Uganda: 'It Cannot Happen Here'

Kampala — On April 16, five days after Field Marshal Omar Al-Bashir was kicked out in Sudan, President Yoweri Museveni's Senior Advisor and Personal Assistant, Milly Babalanda, wrote in the New Vision that "Museveni knows when he will leave power" and that his government "is still strong and can defend its authority using civilian and military means".

"There is a set of rules to follow for one to make an extended stay in power work. That rule book is written by President Museveni," Babalanda wrote.

She listed the toxic combination that gets a leader kicked out as meddling by foreign powers, incompetence of the military, failure to strike the right balance between use of coercive muscle, and failure to keep the population happy and prosperous.

Interviewed earlier by The Observer newspaper, the Government Spokesperson Ofwono Opondo reportedly described as "simple minds" those who argue that Ugandans can copy Sudan and try to end President Museveni's 33-year grip on power through protests.

"There are no two similar conditions for two countries," he reportedly said "the situation (in Uganda) is very different in a positive sense. You need to read about the internal ingredients of governance within any of these countries where such uprisings are happening."

But Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyakulanyi aka Bobi who is the self-styled leader of the so-called "People Power" movement; the amorphous but potent anti-Museveni force, took to social media to mock those claiming protests cannot kick out Museveni.

"When #PeoplePower is bringing down despotic Field Marshals, then despotic Generals should be put on notice," he wrote.

Ofwono and Babalanda's views also appear to be in contrast to what a Sudanese commentator noted at the height of the anti-Bashir protests.

The popular Sudanese blogger, Dr. Mahmoud a. Suleiman wrote: "Omer Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, though not different from his ilk of oppressive tyrants, he boasts as superior to them. It is beyond doubt that tyrants do not learn from history and live in the illusion that they are able to overcome difficulties."

Uganda like Sudan is no stranger to unconstitutional transfers of power. Seven of Uganda's leaders since independence in 1962 have taken power via unconstitutional means. In Sudan, there was a coup on October 21, 1964 against Gen. Ibrahim Abboud, another against Jaffer Mohmed Nimeiri, and the latest against Bashir on April 11.

And the parallels between Bashir and Museveni are many.

Bashir, like Museveni, was born in 1944. Bashir like Museveni had been declared sole presidential candidate in the next election by their dominant ruling party. Bashir came to power in 1989, three years after Museveni in 1986. Museveni has so far been power for 33 years, three years longer than Bashir who was kicked out after 30 years. The leading opposition group in Sudan is called the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change (FDFC). The leading opposition group in Uganda is called the FDC.

And in Sudan, whenever one thought of a military coup, all eyes were on capital Khartoum. In Uganda that would be Kampala. But uprisings spring surprises.

espite turbulence that had been raging, the force that kicked Bashir from power did not start in the capital. It began in a small town called Atbara, in River Nile State, about 350km from Khartoum on December 19. And a history of ideologically-driven political consciousness, combined with perceived current oppression, appears to have been a factor. That is why the protests came to be known as "The Revolution of December 19."

With a population of about 100,000 people, Atbara is a rural city. It is known for the 1898 famous 'Battle of Atbara' against the combined colonising force of Egyptian and British. The Sudanese lost the battle but their pride remained.

Then Atbara became home of the first trade union in Sudan, formed in 1946 and as the headquarters of the Sudanese National Railway Company. But it has fallen on hard economic times. Although it is still regarded as the "Railway City", few rail wagons are made here these days. Instead, it appears, only the spirit of trade unionism and communism remains. It is a hot hungry place. So when the government removed wheat and fuel subsidies and the price of bread shot-up there was public anger which flowed onto the streets.

"No to hunger! No to hunger!" the protesters chanted before setting fire to the local office of Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) headquarters.

Coincidentally, Sadiq al-Mahdi; the ex-prime minister who Bashir drove out in his 1989 coup, returned from exile the same day. The next day, the protests spread to Khartoum and other cities.

Pound for Shilling, Uganda is a far poorer country than Sudan which has a GDP Per Capita of US$ 4,900 compared to Uganda's US$1900. But in November 2017, Sudan released the results of its 2014-2015 poverty survey, putting the nationwide rate of poverty at 36.1%. This mean income inequality is quite high in Sudan and contributed to rising resentment against the government

In its Africa Economic Outlook (AEO) 2019 report, the African Development Bank (AfDB) also noted the Sudan economy was in trouble.

