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Interview with Representative of Sudan Change Now

[Students at Ahfad Women's University in Khartoum. Image by Utenriksdept via Flickr] [Students at Ahfad Women's University in Khartoum. Image by Utenriksdept via Flickr]

[Over the last month, a protest movement has gripped Sudan. The movement pronounced Friday 13 July "Kadanka Friday" in order to highlight the role of women in the opposition movement. Below, Heather McRobie interviews Rawa Gafar Bakhit, a representative of Sudan Change Now, about the overall course of the movement and women's role in #SudanRevolts. The interview was published by OpenDemocracy on 19 July 2012. 

Heather McRobie (HM): What are the goals of #SudanRevolts? And how coordinated is the movement, is it a cluster of different campaign groups?

Rawa Gafar Bakhit (RGB): The main role of #SudanRevolts is to provide a strong unified brand for communicating the Sudanese revolution, which in turn is made up of various groups and individuals that include youth groups, university students, women groups, and recently trade unions have been joining too. The most remarkable aspect of this revolt is that it attracted even individual citizens who suffer day in and day out from the regime's repeated failures, corruption and brutality. These join protests as they happen wherever they meet them with great passion, and become active members in a spontaneously formed group joined by a common goal of resistance against a regime that is no longer tolerated. During the first two weeks, the efforts have been un-coordinated as each group took initiatives based on their own perspectives.  However, as the revolution grew steadier and stronger efforts are being coordinated to produce a stronger impact. To facilitate this coordination, social media has been utilized to maximize the benefit, as it remains to be the only available communications tool with the heavy censorship on traditional media and the brutality that even a small gathering is faced with.

HM: Most of the coverage of #SudanRevolts has focused on activities in Khartoum.  How widespread across the country are the protests and actions, and how is communication between actions in different parts of the country coordinated?

RGB: For the first time in many years, the protests have spread across the country and there are daily updates that we receive through our networks in the different parts of the country, which report any protest activities.  In addition to traditional demonstrations that took place in Khartoum as well as Medani, Gadarif, Halfa, Kosti, and Sinar, these included sit-ins such as those organized by the Lawyers trade union, and those threatened by the doctor's union which was declared a few days ago after being frozen since 1989.  In addition, there have been silent marches and picketing, as well as the first signs of civil disobedience which is known to be one of the strongest forms of peaceful resistance, such as what happened for three days in Algurair in the Northern State, where the offices of the local authority have been closed, including schools and most businesses.

HM: It was the first anniversary of the independence of South Sudan on July 9th.  To what extent and in what ways did South Sudan independence impact on the issues #SudanRevolts is campaigning for?

RGB: The secession of south Sudan came as a direct result of the failure of the current regime to provide and care for its people. They did not work to make unity a favourable choice for the people of the South, and although we respect their will which was demonstrated through the results of the referendum, we believe that it is a step that cost both nations a lot both economically and socially. The government has been consistently ignoring or deliberately destroying all development projects in the agricultural and industrial fields and started to depend solely on oil, which is a depleting resource that existed in the South, and this was lost with the secession, leaving tonnes of debt and a grossly tilted budget where more than 70% is spent on security and military. And despite losing the oil revenue, the government continues to indulge in war with South Sudan as well as wars with other minorities in Darfur and Nuba Mountains, harvesting innocent lives and wasting non-existent money that should be directed towards the benefit and welfare of the people.

HM:  Elections were held in Libya on July 7th. Do you see similarities between the Gaddafi regime and al-Bashir's regime, and can you see Sudan holding free elections in the near future?

RGB: Gaddafi was very much a one man show; Bashir is a figurehead of a political party and an ideology. Gaddafi and the Sudan regime share dictatorial traits of oppressing political freedoms but in Sudan the regime has gone even further to oppress personal freedoms in the name of Islam.  In addition, the regime in Sudan has gone into four civil wars through its 23 years in government, which ended with the killing of almost 3 million civilians (including 2.5 million in the war with the south and 300-400 thousands in Darfur). The level of income, basic and social services that was available in Libya prior to Gaddafi's fall is incomparable with the miserable situation the NCP government is putting the Sudanese through.

As to elections, the Sudanese regime may revert to calling for elections as a way of dissipating public anger. However, given the oppressive nature of government and based on prior experience, any elections that take place under this government will not be perceived as free and fair by the general public.  Elections that took place in 2010 are the known in Sudan as the Shaking Elections because of viral video showing elections officials shaking electoral boxes having stuffed them with Pro NCP votes. We hope once the regime is overthrown an election will take place  after a  period of transition to allow for dealing with issues of peace, transitional justice, legal frameworks democratic transformation and fresh space for  formulation and wider interaction of civil society and political parties .

HM: When the ICC arrest warrant was issued for al-Bashir, a narrative was generated in some humanitarian quarters of 'justice versus peace', that the ICC arrest was destabilising or counterproductive.  A similar argument has been emerging over the uprising in Sudan -- 'democracy versus stability', that supporting these protests could lead to a negative consequence of destabilisation. What is your response to this?

