Sudan in revolt

Protest in Khartoum

The ongoing mass protests in Sudan that began in Atbara on 19 December 2018 are some of the longest and most widespread since the country’s independence from Britain in 1956. They were triggered by cuts to subsidies for bread (the nation’s main food staple) and have turned into broader anti-austerity protests, from which a country-wide anti-government struggle has quickly emerged, calling for the overthrow of president Omar al-Bashir. Protesters have set fire to the headquarters of Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) in two locations, thrown stones at banks, demonstrated outside police stations, gone on strike and marched to the presidential palace to submit The Declaration of Freedom and Change. They have been met with government repression. Security forces have used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse and kill protesters, leaving more than 40 people dead. More than 1,000 have been imprisoned. Bashir has declared a state of emergency.

At the end of 2017, the IMF instructed Sudan to remove state subsidies for wheat and fuel, end the public importation of wheat, and float its currency in order to devalue the Sudanese pound. Sudan's external debt reached $50.7bn in October 2018, including £700m owed to Britain. The balkanisation of Sudan, divisions and civil wars fomented first and foremost by Britain, indebtedness to imperialist cartels, and 20 years of US sanctions have deliberately ruined Sudan, making it impossible for its economy to develop. This, combined with deep-rooted frustrations Sudanese people have with Bashir’s 30-year rule, provoked the latest protests.

Britain’s legacy

For over 120 years Britain has been involved in destabilising Sudan. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 and sent troops into Sudan. This provoked a revolt against British rule and the killing of General Gordon at Khartoum in January 1885. British imperialism sought to unify all the territory from Cairo to Cape Town under its control. The 1898 battle of Omdurman secured the reconquest of Sudan. Winston Churchill was to write of his experiences as an officer fighting in Sudan: ‘Fighting the Dervishes was primarily a matter of transport. The Khalifa was conquered on the railway’ and ‘the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians’ – a reference to the Maxim machine gun. The British began cotton growing in Sudan in 1900, to compete with US domination of supplies. The first Labour government of 1924 brutally put down the Sudanese Revolution led by the White Flag League (with Ali Abd al-Latif its president) which called for ‘Unity of the Nile Valley’ and the immediate expulsion of Britain from Sudan and Egypt. Unity against Britain could not be allowed. Britain knew that in order to control what was, until the 2011 secession of the South, the biggest African country it would have to employ tactics it had honed in other parts of its Empire such as India: divide and rule. It governed the North and South separately, with the North’s economy and infrastructure being developed enough to take advantage of its access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal (which was vital for significantly reducing the distance of trade routes between India and Europe), while the South’s economy was purposefully crippled. This created different, smaller power structures, sectarian divisions and disunity. Independence was granted on 1 January 1956. Southerners claimed they had been politically marginalised and civil war began.

Britain, the US, France and Norway have sought to balkanise Sudan into North, South and West, to make it easier to control oil, trade routes, labour and migration and in doing so edge out China, their most prominent rival in the region. In a failed attempt to force the west of Sudan (Darfur) to break away, Britain armed, trained and funded so-called rebels from Darfur in the 2003 civil war against the Sudanese government, which left millions dead and displaced, and despite being on the Ministry of Defence’s human rights abuse watch list, the British government has deployed British soldiers to train the armed forces of Sudan since 2014. Add to this the £860m worth of arms licenses the British state has awarded to the coalition that is fighting the war against Yemen, a coalition that Sudan is a leading member of. This despite an EU arms embargo on Sudan.

The constant behind-the-scenes machinations of imperialist powers culminated with the secession in July 2011 of South Sudan. Britain contributed £9.5m to the referendum, trained 30 journalists in how to cover it and a British company even printed the ballot papers. Britain’s military presence in the country is intended to continue until 2020. South Sudan was plunged into civil war just two years after it was created, leaving around a third of the population (four million people) displaced. Around 200,000 people are living in tents in six UN camps across the country, too afraid to return home, despite promises of a new ceasefire agreement. The UN has served notice on the refugees, telling them they will have to leave soon. Imperialist manoeuvres have caused this human catastrophe.

