Sudan’s Winter Revolution: The Uprising And The Way Forward

February 26, 2019 Africa , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

Reuters photo



Hashem Mekki



Many politicians and ordinary citizens in the United States and other countries in the western hemisphere have been following the political turmoil and human rights violations against ordinary citizens in Venezuela. However, what many might not have heard of is that in Sudan, people have been oppressed and their civil liberties have been violated for half a century. The Republic of the Sudan, a country in Northeast Africa, where Islamic-oriented military regimes have dominated national politics since independence in the 1950s. Sudan is on the brink of a seismic political change as peaceful protesters march throughout its cities and the seat of power in the cosmopolitan capital Khartoum.


Sudan gained its independence from the Anglo-Egyptian colonization in 1956. In its post-colonial history, the country has witnessed numerous political, military coups, and civilian unrest that have contributed to its overall current political instability and abysmal human rights records among the world member states. The post-colonial inception of modern day Sudan has had a tumultuous short lived history of establishing control over its territory and transforming it into a nationhood due to lack of good governance, which is unfortunate given how long it has undergone civil wars. Sudan’s elite and successive governments have failed to bring peace and stability to the country. This is evident by the ongoing civil wars in the South Kordofan State (part of the Kordofan region of Sudan), Darfur (western region of Sudan that shares borders with Central African Republic, Chad, Libya), and Blue Nile State (south-east of Sudan and shares borders with Ethiopia and South Sudan) regions where thousands of innocent civilians have been killed.[1]


In the western region of Darfur, the genocide that started in 2003 has resulted in more than half a million reported to have been killed and more than 2 million internally displaced.[2] Concurrently with the Darfur conflict, there is an ongoing armed conflict in the Nuba Mountains (area located in South Kordofan) and Blue Nile against the regime, where people also still suffer from continuous displacement, hiding from the aerial bombardments, and continuous terrorization by the regime’s military and security apparatus which have all contributed to the current public sentiment against the regime.


Furthermore, Sudan still has unresolved issues with the republic of South Sudan, its Southern neighbor since South Sudan seceded in a landmark referendum in 2011. All this explains the fact that the Sudanese elites who inherited power from the British have failed Sudan by continuing with poor governance policies aimed at “divide and rule,” instead of unifying the country. According to the Freedom House ratings, Sudan scores an abysmal 4 out 40 on the political and civil liberties freedom scale. This puts the country as being considered one of the worst in the world for political repression and authoritarianism systems. Theoretically, Sudan is a multiparty system and has more than 100 political parties, however, the current ruling National Congress Party (NCP) party has repressed and denied ascendance of other political parties to power. For instance, in the latest election held in 2015, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir won by 94% despite being boycotted by the main opposition parties, which argued that fair and free elections were not possible until the national dialogue begins.[3] Additionally, the Freedom House reports on Sudan for 2018 shows that the media is closely monitored, people’s assemblies and gatherings are restricted, and freedom of expression is curtailed…all in all, Sudan scores poorly in the Freedom House reports. Currently and in the past, journalists have being harassed, jailed, tortured, and even faced death.[4]


Geopolitically, Sudan shares its borders with seven countries, namely Ethiopia and Eretria to the northeast, Egypt to the north, Libya to the northwest, Chad to the west, and South Sudan to the South. Sudan has abundance of water resources from the river Nile, the longest in Africa, that provides it with water flowing through its White and Blue Nile areas from the African highlands and Lake Victoria respectively, which converge in Khartoum to form the River Nile that runs through its northern Sahara desert into Egypt and ends its journey into the Mediterranean Sea. Sudan’s bond with its neighboring countries has been shaped by this vital lifeline of water. Sudan’s population is about 42,100,000 people.[5]


What initially begun as a protest over the increase in prices of goods and fuel has spread to other cities nationwide with protesters demanding an end to President Omar Al-Bashir’s more than three decades rule. This is spearheaded by a very energized, peaceful, and yet very determined youth who are fed up with the status quo that has cracked down on opposition and any dissent. It’s noteworthy that some of these young protesters marching on the streets calling for the ousting of the regime have not seen any meaningful political change under the presidency of Al-Bashir.


According to Aljazeera news, the protest led by high school students began on December 19last year in the city of Atbara, in northeastern Sudan, and within two weeks it spread to other cities, including the capital, Khartoum.[6] Events have escalated rapidly encompassing a swathe of the Sudanese people’s participation in the protests by people fed up with the current regime. The protestors have been demanding the fall of the government, chanting in Arabic loosely translated into English as “The regime has to just fall.” This latest civilian unrest comes at a critical juncture and adds misery to the already deteriorating political situation, social upheaval, and economic instability that has lasted more than three decades.



