Sudan crisis deepens as Bashir digs in to contain protests

Saturday January 5 2019

sudan protest

Sudanese demonstrators run from teargas lobbed to disperse them as they march along the street during anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan, on December 25, 2018. PHOTO | REUTERS 

FRED OLUOCH
By FRED OLUOCH
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After three weeks of riots that started on December 19, the Sudanese opposition and civil society are calling for a regime change.

The Sudan Call, the Sudanese Professional Association and opposition groups, among them the National Consensus Alliance and the Unionist, now want President Omar al-Bashir to step down.

In their declaration on January 2, they propose a transitional government to lead the country for four years. They have agreed to back the nationwide protests calling for President Bashir’s exit citing, among other things, the rise in the prices of food and other essentials.

The coalition of 22 groups says that during the transitional period, a technocrat government would hold a constitutional conference after negotiating peace agreements, including new security arrangements with the armed groups.

"We, the Sudan Call and our partners in the opposition reaffirm our support to the revolution,” Minni Minnawi, Sudan Call secretary-general, said in a statement.

Three weeks of protests have resulted in arrests of several political opposition figures and the loss of dozens of lives.

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Widespread discontent with Sudan's soaring cost of living has fuelled a wave of protests that's posed one of the greatest challenges to President al-Bashir since he came to power in a 1989 through a coup.

The government says 19 people, including two soldiers, have been killed in the unrest that began in major cities on December 19. Amnesty International said on December 24 it had credible reports that 37 people were shot dead by security forces in the first five days.

Restrictions

But the head of communication at the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), Mubarak al-Fadel al-Mahdi, said the group is exploiting popular protests to push a political agenda different from the main reasons for the difficult economic conditions that triggered the demonstrations.

Authorities have blocked access to popular social media platforms used to organise and broadcast nationwide anti-government protests, Internet users said.

In a country where the state controls traditional media tightly, the Internet has become a key information battleground. Of Sudan’s 40 million people, some 13 million use the Internet and more than 28 million own mobile phones, local media say.

Authorities have not repeated the Internet blackout they imposed during deadly protests in 2013. But the head of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, Salah Abdallah, told a news conference that “there was a discussion in the government about blocking social media sites and in the end it was decided to block them.”

Users of the three main telecommunications operators in the country — Zain, MTN and Sudani — said access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has only been possible through use of a virtual private network (VPN). Activists have used social media to organise and document the demonstrations.

Hashtags in Arabic such as “Sudan’s_cities_revolt” have been widely circulated from Sudan and abroad. Hashtags in English such as #SudanRevolts have also been used.

“Social media has a big impact, and it helps in forming public opinion and transmitting what’s happening in Sudan to the outside,” said Mujtaba Musa, a Sudanese Twitter user with over 50,000 followers who has been active in documenting the protests.

NetBlocks, a digital rights NGO, said data it collected, including from thousands of Sudanese volunteers, provided evidence of “an extensive internet censorship regime.”

Security crackdown

Bader al-Kharafi, CEO of parent company Zain Group, told Reuters: “Some websites may be blocked for technical reasons beyond the company’s specialisation.”

Observers said the opposition is against the decision in August by the NCP to change its constitution to allow President al-Bashir to contest another term.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which focuses on leadership and governance in Africa, said in a statement on Thursday that peaceful protests by Sudanese people have escalated into violence and a heavy security crackdown.

“The Foundation notes tight censorship around news on the protests in Sudan, with authorities restricting access to social media and the Internet,” said the statement.

The foundation urged the Khartoum government to uphold the right of the Sudanese citizens to peacefully protest and express their legitimate grievances. The discontent and anger among the people have led to sporadic protests, which the government has suppressed ruthlessly.

The protests over the high prices of essential commodities such as fuel and bread — which have now been taken over by politicians — are likely to continue, given that there are little signs that the economy will improve.

Sudan has since the beginning of 2018 experienced a debilitating economic crisis, after the government lifted the subsidies on basic commodities.

Economic downturn

Economists said economic downturn is the result of South Sudan taking away the 75 of the oil wells at Independence in 2011. Sudan's economy is struggling, with cash shortages in banks and a soaring inflation rate now at 70 per cent.

Despite the United States lifting the economic sanctions in September 2018 after 20 years, Sudan’s economy continues to struggle.

Most international banks and businesses that had been blocked from trading with Khartoum due to the sanctions are still hesitant to deal with Sudanese banks. President al-Bashir has invited US companies to invest in the agriculture and the mining sectors.

The economic downturn forced President al-Bashir to push for peace agreement in South Sudan in September 2018 to allow the resumption of oil production, which feeds into the economy through transportation fee on the pipeline.

Central Bank Governor Mohamed Khair al-Zubair said this week that the country is seeking funding from unidentified nations to ease its economic crisis.

Mr Al-Zubair mentioned possible foreign funding during a Tuesday press conference, outlining a three-month plan to boost revenue, bring in hard currency and print more banknotes. Sudan devalued its pound at least three times in 2018.

Mr Al-Zubeir didn't identify whom Sudan may tap for funds. Unidentified Gulf Arab nations extended about $2 billion in concessional loans to Sudan in 2015, the Finance Ministry said at the time, while state media in the past two years has reported the Central Bank receiving deposits from the United Arab Emirates.

Sudan, which once counted Iran as an ally, has strengthened its relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the past four years, contributing aircraft and thousands of troops to their battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

President al-Bashir, 75, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, became in mid-December the first Arab head of state to visit Syria since its uprising began in 2011.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters.

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