HBS: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), which was signed in 2005, ended Africa’s longest-running civil war and allowed for a referendum for South Sudan to decide whether or not to secede from Sudan. Civil society then had more space to operate – especially with the international focus on Sudan. How has the relationship between civil society and the government developed?
Nuba Reports: Civil society groups were allowed to develop a strong presence in the years following the agreement, especially in urban areas. Activist movements were formed, such as the pro-democracy pressure group Girifna (meaning “fed up”) and the women-led No to Women’s Oppression campaign. They held events at neighbourhood social clubs and universities, distributed material through the media, and inspired other groups to grow.
However, the honeymoon is definitely over. Since March 2009, when the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the state has increasingly cracked down on civil society, accusing it of supporting and collaborating with the court. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 took international pressure off Khartoum. Authorities further sought to silence dissent as civil war recommenced in the Sudanese southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile in the same year as South Sudan’s secession.
What are some of the measures through which the state is clamping down on civil society organisations?
Measures range from indirectly cutting off access to international donor support by blocking organisations’ access to registration to trumped-up charges.
Between 2010 and 2016, nearly a dozen civil society organisations were closed down. This includes human rights organisations such as the Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre and also cultural centres such as the Al-Khatim Adlan Centre for Enlightenment and Human Development [KACE].
Every year the attacks grow more aggressive. Instead of simply shutting them down, authorities are now implicating civil society organisations and other actors in court cases that could lead to even the death penalty.
In 2015, two prominent civil society leaders, Farouk Abu-Issa and Dr Amin Mekki Medani, were arrested after signing a document called the Sudan Call: A Political Declaration on the Establishment of a State of Citizenship and Democracy, which brought together Sudanese armed and unarmed political forces and civil society actors. They were imprisoned for months as they faced charges including waging war against the state and undermining the constitution, which carry the death penalty.
Currently, ten individuals tied to a civil society organisation called the Centre for Training and Human Development – known as TRACKs Centre – are facing numerous charges, including espionage. The organisation is accused of working as a front for KACE, which was shut down in 2012. If sentenced, the centre’s staff faces the death penalty or life imprisonment.
All of this is implemented as part of a broader government policy to control all sectors of Sudanese society in the name of national security.
By increasing its control of the press, the state is set to criminalise civil society activities further through shaping public opinion to view such organisations in the same way as armed groups that are a “threat” to national security.
How have these attempts to control the press played out?
Repeated detentions of journalists and confiscations of print runs of newspapers have intimidated many media houses into submission. Between May and July 2016, security forces confiscated at least six print runs of newspapers, rarely giving any explanation, even though they caused severe economic losses. The biggest target has been the private daily, Al Jareeda, which had four print runs confiscated since May. Although this is not the first instance of harassment the newspaper has faced, the scale was unprecedented.
In March 2016, journalists working for Al Tayar newspaper organised a three-day hunger strike – the first of its kind – protesting the state-led closure of their publication in December 2015 for a series of editorials criticising government cuts to the energy subsidy. The news- paper had a small victory in court: Sudan’s highest court ruled to allow the paper to resume publishing after the protest. But few newspapers besides this have dared to protest state suppression, as many fear the consequences of publishing critical material.
Censorship is par for the course in Sudan. All newspapers are reviewed by an officer from the National Intelligence and Security Services before publication. If any article slips through the cracks and is broadly viewed as threatening “national security” or “public morals” or a list of sensitive issues seen by the authorities as red lines, publishers face confiscations, legal battles and suspensions.
For journalists, the professional consequences are dire. Dozens of journalists have been banned from writing in Sudanese newspapers. Others, like Ali Al Daly and Nada Ramadan in May 2016, face trumped- up legal charges brought by national intelligence or are embroiled in legal battles against the state. Trials can last for years – and if even if one is not summoned to court, charges are never dropped and they continue to threaten livelihoods, work and safety. Even independent online newspapers such as Sudanile face harassment, including hacking or punitive laws to supervise and monitor their work.
The minister for information said in parliament that controlling online and social media should be part of the Press Act and vowed to establish a centre to control and monitor social media and what he termed “rebellious bloggers”.
Are there any professional associations that can provide civil society space?
Independent trade unions have come under pressure just like everyone else. Due to their role in the unseating of previous dictatorships, they are viewed with a lot of suspicion. In June 2010, authorities arrested the head of the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors and others for organising mass strikes for better pay and working condi- tions. A national and international outcry let to their release but the intimidation is ongoing. Last year the Ministry of Culture shut down the Sudanese Writers Union. Fearing mass public congregations, secu- rity forces also closed down the monthly Mafroush Book Fair. The fair is one of the most important events for writers, artists, journalists and musicians in the country.
The Sudanese and European governments have recently forged closer ties again, coop- erating to counter the influx of migrants and refugees from and via Sudan to Europe. How has this renewed cooperation affected Sudanese civil society?
In April 2016, Neven Mimica, the European Commissioner for Inter- national Cooperation and Development, travelled to Sudan and announced a grant of EUR100 million for Sudan. The money is part of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which was decided upon in 2015 already. The trust fund is not just supposed to better the situation of internally displaced persons and refugees inside of Sudan but to “tackle instability and the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement”. This new international engagement with the Sudanese government will make it more ruthless as it continues to crack down on civil society. This engagement means that the EU has turned a blind eye to myriad human rights violations in Sudan and that the government of Sudan will continue to not be held accountable as it wages war on its civilians in the peripheries of the country and wages a different kind of war against the civil society in the urban centres.
What future do you foresee for civil society in the country?
In August, the State Crimes Prosecution Office transferred the eight human-rights defenders connected to the TRACKs case – excluding two defenders living outside of Sudan – to Al-Huda Prison in Omdur- man and filed capital charges against them. After almost three months in a four-by-four-metre cell with 26 detainees and no ventilation, the detainees, along with three others affiliated with TRACKs, are facing serious charges of undermining the constitutional system, waging war against the state, espionage, and forming a criminal or terrorist organisation. The government continues to smear the defendants through articles in pro-government newspapers that paint them as spies and foreign agents as well as by using an entire trial session to show porno- graphic films and pictures that were allegedly found on the laptops of the defendants, causing confusion inside the courthouse and changing the discourse of the trial from a criminal to a moral one. The case is a critical juncture for Sudanese civil society, whose environment is much bleaker now.
As civil society clearly cannot operate freely anymore, many organisations consider going underground. However, it will require serious efforts to come up with a framework that can operate underground while maintaining transparent financial and management systems. Access to fiscal support from international sources will prove challenging.
Similar to oppressive countries such as neighbouring Ethiopia, the visibility of Sudan’s civil society will undoubtedly diminish in the years ahead but it may operate covertly at the local level.
This article was first published in Perspectives magazine by the Heinrich Boll Foundation