Sudan’s protests: The revolt of the periphery

It is the countryside, not Khartoum, that is now leading the political struggle for Sudan’s future.

Sudan protests
People chant slogans during a demonstration in Kordofan, Sudan on December 25, 2018 [File: AP]

Sudan has had two successful revolutions so far. In 1964 and 1985, mass protests overthrew military dictatorships and installed civilian governments. Both times, the political upheaval erupted in the capital, Khartoum, and its residents, intelligentsia and elite played a pivotal role in the fateful political events that unfolded.

Today, we are in the middle of what many are already calling another revolution. This time, however, the revolutionary vanguard is not based in Khartoum. Instead, the popular uprising started in the periphery and swept through the entire country.

It all began in the city of Atbara in the northeast River Nile state. On December 19, thousands took to the streets to protest the price rise and the scarcity of basic supplies. The demands of the crowd quickly evolved from bread and fuel to the downfall of the regime, and the building of the ruling party in Atbara was burned down. Barbar and el-Damer, also in the northeast River Nile, also took to the streets with casualties in both cities.

The following day protests spread like wildfire across the country to places like the eastern city of Gadarif, which had never witnessed large demonstrations before. According to the independent activist group el-Mustagloon (the Independent), government forces shot 22 protesters on the first day of protests.

Then Rabak, the capital of White Nile state in the south, joined the protest movement and another party office of the ruling party was burned down. In the capital of Northern Kordofan state, el-Obeid, clashes between protesters and security forces escalated which resulted in the storming of the city’s main hospital. Medical workers were beaten and arrested which prompted doctors to announce a general strike in the city.

Residents of el-Fasher and Niyala in the conflict-ridden western region of Darfur also took to the streets. Protests erupted not only in cities and towns, but also in the deep countryside. In el-Jazeera state, which neighbours Khartoum state, villages, some of which were completely unknown to the urban Khartoumites, also witnessed demonstrations.

By mid-January, 15 out of Sudan’s 18 states were part of the protest movement.

Khartoum was, of course, among them, but it never took up a leadership position. In fact, before the protests erupted, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella group of unions and syndicates, had been planning a march in the capital to demand an increase in the minimum wage. The spontaneous demonstrations in provincial capitals took its activists by surprise and it was not until December 25 that the organisation finally held its march.

So how is it that Sudan’s countryside woke up and took over the political struggle from Khartoum?

Saving Khartoum, sacrificing the countryside

Sudan’s economy has been in free fall since South Sudan achieved its independence in 2011 and the country lost 80 percent of its oil revenues. The country had no other industry to rely on and pervasive corruption meant that even though the country was a top recipient of loans from China and Gulf countries, there was no way to stop this economic deterioration.

The economic situation got particularly bad in 2018. By then Sudan had racked up $50bn in debt and its allies refused to give it more hand-outs. In the first months of the year, petrol and diesel almost completely disappeared from the market. People were unable to get their savings from banks or any cash from ATMs. By the summer, long queues for bread stretched across the country.

The situation in the countryside was much worse, as the government was eager to make economic deterioration less visible in its capital. It worked hard to provide fuel and wheat for Khartoum and often times this meant slashing the rations of other states.

In the eastern state of Kassala, I’ve personally witnessed fuel lines that would often stretch over a few streets and people would spend up to three days waiting in line to get petrol. Fuel became scarce in Medani, the nearest big city to Khartoum, and almost non-existent in Gadarif. Kadugli city in South Kordofan was without electricity for months, as it was entirely dependent on diesel to operate power generators. Bread shortages have also been particularly severe across the Sudanese countryside.

This was not the first time the political elite in Khartoum had pushed people in the provinces to the brink to make sure their lives are comfortable. However, this time, it seems, their mismanagement and arrogance have gone too far.

‘We are all Darfur’

The countryside has been marginalised for far too long. The South Sudanese fought a war for 21 years (1983-2005), angered by their status as second-class citizens. Then in 2003, the people of Darfur started their fight against economic inequality, injustice and ethnic discrimination. Conflicts continue to rage in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, where the central government has also failed to develop the local economy and recognise local residents as equal citizens.

For decades, power, wealth and opportunities have been monopolised by privileged ethnic groups and concentrated in the central part of the country, particularly in the capital city, which boasts the best infrastructure and services in Sudan.

Sitting in the posh neighbourhoods of Khartoum, these political elites now feel threatened by the revolutionary wave sweeping the country. Misjudging the situation, they kept the overwhelming majority of their security forces in the capital, to protect their power, wealth and families.

The uprising in the countryside took them by surprise and now their forces are stretched thin. They have scrambled to control the situation by mobilising troops, particularly the border patrol and the Rapid Response Forces, a militia previously used in Darfur. But even they are not going to be enough to quell the protests which have spread across the country to its most remote parts.

The Sudanese government has failed not only to quash the mass protests by force, but also to dictate the public discourse. People outside Khartoum are now in control of the narrative and use social media to amplify their struggle and their voices.

During the first week of the protests, the authorities, in a much-expected move, arrested dozens of students who hail from Darfur and accused them of being saboteurs and part of a rebel group. These spurious accusations did not sway public opinion, as the protest movement fought it successfully and responded by chanting “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!”.

This is now one of the most popular slogans used by Darfuri and non-Darfuri protesters alike across the country, from Gadarif to Khartoum. The struggle of Darfuris who, for the last 15 years, have suffered in refugee camps and at the hands of militias is finally taking centre-stage. And so is the struggle of all other dispossessed, impoverished and marginalised people across the country.

Time has finally come for real political change, which must alter the power dynamics between the dominant capital state and give justice to the countryside.

This movement needs to address past grievances, reform how power is divided and how wealth is shared across the country. For this to happen, a process of decentralisation needs to be carried out to enable each state to decide how it wants to be governed.

Justice needs to be served to victims of conflict in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan and those displaced and impoverished in Blue Nile, Kassala, Gedarif and the Northern state to make room for the dams built to bring electricity to those in urban areas.

The grievances of the countryside can no longer be ignored.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.