The Crisis of the Sudanese Regime

It was the tripling of bread prices which sparked off the current revolt in Sudan. People first took to the streets in the town of Atbara in north eastern Sudan on 19 December 2018, but they did not restrict their demands to bread even though some had not managed to find any in four days. They had had enough of the brutal military dictatorship of Omar Hassan al-Bashir which has ruled the country since 1989. The protestors not only demanded “freedom, peace, and justice” but also echoed the slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring that “the people want the fall of the regime.” As a symbol of their wider political demands, the ruling party headquarters in Atbara was burned to the ground.

Submitted by Internationali… on January 15, 2019

The regime of Omar al-Bashir is no stranger to crisis or to protests, and Sudanese popular movements have already overthrown two military dictatorships since 1964. Al-Bashir is well aware of this. He has carried out all kinds of brutal acts to stay in power since his coup in 1989 which overthrew the last elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. Many of his fellow officers from that time were executed as he made the army his source of power. His brutality and mismanagement has not gone unchallenged. In the last few years there have been demonstrations against attempts to cut fuel and bread subsidies (demanded usually by the IMF as the price for any loan). The first was in 2012, but in September 2013 200 peaceful protesters against fuel price rises were shot dead by his police, and further protests were similarly dealt with in 2015, in January 2017 and again in February 2018. Doctors, students, and leaders of opposition political parties have all been hanged for their opposition, and many professional associations, unions and parties have been banned.

The regime has also learned from past insurrections. In October 1964 Ibrahim Abboud’s military dictatorship was overthrown, followed by that of Jafaf Nimeiri in April 1985.1 Popular uprisings of students, professionals and workers succeeded when troops in the capital Khartoum, who were supposedly loyal to the regime, went over to the side of the insurgents. Today those troops are largely dispersed to the regions, whilst dealing with the current resistance in Khartoum is left to riot police and al-Bashir’s own praetorian guard plus the Rapid Support Forces (also know as the Janjaweed militia).

“The government has declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews in towns where some of the first protests took place. Schools and universities have been closed. National newspapers have been censored or shut down. The Internet has been disrupted, and several phone carriers have restricted access to WhatsApp and other social media sites. Security forces have deployed tear gas and live ammunition against protesters as the death toll reaches 37 and continues to rise.”2

In addition, journalists and ordinary citizens taking photos have been arrested, beaten or harassed as the government attempts to impose a news blackout. However, indications are that the strategy of dispersing troops to local regions may be backfiring. Unconfirmed reports on social media suggest that troops in places like Atbara (a former stronghold of the Sudanese working class) have already removed their uniforms and joined in the demonstrations. This is not quite the decisive conduct of their predecessors but has increased the sense of unease amongst the al-Bashir and his ruling class cronies.

Already 22 parties including the influential Umma party, which was part of the government of al-Bashir, have called for his (peaceful, of course) replacement. The rats are deserting a sinking ship. There are good reasons for this.

An Economic Basket Case…

In a globally stagnant capitalist world peripheral zones like Sudan suffer the most. Sudan ranks 174th on the wealth list, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. However there are local factors which have kicked in to make matters worse. In 2005 South Sudan, after years of war, finally set up as a separate state taking with it two thirds of Sudan’s main export commodity, oil. Although Sudan has managed to recoup some of this (since it charges a high price for South Sudan’s oil exports through its Red Sea ports) GDP fell by over 10%, and helped produce a great hole in state finances. Sudan already has debts of over $56 billion whilst, according to Reuters, the central bank only has $1.1 billion in reserves or about enough to pay for about seven weeks of imports. The government solution has been to print money to keep functioning. As a consequence, the value of the Sudan pound has fallen and inflation has now reached 70%. 46.5% of the population live below the poverty line (living on less than $1.90 a day3 ). In some regions like Northern Darfur that figure climbs to two thirds of the population.