I – Triggered of the Uprising?


This recent wave of uprising among civil society, professional associations, trade unions, and opposition political parties has been the most serious attempt at toppling the regime. There are numerous reasons why ordinary people, middle class citizens, and former supporters in northern Sudan where the regime historically enjoyed solid support, are at last turning their back on al-Bashir’s regime.


Prior to the uprising, Sudan has experienced popular anger, with groups of peoplein the north and the capital’s suffering exacerbated by an uptick in inflation following a slew of measures the government tried to pass to reform the economy. Banks started to place limits on how much money is allowed to be withdrawn. One of the protestors quoted by Aljazeera news said, “There is no cash at the ATM machines most of the time. Banks keep sending people away with only 500 SDG [about $10.50 at the official exchange rate] in their pockets, which is barely enough for a day,”[7] said 29-year-old Yusuf Elhag.


The main reason was due to the rise in bread and fuel prices, but has since continued into the winter months of early 2019. According to the Aljazeera news outlet, “The main trigger for the recent protests was the government’s decision to increase the price of a loaf of bread from one Sudanese pound to three (about $0.02 to $0.06).”[8]Although the hiking of prices was the catalyst in the Sudanese quest for change that was fought by many activists in the past, however, the current uprising or so called revolution cannot be merely understood without reflecting on the multifaceted factors leading to the protests in northern Sudan. Among these factors are the colonial legacy, collapsing economy, social upheaval and civil society dissatisfaction with the status quo in Khartoum, and the political instability and civil war in the regions of the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile, and Abyei[9] contributing to the current brinkmanship.[10]Nuba Mountains, located in South Korofan state that borders the newly independent Republic of South Sudan, has witnessed armed conflict headed by the Sudanese People Liberation Movement North (SPLM/N) since the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Blue Nile named after the Blue Nile River in southeastern state of Sudan whose inhabitants have been marginalized by the Khartoum government, and its people has being waging a rebellion against Omer Al-Bashir’s regime alongside the Nuba Mountains people. Darfur, a neighboring state of the Southern Kordofan state, is located in western Sudan bordering Libya and Chad. This region has witnessed a genocide campaign at the hands of the Khartoum government that began in 2003. Abyei, a region rich in oil, is located at the southern border between Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan and has been at the center of dispute between the two countries since the independence of South Sudan.



II. What is Behind the Financial and Economic Collapse?


The events of civil war in South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Darfur have disrupted the flow of oil royalties into the Sudanese government’s treasury. Sudan depended heavily on oil revenue to sustain its economy beginning in the 1990s and ignored other sectors such as agriculture, which is the main source of livelihood, particularly in the rural areas of Sudan. Since the independence of South Sudan in 2011 and the disagreement of the two countries over how to share oil revenue, South Sudan broke away with 75% of the revenue, whereas Sudan was left with 25%.[11] To make things worse, Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan couldn’t agree on the royalties that Sudan would charge on oil per barrel, in order to use its ports for export of crude oil. Prices of fuel and daily stable food nutrients rose to the extent that people had to stand in long lines just to obtain a loaf of bread for their daily meals. This was coupled with the drastic spike in unemployment rates, particularly among the growing youth demographic.


Among the protestors are journalists who have also been oppressed by the regime. President Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum has cracked down on dissidents and opposition with an iron fist and on many occasions, it has defied the international community’s directives by continuing to brutalize its citizens.[12] It has committed acts of genocide against its own people, where many innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire and suffered famine related issues.[13] In the Nuba Mountains, a region my parents hail from, a quarter of a million Nubans, mostly civilians/farmers, were killed by infantry troops and via aerial bombardment.[14] Since 2003, the regime has carried out another genocide in the region of Darfur, where half a million people have been killed and almost 2 million internally and externally displaced.[15]


Beside the main reason for the original uprising, there are many factors for the current uprising, including imposition of Islamic lawby the successive governments that inherited power from the British in Khartoum, beginning in 1956.[16] Another factor has to do with the economically poor conditions of the country. With the independence of South Sudan, Sudan lost about 75% of its revenues from oil.[17] Besides, many of the farmers, particularly from El Gezira scheme, an irrigation agricultural land located between Blue Nile and White Nile River in the central area state of Aljazira in northern Sudan, which has suffered from the Sudanese’s government’s bad policy of dismantling this historic Sudanese productive agricultural scheme, which then put farmers out of work. The scheme used to employ more than 130 thousands of farmers, and is considered to be one of the biggest agricultural productive schemes in the country with its history dating back to British colonial times. The scheme’s farmers of this great region have been fighting against the government policies particularly over the ownership of the scheme. In 2005 for instance, the government in Sudan instituted the Gezira Scheme Act, aimed at restructuring it but it set off string of protests and pushback by the locals and farmers who once farmed the land. Consequently, many farmers have been put out of work because the government confiscated and sold the land, which then forced these farmers to move to other cities such as Khartoum.[18]



