One year on from Sudan’s September protests and inequality remains the inconvenient truth – By Muhammad Osman
A year has passed since the September 2013 protests in Sudan, in which more than 170 people, including women and children, died at the hands of the militiamen of President Omar Al-Bashir’s Islamist-military regime.
The protests began on 23rd September in the central town of Wad Madani, in Al Jazeera state, before spreading over the next two days to other towns including the capital Khartoum.
They erupted one day after Bashir confirmed that the government would raise fuel prices as part of an austerity program approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The intention was to plug the budget gap created by the loss of South Sudan’s oil.
Bashir, of course, omitted to mention the role played in creating this economic crisis by his regime’s overspending on defence and on the bloated patronage network that has helped him to stay in power for 25 years.
The most potent protests occurred in Khartoum on 25 September. On that fateful day, the city looked like a scene in a disaster movie. Columns of smoke could be seen at every turn as young protesters burned tires on street corners, destroyed and ransacked mini police stations known as “˜security enforcement stations’, while women came out on to the street and cheered for them. The police were nowhere to be seen and there was a complete absence of law and order.
The regime quickly realized that if the situation was allowed to continue, it would precipitate the end of its rule. So in response, it unleashed the militias of the National Intelligence and Security Service, including the notorious Rapid Support Forces, with a shoot to kill order against the protesters.
Rows of five to six pickup vehicles with no plate numbers, each carrying four masked men and one with a machine gun on top, raced through the streets firing live ammunition, targeting the heads and chests of the protesters they deemed the most prominent. The fact that these militiamen masked their faces showed that they did not want to be identified for fear of future retribution.
Both the government and the opposition, including traditional parties and new youth activist groups, had predicted that the decision to lift fuel subsidies was going to precipitate protests. But none of them anticipated protests of such scale.
Everyone was surprised. This was partly because these protests were not exclusively against Bashir’s regime; they were about inequality and against the elite, which includes many segments of the opposition.
Nowhere was this more evident than where I was standing on that day: along Al-Siteen Street in Khartoum. This is the street that separates the affluent neighbourhoods of Al-Riyad and Al-Taif, on the western side, from the impoverished neighbourhood of Al Jiraief West, on the eastern side of the road.
Whereas people from Al-Jiraief were protesting on the street, burning everything that seemed even remotely related to the government, Al-Riyad and Al-Taief looked like they were in another country. Doors were locked and the residents feared to go out.
As I stood there, watching Al-Jiraief protesters setting fire to tyres, an old woman who was cheering for the protesters started shouting at them: “Don’t burn our side of the street, go to the other side and burn their houses and cars, the capitalists”.
The inconvenient truth is that these protests were about inequality and elitism – this also explains the false narratives constructed by both the regime and the opposition following the unrest. The government knew the truth, and tried to cover it up, while the opposition was in denial, and tried to make the government the scapegoat.
In the days following the protests, the government engaged in heavy media propaganda to demonize the participants. It labelled them as “saboteurs” or “vandals” and even claimed that some of them came from clandestine cells of the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front.
State media broadcast images of burned gas stations, looted banks and destroyed properties, coupled with video footage of those arrested protesters with darker skin colour – in order to support its false allegation that rebels were behind the destruction.
Meanwhile, the opposition claimed that those who carried out acts of destruction were government agents who wanted to demonize the revolution.
The truth of the matter is that if these protesters had had their way, they would have destroyed anything standing between them and what they perceived as their oppressors on the other, affluent side of the street (whether they were government or opposition politicians.)
They were not just protesting against the regime but against the pro-rich policies that the regime has been implementing and which most opposition factions in Khartoum seem to implicitly support.
To this date no one has been held accountable for killing the protesters. And the sad truth is no one will ever be brought to justice as long as the Bashir regime remains in power.
But there have been some positive outcomes from September’s events, at least for the future of the country. The first is that it, momentarily at least, scared the regime. Security forces have already detained a large number of activists in anticipation of the first anniversary of the protests.
The second is the fact that the Bashir regime finally revealed its ugly face to the people of the country’s metropolitan centre by applying the brutal tactics it has long used against the culturally marginalized people of the peripheries. The regime can no longer claim to be the protector of Arab culture and ethnic “purity” against threats by “heathens” and “Abeed” (“slaves”, a pejorative term for dark-skinned ‘Africans’ from Sudan’s peripheries).
If the September protests proved anything to the people of Sudan, it is that Al-Bashir’s regime of Islamist and military oligarchs does not care about ethnic distinctions when it comes to protecting its own power interests. To them we are all just one enemy, regardless of our colour and religion.
Muhammad Osman is a Sudanese freelance journalist and researcher based in Khartoum. He can be reached at [email protected] and @Meltilib on Twitter.