…Proliferating Barbarism

Sudan’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism” with a war criminal indicted for “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” at its head has made it difficult to get international investors to commit to any project. The atrocities committed in the war in Darfur have continued to haunt the regime. Here 300,000 were killed and 1.2 million displaced as the Government wreaked revenge on a region where an independence movement had arisen. Again, the bulk of the rapes and murders were largely carried out by the so-called Rapid Support Force or Janjaweed militia.4

Despite this, imperialist games elsewhere have allowed al-Bashir to undergo something of a rehabilitation with the US. The Washington Post informs us that:

“In September 2017, Sudan was quietly dropped from the United States’ travel ban list. A few days later, the Trump administration partially lifted sanctions in place for almost 20 years. Analysts have linked these developments to the Sudanese government’s support of the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war in Yemen. In return for sending thousands of Sudanese soldiers to provide the kind of “boots on the ground engagement” that the Saudis and Emiratis are unwilling to risk themselves, Persian _Gulf diplomats stepped up their lobbying efforts on Sudan’s behalf in Washington”5

According to David D Kirkpatrick of the New York Times6 , Sudan has sent as many as 14,000 soldiers to Yemen.7 Grotesquely these include both members of the Janjaweed militia and their victims. These are the child soldiers from Darfur who are there because the civil war robbed their families of their livelihoods. Now they serve under the Janjaweed. Kirkpatrick cites the case of one Darfuri boy who was recruited by the Saudis for $10,000 at age 14. The story of Sudan’s unacknowledged involvement in Yemen first came to light in September 2017 when a Janjaweed General, Mohammad Hamdan Daqlu, inadvertently admitted that 412 Sudanese had been killed there.8 Given that over 60% of Sudan’s exports end up in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, and that the Gulf States are alleged to have given Sudan a $2 billion loan in 2015, it is perhaps not surprising that this alliance of convenience on both sides has developed. What the whole sordid episode shows is that any idea of outside pressure on the war criminal al-Bashir in the current crisis can be forgotten. Already al-Sisi, the Egyptian dictator, who might fear the same fate one day has openly announced his support for the al-Bashir regime (a further 15% of Sudan’s exports go to Egypt).

The Social Base of the Uprising

So where does this leave the balance of forces in the current struggle? It is perhaps no accident that the current crisis was sparked off in the North Eastern Nile town of Atbara. Nicknamed “The City of Steel and Fire” by workers, it was the main railway centre in the country. This was the town of the stronghold of the Sudanese working class and “became one of the most dynamic and militant labor movements in Africa and the Middle East”.9 Led by the railway workers’ union and the Sudanese Communist Party (at its height – when it was the largest Communist Party in Africa – it was a Stalinist offshoot but today it is a smaller nationalist outfit which thinks it can somehow represent “socialism” in a “democratic” government!), the workers of Atbara were not only in the vanguard of the struggle against colonialism but also in bringing down Abboud in 1964 and Nimeiri in 1985.

However, the ongoing global crisis of capitalist accumulation has undermined working class social cohesion in the Sudan, just as it has done throughout the main centres of capitalism.

“The economic mainstay of many towns outside Khartoum has been destroyed. The suffocation of the railway industry, for example, spelled the death of Atbara—Sudan’s first real industrial city from the turn of the 20th century in northeast River Nile state.”10

As a result, although Atbara remains a working class centre it is numerically much diminished given this neglect of investment in the railways. Alongside economic decline al-Bashir has, over the years, destroyed most of the organisational bases of any movements that might have formed the focus of opposition. This may not be entirely a bad thing as

“the absence of formal trade unions and independent local governing structures did not prevent people from forming alternative grass-roots structures for mobilizing against political repression. Youth movements and independent farmer and worker formations have multiplied over the last decade as people lost faith in established opposition parties and politics. Most notably, from 2012 to 2014, students and the urban poor held a variety of creative protests before being repressed by the regime.”11

But this “urban poor” has a broad and mixed character. Two million of them live on the outskirts of Khartoum where over a fifth of the population is concentrated. Their numbers have swollen in the last two decades with the influx of refugees from the conflicts in the South and in Darfur. They are divided in many ways by tribe, race and religion which tends to undermine any sense of class solidarity. After the previous revolts the united opposition would end up fighting each other for the tribal or clientelist leader that they thought represented their grouping.

