The Mass Movement That Toppled Omar al-Bashir

The Mass Movement That Toppled Omar al-Bashir

The Sudanese protesters’ victory built on a long history of opposition to the country’s dictatorship. Now, they are determined to create a civilian government and avoid military rule.

Protesters arrive in Khartoum on April 23 (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Kober is the largest prison in Sudan. Constructed in Khartoum in the early 1900s by British colonizers, for the past thirty years it has housed political opponents of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. As of last week, al-Bashir allegedly sits there behind its bars.

Two weeks ago, what previously seemed unimaginable happened: a mass movement toppled al-Bashir after three decades in power. The army ultimately removed al-Bashir, who himself took over in a 1989 military coup, ousting a civilian government.

The importance of a mass movement in bringing about al-Bashir’s downfall cannot be overstated. On December 13, people took to the streets in ad-Damazin and then a few days later in Atbara to protest that basic food was unaffordable; inflation was over 70 percent. People were frustrated with the government’s violent and incompetent rule, during decades of war and protracted conflicts with South Sudan, Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile. The protests grew from hundreds to thousands, reaching across the vast country, almost one-fifth the size of the United States.

When the protests began, many outside Sudan were skeptical that they’d lead to change. Al-Bashir was the only living ruler indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, for directing attacks against civilians in Darfur during the 2003–2008 conflict. For years he defiantly evaded arrest and sought allies in the Gulf states; he held onto power through constructing a brutal security state. At home, his regime tried to silence the media and all opposition through torture, arrest, and sometimes murder.

Abroad, al-Bashir had become Europe’s partner in stemming migration from Africa across the Mediterranean. EU countries funneled money into Sudan to stop refugees and migrants from traveling further north. When I reported from Khartoum in November 2017, European diplomats told me it was time to work with the “good guys” in the regime (unsurprisingly, the Sudanese activists and politicians I spoke to were of a different opinion). Although the United States had shunned al-Bashir after Darfur, they were willing to work with the head of Sudan’s secret police, Salah Gosh, reportedly a favorite of the CIA, and continued to discuss cooperating against terrorism (surprising given that Sudan harbored Osama bin Laden in the 1990s). Gosh has recently resigned.

What skeptics outside Sudan failed to take into account was that the protests built on a long history of active opposition to the al-Bashir regime. Although not extensively reported on outside Sudan, there had also been prior movements—like in 2012, 2013, and early 2018—and though these were crushed by the regime, activists honed their mobilization skills. This time around, after regular people began protesting, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) got involved as a coordinating group. The SPA is an umbrella trade union composed of lawyers, doctors, and journalists, without a prior role as an opposition party. The SPA’s involvement helped unite people of all backgrounds; it made clear the movement was inclusive and rooted in working-class struggles.

For years al-Bashir had blamed Sudan’s struggling economy on U.S. sanctions. The United States lifted these in 2017, but the economy only deteriorated further. Something had to give. While al-Bashir tried to blame the uprising on “Darfuri terrorists and rebels”—arresting and torturing ten Darfuri students until they made false confessions and then parading them on television in late December—other students were quick to publicize that these were innocent young people. “You racist egomaniac, we are all Darfur,” shouted protesters at rallies.

As people took to the streets, news filtered out slowly to the mainstream media. Few journalists had consistent access on the ground (with exceptions like Hiba Morgan and Yousra Elbagir who did excellent reporting). But inside Sudan, many citizen journalists and protesters documented events in real time on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; activists in the diaspora reposted and amplified their reach. Sudanese artists found ways to release revolutionary messages through graffiti and street art. In response, the government shut down social media and deployed the army to curtail protesters using live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades.

On the morning of January 21, I was getting ready for work in Berlin when a Dutch journalist who also reported on Sudan messaged me, “Hey are you awake?”

I knew instantly that it was bad news. We had several friends in common, among them Ahmad (last name withheld), a documentary filmmaker. He had been arrested before for his political activities but hadn’t stopped defying al-Bashir in ways both personal—Ahmad had dreads and tattoos, both of which are considered ‘immoral’ under Sudan’s public order laws—and public—as a member of a clandestine political movement.

My premonition was right; my Dutch colleague informed me that Ahmad had been detained by NISS, Sudan’s feared intelligence services. His whereabouts were unknown. We scrambled to try and locate him, later finding out he had been arrested on his way to a jail to visit his wife, who had also been arrested earlier in the day at a protest.

As Ahmad’s detention dragged on, so did the dread. After a few days, he was transferred from a detention site to Kober prison, where al-Bashir now waits.

When someone you care about is in prison, your life cracks in half. There is one life in which you do your work, clean your kitchen, try to sleep; and there is the other life, where your friend sits alone and afraid in a dark cell. I could not imagine what Ahmad was actually going through; I could not stop hearing the sound of his laughter, or checking his Twitter as though he would suddenly reappear.

After almost two weeks in detention, where no one was allowed to visit him, we heard Ahmad had been released. I messaged him to see if it was true. “Ahmad!!!!” His response, five minutes later: “Yo. Im free. ✌🏿13 days.”

They had shaved Ahmad’s head, one of many attempts to humiliate him. He had endured the cruelty and violence his captors were known for. But they had failed to break him, and though they arrested hundreds of people, the government couldn’t curb the momentum of the protests, which continued to escalate. Al-Bashir mocked the protesters at the end of January. “Changing the government or presidents cannot be done through WhatsApp or Facebook,” he said. I doubt he is laughing now.

After removing al-Bashir, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, the Minister of Defense, announced on April 11 that he was in charge and that the army would rule for two years. Protesters refused to budge from outside the military headquarters. One day later, Ibn Auf was replaced by Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, the army’s inspector-general. At present, protesters united under the Freedom and Change Coalition are still organizing daily across the country, demanding a civilian government and determined to avoid military rule like their counterparts in Egypt eventually experienced after overthrowing Hosni Mubarak. As for now, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) still sits on the current military transition council; he is a former Janjaweed leader who became the head of the Rapid Support Forces—a paramilitary group that Human Rights Watch says is responsible for grave human rights abuses. In the past few weeks, he has managed to meet with numerous EU ambassadors despite his crimes.

The Coalition wants a civilian-led transition period prior to elections, so that multiple political parties have time to organize after years of oppression; the closure of NISS; and a new parliament. They want foreign governments jostling for Sudan’s resources—like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Russia—to stay the hell away. They want members of the regime to be prosecuted for war crimes and a national day to commemorate the victims of state atrocities. As thousands camp outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, people are arriving on trains from outside the capital by the hundreds to join them—as they did in 1964 when overthrowing a previous military dictatorship.

When we read accounts of mass atrocities, our eyes often gloss over. Statistics are hard to comprehend even though they are necessary to repeat. Three hundred thousand people died in the Darfur conflict. At least sixty people were killed by the military and police just in the past four months. Some were shot; others were tortured to death. They all had names.

Dr. Babikir Abdelhamid was one of them, a young doctor with clear glasses and a goofy grin. He was treating wounded protesters in a makeshift clinic when security police came and shot him in the back.

No one knows what the future looks like. Al-Bashir’s cruelty was carried out by many who remain in the security forces. But the last few weeks show that justice, seemingly elusive before, still remains possible, for both the living and the dead.

The news from Khartoum ricocheted out across the internet and region. That’s what happens when the unimaginable occurs; it allows all of us to dream. A poster circulating recently on Twitter from neighboring Chad, whose leader Idriss Debi also took power in a military coup and has personal ties to the al-Bashir regime, read, “Just leave, Debi. The people have spoken.”

Caitlin L. Chandler is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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