RGB: Injustice, impunity and lack of democratic governance have actually been the cause of instability in Sudan. Actually under this government four new internal conflicts started: Darfur, East Sudan, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, in addition to turmoil in Northern and Central Sudan and more recently Khartoum. A new governmental system that allows for the rule of law, respect and the fulfilment of the human rights of the Sudanese in an equitable manner, and provides space for the various groups within Sudanese society to voice and address their concerns in a peaceful democratic manner, is key if any level of stability is to be reached.

HM:  How have women been active in #SudanRevolts organising and protests?

RGB: Women have led and participated in #SudanRevolts protests the first of which was by the female students of the University of Khartoum. Women leaders and members within the new youth movements are also playing a key role. Women are also active as documenters and voice of the #SudanRevolts as citizen journalists, bloggers, and social media activists. Sudanese women are not new to political activism and the history of women involvement in politics and other sectors of the public sphere has been key in shaping the political consciousness of the new generations as well as the culture of resistance to the NCP regime policies of oppressing women. The targeting of female activists since the beginning of #SudanRevolts and particularly on #Kandaka Friday named after Sudan’s ancient Nubian Queens who defeated foreign invaders is a sign of the regime’s knowledge of the power and influence of women in #SudanRevolts.

HM: Sudan has been described as having a long history of civil resistance and non-violent protest, could you explain a bit about the role of women in these civil resistance activities in the past?

RGB: The role of women in civil resistance started the leaders of women’s societies of 1920s  as well as ordinary women who participated in the anti-colonial movements and protests that began with the White Flag movement in 1920s and culminating in Sudanese Independence in 1956, The women's Union formed in 1952 was the lead organisation in which these activities were formalized. In 1965 and after their role in the 1964 revolution, Sudan elected its first woman to parliament ...since then more women have gone into formal politics in addition to being active at civil society. Currently a number of political parties and youth movements have women leaders.

HM: The 1964 uprising famously shook Sudan.  Do you see #SudanRevolts as having any heritage from the 1964 experience, or learning from the demands and tactics of 1964?

RGB: The 1964 uprising as well as the one in 1985 are both good examples that the Sudanese people do have a legacy of non-violent resistance that were successful in toppling dictatorships. The 2012 #SudanRevolts definitely draw a lot of lessons from these experiences and look back at them as a source of motivation and inspiration. However we believe that the times have changed and the front lines of the #SudanRevolts are a different generation with a different mentality and different expectations.   They utilize different methods especially with the new communications tools that are made available. We aim to not only overthrow the regime, but also to protect the revolution and ensure it is not hijacked by opportunists at any stage until we have a stable democratic system in place that is ruled by responsibility and accountability.

HM:  Sudan has a highly complex cultural and social identity, complicated by the legacy of colonialism. Do you see #SudanRevolts as a unifying force for the people of Sudan?  How do you envisage the issue of marginalised regions within Sudan being resolved if #Sudan Revolt achieves its aims?

RGB: #SudanRevolts have proven itself to be a unifying force, not only are its main actors the youth movements and the university students come from all parts of Sudan but they also speak about the concerns not only of the central areas but also of the marginalised areas, and the activities prior to the #Sudan protests have focused on the issues of the marginalised areas. Within the past weeks #SudanRevolts have drawn support from the older political parties as represented by the Democratic Alliance Charter (DAC) and even some of the leaders of the armed movements of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains have spoken in support of the peaceful protests as a valid and preferred option of overthrowing the regime.

We see #SudanRevolts as a civil resistance movement that will achieve a number of goals, including changing the current regime and following through with a full democratic transformation. The democratic transformation will entail developing a national consensus for a constitution that enshrines the values of equality, justice and democracy and respect of human rights. This constitution will form the base for a civil democratic state that and the formulation of a national identity. The fostering of a national identity will be further enhanced through government policies that ensure equitable access to basic services and development opportunities. Part of the democratic transformation process will be reform of government institutions, including the army, so they are no longer an extension of the NCP and are in line with the Constitution and the values it enshrines. The democratic transformation also entails pursuing a truly comprehensive peace process that will focus not only on absorbing those carrying arms into government but will address the root cause grievances and the needs of the Sudanese from all over the country to ensure the sustainability of any agreement reached. The Constitution should include mechanisms to ensure so future grievances are addressed peacefully.

HM:  Although it was a ground-breaking moment in many ways, the April 2010 elections were marred by problems such as accusations of fraud by northern opposition parties.  Do you see such incidences as an obstacle to future pushes for democratic elections in Sudan?

RGB:  The April 2010 elections were held throughout Sudan and were widely perceived as being not free or fair.  Any future elections held under an NCP controlled government will also be perceived as not free or fair. The conditions for free and fair elections can only be met under a different government.

HM:  What would a free, democratic Sudan look like?  

RGB: Beautiful, diverse and peaceful with all its peoples living a life of dignity and welfare.

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