However, today Sudan faces the same (if not more blatant) disparities, between the ever more bloated rich and the desperately poor masses, as in every other state in the world. It is apparent that even the once prosperous middle class, who gave parts of Khartoum the air of being like any other functioning city, have suffered. Many have lost their livelihoods or left to find a better life elsewhere. It is no surprise therefore that today the main organisers of the demonstrations are the professional associations of teachers, doctors and engineers. Once much respected in Sudanese society, these groups have seen a massive decline in their living standards over the last two decades. Doctors, for example now earn as little as $30 a month.12

At the same time

"Nearly all Sudan’s wealth and assets are now located in Khartoum and Port Sudan, and these have been long since acquired by a narrow set of political elites, regime loyalists, and their business allies."13

Three quarters of the state budget goes to the military whilst those who have access to state contracts have a source of corrupt finance. This elite class are the ones who travel abroad, engage in conspicuous luxury consumption ($2 billion worth of cosmetics are imported by them each year, and the wedding industry now puts on massive extravagant displays lasting for days at a time). As one Sudanese journalist put it, as al-Bashir’s “cronies whizz around the city in their trademark white Land Cruisers, people have grown tired of a regime that cannot be bothered to hide its corruption.”14 However, the money currently flowing to the security forces ensures the loyalty of those killing protestors on the streets.

The Next Bloodbath?

Sudan today, like so many places, is at an impasse. In Africa it is not alone. Since the global financial speculative bubble burst in 2008, the number of riots and conflicts in Africa has gone from around 300 a year to nearly 4000.15 Sudan's economy is close to collapse and the population have reached that point of desperation in which they see they have no option but to demand “the fall of the regime”. But if the social movement against the regime is determined in its goal, al-Bashir is equally unable to back down. More blood will be shed before this situation is played out, unless there is an internal coup within the ruling party.

It is known to be divided, but so far there is no evidence that anyone has made any move to get rid of their leader. Al-Bashir thinks he can ride out the storm (and has the added incentive to hang on since, if he is deposed, the International Criminal Court will be awaiting his handover). He appears to think that a combination of repression (he has called on the riot police to “exact penance” on demonstrators), the usual denunciation of the protestors as the tools of foreign powers, and a few concessions will be enough to placate the wrath of the population. He thinks the crisis can be resolved by simply reintroducing targeted subsidies, increasing civil servant pay, stabilising the Sudanese pound, or just sacking this or that minister as a scapegoat.16 As long as he has the loyalty of the army, and keeps control of the National Intelligence Service, he has a good chance of facing down yet another challenge to his 29 year rule.

And even if the protestors pull off the downfall of al-Bashir what will they achieve? The liberal press in the West are once again talking up the prospects of democracy in the Sudan but as the experience of the rest of Africa shows mere political change will not solve the implacable economic crisis. What we are seeing in Sudan is a movement (not unlike the gilets jaunes in France, but in even more desperate economic circumstances) which points the finger at a global capitalist system which is bankrupt. It cannot satisfy the basic needs of the many whilst the wealth of the few continues to expand obscenely. These movements also demonstrate that they no longer have faith in a political process which works only for the capitalist class.

However, in themselves they can only pose these questions – they cannot answer them. Indeed, the answer cannot be found in this or that country or with the undifferentiated mass of the “the people”. There is only one class which carries within it the seeds of a programme based on previous collective experience which is the antithesis of capitalism and that is the world working class. Only a conscious working class, the majority of the world’s population, acting in concert can pose the alternative to the increasing misery which is the daily lot of so many. Not only will we abolish the profits system which is based on the exploitation of billions of workers across the globe, not only will we control production and revolutionise it by producing for the real needs of human beings but we will also abolish the capitalist state, including its military apparatus and replace it with an internationally coordinated system of workers councils which will bring the benefits of the worlds wealth to all. In Sudan, as elsewhere, the question of socialism or barbarism has been posed. Sooner or later the world working class will have to give its response.

7 January 2019



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Submitted by Scheveningen on January 16, 2019

It is no surprise therefore that today the main organisers of the demonstrations are the professional associations of teachers, doctors and engineers. Once much respected in Sudanese society, these groups have seen a massive decline in their living standards over the last two decades.

While reading Reddebrek's library pieces on the previous movements against ruling military government (1964, 1985) I noticed that professionals were featured in both. Were they close to the Communist Party? I know that many urban professionals in Iraq were close to the CP as they supported its modernizing policies (or perhaps they were a preferential recruitment target for the party), so it wouldn't surprise me if the same happened in Sudan. If that's the case, they must've been at odds with the government for most of the country's independent history.