Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 3 September 2021

What Makes an Uprising?

By: Dr Lam Akol*

In an undated article, Hon. Atem Garang de Kuek discussed what was required for an uprising in South Sudan to succeed as did three uprisings in the recent history of Sudan (1964, 1985 and 2019). He averred:

“There are some sociological fundamentals the Sudanese society possessed, that made it possible for the people to overthrow the dictatorial governments without use of guns or violence. It seems to me most of such sociological fundamentals and factors are lacking in South Sudan”.

He went on to discuss them. For the benefit of those who might have not read the article, what he termed the ‘sociological fundamentals’ that he explored can be enumerated as follows:

1- Low level of tribalism,
2- High political consciousness,
3- The middle class (the elites) is big and constitutes the majority of the population in the urbanized centres in Sudan,
4- The working force (class) is huge and highly conscious of its rights. This class is solidly organized around their professional organizations. It also aspires to join the middle class,
5- The political parties are non-tribally based (sectarian or ideologically oriented). They covertly spearhead the uprising using the two classes above to pull down through uprising an unwanted government.

He concluded that a lot of emotions have taken the better part of the South Sudanese when trying to figure out how to exit from “this precarious situation our country and our people are in”. The conclusion was obviously that conditions in South Sudan are not ripe for an uprising. The purpose of this article is to show that whereas the political consciousness of the people, organized labour and vibrant non-tribally based political parties are a necessary requirement for a successful popular uprising they on their own are not sufficient to make it happen or not happen.

Mobilization and Organization are a sine qua non in any political work. More so for an uprising that requires people to get out en masse to take on an oppressive, repressive and ruthless regime. Mobilization must be around issues that appeal to and touch the daily lives of the citizens if they were to heed the call of the organizers to go on the streets at the appointed time. Therefore, the state of the economy has played a central role in all uprisings. In 1964 and 1985 the war in Southern Sudan had exacted a heavy toll on the economy to the extent that the cost of living became difficult to bear. In 2019, the queues for bread, fuel and cooking gas were getting longer by the day. Additionally, there was a cash shortage. Depositors with banks cannot withdraw more than a mere 1,000 pounds in one daily transaction from their own accounts in those banks or 500 on ATM money vendors.

The army has been the tipping point in all Sudanese uprisings. They couldn’t have succeeded without the army switching its allegiance to the demonstrating masses. In 1964, it was General Ibrahim Abboud, the Chairman of the Military Command Council, himself who declared the dissolution of the Council opening the way for a civilian transitional government to assume power in the country. In 1985, the top brass of the army was reluctant to turn against Nimeiri to whom they had given “baiyaa”-religious oath of allegiance. However, the next layer of army leadership (Brigadiers and junior) were for the support of the popular uprising and were pressuring their seniors to take action in that direction. For the fear of a split in the army ranks the top leadership of the army complied but they constituted a Transitional Military Council to head the new transitional government. This usurpation of people’s power angered the organizers of the uprising and it took them days of hard negotiations to get the executive power back to a civilian Council of Ministers. It is worthy of note that also at that time the mighty National Security Organ with the First Vice President, Omer Mohamed El Tayeb, as its director continued its attempts to suppress the uprising by force. The Minister of Defence who became the Chairman of the TMC arrested the Director of the National Security Organ just before they made their announcement to have “sided with the people”. Did fortuitous circumstances play a role in the army’s decision to side with the people? Perhaps. To be specific, could the army generals have behaved the same way if Nimeiri was not outside the country?

In 2019, it was not only the army that took the decision to oust the regime but the entire “Security Committee” comprised of the leadership of the army, national security, police and the Rapid Support Forces. They followed the footsteps of the army generals in 1985 by constituting a Transitional Military Council from among themselves without consultations with the leaders of the popular uprising. The civilian leaders of the uprising were helped by the fact that this time around there is an AU decision to automatically sanction and freeze the membership of any country in which the military takes power by force. In fact, the AU did send to Sudan envoys to remind the military of this standing order. This opened the way for negotiations between the civilians and the military on how to share power between them in the transitional period.

In all this, it is important to stress that the army will never intervene in favour of the uprising unless and until the masses are on the streets in huge numbers. Therefore, the critical and tipping support of the army is conditional on a well mobilized and disciplined mass of people thronging the main streets of the national capital. Herein comes the centrality of mobilization and organization of the people for mass action.