"Sudan is in debt distress," it noted with external debt an estimated 62% of GDP in 2018.

Soon the protests moved beyond food. Many protesters spoke against a government which only cares about itself preservation, is ridden with corruption, and has militarised all facets of life.

They danced to protest music by Sudanese musicians. One of the songs, titled 'Tasgut Bas!' (Which translates to 'Just fall, that is all!') became their anthem.

A rapper called Gofran, sang:

"Been waiting for this moment forever,

never thought it'll start at the end of December

I'm out for freedom.

I'm out for justice."

Sudan's slippery economic slope

Sudan had been on a slippery slope when South Sudan successfully seceded in July 2011. Sudan was a major oil producer from 2000 to 2011. Over this period, it was touted as one of the fasted growing economies in the world by the World Bank with rates of growth over 12% in some years. But the oil revenue this growth depended on came from oil wells that became part of South Sudan in early 2012.

That single move wiped out 80% of Sudan's oil production. That meant Bashir would now not have up to 60% of the money he had got used to using to buy support, especially from the army generals. Domestic debt grew at an unsustainable rate. The debt-to-GDP ratio rose to over 140% in 2018. As the country started feeling the pinch of foreign exchange scarcity, the government could barely raise money to import fuel and wheat to make bread.

Rather than cut spending, Bashir opted to fill the fiscal gap by printing money. The increase in money supply without matching increases in production, caused inflation to spiral. Without foreign exchange, the central bank set an overvalued exchange rate peg. The IIF estimates that Sudan's real GDP contracted by 1.1% in 2018. People were becoming poor and private consumption was down nearly 5%, according to IIF.

November 8, 2018 is known in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan as the "Day Money ran out". On that day, most ATMs in the city run out of cash. Inflation was over 70% and money was losing value by the minute. But the central bank was not printing new money fast enough. There was a liquidity crunch. People could be seen queuing up helplessly outside the empty ATMs. Account holders were bribing cashiers to cash their cheques. Others were chasing after any vans seen delivering money to the banks.

"Why are we suffering like this to get our money?" Ahmed Abdullah, a 42-year-old government worker was heard asking.

The government was staring economic collapse in the face and public anger was mounting. Bashir was losing control of the country. His regime was bankrupt and unpopular.

The Sudanese central bank had been controlling the depreciation of the Sudanese pound against the dollar by restricting on access to foreign exchange. In October 2017 the U.S. has offered some reprieve by lifting of two decades of trade sanctions. But it appears to have been too late for Bashir.

In October 2018, Bashir desperately hiked the exchange rate from 29 to 47.5 Sudanese pounds per USD. Its objective was to make it realistic because that was closer to the kibanda parallel forex market rate. The move sent inflation even higher. The price of a kilo of flour rose 20%, beef 30%, and potatoes 50%. Sudan's inflation stood at more than70%. It was one of the world's highest rates. Now the central bank's policy was backfiring. People were losing trust in the banks.

Political upheaval and uncertainty, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption destroyed the economy and Bashir's regime. Combined with a large and young population plagued by unemployment, these factors became a powder keg.

Bashir must also have realised that he could not easily fix the economy. He appealed to the Arab world; Doha, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo but returned empty handed. He turned Moscow and got only promises. Even African leaders appeared to desert Bashir.

Instead U.S. senior envoy, Cyril Sartor, who is the Senior Director for Africa at the National Security Council, was in Khartoum late February and Qatar's Minister of Defence, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah was there in March. One issued Bashir with a stern warning not to use force on the protesters and the other reportedly counseled substantial changes in state policy before any rescue money.

But he was unwilling to let anybody else step in.

Divisions in ruling party

Bashir had appointed a new central bank governor to deal with inflation. He had also named a new prime minister and announced a 15-month economic reform plan. So he turned to what he thought he was best at fixing - the politics.

