Protests in Sudan that began in December over steep price increases on bread and fuel led military leaders in April to oust President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who had ruled the beleaguered African nation for 30 years. In the months since, however, demonstrators have not gone away, but have persisted, demanding that the succeeding military government relinquish its hold on power and submit to civilian rule. Massive protests over the weekend in the capital, Khartoum, and other cities around the country were met with violence. Several people were killed and more than 100 others injured.
This is not the first time the Transitional Military Council has lashed out since the departure of Bashir. Militias patrol streets in Khartoum and other areas of the country. The Sudanese people have seen so much brutality that they could be forgiven for giving up on a chance for freedom in favor of survival. But protests continue in an inspiring, although dangerous, bid for change.
Few places in the world have undergone such misery in such a relatively short period of time. Sudan — located south of Egypt and west of the Red Sea and also bordered by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Chad — was the largest nation in Africa when it gained its independence in 1956 but was soon racked by a series of coups and civil wars. Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989 and maintained his rule amid the secession of South Sudan. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2009 and again in 2010 in connection with a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, in the western part of the nation.
This is an unfortunate time for people struggling for freedom to seek help among the world’s democracies.
The war in Darfur began in 2003 and continued until 2010. More than a quarter-million people were killed. More than 3 million fled.
The economic protests began as the nation was trying to recover from decades of chaos without the cushion of the oil revenue that was lost with the independence of South Sudan. Urban professionals took to the streets, first to express their anger at prices that tripled, then — after the ouster of Bashir — to demand civilian rule and democracy.
It would be natural for the protesters to look for assistance from neighboring and distant governments that already enjoy the freedoms to which the Sudanese aspire. Ethiopia, home to many Sudanese refugees, and the African Union are mediating talks between protesters and military leaders. The parties are said to be considering a governing body to include military leadership but to be composed mostly of civilians.
The task is complicated by a complex web of factions and their alliances with foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, which supports the current military regime — in part because it employs Sudanese soldiers to back its interests in Yemen. Egypt too supports the military leadership.
But the leadership itself is fractured, and different factions command loyalty from various militia forces, which sometimes do, and sometimes do not, work hand in hand with the Transitional Military Council’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the regular Sudanese army.
The Rapid Support Forces are closely tied to the notorious janjaweed militias, which burned villages during the war in Darfur.
It’s not yet clear whether memories of the Darfur horror will induce the international community (outside Africa and the Middle East) to become more insistent on a settlement in Sudan — to avoid a repeat of atrocities — or to instead throw up its figurative hands and dismiss the nation as hopeless.
This is an unfortunate time for people struggling for freedom to seek help among the world’s democracies. Britain is preoccupied with Brexit, Europe is struggling with a refugee crisis and a resulting rise of right-wing nationalism, and the United States is led by a president whose principle of international relations is “America first.”
But walking away from Sudan would be a mistake of moral, economic and political dimensions. Free nations must nurture self-rule among people who aspire to it or risk losing a worldwide contest between liberty and authoritarian rule.
The U.S. lifted economic sanctions in 2017 and unfroze assets. Although money couldn’t hurt — especially if offered as an inducement to a settlement that ushers in civilian rule and free elections — what the Sudanese people may need most is some attention. And perhaps some acknowledgement of their courageous bid for freedom.