Without downplaying the role of the political parties in mobilizing their supporters to join an uprising, none in Sudan was led by the political parties. This burden fell on the civil society in its various organizations. In 1964, it was the Professionals Front, in 1985 the Trade Unions Alliance and in 2019 it was the Professionals Alliance although it was later joined by the Forces of Freedom and Change that included some political parties.

In a nutshell, for a peaceful uprising against an unpopular regime to be possible a number of factors must obtain. The masses must be mobilized, organized and properly led; the economy must be in a bad shape and the army must eventually throw in its lot with the people on the streets. In the initial stages, the security organs of the regime will try to disperse the masses using different coercive means, so the demonstrators must be prepared for some casualties.

To come to the situation in South Sudan, the regime was conscious from the beginning of the role of organized labour in ousting unpopular regimes. Therefore, its security obstructed the formation of the professional and workers unions. And when it was necessary to have some, such as the youth union, it imposed its elements to lead those organizations. In South Sudan today, there are no professional unions for Medical Doctors, Engineers, Accountants, etc. There are also no workers unions and some of the civil society organizations are heavily infiltrated by elements of the regime. That takes away their important role in mobilization as a block but does not necessarily nullify the role that can be played by individual leaders. It is to be remembered that the Professionals Alliance that mobilized the Sudanese for 2019 uprising comprised leaders whose organizations were dissolved by the regime. As to the assertion that the level of consciousness is low, that may be valid to some extent, but we must understand the context of an uprising. It takes place only in the national capital, and maybe with the support of some nearby towns, led by an elite that has mobilized people around issues that touch their daily living. That is not complicated politics. The economy in South Sudan is in a state of ruin and many people in the capital cannot afford one meal in a day. The civil servants go for months and some for years without getting paid, etc. This is an environment ripe for mass action. On the other hand, the army in South Sudan can hardly pass as a professional national army and hence cannot be expected to play the role that the Sudanese Armed Forces has done on this particular matter. This applies equally well to the other organized forces.

The only weapon in the hands of the government at the moment seems to be inculcating fear among the population. There is no attempt from its side to win them over by persuasion. The government’s Spokesman is in fond of reminding the people that the government has no tear gas or rubber bullets to use against the demonstrators, it possesses only live bullets! This is meant to scare the masses from taking part in any demonstrations for fear of their lives. Unfortunately and sadly this self-incriminating affront is parroted by other senior members of the regime as if it is distilled wisdom. The survival instinct will one day impose on the people to choose between dying by hunger or by a bullet and which for them offers some chance of survival.

In response to the call for demonstrations on 30 August 2021 by some civil society activists, the government heavily deployed forces in uniform to close the main streets so that no demonstrators are seen. It never gave itself the chance to test the claim of the organizers to command support among the people. This was a clear display of weakness and fear. In fact, it is a window that can continuously be used by these agitators to wear them down by just fixing another date so that the army and other organized forces are again deployed on the streets to confront an invisible “enemy”. A repetition of this scenario will surely sap the morale of the forces and make them question whether there was indeed such a thing as demonstrations. It will also burden the treasury as these soldiers on stand-by will be paid overtime. This kind of “war of attrition” is the best that the proponents of demonstrations would hope for, winning the war without going to the battlefield!

The government is well advised to address the causes of the discontent rather than using threats and intimidation. The claim that the government is busy implementing the Revitalized Peace Agreement is hollow and belied by the realities on the ground. To date, three years after the signing of the peace agreement, not a single activity of the Transitional Period has been implemented. The Parties have not completed the activities of the Pre-Transitional Period including the formation of the national and sub-national governments and the unification of the army and other organized forces. For instance, if the economic activities stipulated in the peace agreement had been put in action this might have encouraged the donors to aid South Sudan and the economy would have gotten a facelift. The government should also open the political space so that the people can vent their feelings including their constitutional right to demonstrations. Being preoccupied with the fear of a possible Uprising and nothing is being done to deny it the ingredients that make it happen is the surest way of its ultimate occurrence. History teaches us that no military might have ever defeated the will of a people.

*The author was a member of the Council of the Khartoum University Teachers Union (KUTU) which, as member of the Trade Unions Alliance (TUA), led the March/April Uprising in 1985.