Civil disobedience in Sudan: What the government eye failed to see
Sundays are usually a busy day in the streets of Khartoum. It is the first day of the week in Sudan, and the city is bustling with people going to work and school. Last Sunday, the streets were almost empty. A dramatic increase in the prices of fuel and electricity led to nation-wide discontent and anger. A government decision to remove subsidies on life-saving medical drugs was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Civil society activists called for civil disobedience.
Sunday 27 November marked the first day of three days of civil disobedience in Sudan. Most people in Khartoum decided to stay home. Some did so in support for the call to disobedience. Others stayed home out of fear that something terrible might happen.
The call for civil disobedience was announced by Sudanese activists through social media, especially Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp. Facing stringent economic situation, the government decided on November 3 to lift subsidies from fuel and electricity. But the problem was deeper rooted. The government, faced by a serious shortage of hard currency, devalued the Sudanese currency. There has been a glaring difference between the official and black market (read real) exchange rates for a long time. While the official exchange rate against the dollar is 6.4 , the unofficial rate was 15. This huge difference compels expatriates to send their money through unofficial channels. Instead of transferring money through the banking system, expats resort to the black market and sell their hard currency to speculators. The formal economy is thus losing.
To deal with this situation, the government resorted to what it calls an “incentive system” that brought the exchange rate close to that of the black market. The idea was to convince people to channel their money through banks. This policy did not succeed, however. The black market rate jumped from 15 pounds to the dollar to 20 pounds during a period of two weeks.
An even more disastrous move by the government was its decision to lift subsidies from medical drugs. As a result of this decision, prices of some drugs hiked up by 300%. This led to anger across the country and on November 23, more that 200 pharmacies in Khartoum decided to close for one day as a protest against the government decision.
It is against this backdrop that Sudanese social media activists on November 24 called for three days of social disobedience, starting Sunday November 27. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the federal Minister of Health held a press conference on Friday November 26 in which he announced that the government had rescinded its decision and that subsidies would be reinstated, especially on life-saving drugs. The chairman of Sudan’s Pharmaceutical Board was fired after being blamed for wrongly increasing the prices of medical drugs. This came amid calls for nation-wide strike against austerity measures.
But by the time the government decided to reinstate the subsidies on medical drugs, the call for civil disobedience had already gone viral in social media. Initially the government belittled the call, suggesting that such calls are insignificant and will not be supported by the people. Media outlets close to the government attempted to sabotage the disobedience. Yet,on the first day of disobedience,Sunday 27, the streets of Khartoum were almost empty. By all means, the first day was a clear success for those who supported the call.
Realizing how grave the situation was, the government confiscated four newspapers during the early hours of November 28. Later that day, Omdurman Channel, a private critical TV station, was shut down. Two newspapers were confiscated after print on Tuesday November 29 and some people were also arrested. For many people, the call for civil disobedience was a brilliant idea. Unlike the 2013 demonstration in which some 200 people were killed, this time the government did not know what to do.
The three days of disobedience were documented through international TV channels and social media outlets. Such documentation is permeated by heated discussions about whether the disobedience was successful or not; whether it achieved its objectives or not. The disobedience was done as a protest against government austerity measures. It is not easy to say whether it was a success or not. What the eye of the government failed to see is that through the use of social media, Sudanese activists pose a serious threat to the authoritarian government in Khartoum.
Munzoul Assal, Professor at the University of Khartoum, 29 November 2016