sold at a discount to help poor families.

Activists who used social media networks to gather protesters now help ministries of the transitional government to set up websites to inform the public about the functions of government departments and their services.

The committees and the Sudanese Professional Association, the body that largely orchestrated the protests, are operating as watchdog agencies to monitor and assess the work of the new government. But they are also partners.

“The ministers cannot do everything alone," Ms Hamdi said. "We all have to work together.

“When people say the government has done nothing since it came to office three months ago, I ask them about what they have done in the past three months.”

Meanwhile, the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been moving, albeit slowly according to some protesters, to dismantle Al Bashir’s legacy.

It is purging members of the former ruler’s now-dissolved party from the government, security agencies and the civil service.

This week, the government disbanded and confiscated the assets of Al Bashir-era trade and professional associations, paving the way for the groups who led the protest movement to become registered unions.

Also this week, several media outlets created and run by the security services were disbanded.

“The neighbourhood committees have taken ownership in today’s Sudan,” said Ameen Maki, a prominent activist and member of the Sudanese Professional Association.

“The committees now enjoy the tacit recognition of the government.”

A worker at a bakery at the centre of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on the eve of the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled the 29-year regime of dictator Omar Al Bashir. A steep hike in the price of bread was the spark behind the uprising that began on December 19, 2018. Photo by Hamza Hendawi for The National. 
A worker at a bakery at the centre of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on the eve of the first anniversary of the uprising that toppled the 29-year regime of dictator Omar Al Bashir. A steep hike in the price of bread was the spark behind the uprising that began on December 19, 2018. Photo by Hamza Hendawi for The National. 

But while the revolution lives on for those who began it, a mixed picture emerges after examining how much the government has fulfilled the high hopes of Sudan’s 40 million people.

Virtually overnight, Sudan turned from the brutal dictatorship it was under Al Bashir to a new democracy of freedom, celebration of diversity and, perhaps most importantly, a place for everyone to speak their minds freely and without fear.

Curiously, there is little fear of a backlash by Al Bashir’s supporters or remnants of his ruling National Congress party.

Although they continue to wield significant economic influence, their ability to exercise it appears to have been greatly weakened.

The “Green March” protests on December 14 – the day Al Bashir was convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison – only attracted several hundred loyalists of the old regime.

But the military appears to pose no major threat to the new Sudan, where the millions who protested against Al Bashir’s rule remain filled with revolutionary fervour.

“I see the complacency or maybe arrogance of some of the revolutionaries as the most serious threat,” Ms Hamdi said, referring to the leaders of the protest movement, the Forces of Freedom and Change.

“They may be thinking that we’re already there. But in reality, we still need to work all the time.”

Analysts, diplomats and activists in Sudan say another challenge lies in whether the transitional government can quickly steer the economy to meet some of the expectations of the people.

There is also the question of whether it can resolve the long and costly conflicts in the west and south of the country.

The two goals are intertwined.

If a peaceful settlement is found for the conflicts, it could substantially reduce the 25 per cent of the budget assigned to defence and free up vital public funds for health care and education.

If they are not settled, then the country will continue to pour its limited financial and logistical resources into wars that could end the same way as the decades-long civil war in the south.

South Sudan seceded in 2011 with devastating consequences. Sudan lost a third of its territory and most of its oil wealth, plunging into its worst economic crisis in living memory.

“The general impression so far is that the government is weak, slow, too lenient and without a defined programme of action,” said Othman Mirghani, a prominent analyst and editor of Khartoum daily Al Tayar.

“People want to see goals and not just a lot of passing in midfield."

There is some truth in that, but the legacy left by Al Bashir’s regime is heavy and complex.

The government spends about $2 billion (Dh7.34bn) a year on subsidising fuel and bread.

If the economy is to recover, those subsidies must be gradually reduced and replaced with money for the most vulnerable.

And the country’s infrastructure has for years been falling apart, something that harms the key agricultural sector.

Corruption, to which Al Bashir turned a blind eye, is institutional and has wasted substantial resources.

The Sudanese pound is not doing well. The official exchange rate is 45 to the dollar, but the greenback is traded at almost twice that much on the black market.

Sudan has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993 for its links to militant groups, which prevents it from receiving desperately needed aid from international donors.

Mr Hamdok, a career economist, was in Washington this month lobbying for Sudan to be taken off that list, but he acknowledged on his return that it was a long process.

Sudan’s economic predicament is so deep that the state 2020 budget has yet to be announced with less than two weeks left before the year’s end.

The delay, says a top western diplomat in Khartoum, is caused by lack of resources to cover expenditure. At this point, he said, it was more like an “aspirational” budget.

The long peace talks between the transitional government and rebel groups in western and southern Sudan have made little or no progress on main issues such as self-determination, the role of religion and a fair distribution of national resources and power.

The agreement signed by the military and the protest movement stipulates that comprehensive peace accords should be reached within six months from the time the pact was signed in August.

Some of the rebel groups insist that naming new provincial governors and a 300-seat legislative assembly should wait until an agreement is reached, a view that is opposed by the Forces of Freedom and Change.

“Hamdok continues to enjoy unprecedented popularity but seems unable to take advantage of that,” Mirghani said.

“He’s conducting business like he has come to office through a Cabinet reshuffle, not a revolution."

Updated: December 19, 2019 03:11 AM

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