I could write about Brexit for the 80th time (Theresa May is out, they’re electing someone new who won’t be able to get a better deal, meaning hard Brexit is even more likely). I could write about US tensions with Iran (we’re not going to invade, but many people will die senselessly anyway). But insofar as the point of this blog is to help you parse information about stories that are hard to track, there’s only one thing for me to write about, and I should have done it two weeks ago. And it’s Sudan.
Sudan is trying desperately to achieve a civilian-led democracy after 63 years of intermittent civil wars, coups, and genocide. On April 11th, President (“President”) Omar al-Bashir was placed under house arrest, and the world celebrated the apparently peaceful end of a brutal, 30-year military one-party state. And then, on June 3rd, paramilitary security forces raped at least 70 peaceful protesters, murdered at least 100 more, and threw the bodies in the Nile. Now the country is experiencing mass media and internet blackouts, outlets like Al Jazeera have been banned from the country, and protesters continue their work in the face of massive violent backlash. Here’s how we got here.
After Sudan gained independence from the British (officially on January 1, 1956) they saw coup after coup and a pair of excruciating civil wars. Then, Omar al-Bashir took control in 1989. It was a relatively peaceful coup, but he soon followed it up with a purges and executions of military leadership, banning political parties and consuming the entire state apparatus until he ran the whole show. He instituted Islamist policies across the nation.
Let’s pause here for a second, to differentiate between Islamic and Islamist. The suffix matters. Islamic is the adjective form of Islam — that is, things relating directly to Islam as a religion. Islamist is the adjective form of Islamism — an ideology which uses elements of Islam to justify itself. You would be hard-pressed, taking Islam in its entirety, to use it to justify mass murder, but if you strip out some things and emphasize others, you can use it to oppress women and non-Muslim minorities.
Which is exactly what Omar al-Bashir did, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Christian and Animist Sudanese in Darfur and southern Sudan at the hands of the Janjaweed, paramilitary forces led by a man named Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, colloquially known as Hemedti. We’ll come back to him.
At the culmination of the Second Sudanese Civil War (which only ended in 2005), the peace accord stipulated that the southern region of Sudan be allowed to conduct a referendum on independence. Despite concerns that al-Bashir wouldn’t follow through, the referendum went forward, and the results were stunning: with 97.5% turnout, 98.8% of the electorate voted for independence. In 2011, six years after the referendum, on a predetermined date, South Sudan became an independent nation, making it the youngest country in the world.
So here’s the thing about South Sudan: it’s oil-rich. In fact, that oil had been Sudan’s primary source of foreign capital. And so with South Sudan and all its oil now firmly outside the Sudanese economy, things took an economic turn for the worse. Sudan has inflation rates of around 70%, second only to Venezuela. This put the country on edge, and protests broke out in December of 2018 when al-Bashir tripled the price of bread on top of the massive inflation.
These protests continued for months, but they weren’t just about the economy — they were about the culture. The protests were marked by high levels of women participants and leaders, symbolized by one woman, Alaa Salah, photographed dressed as a kandake, a Nubian queen, standing on top of a car, leading a protest chant.
On April 11th, the military finally stepped in and arrested al-Bashir. The mood was ecstatic, in Sudan and around the world. Would one of the world’s longest, most brutal dictators fall peacefully? Was a new day dawning in Sudan? The military brass put al-Bashir on house arrest, and instituted a curfew, encouraging the protestors to go home.
But they didn’t. They had seen this before, in Egypt, when protestors successfully fought to depose Hosni Mubarak only to have the military step in and govern for six months, resulting finally, after elections and negotiations and heartbreak, in another coup d’etat and the rise of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The protestors didn’t leave. And I don’t mean that night — I mean ever. They conducted a sit-in outside the offices of the Transitional Military Council, which intended to rule “temporarily” until a civilian government could be instated. The protestors kindly told them to stuff it, and sat down, and stayed there for almost two months while they negotiated. Here’s a rough approximation of how that went down:
“Look, we know you’re unhappy, but we need stability. Give us two years to figure things out.”
“HAH. We’ve seen this before. No shot, chief. Give us the keys. Today.”
“But stability! Six months.”
“Three. And we want to be part of the transitional council.”
“Fine. Seven of us, three of you.”
“Is that a joke? Eight of us, seven of you. And you need to fire al-Bashir’s lackeys.”
“Fine, we’ll fire those guys. Hm. Seven of you, eight of us.”
And so on. And indeed, many of al-Bashir’s inner circle stepped down, letting General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, one of the few military leaders who wasn’t a war criminal, take charge.
But guess who his right-hand man is. You guessed it: Hemedti, the monster who orchestrates the Darfurian genocide. And while al-Burhan was negotiating with the protestors, he was also visiting his pals in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, just for good measure, just to make sure they were on the same page.
And then it was June 3rd. And the Rapid Support Forces, the direct successor organization to the Janajweed that murdered 480,000 Darfurians, led by Hemedti, murdered and raped those peaceful protestors with whom they had been negotiating, and shut off the internet to make sure they couldn’t spread word. (Side note: wanna know who the primary cellular internet service provider in Sudan is, who actually turned off the tap? Huawei.)
In the weeks since, the Sudanese Professionals Association (an umbrella group for unions including doctors, engineers, teachers, and nurses) who have been helping to lead and support the protests, organized a massive three-day strike across the country, which succeeded in getting political prisoners released and negotiations restarted.
But with the internet blackout, organization is harder than ever, and the military clearly isn’t opposed to violence. So the awareness campaign, #BlueForSudan, was started to let people know what’s happening, to pressure other countries’ leaders and the UN and the African Union to step in. And now you know, too. So if you want to help, tell people, and call your representatives to tell them to support Sudan. #fpf