III. Past Uprisings


Sudan is not new to uprisings; as a matter of fact, many parallels have being drawn with the more recent Arab Spring. To put the current Sudanese protest into context, it helps to examine its past political uprisings. In the October 1964 revolution, the Sudanese managed to remove a military general named Abboud, who ascended to power through a military coup d’état. At that time, an Islamist government was put in place, only to be followed by another military coup by Al-Nimiri in 1969 after the people’s intense resentment towards Abboud’s government.[19]Under el-Nimiri’s rule, Sudan was doing well economically andsome sort of civil liberties were guaranteed, as well as the development of a vibrant civil society. However, all that changed when he was influenced by then his then Advisor Hassan al-Turabi along with then Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahadi his brother in-law to institute the Islamic penal code. This shift in policy at a time of weak economy particularly when Sudan was experiencing famine, drought, and hunger, had triggered intense national debate between President Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri’s government aides and other opposition political parties.[20] Eventually, this led to mass protests spearheaded by the National Islamic Front (NIF) created by al-Turabi as a way of ascending to power. Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri was pushed by Al-Turabito implement strict Sharia law by 1983. Consequently, the imposition of Islamic law throughout Sudan alienated many in the predominantly Christian southern region of Sudan. This led to the Second Civil war that was fought between 1983 and 2005. During the implementation of this harsh measures, thousands of Sudanese including non-Muslims had their feet and hands amputated for crimes as minor as thefts.[21] The impacts perhaps was best summed up in a statement by Bona Malwal, the editor of an English newspaper at the times as saying, “the country is hungry, and here we have no electricity, and probably won’t have any of the rest of the evening, and everyone continues to talk about sharia.”[22]


This ended up in a popular uprising of the Sudanese against these harsher measures that saw Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri, Sudan’s former president from (1971–85), toppled in 1985.[23] Sudan, more so by virtue of its long statehood, has some opposition parties although the same political party; namely the National Congress Party (NCP), has been ruling Sudan for more than 30 years. This began in 1989, when Colonel Omer Al-Bashir’s government came to power in a bloodless coup. Sudan theoretically allows for multi-party systems, hence there are other opposition parties such as the Al-Umma Party, the National Democratic Party, and the Sudanese Communist Party, among others.


Khartoum’s disastrous human rights record and past aggression against its dissidents have caught up with its most inner circle in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Among many of those marching on the streets of the Sudanese cities, beginning with the birth place of the protests in Atbara in northern Sudan today are high school students, families, and professionals who took to the streets demanding better living conditions. From there, the protests have spread to other cities including Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and the base of Al-Bashir’s regime where the Blue Nile and White Nile converge in central Sudan. Gadarif, one of the Eastern States in Sudan has also witnessed protests. Others are participating in seeking justice for their loved ones who were tortured, exiled or even killed by the regime during its reign. Political activists have suffered tremendously under this regime. During the course of its rule, political activities are being curtailed and members are being jailed for any hint of dissidence or opinions that have often criticized the regime.



IV. Comparative Analysis


Comparatively, to avoid the risk of Libyan or Syrian revolutions scenarios occurring in Sudan, the international community must support Sudan to avoid a bleak future by quickly lending support to the demands of the people. For instance, the United Nations headed by the five Security Council powerful states can issue a clear and strong message to the regime and call for a peaceful transfer of power by calling for early elections. After the world celebrated the independence of South Sudan and the peaceful split of the two countries in 2011, there was much optimism for a new era of development and economic prosperity. It was hoped that Sudan would finally enjoy peace and stability, however, things have actually gotten worse with civil wars destabilizing the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains areas. Consequently, Sudan has since been embroiled in social unrest, as well as economic and political instability. Its ongoing crisis in the Darfur region has led the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir who is yet to stand trial.[24] As expected, President Al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) regime, along with its security apparatus and affiliated militias, have been cracking down on the peaceful protesters with live ammunition. This has resulted in many casualties and injuries which are being reported by various news outlets (Guardian & BBC).[25]



