On the Brink in Sudan

By David L. Phillips and Ahmed Hussain Adam

A spiral of deadly violence engulfed Sudan last week. Nearly 200 peaceful protesters were killed in protests that started in Darfur and swept across the country, including Khartoum. Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, condemned the brutal crackdown by Sudan's President El-Bashir. But when Australia, which currently chairs the UN Security Council, tried to spotlight developments in Sudan, Russia discouraged debate. Sudanese pro-democracy protesters are undaunted by Russia's obstructionism. They are demanding that the African Union (AU) seek action from the UN Security Council.

As in Tunisia, nationwide protests in Sudan can be traced to a single event. Ismail Wadi, a well-known merchant, was gunned down by government-backed militia in Nyala, South Darfur on September 18. Protesters gathered at the government headquarters to submit a petition of protest to the Governor of South Darfur. But instead of receiving the petitioners, the Governor ordered security forces to open fire on the crowd. At least 5 people were killed and scores wounded. When the demonstrators attempted to evacuate the wounded to the hospital, police followed attacking with tear gas and using snipers to target leaders in the crowd.

El-Bashir addressed the media on September 22nd. Instead of regretting the loss of life, he insulted protesters calling them hoodlums and questioning their patriotism. El-Bashir also announced the suspension of food and fuel subsidies. His punitive arrogance lit a fire, sparking nationwide protests. In town and cities in all of Sudan's states, people gathered to condemn Bashir. Mass demonstrations started in Nyala, then moved to Wad Medani, the capital of the central Sudan, El-Fasher in North Darfur, Sinnar and Damazeen in the center of Sudan, and finally Khartoum. Historically marginalized groups - from Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains - also came together demanding dignity and political rights. Demonstrators targeted symbols of the regime, such as National Congress Party (NCP) offices.

Security forces indiscriminately attacked civilian protesters across the country killing more than 100 people. Internet services were shut down. Bashir blamed the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) for fomenting violence. Ali Osman Taha, the Vice President, gave a shaky presentation threatening to crack down with an iron fist. Taha used rhetoric similar to Syria's Bashar al-Assad, labeling the protesters as terrorists, blaming outside forces for instigating unrest, and promising a military solution. Acting from fear and weakness, Sudan's notorious National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) echoed Taha's threats, activating their militias to attack protesters.

Cracks are starting to emerge in the NCP leadership. Some military commanders and police officers refused to attack peaceful demonstrators. Prominent regime figures and their families have left their homes and gone into hiding. A growing number have gone abroad.

While the current uprising was triggered by the suspension of subsidies, it is the product of accumulated grievances from 24 years of Bashir's injustice, persecution, corruption and failed leadership. Bashir's policies and practices led to civil war and pushed South Sudan to secede. Sudan's economy is in free-fall. More than 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Inflation is close to 50 percent. Sudan is discredited on the world stage as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

There was an outcry last week when Bashir planned to attend the UN General Assembly. He cancelled his visit under pressure from Member States and popular protests calling for his arrest by the New York Police Department, even if it meant contravening UN protocols. Sudanese are proud and dignified. Bashir has brought them shame and humiliation.

The Obama administration has expressed grave concern about escalating violence. Its words are welcome. But it can do more to organize international action. The United States should work with the AU to schedule debate on Sudan by the UN Security Council considering the spiral of violence in Sudan. The AU should also consider suspending Sudan's membership, in accordance with its Constitutive Act (Article 4H), which obliges the regional body to act when a Member State commits gross vitiations of human rights.

Bashir is already indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide in Darfur. The ICC can help drive a wedge between the NCP and members of the armed forces seeking to distance themselves from the regime by disclosing Sudanese officials referred for investigation by the prosecutor.

The international community can help being Sudan to its tipping point. But the Sudanese people have ultimate responsibility for political change. The SRF and other Sudanese opposition should vigorously assist the popular uprising. Marginalized groups should intensify their dialogue about a plan for political transition and power-sharing after Bashir. Protesters are wary of false coup orchestrated by El-Bashir and his ruling clique to undermine the uprising. They want to expunge the NCP and its accomplices in the security services.

During the last century, the Sudanese people succeeded in toppling two military regimes - General Ibrahim Abboud in October 1964 and General Gafaar Mohamed Nimeiri in April 1985. A third uprising is underway, with the potential to bring down the genocidal regime of El-Bashir.

David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Ahmed Hussain Adam is a Visiting Scholar. They co-chair Columbia's Two Sudan's Project.