The Sudan Crisis: how the River of Life became the River of Death
Writing: Milena Pek
The sound of a body falling into the water
Is it different from the sound of any other heavy object?
What was on the mind of the Rapid Support Forces
As they were throwing the bodies into the Nile?
Or maybe they were not thinking anything
As when you throw rocks into the lake?
The three big questions arise:
led to the death of those people?
future awaits their families and friends?
In April this year, after 30 years of ruling Sudan, Omar al-Bashir was forced to resign. However, the military coup did not mark the end of the protests that had been rocking the country since December 2018. Back then they were hailed as ‘bread protests' (1), but they were much more than simple unrest caused by a temporarily poor economic situation. The Sudanese lost faith in their corrupt, incompetent government led by al-Bashir, who not only failed to improve the situation in Sudan, but was furthermore accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2009. The actions of his regime were also a factor in the secession of South Sudan, taking with it most of the country’s oilfields (2). This only exacerbated a dire economic situation still reeling from the civil war and numerous smaller conflicts. Omar al-Bashir’s rule in its essence is an example of how to ruin instead of to rebuild a country. The Sudanese government has been used to spending resources on security and defense, because of the civil war and multiple religious and ethnic issues. There has been an apparent institution failure in terms of managing the economy and keeping inflation in check. As a result, people took to the streets out of desperation. What they got after almost five months- is a change which might not even scratch the surface of Sudan’s political (and thus also social and economic) issues.
The aspirations of the Transitional Military Council do not match those of the protesters, who demand a civilian-led government, while the junta “has no intention of holding free or fair elections” (3). It is apparent that a fully or even predominantly civilian government would pose a threat to all three: the military, the Rapid Support Forces (which were born from the Janjaweed paramilitary, notorious for its brutal engagement in the war in Darfur) and the intelligence service, which jointly helped al-Bashir during his tyrannical rule. The junta is most probably split into different and conflicting factions, as it initially accepted the conditions of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, the main opposition coalition, only to suddenly break the agreement and announce that the elections would be held within 9 months.
3rd June 2019 will forever mark a historic crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum. Murdered, thrown into the Nile with "concrete blocks tied to their feet" (4) or ‘merely’ raped (both men and women), most likely by the members of the Rapid Support Forces. It is difficult to cite specific numbers as reliable estimates are difficult to come by in the midst of this chaos, with the Internet blackout and media bureaus being shut down. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. Numbers tend to terrify, making us unable to comprehend the reality. The reality is harsh though and demands action.
What future awaits those who are still standing? Those still protesting, in spite of the massacre, in spite of the Internet blackout, despite mounting odds and finding themselves in a dire situation?
No easy answers there. The only easy thing would be to wait for the rival factions in the TMC to tear themselves apart with in-fighting, dragging the country with them into a spiral of chaos and a civil war .
A third civil war? More years of conflict? Wouldn’t one be more than enough? The Sudanese people know the bloody taste of a civil war very well. That’s why Ethiopia and South Sudan offered help with the negotiations between the junta and the Alliance for Freedom and Change. The Ethiopian proposal has been recently accepted by the AFC (5); on the day of writing (23/06/2019) we are still waiting for the TMC’s response.
Nonetheless, since the massacre the protesters cannot trust the TMC in any aspect. Its deputy leader and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (‘Hemeti’), who is notorious for his involvement in the Darfur war, accuses “impostor troops” (6) of the June 3rd attack. With the backing of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt (to only mention a few), the factions within the TMC know they are not vulnerable. On the other hand, there is the African Union, which suspended Sudan after the crackdown. However, this sole suspension is not enough to check the TMC’s abuse of power. We know how complicated the political landscape in the region is; eventually the AU might choose stability over a power vacuum (giving way to terrorist organizations) or another civil war; as they did in 2009 (7), after the International Criminal Court indicted al-Bashir.