V. International Actors’ Role


There has been no outcry from the world’s powerful countries such as the U.S., UK, and France to call for Khartoum’s regime to fall. The U.S. policy towards Sudan is for boycotting and imposing sanctions. This policy dates back to the 1997 Clinton administration’s economic sanctions which have finally begun to negatively impact the Sudanese economy. Clinton’s secretary of state designated Sudan as a terrorist sponsored country because it harbored Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks.[26] Since then, America has maintained a financial embargo on the country, which seems to have finally contributed to its current brinkmanship and financial calamity. As evidenced by the pre-protest political climate, the Sudanese financial and economic systems have been damaged severely to the extent that its banking system has almost completely collapsed. The Sudanese in the north no longer trust the banking system and many have resorted to stashing their own money at home. Consequently, the burden has been felt at the kitchen table level where ordinary citizens are not able to afford their basic daily meals and are unable to make ends meet. Sanctions often harm ordinary people and not the country’s elites who wield the power, and the current Sudanese turmoil clearly demonstrates this fact.



VI. The Way Forward


If the Middle East’s Arab Spring is any guide, given that it brought an end to numerous authoritarian regimes such as Tunisia’s deposed president, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Qaddafi, and Yemeni’s Ali Abdallah Salih, one would argue that “the genie is out of the bottle” for Sudan now that people have braved their way to the street and the fear factor has been eliminated. Consequently, it’s inevitable that political change in Sudan might be on the horizon for these protestors. Moreover, the question might not be when, but what kind of change will take place in Sudan? Given the geopolitical landscape of the region, Sudan appears to be headed into political transition. There is hope that there will be improvement in governance structure and rule of law where ordinary Sudanese can participate freely in the political process and begin to develop their country. Anything short of democratic transformation would be a betrayal of the youth efforts and the uprising. The youths of the country have been a catalyst for change: they have spoken up and taken to the streets, facing the armed security and government with their bare chests, and they are bound not to settle until their legitimate demands as citizens are met.


The Sudanese diaspora’s role is critical in the ongoing revolution.  The diaspora’s can advocate and lobby international stakeholders, non-government actors, western governments, and non-profits working on Sudan to put pressure on Al-Bashir’s government to stop cracking down on the peaceful protestors thus lending legitimacy during this crucial period in the uprising. Moreover, the diaspora can exert pressures by divesting from doing business directly with the Khartoum government so as to deny the regime financial resources. However, the diaspora will need to keep other channels open to supports the civil society and protestors’ groups by raising funds to sustain the uprising against this regime. Additionally, politically, the diaspora particularly the intellectuals and political opposition parties based in the exile are in unique position to contribute with strategic visions and setting policy priorities for what a democratic future Sudan will look like. With ongoing media censorship by the regime in Khartoum, access to information on the ground is difficult, hence the diaspora has been playing a vital role by exposing and shedding light on the events by sharing instant information via social media with the outside world. Besides, the Sudanese diaspora have taken to various foreign government and Sudanese embassies in their respective countries, whether it’s in the West or in the region, to protest against the government’s crackdown on protesters. Protesters can be seen via social media protesting on the streets in places such as London, Paris, Sydney, and Washington D.C., where they are sending strong condemnation and demanding that their host countries take a clear stand and demand the fall of the regime.


Economically, aid given to the Sudanese people will need to be delivered immediately to alleviate their suffering. Therefore, whatever political structure or political party comes to power will inherit a Sudanese economy that is in shambles. They will have to work at lightning speed to boost confidence in the financial market, in order to address the anxiety created by the current regime, which led to the protest in the first place. Moreover, Sudan will need to diversify its economy and move away from its dependency on oil, so it can pave the way for long term financial and economic growth. It is time to begin developing other industries like agriculture and animal resources, and it’s time that Sudan invested heavily in those sectors.


Politically, Sudan’s current and future stability will be closely linked to South Sudan and its neighboring countries like Egypt, Eretria, Libya, Chad, and Ethiopia. Therefore the next government and leadership will have to improve its relationship between Khartoum and Juba to achieve any tangible stability. This will mean cessation of hostilities between the two countries and support for each other’s rebellion groups. For Sudan to experience a real change from the current status quo, a mere change of guard will need to consider a genuine shift toward improvement in governance that puts the Sudanese citizen first, with mechanisms in place that will hold public office leaders accountable. It will need to be meritocracy based and break away from the old way of doing business which has often relied heavily on tribal affiliation and autonomous groups. Whatever the next government looks like, it will face fractured regions torn apart by civil war, thus it will have to bring these regions together; namely the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile, Eastern Beja Conference, to form a solid coalition government. The recent power transition in Ethiopia might perhaps serve as a good example for Sudan’s next government to emulate.


