CIVICUS speaks about Sudan’s situation under military rule with Nazik Kabalo, a woman human rights defender (HRD) from Sudan. Nazik has worked in human rights advocacy, research and monitoring, with a focus on women’s rights, for the past 15 years.
What happened to Sudan’s transition to democracy?
Sudan is now facing the consequences of the major problems of the deal made by the military and civilian leaders in August 2019. Following the revolution, this deal initiated a transitional government in Sudan, a partnership between civilians and the military council. But this partnership was never equal: the military and former regime forces – including paramilitaries, militias, tribal militias and the security apparatus – had more economic and political power. They had controlled the country for 30 years, after all.
On the other hand, for 30 years political parties and civil society had been under so much pressure that they only managed to stay together with the momentum of the revolution, to defeat the former regime. But the Sudanese democracy movement has too many internal divisions.
Ours is an unfinished political transition that is missing transitional justice and mechanisms to limit the power of military and other armed groups. All armed groups had been involved in very severe human rights violations and remained partners with civilians in the new government. To be honest, I think the military coup was bound to happen. The political deal achieved in 2019 gave the presidency to the military for almost one and a half years. The coup happened on 25 October 2021, only few weeks before the date the military was expected to hand over the Supreme Council presidency to civilian leaders. But we always knew civilians didn’t really have a chance to lead the country.
How has the situation evolved after the coup?
Following the coup, the amount of violence and human rights violations was quite overwhelming. Violence is to be expected from the Sudanese military; it has led civil wars for 50 years and killing people is basically all it knows.
Seven months after the coup, at least 102 people have been killed in peaceful protests, more than 4,000 have been injured, and over 5,000 have been detained. There have been attacks on the freedoms of association and expression. Journalists are being attacked: at least three female journalists have been prosecuted or arrested in the past couple of days. The military coup has completely destroyed the civic space and freedoms created after the revolution. Our military is learning from our neighbour, Egypt, to effectively crush the civic movement.
For the past seven months we have lived under a state of emergency that was only lifted three weeks ago. But the lifting of the state of emergency made no difference to military practices on the ground. The international community has put some pressure on the government and the military but has not been able to stop the violence and civic space and human rights violations.
An aspect to consider is that Sudan has three conflict areas: Blue Nile, Darfur and Nuba Mountains. As well as western and southern Sudan, there’s also inter-communal violence in eastern Sudan. The coup hasn’t been able to provide security, although this is always the main excuse for the military to take power. Violence in urban areas, including the capital, has increased, especially for women. Members of the security forces, including the Central Reserve Police (CRP), have perpetrated gang rapes and sexual assaults against women; for this reason, the CRP has been recently sanctioned by the USA. A peace agreement was signed in October 2020 with several armed groups but hasn’t been effectively implemented.
Sudan’s economy has been in a freefall since the coup. We expected to have our debt cancelled by this year, but because of the coup, the Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank decided not to move forward. Instead, the IMF, the World Bank and international donors have frozen over two billion dollars in economic aid, which is directly affecting the general humanitarian situation. Recent reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimate at least half of Sudanese people will need humanitarian aid this year.
Another impact of the coup was the internet shutdown. For at least seven weeks, HRDs lived under a complete communications shutdown. This has now been partially lifted, but internet and phone communications continue to be cut off on every day of protest – which means it has happened every single day for several weeks. Internet access is under very harsh surveillance, so no Sudanese activist feels safe to use the phone for work. Sudan has one of the worst cybercrime laws in the world: you can be prosecuted, tried and sentenced to five years in jail just for posting something on Facebook. A couple of months ago, a female HRD who reported the sexual violence that took place during protests was sent to jail, accused of posting ‘fake news’. She may be punished with up to 20 years in prison. The military have used this law to threaten activists both inside and outside Sudan.
We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution. We feel that the old regime is back; in fact, the military has started appointing people from the former regime everywhere, from national television to the Humanitarian Commission, which is responsible for managing the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) inside Sudan. So CSOs are back to needing to request authorisation to hold meetings at venues outside our offices and are under constant surveillance. Activists, journalists and lawyers are being silenced because power went back to the military.
What are protesters’ demands?
Following the revolution, the deal reached between the military and civilians never satisfied the protest movement, which includes a high proportion of young people and women. They have never stopped protesting, not even during the transitional period, from August 2019 to October 2021. There have been at least 20 killings of HRDs since the transition began, but this hasn’t stopped them. So when the coup happened, people were instantly in the streets, even before an official announcement of the coup was made.
