In early December 2018, angry protests broke out in different Sudanese cities. The bleak economic situation, with people forced to queue for bread and fuel, had ignited a general mood of anger. Atbara city was the site of the most important protest, organized by students at Atbara Industrial School protesting the fact that ta’amiya sandwiches (the most common breakfast consumed by impoverished Sudanese) had become unaffordable as a result of increased bread prices. The students marched all the way to the headquarters of the ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP),1 and burned the building to the ground. Pictures of the NCP headquarters on fire soon circulated among the Sudanese. Te building looked identical to other NCP headquarters throughout the country, along with their lavish spending, coloured green and provocatively located amidst impoverished and underdeveloped surroundings. The picture ignited hope and the possibility of overthrowing the government suddenly appeared more realistic, despite the arsenal of the security services and their crackdown on protesters.
Demonstrations spread to other cities and Sudan then entered a self-perpetuating cycle of protest: the state engaged in killings, violence, arrests, social media blackouts, and different forms of restriction and curfew, which incited further protests. At the same time, economic violence continued, in the form of sustained inflation, lack of services, and the removal of state subsidies, which was reflected in one protest chant: ‘Government of starvation, Government of impoverishment, just fall’.
Although the protesters’ anger emerged in 2018, the economic problems that catalysed it went back much further, resulting from economic policies with a long history. Some of these policies had been implemented by the National Salvation regime of Omar al-Bashir, while some had been put in place under former regimes. Ever since the coup on 30 June 1989, the Salvation government had adopted policies of liberalization and privatization, including the withdrawal of public services. Since the ruling party’s Islamic background led it to adopt an oppositional stance towards the ‘major powers’ (principally the United States and the European Union), it implemented neoliberal economic policies without being able to benefit from the aid that the global financial institutions could have offered. Liberalization empowered the National Islamic Front -the ancestor of the Bashir’s NCP-, whose cadres provided, and thus profited from, those public services that the state had abandoned, like education and healthcare. Accordingly, the regime was able to redirect revenues from the state treasury into the pockets of its party cadres.
The history of the Salvation government was marked by a series of failed economic policies and short-sighted decisions, including selling government assets, abandoning service provision, and opening the door to privatized healthcare and education. These policies provoked mass protests throughout the 1990s. Towards the end of that decade, driven by the 1998 US embargo on the country, the regime turned to Chinese companies to act as partners in oil drilling operations in the country. At the same time, the regime strove to re-join the global financial system. It entered into negotiations with succeeding US administrations to lift the economic embargo. As part of this process, Sudan accepted to enter into negotiations with the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to end the civil war in South Sudan, the longest in the history of the continent.2
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war initiated a period during which public funds and development grants were channelled into construction, contracting companies, oilfield services, and related projects, both Sudanese and foreign. Oil drilling increased in the South, with pipes pumping the resource to Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. An economic boom occurred, manifested in the stability of the currency and a proliferation of building and construction projects, including roads and infrastructure projects (always marred by corruption scandals and the disappearance of public funds). However, the boom was not accompanied by any development in basic service provision, public facilities, or developmental projects, and there were no serious attempts to establish developmental or service projects in the South, or to provide a national plan for economic and social justice.
This treatment of the Sudanese regions – whereby the government depleted their resources but refrained from engaging in development activities and service provision – was nothing new. Before independence in 1956, education and health services had always been centralized in Khartoum (the capital of the centralized administration) and its surroundings. Sudan’s road network reflected this centre of gravity: converging on the political capital, with virtually no intercity roads not passing through Khartoum. Electricity networks and other services were no different. Following independence, governments did not change the colonial approach that prioritized securing Egypt’s southern border, the sources of the Nile, and cheap agricultural exports from Sudan, while cutting public services to a minimum, limiting them to wealth-administering, rather than wealth-producing, regions.
It is not surprising, then, that the Southern population, or any other Sudanese population for that matter, would choose independence from Khartoum’s colonial authority. In January 2011, as the five-year transition period laid down by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement came to an end, the South Sudan population voted in favour of separation.
After South Sudan declared independence, it became clear that the government in Khartoum was unprepared for this new reality. Its loss of control over southern oil led to economic collapse. In 2012 the national currency depreciated by half within one year. In response, the government immediately turned to austerity measures and announced the lifting of fuel subsidies. Protests broke out against this decision, mainly in universities and higher education institutions. Inspired by the Arab Spring, weekly marches took place, coordinated through social media networks. The protests were met with violence and arrests and within two months they stopped. The following year, in 2013, seeking to prevent continued economic collapse, the government announced the lifting of fuel subsidies for a second time. This time, however, it did so only after school break was announced – to limit student protests. The demonstrations that broke out this time occurred on the periphery of the capital, and were met with a different level of violence: live bullets were shot at protesters in the capital in September 2013, when more than 100 people were martyred within three days. The violence was perpetrated by the Janjaweed,3 the semi-governmental militia known for their genocidal massacres in Darfur, whose formation and continued existence had been partly assisted by the Sudanese generals and National Security Services.
Facing these protests against its austerity policies, the government proceeded to look for political alliances to sustain its rule. In January 2014, in accordance with a proposal by Princeton Lyman, the former US Special Envoy to Sudan, al-Bashir called for a national dialogue. His proposal envisaged an alliance between the regime and the opposition, whereby the latter would give up its attempts to overthrow the regime in return for sharing power. In Sudanese politics, this approach is known as the ‘soft landing approach’.
Lyman’s proposal failed and economic collapse continued. In response, the government continued its turn towards Gulf capital, whose need for arable lands coincided with the Sudanese regime’s need for economic support. Sudan’s subordination to the Gulf governments led to the transfer of large areas of Sudanese lands, which were emptied of their indigenous populations, to Gulf capital, and extended to its involvement in the Emirati and Saudi war in Yemen.
Anti-government protests continued during this time. These included protests against land grabs, a two-day strike in 2016 against the lifting of subsidies on medicines, and a journalists’ strike in 2017 against the confiscation of newspapers from printshops, and many others.
The previous passages have painted a picture of the economic situation Sudan entered into in 2018. During this period the regime transferred the country’s resources to its internal and external allies, through attritional investments and cheap exports. At the same time, it failed to provide basic healthcare and education services to those actually producing the wealth. The regime repeated the same approach to addressing the country’s economic failure: applying austerity measures and relying on citizens to treat the country’s economic failure.
The uprisings by the Sudanese against all forms of austerity measures in the 10 years that preceded the December 2018 uprising confirm that lack of economic justice was, and still is, the main driving force behind the Sudanese revolution. The Sudanese rose up in revolt against privatizations, the withdrawal of state subsidies, the lack of services, and increased bread prices. It was these policies which, on 19 December 2018, drove the students of Atbara Industrial School to the streets.