Socially, there is a need for national reconciliation among the different regions and the Sudanese multiracial and ethnically diverse regions if we are to see real lasting social cohesion. To change course and improve the lives of the Sudanese people, whoever takes power in Khartoum would have to address the economic anxieties and political fractures, and pave the way for real development to meet the demands of the ordinary people in this country of 42 million people. Although it’s not clear yet as to what the political outcome of this uprising will be, what is clear is that the Sudanese people have never been as determined as they are now to oust Al-Bashir’s regime.





This article was originally published by The Zambakari Advisory and is reproduced with their kind permission





Hashem Mekki

Professor Hashem Mekki has been an Arabic language instructor at The Institute of World Politics since August 2012. Moreover, Mr. Mekki frequently appears in public events advocating on human rights issues on Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan. Besides that, Mr. Mekki expertise is in the Middle East and North Africa as a Political and International Affairs analyst with emphasis on extractive rich resources economies. Mr. Mekki coordinated public policy events at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Currently, Mekki provide strategic planning to non-profits working on human rights issues in Washington D.C. area. Mr. Mekki also teaches Arabic language to professionals at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Prior to moving to the United States in 2005, Professor Mekki lived in Egypt for five years, where he worked as Research Assistant at the Department of Political Science at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and as an Arabic-English translator and interpreter serving the refugee community residing in Egypt. He was born and raised in Sudan and currently lives in Washington D.C.





[1] Enough Project. 2017. “Background.” Enough Project, accessed Feb. 17.


[2] Ibid.


[3]Freedom House. 2018. “Freedom in the World 2018.” Freedom House, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[4]Frykberg, Mel 2017. “Sudanese journalist faces death over column.” IOL Last Modified 27 FEB 2017, accessed Feb. 17.


[5]Freedom House. 2018. “Freedom in the World 2018.” Freedom House, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[6]Elmileik, Aya. 2018. “What prompted the protests in Sudan?”. Al Jazeera Last Modified 26 Dec 2018, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[7]Elmileik, Aya. 2018. “What prompted the protests in Sudan?”. Al Jazeera Last Modified 26 Dec 2018, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[8] Ibid.


[9]Abyei is located along the ill-defined border between Sudan and South Sudan.


[10]W. J. Berridge, Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan : The ‘Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985 (London:Bloomsbury, 2015).


[11] BBC News. 2019. “Sudan profile – Timeline.” BBC News, Last Modified 10 January 2019, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[12]Asharq Al-Awsat. 2018. “Sudan: Government Investigates Death of 19 Protesters, Journalists on Strike.” Asharq Al-Awsat, Last Modified 28 December, 2018, accessed Feb. 17.


[13]Hursh, John 2016. “Hunger in Sudan: Government Policy, Civilian Suffering.” Enough Project, Last Modified March 11, 2016, accessed Feb. 17.


[14]World Peace Foundation. 2015. “Sudan: 1985 – 2005.” World Peace Foundation, Last Modified August 7, 2015, accessed Feb. 17.


[15] Ibid.


[16] Ibid.


[17] EIA. 2018. “Sudan and South Sudan.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Last Modified March 5, 2018, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[18] Sudan Tribune. 2015. “Gezira scheme farmers launch election boycott campaign.” Sudan Tribune, Last Modified March 12, 2015, accessed Feb. 13, 2019.


[19] Aya Elmileik. “What prompted the protests in Sudan?” Aljazeera. December 26, 2018. February 1, 2019.


[20]Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri was the former President of Sudan (1971 – 1985)


[21]Perlez, Jane 1988. “Debate on Islamic Law Further Strains Sudan.” New York Times, Last Modified OCT. 23, 1988, accessed Feb. 13.


[22] Cited in Perlez, Jane 1988. “Debate on Islamic Law Further Strains Sudan.” New York Times, Last Modified OCT. 23, 1988, accessed Feb. 13.




[24]International Criminal Court. 2009. “Al Bashir Case: The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir (ICC-02/05-01/09).” International Criminal Court accessed Feb. 17.


[25]BBC News. (2018, 28 December 2018). “Tear gas used as Sudan protests continue.”  Retrieved Feb. 13, 2019, 2019, from Maclean, R. (2018, Sun 30 Dec 2018). “Dozens have been killed by the regime. But Sudan’s protesters march on.”  Retrieved Feb. 13, 2019, from


[26]Schanzer, Jonathan. 2012 “Pariah State: Examining Sudan’s Support for Terrorism.” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Last Modified July 5, 2012, accessed Feb. 17.

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