Since 2018, protesters have demanded real democracy and civilian rule. We have had military governments 90 per cent of the time since we became independent: 59 years out of 64. After the regime fell on 11 April 2019, people started a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters. This continued for two months and ended with the Khartoum Massacre on 3 June 2019, with attacks perpetrated by militias and security forces. Two hundred people were killed and at least 60 women were gang-raped. In August a deal was reached with the military, despite the massacre that literally happened outside their headquarters! This was a stab in the heart for many democracy groups.
Right now, the protest movement wants to make sure civilians are the ones ruling the country. Military leaders should go back to guarding the borders and shouldn’t have anything to do with running the government anymore. The 2019 deal didn’t work, which means our only option is demanding radical change that puts power in people’s hands. Resistance committees have a slogan of ‘three nos’: no partnership, no negotiation or compromise, and no legitimacy. A process of dialogue and negotiations led by some political parties is currently taking place, but resistance committees refuse to engage. Unfortunately, this has not been welcomed by some international actors, but it comes as a direct result of recent Sudanese experience.
Who are the people on the streets?
Protesters have built an amazing grassroots movement; resistance committees have formed in every neighbourhood, even every block. Those who participate in them are ordinary people who have nothing to lose, so unlike the civilian elites, they are willing to continue the struggle until the end. They organise street protests every single day and are creating new ways of protesting, such as strikes, stand-ups, music, movies and poems. They use every tool available, including recreating Sudanese traditions and bringing our cultural heritage to the streets.
Women and feminist movements are doing an amazing job, breaking so many norms. During the revolution, many young women were on the frontlines. The Angry, a protest group that stays on the frontlines of every protest, protecting other people and leading clashes with the police, includes lots of young women.
Women are also working to provide medical care and trauma support. After 50 years of civil war, you will definitely be a traumatised country, but this has intensified following the past five years of revolt. Before, one was able to distinguish between people from war zones and people from cities. Right now, the whole country is a war zone. There are machine guns everywhere, firing bullets into neighbourhoods, and children are dying inside their own homes because bullets go through their roofs.
Diaspora activism has also been key. Activists from the diaspora have been super effective in spreading the word, and during the internet shutdown they were online 24/7 to get information out to the world, not only sharing it on social media but also connecting people inside Sudan, who could receive international calls but not domestic ones.
What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing?
The pro-democracy camp is very diverse. There are longstanding CSOs that have always promoted and advocated for human rights and continue to document violations, advocate, engage and build capacity inside the democracy movements. There are also new grassroots groups, the resistance committees, thar right now are the key movement leaders: other CSOs will follow their lead since they express the majority view. Professional organisations and trade unions are also a major group; they are key in organising mobilisations in urban areas. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and similar roles play an important role in putting pressure through strikes and civil disobedience.
Unfortunately, for the time being there’s not a single unified network or body that can represent the democracy movement in Sudan. This is the movement’s main weakness. Resistance committees are trying to produce a unified political declaration and how to unify this movement while including all of Sudan, even conflict areas, is being discussed.
What international support do Sudanese HRDs need?
Our country must not be forgotten. The international community must take action and support the democracy movement’s demands for fundamental change. International human rights bodies must put make Sudan a priority. Sudanese civil society is fighting to get Sudan on top of their agenda, especially since the war started in Ukraine and most attention is going that way.
Neglecting building democracy in Sudan and leaving power in the hands of the military would be a big mistake. What’s going on here isn’t disconnected from what’s going on in Ukraine. Reports indicate the involvement of the Sudanese military and militias in smuggling gold that supports the Russian economy during this conflict. Moreover, many reports have exposed the strong relations of Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leaders with Russian leadership; they were in Russia the week the war started to ensure the flow of gold. RSF militias have relations with other African countries like Chad and the Central Africa Republic, which are sources of blood gold and blood diamonds entering Russia through Sudan.
Sanctions would be an important tool. A couple of days ago, the International Bar Association called on the UK to apply Magnitsky sanctions in Sudan. International CSOs should move ahead with similar actions.
It’s understandably hard for the international community to deal with the people in the absence of an actual government or elite they could deal with. But young university students are the democracy movement’s leaders, and they represent us. Protests have continued for eight months now and will probably continue for many more, and activists need a lot of help.
Because of persecution and violence, many CSOs and local groups have had to move their operations outside Sudan, and activists have had to relocate. Those working inside Sudan are having a very low-profile and using all the digital and physical security strategies available. Access to funding has also been increasingly challenging. The military wants to find out where funding for the democracy movement is coming from and has therefore increased surveillance, which makes it very risky to receive funds inside Sudan. Organisations working at grassroots levels and in conflict areas are suffering the most.
Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @nazik_kabalo on Twitter.