And here we inevitably arrive at the issue of international response and the question of whether we are really helpless in the face of this humanitarian crisis.
Instead of just listing media responses and linking some fundraisers, I want to leave you with a few points to consider:
Firstly, the Sudanese have the agency to transform their country – after all, they have been relentlessly opposing the current system for the past few months, if not for years – but they need support from the outside. The transition needs to be supervised with care and attention to avoid another dictator, another civil war and yet another Myanmar with only nominally civilian-led government (the junta “made way for civilian government” (8) in 2011 and since then we have been witnesses of the Rohingya Crisis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s inertia). The Western powers are in no position to be the Sudanese people’s 'saviours', but they are in a position to be their allies and they hold the moral responsibility to support a peaceful transition process. Not just with words and moves meticulously calculated to save their face, but with actions.
Playing it safe is not an option – if you are an international power, engaging itself everywhere around the world, you need to look at your impact. Realpolitik? Without considering civilians’ lives? Spending millions on weapons and humanitarian aid at the same time? Where is the logic?
Furthermore, it would be banal to say that at present the inter-dependencies between states around the world impede any crucial political moves in the region; few take their time to map out those inter-dependencies, as it is a brain-busting task, even on a superficial level. Believe me, I did try. Sudan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the African Union, the UN, the US, the UK, Egypt, Russia, China, Yemen, Syria, Iran, the European Union, Ethiopia, South Sudan - it goes deeper and deeper, further and further…
Myanmar’s crisis (in which the UN recently admitted its “systemic failure” (9) ) and the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria provide vivid and painful examples of failure in international cooperation and of international institutions. In Sudan’s case, we could see China and Russia acting to block a statement condemning the killings in Sudan (10). They are two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, and hold veto power.
In the light of all that, it feels almost daring to ask: is there hope? What we know for sure is that there is no hope without action, and that silence and inaction are also acts of complicity.
We need to exercise responsible patterns of behaviour: checking whether charities can actually fulfill their pledges before donating to them or sharing blue pictures ‘for Sudan’ on Instagram Stories (11); doing basic research before engaging in political debates as if we already knew everything; holding politicians accountable and expecting genuine, constructive action from them instead of going the easier, safer way; paying attention to and backing positive internal developments; supporting unsweetened truth, hard facts, dismissing halftruths; cross-checking information in different sources; supporting responsible narratives in media whilst not neglecting uncomfortable details.
It is vital to underscore the value of responsible, effective journalism and reporting, as we could witness the media in Sudan being muted at the time of the crackdown. Gathering evidence demands strong will and moral conviction; something which Clare Rewcastle Brown, who uncovered Malaysia’s biggest corruption scandal, despite the fact that “the Malaysian government went to great lengths to discredit and intimidate” her, knows only too well. She commented in her interview for TIME:
“If a government is overreacting in this way and treating you as such a dangerous threat, then you know that you are doing your job.” (12)
Many journalists are doing their job while working on the Sudan crisis right now and they need our attention and support as do the Sudanese people. We have the moral responsibility to educate ourselves, a duty to responsibly share news coverage and information on the crisis with the world, as well as to try looking for other ways to help. Meanwhile, we need to remember that the situation in Sudan is very dynamic and the future unclear.
However, the time to act is now.
While writing this article, I collected information from Al Jazeera, the Guardian, BBC, CNN, France 24, the Economist (“How to stop Sudan sliding into war”), the Financial Times (“Sudan paramilitary leader Hemeti closes in on power”), the Atlantic (“Sudan and the Instagram Tragedy Hustle”), Human Rights Watch (“As Sudan Struggles, AU Should Press for Justice and Accountability”), South African Government News Agency (“AU leaders will not extradite Al Bashir”), the National Interest (“Sudan's Political Turmoil Creates Window of Opportunity for Washington”), TIME (“'It's About Right and Wrong.' In Conversation With the Journalist Who Exposed the World's Biggest Corruption Scandal”).