Sudan after Bashir: 'The revolution is on the curriculum'

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Women were at the forefront of protests against BashirImage source, AFP

The ousting of Sudan's long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was arguably the most significant event in Africa in 2019. The BBC's former Sudan correspondent James Copnall went back to Khartoum to find out how much has changed.

"Thawra," they chanted - revolution!

The group flashed freedom signs, encouraging each other on. Freedom! Peace! Justice! All the - by now familiar - demands of the pro-democracy protesters, belted out at deafening volume and with infectious enthusiasm.

But this gathering in November was not an adrenaline-fuelled charge at a group of heavily-armed soldiers by protesters demanding their rights; it wasn't even a political rally, or a gathering of the neighbourhood committees that did so much to keep Sudan's revolution alive.

It was morning assembly at a girls' school not far from the centre of the capital, Khartoum.

Media caption,

The women driving Sudan's revolution

This revolution is on the curriculum now, at this school at least. The whole school had gathered in a courtyard, sheltered from the sun by a canvas awning high above.

The girls, aged no more than 13, sang along to recent revolutionary anthems - like the rapper Ayman Mao's Blood.

The song includes some fiercely critical lines comparing the military in charge of Sudan to the Janjaweed - the state-sponsored militias which killed and terrorised so many people in Darfur during Omar al-Bashir's time.

"Live bullets/They say they are rubber/These are Janjaweed/These are thugs." The music, played at top volume, distorted on the school's speaker system, but no matter: it was drowned out by the hundreds of youthful voices anyway.

They put on a play too, set to music, in which schoolgirls playing protesters carrying flowers were gunned down by classmates dressed in military fatigues.

How the revolution happened:

Image source, AFP
  • December 2018 : Protests against bread price rises after government removed subsidies
  • February 2019: Bashir declares state of emergency and sacks cabinet and regional governors in bid to end weeks of protests against his rule, in which up to 40 people died
  • April 2019: Military topples Bashir in a coup, begins talks with opposition on transition to democracy
  • June 2019: Security forces open fire on protesters, killing at least 87
  • September 2019: A new government takes office under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok as part of a three-year power-sharing agreement between the military, civilian representatives and protest groups

Afterwards the girls spoke about a new sense of pride in being Sudanese, how they had shown themselves and the world what their country could become.

One of their teachers, Salim, sounded a note of caution: the revolution was not over until the military had completely left the scene, he said.

After peaceful protests paralysed Sudan earlier this year, some of its most senior generals toppled Bashir. It was the third time in Sudanese history that an unloved president had been overthrown in a popular revolution.

But this time the generals tried to cling to power. They violently dispersed mass protests in Khartoum, outside the military headquarters. At least 87 people were killed, and there were more deaths outside the capital.

Media caption,

What happened during the 3 June massacre?

Then the generals cut the internet, trying to break the organising power of the mainly young revolutionaries. Still, the protests continued. Eventually the generals were forced to agree to a civilian government.

But even now, they have five representatives on an 11-member body that has replaced the presidency, called the Sovereign Council.

Many Sudanese worry that one of the protesters' core demands - justice for those killed in the revolution and during Bashir's three decades in power - will be impossible to meet while the generals are still on the scene.

But even in the couple of months since the cabinet was sworn in, things have changed. I saw that one day on Gamaa street, one of the main east-west avenues in the middle of the capital.

A small group of people had gathered outside the prime minister's office to protest against a school closure.

Bashir supporters insulted

They clapped, shouted and ululated, read out a petition, and handed it to an official for consideration. Under Bashir "this wasn't possible," one protester said, "so now we take every chance to make our voice heard".

Around a hundred metres up the road, another protest was taking place: this one was in support of some of the big names of the old regime, who are in jail. Under Bashir, this kind of demonstration would have been broken up with teargas and batons, perhaps worse.

The irony was lost on no-one. Before long, passers-by were hurling insults at Bashir's supporters. That, too, is a new freedom.

More about Sudan's revolution:

You could feel a new openness in almost every conversation. Sudanese have always discussed politics with a level of interest and sophistication rarely matched elsewhere.

But now criticisms are freely and loudly expressed - even of the military. And the old fear of the morality police seems to have dissipated.

In the past, women could be flogged for wearing trousers in public, and men lashed for drinking alcohol, which is still officially illegal.

But I saw people of both sexes gathering to drink tea - and perhaps something a little harder - on the banks of the Blue Nile, while police cars drove past, seemingly spotting no wrong.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Omar al-Bashir was recently sentenced to two years in a social reform facility for corruption

There are still plenty of protesters who reject the very idea of this transitional government, which they see not as a way of taking the country to elections, but as a bloodstained and totally unacceptable compromise.

The transitional period could easily founder on the intransigence of the military, or because of the faltering economy. Food prices are rising, as are transport costs.

But back at the school, as the young girls filed out of their assembly, still singing those heroic slogans, it occurred to me that Sudan's latest revolution is so part of everyday life now that its demands will be hard to ignore.