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confidentially speaking

The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 25th June 2012

The cost of living and dying

Gill Lusk

'Protests over Sudan austerity measures' say the headlines. Yes, people are indeed protesting about the government removing subsidies on fuel and sugar, two of the commodities that Sudanese hold most dear. And they are protesting when the government tells them to cut back on spending when most go to bed hungry – especially when that government spends petro-billions on its private bank accounts, its Islamist projects at home and abroad, its wars against its own people and on the dark glassed 'security chic' buildings now scattered through the largely mud-brick capital.

In other words, it's more than the economy, it's the regime. That's what Sudanese are risking life and limb to protest about.

'Arab Spring reaches Khartoum', say more of the headlines. To which, on 25 June, one woman tweeted in response: 'Dear int'l media: plz stop saying Sudan is trying for an Arab Spring. This is our 3rd revolution. This is stuff is in our DNA'. What she meant is that Sudanese civilians have twice overthrown military-backed dictatorships: in 1964, when General Ibrahim Abboud voluntarily stepped down in response to people marching to the Palace, and in 1985, a popular Intifadah (Uprising) overthrew Ja'afar Nimeiri (another self-appointed Field Marshal, like President Omer el Beshir). Only weeks before his overthrow, the US Ambassador assured me that Nimeiri was not going to fall. 'You journalists talk to the wrong people!'

This week, 23 years ago, the Islamist party which now calls itself the National Congress Party but was then the National Islamic Front seized power in a military coup, on 30 June.

The target of that coup was a civilian government whose prime minister was El Sadig el Mahdi. It was Sudan's third period of democracy. Although dictatorship has taken up more of the years since Independence in 1956, the yearning for democracy is also part of Sudanese DNA.

Sadly for the Sudanese, Western and African governments which proclaim their democratic credentials have preferred to engage with the NCP rather than give political (let alone military) support to those struggling for human rights or an independent judiciary. Sudanese North and South regularly ask me why Western governments do not think they 'deserve' democracy.

Sudanese feel isolated in their struggle for liberation from one of the world's most murderous regimes. Khartoum is still killing its own people – unarmed civilians – in Darfur, in Blue Nile, in the Nuba Mountains and even in South Sudan, a year after its independence. Yet those who have taken up arms to resist – now grouped together in the Sudan Revolutionary Front – receive at best indifference, at worst condemnation from the international community. Why are we different from 'Syrians' or 'Libyans?' people often ask.

The protests in the Sudanese capital have continued for over a week now and spread to other towns. This is not just about the cost of living.