Trapped in debt

Just 13 days before the beginning of the most recent protests it was reported that a group of vulture funds that have invested in Sudanese debt had hired a lawyer to argue for debt relief for Sudan, in the hope of making a return on their ‘investments’. In 1984 Sudan defaulted on its debt. As of 2014, no other country on the planet had higher protracted arrears to the IMF than Sudan: over $1.3bn. By the end of 2015 Sudan’s total debt amounted to around 60% of GDP, 86% of which was in arrears. At the end of 2018, the Paris Club, an international gang of imperialist government loan sharks, accounted for £18.4bn of the debt. Britain is a leading member. Interest continues to be added, so that Sudan’s debt to UK Export Finance was £170 million in 1984 and in 2017 reached £700m. Sudan’s inflation rate of 72.94% in December 2018 was the second highest in the world. Imperialism has picked Sudan’s bones clean.

Britain’s Department for International Development has pledged £121m over five years (2017-2022) to Sudan. This is the same department that paid £10m in 2017 to help fund a network of 26 immigration prison hell holes and other ‘initiatives’ in Libya. Additionally, since 2015 the EU has allocated over $200m to Sudan to stop migrants getting to Libya and onto Europe. Hundreds of migrants are arrested each month, fined and deported from Sudan by kangaroo courts whose judges are trained by the British embassy. Sudan is a key transit country for African migrants; in 2016 it was the world’s fifth biggest source of refugees.

The protesters

The recently formed Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) has stepped in to take leadership of the anti-government demonstrations. It is an umbrella organisation of various trade unions, in particular university lecturers, teachers and doctors. SPA has joined with coalitions of opposition parties and organisations such as Sudan Call, National Consensus Forces (NCF) and Unionist Gathering to sign the Declaration of Freedom and Change. It demands Bashir’s resignation and the instalment of a four-year transitional government and a constitutional conference. Calls have also been made for the armed forces to step aside and support the transitional government. However, the Sudan Armed Forces currently support Bashir, stating they will ‘not allow the state to fall’.

Sudanese journalist in London, Nesrine Malik, provides a useful insight into the class character of the protests:

‘As long as there was the ability for a small politically unaffiliated bourgeois to prosper, or at least survive, then the frustration of those on the lower rungs of society was not sufficient to spark a comprehensive protest movement. But economic paralysis has spurred members of white-collar professions to mingle with the working classes in lines for daily provisions. In earlier years, Bashir recognized the importance of this co-option when he offered those members of the opposition and civil society that opposed his regime positions in government or lucrative enrichment opportunities. His inability to offer enough people a stake in the status quo might prove fatal.’

There are, however, worries that the protests, in weakening Bashir’s government, could inadvertently provide space for an opposition party to take power and quell protests with false promises, piecemeal reforms and side-line their demands, in an effort to form better relationships with imperialist countries.

Most commentators are denying the role played by imperialism in Sudan. Some of the leading voices interviewed by Al Jazeera have included Hafiz Mohammad, director of Justice Africa, who stated, ‘the problem is not the sanctions…the economic problems in Sudan are not because of any foreign conspiracy…it is mismanagement of the economy…and that is the problem. It is a political problem…’ As we have previously reported in FRFI, the economic problems of Sudan certainly are political, however, imperialist domination of Sudan is no conspiracy theory – it is a fact. There are, however, members of the Sudanese Communist Party in Britain who support the call for the cancellation of all of Sudan's debt, removal of British troops from Sudan and an end to Britain's arrangements with Sudan to control migration to Europe.

Bashir has tried to use longstanding divisions to his advantage, particularly ethnic divides between the North and West, in an attempt to undermine the protests, claiming that the struggle is being fuelled by Darfuri infiltrators. However, there is growing unity amongst Sudanese people who are building solidarity. One of the protesters, Osman Ahmad, stated, ‘It just does not work anymore. They may have successfully divided us in the past, and it worked on our parents and grandparents. But it’s not working on us, the new generation. We are on to them.’ Khalid Siddiq added, ‘We want a country free of racism. We can no longer afford to be massacred everywhere in this country and remain silent.’

End British and all foreign interference in Sudan and get all British forces out of Africa and the Middle East.

Mark Moncada


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