Bread protests wreak havoc in Sudan

Rising cost of bread sparks deadly protests across Sudan
Photo: Cristopher Michael /CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

While many around the world celebrated the New Year,  small groups of protesters gathered in cities across Sudan to protest the rising cost of bread.  Known as the ‘bread protests’, they occurred after the Sudanese Government announced in late December that it was eliminating subsidies in the 2018 budget, to prop up the country’s failing economy.

Sudan’s economic situation deteriorated significantly following South Sudan’s independence in 2011, which led the government to implement austerity measures ranging from the removal of subsidies for food and fuel, while increasing taxes on luxury products.

Violent reactions

The Sudanese Government is now in the process of stopping the importation of wheat from overseas, causing prices to skyrocket. This is in a context in which inflation is running at around 25 percent and there is a significant shortage of physical currency, which decreases import activity and trade measures with surrounding countries. Sudan’s finance minister claims that black-market manipulation is to blame for the recent spike in inflation, but analysts suggest the government is to blame.

The protests quickly spread across Sudan in early January, including to downtown Khartoum, the capital city, and cities in the south, including Nyala and Geneina. Despite being peaceful protests, Sudanese authorities have responded violently. YouTube videos published during the protests show Sudanese authorities beating peaceful demonstrators with sticks and batons. In the south-eastern city of al-Damazin, police fired tear gas as several hundred protesters chanted “No, no to price rises!”, according to The Guardian.

This is not the first time austerity measures have led to protests in Sudan. In 2013, demonstrations against fuel price increases lead to the deaths of more than 200 people, according to Amnesty International and arrests of more than 800 activists, members of opposition parties, journalists, and other anti-government protesters.

Since the 2013 demonstrations, protests have been smaller and peaceful, although violence surged during the ‘bread protests’ in January 2018 when a high school student was killed and six others were wounded in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, while protesting.

Media censorship

The Sudanese Government also blocked sales of six daily newspapers that covered the subsidy cut and price rises, a common strategy the government uses to stem the flow of information and maintain control.

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In a 2016 interview with Words in the Bucket, a journalist based in Khartoum stated: “The government continues to confiscate newspapers and, after tedious work on our part as journalists, censor our stories before they are published.

“Confiscation of newspapers hurts publishers economically, and this leads them to fire the journalists who are seen as daring.” Fifteen journalists have been arrested in incidents related to the protests in 2016.

“Reporting on the demonstrations has been deemed a ‘red-line’ issue by the Sudanese Government,” said Albaqir Alafif Mukhtar, executive director of the Al Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment and Human Development (KACE).  “Confiscating newspapers severely circumscribes the availability of information in the public sphere and hinders freedom of expression and access to information.”

Campaign of arrests

On February 19, 2018, the Sudanese Government, ordered by President Omar al-Bashir, released more than 80 political activists who were imprisoned during the protests. Among the released were several high-ranking members of the National Umma Party, including the movement’s vice president and secretary-general, as well as Amal Habani, a women’s rights defender, who, according to Human Rights Watch, likely faced ill-treatment amounting to torture during her arrest. Released detainees also told Human Rights Watch they had faced long interrogations and were denied medications, while other credible reports state that several detainees have been beaten in detention and subjected to harsh conditionals and verbal abuse.  

These releases occurred within days of the American embassy’s condemnation of the arrest campaign and following a call from embassies of the European Union to free detainees.

However, dozens of prominent activists remain in detention despite this wave of releases. For many, their locations are unknown and thus they would not have access to lawyers or family visits.

They are also likely living in conditions that would constitute ‘enforced disappearances’, meaning they were secretly abducted by the state, which denies their custody, putting them outside legal jurisdiction and at great risk of abuse.

While violence in Sudan has been lower in recent years than at the height of the Darfurian genocide in 2011, the risk of future mass violence is omnipresent. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project, Sudan is the number one country at risk of genocide and mass atrocities. The bread protests have not yet sparked any larger instances of violence, but they have increased tensions between civilians and government officials and have brought attention to economic concerns and systems of inequality, that are considered prime circumstances for mass violence.

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Human Rights
Francesca Freeman

Francesca Freeman is a program assistant for the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program at the Social Science Research Council. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies and a minor in human rights. At the University of Chicago, she focused her research, writing, and advocacy work on conflict studies and early warning signs of genocide. She has previously worked on international grassroots mobilization against genocide and mass atrocities as the Student Director of STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities and as an intern for The Aegis Trust in Rwanda.
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