Sudan Police Get Tough on Student Protests

Harsh treatment of demonstrators suggests Khartoum fears spread of unrest.

Sudan Police Get Tough on Student Protests

Harsh treatment of demonstrators suggests Khartoum fears spread of unrest.

Tuesday, 28 February, 2012

A Sudanese government crackdown on student activism may indicate that the regime fears protests similar to those seen across North Africa and the Middle East, observers say.

While Sudan did not experience anything like the mass demonstrations that toppled regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last year, there have been scattered protests, mainly by students.

Protests in early 2011 calling for President Omar al-Bashir to go failed to gain much momentum, and in any case were forcefully put down by the security forces.

Late last year, however, a new wave of student protests and sit-ins began across the country. The actual number of students protesting may be relatively small, but the fact that it is happening at all has revived hope among government opponents that the days of the ruling National Congress Party, NCP, in power since 1989, could be numbered.

Samih was among 700 students from Khartoum University who staged a protest on December 22 against what they saw as the poor compensation offered to residents of the Manasir area 350 kilometres north of the capital, forced from their homes to make way for a huge hydroelectric dam. He said the demonstration was a show of solidarity with protesters in the city of ad-Damir who had spent three months pressing the authorities for a better compensation deal.

“Even if our demands are not met, demanding change is change in itself,” Samih said. “We voiced our support for the Manasir community, [who are] on the periphery, because as students in Sudan’s centre of power where the decisions are made, we had to stand together with them.”

Fateh, a student who took part in the protest, argues that the heavy-handed way in which the government dealt with the students shows just how worried the Khartoum regime is about the current university unrest.

“During the protests, the police forced the doors of dormitories open and beat students violently,” he said. “We recorded 31 students injured, many with broken arms, hands or legs from when they jumped from balconies to escape attacks and beatings by the security forces.”

Fateh estimates that as many as 300 students were detained during the protests, although most have since been released.

“We have condemned the police attacks on the dorms, but in my opinion, the beatings may have helped unite the students,” he said.

Fateh noted that in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Khartoum students’ demands, the government was quick to suggest their action was connected with the opposition in the restive western province of Darfur.

Osman Hummaida, executive director of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, which promotes human rights in Sudan, says he has noticed a hardening of government attitudes towards the students.

“The strategy they are using to disperse protests and arrest protestors is different from before,” he said. “They have always cracked down on demonstrations, but it now seems they are doing this in a harsher way, in terms of the way in which they are making arrests and intimidating activists. We also hear that they are infiltrating some of these movements.”

Sudanese police have defended their actions. According to a police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the press, the established procedure was to remain outside protest sites for about 30 minutes and warn participants to disperse.

“So the students [in Khartoum] knew we were going to enter the campus, and we told those involved in the sit-ins to leave the campus immediately. Whoever remained and did not leave knew in advance that they could be subject to arrest,” he said.

The officer added that when police moved in on December 22 protest, they had explicit approval from President Bashir.

“If he hadn’t asked the police to intervene, we would have remained outside. But since he believed that sit-ins and ongoing protests are affecting the university and its buildings, he agreed to let us enter the campus,” he said.

The Enough Project, a United States-based organisation set up to fight crimes against humanity across the region, believes the ferocity of the government response to protests is a sign it feels insecure.

“The regime is increasingly desperate and that is why it is increasingly brutal,” said Jonathan Hutson, the organisation’s director of communications. “Their brutality is not a sign of their strength. It is a sign of their weakness.”

For many students, the show of solidarity in Khartoum with the Manasir protesters is a foretaste of how a nationwide movement could gain momentum.

Others, however, say the diffuse student movements in Sudan have some way to go before they come together in the way that they have in other Arab nations.

A coordinator for the Girifna (“Fed Up”) youth movement, says better grassroots coordination is needed.

“The lack of a political programme and the dysfunctional educational system has produced students incapable of political dialogue,” the activist, who cannot be named for security reasons, said. “The state has pushed people to becoming more tribal. They cling to their tribes, and national issues are sidelined by regional concerns. This is making it difficult for student movements around Sudan to unite, since they don’t feel heard.”

Some commentators think this could be starting to change.

Mahjoub al-Tijani, president of the Cairo branch of the Sudan Human Rights Organisation, says that the latest wave of protests reminds him of the 1964 revolution, when the fatal shooting of a student sparked an uprising that resulted in military rule being replaced by a civilian government for five years.

“The political climate in 1964 was conducive to all forms of active opposition, and students constituted a significant segment of this activism,” he said.

According to Tijani, the sense of common purpose that led to success in 1964 could be revived.

“Unity among student protestors would add to the larger Sudanese popular movement, which embraces millions of citizens from all social classes and professions,” he said.

Hutson of the Enough Project is keen for the outside world to take note of the student protests, and use them as leverage with the Khartoum government.

“This is not a matter of giving direct support to students,” he said. “Any Arab-style movement must come from the bottom up and can’t be introduced artificially from outside. But the US and the rest of the world still have a role to play. We should use this new leverage to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal for all the rebellious regions of North Sudan – Darfur, Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State – followed by internationally-monitored free and fair elections.”

Blake Evans-Pritchard is an IWPR trainer. Reporters in Khartoum contributed to this report.

Support our journalists