Sudan: filling the gap when the state fails

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A year after the revolution forced out dictator El Bashir Sudan’s activists are bracing themselves for the pandemic, report Anne Alexander and Irang Bak.

This is an article from the current issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine – help us continue our work by donating £2 for a digital copy online 

A year ago Sudan’s revolutionary uprising hit the world headlines as thousands of demonstrators set up camp outside the army headquarters in Khartoum demanding the overthrow of dictator Omar El Bashir and the creation of a democratic civilian government.

Images of young women protestors like Ala’a Salah, who was photographed in her white robes leading chants from the top of a car, flashed briefly across social media platforms.

On 11 April El Bashir was bundled out of power by his own generals. If they thought that this would satisfy the movement’s desire for real change they were wrong. The Transitional Military Council which took power in El Bashir’s place was faced with continuing and growing protests and strikes calling for a full transfer of power to a civilian administration.

While the generals did open negotiations with protest leaders from opposition parties and the Sudanese Professionals Association – a network of independent trade unions representing healthworkers, journalists, lawyers, pharmacists and professional groups – they also worked to try and crush the movement in the streets.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by his nickname ‘Hemedti’, continued to deploy his Rapid Support Forces militia which made a brutal name for itself carrying out genocidal mass killings and rapes in Darfur.

The RSF, the regular army, secret police and other regime militias attacked the mass protest camp in Khartoum on 3 June, killing hundreds of people in a massacre calculated to halt the revolutionary momentum following a highly effective national general strike on 28 and 29 May.

Hemedti and his allies on the TMC had misjudged matters. The killings radicalised the mood, particularly in the poor and working class areas of the capital where crowds demanded that the SPA’s leaders withdraw from negotiations with the TMC about power-sharing.

This anger fed into another wave of strikes and mass protests in June which forced further concessions from the military over the composition of a future government.

Meanwhile pressure from outside forces on both the TMC and the negotiators intensified, with neighbouring states and the African Union attempting to mediate and find a compromise. In July a deal was struck which left the ‘Sovereign Council’ in the new transitional administration evenly balanced between military and civilian members.

Millions across Sudan celebrated the conclusion of the agreement paving the way for the formation of a new government led by economist Abdalla Hamdok. The deal however did not resolve the underlying contradiction between the original goals of the revolutionary uprising – for a transfer of power to a democratic civilian authority – and the reality of power-sharing with El Bashir’s old generals, including Hemedti who was appointed to the Sovereign Council despite his role in the 3 June massacre.

The new government has taken some steps to root out the old regime, for example by appointing a “Committee to Dismantle the Deep State, Fight Corruption and Recover Funds.”

On 14 December Yasir El Ata, head of the committee issued a decision to dissolve media institutions, trade unions, professional associations and the employers’ union. A few days later the Central Bank announced the seizure of these institutions’ assets.

The government also announced the annulment of the infamous Public Order Law issued in 1996, which Omar al Bashir used to heavily restrict and oppress individuals, especially women’s freedom. In addition, the former ruling National Congress Party (NCP) will be disbanded.

Although the SPA welcomed the government’s decision the attempt to dissolve the trade unions was met with criticism from some journalists and lawyers. The Sudanese Journalists Union (SJU), whose offices were seized and occupied by the military after the government’s announcement, issued a statement saying that the “decision goes against their right to free choice and their right to organise themselves.”

The Darfur Bar Association criticised the government measures for not dismantling the former regime in reality, but prolonging their legitimacy by keeping the former regime affiliates on other committees in different names.

The Communist Party of Sudan also attacked the top-down approach of the government, arguing that “the most appropriate solution is to withdraw confidence from the leaders of the unions through the general assemblies and not through these administrative solutions”.

The huge economic problems facing Sudan have also sharpened the contradictions between the hopes of ordinary people for radical change and the desire of opposition leaders to settle for limited reforms.

Once again, Hemedti provided a neat illustration of how the inequality in Sudanese society could not just be solved by selectively dissolving institutions of El Bashir’s regime in the narrow sense.

The RSF commander sits at the apex of what is sometimes called a “paramilitary-industrial complex” of companies with interests in gold-mining, hotels and the lucrative trade in selling young men as cannon fodder to the Gulf states as mercenaries and security guards. Hemedti is so wealthy that he boasted that he had bailed out the Central Bank when funds ran short last year.

Ordinary people have faced an escalating social crisis caused by problems in the supply of basic foods, including bread. The plummeting value of the Sudanese pound on international markets has sharply exacerbated the crisis in recent months by forcing up the price of imported food.

Meanwhile public services such as education and health are still suffering from years of neglect and underfunding.

It is in this context that the global crisis caused by the spread of Covid-19 has reached Sudan. Although at the time of writing only a handful of cases had been reported, the country will face a serious challenge in responding to the virus. While El Bashir’s generals profiteered from private hospitals, the public health system was left in ruins.

There are only 80 ventilators and 40 critical care beds in public hospitals serving a population of 44 million according to sources in the Sudanese health sector.

Moreover there is a huge shortage of medical staff and protective equipment on top of electricity shortages. The Sudanese government has imposed a nation-wide curfew from 8pm to 6am, and closed down its borders on land and air. Gatherings have been prohibited and markets and schools have been closed.

Only 80 ventilators and 40 critical care beds in public hospitals serve a population of 44 million

In response to the crisis, forms of self-organisation which emerged last year as key drivers of popular mobilisation during the revolution are stepping up to try and fill the gap. The neighbourhood Resistance Committees which have continued to organise political activities and intervene in local social life are conducting campaigns to raise public awareness of the virus and sanitising markets, bakeries, mosques and cafes.

They are leading a drive to inform the public on how to protect themselves from the virus. This started with handing out leaflets on streets combined with social media campaigns.

Some Resistance Committees had already taken on a role in protecting the people when the state fails over the bread crisis, intervening to set volunteer observers in state-run bakeries to stop flour being smuggled out to sell on the black market.

The Covid-19 crisis will test the limits of both the transitional government’s reforms and popular organisation even more sharply, however, and some Sudanese organisations have begun to raise more radical demands.

The Communist Party of Sudan has for example, demanded that military and police hospitals should be handed over to the public health system.

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