Bashir's ruling party had already nominated him to run unopposed as its presidential candidate for reelection in 2020 but there were reports of divisions within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). But senior party members were reportedly mooting a move to censure Bashir. The Islamist wing, specifically reportedly favoured giving the protesters actual concessions.

Bashir could offer concessions. In 2013, following large protests by university students unhappy with the state of the economy, Bashir promised not to stand for election in 2015. But he also unleashed paramilitary troops that killed hundreds of protesters. And he had gone on to stand and win reelection by 94% of the vote in a roundly condemned sham election.

This time Bashir sent security forces to ransack offices of professional bodies such as doctors who were leading the protests. Security forces arrested numerous opposition leaders and protesters in overnight swoops and morning raids.

When protesters did not bite the bait of national dialogue Bashir he made another concession. The Parliament, which is dominated by his ruling party, would now not amend the constitution to allow him to run in 2020. But the voters were not fooled. Even more poured on to the streets where they were met with teargas and live bullets from the security forces. According Human Rights Watch, over 50 people were killed over this period.

Retreat to military repression

When the politics failed, Bashir decided to resort to the military. Bashir had always courted the military. He attended the funerals and weddings of military officers with diligence, often sending presents of sugar, tea or dried rations to the families.

"Bashir even had an "open house" policy once a week where commissioned officers could drop in and meet with him," said Alex de Waal, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

So when on Feb.22 Bashir addressed the nation, he was banking on the military. His strategy was to sound tough and in charge but offer some concessions to the protesters. He would allow a national dialogue. But he made no mention of resigning as head of the National Congress Party (NCP) and, therefore, ruling himself out of the 2020 presidential as his intelligence chief, Gen. Salah Gosh had already announced. Bashir's strategy appeared to confirm the view that his main goal had been to dissolve the government and declare the emergency as it would frustrate any palace coup against him.

Under the emergency, Bashir could ban opposition groups, deploy more troops, mount more roadblocks, and block people's movements. The army would also have unrestrained power to raid people's homes and offices. Bashir a state of emergency would be for one year. It was vintage Bashir brinkmanship. He was trying to block a coup from within his NCP party, appease the protesters with pseudo-concessions and placate the soldiers with powerful postings. And it had saved him before.

"He is like the spider at the centre of the web... he could pick up on the smallest tremor, then deftly use his personalised political retail skills to manage the politics of the army," de Waal told The New York Times. Would it work this time?

The opposition had declared Thursday every week as a day of protest. The next Thursday Feb.22 would test that. This time the protests were even bigger.

"Bashir must go", they chanted. "We want freedom, peace and justice!"

And the army, which was previously charged with enforcing Bashir's ban on opposition gatherings, was absent. Bashir's decree had failed.

Videos had also emerged of units of the army in Port Sudan siding with the protesters. Only Bashir's most loyal forces, in the National Intelligence services, remained with him.

To lure them back, he appointed 18 military generals as state governors. Most, like himself, were on the list of 51 indicted in 2004 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands for crimes against humanity. He appointed Lt. Gen. Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, the Defence Minister as First Vice-President. He had been head of Sudan's notorious and hated Military Intelligence and Security. He kicked out First Vice-President Bakri Hassan Saleh. He transferred his leadership of the National Congress Party (NCP) to Ahmed Muhammed Harun, the man who in the 1990s became known as the "Butcher of Nuba" and in 2003 -as State Minister for the Interior, executed the Darfur atrocities. He and Awad Ibn Auf coordinated the notorious Janjaweed militias that killed thousands in Darfur and displaced 2.5 million people.

Unity of women, youth, professionals

What appears to have caught Bashir's government unawares was the determination of the protesters. The logic previously was that hunger and desperation would drive them off the streets. Dispersing protesters would be faster, it was assumed, if the government offered token concessions.

This time, however, the protesters refused to quit. And they were a surprising mix from all walks of society. The rich marched with the poor. Doctors and engineers joined together with Girifna; a coalition of youthful anti-regime university students formed in 2009. Under the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), they spearheaded the protests and in January agreed the Declaration of Freedom and Change.

March 08 was a Friday - a day of prayer in this predominantly Muslim country. The protest leaders - the FDFC- used the pulpits in the 47 mosques of Khartoum to call for street demonstrations. And the people poured onto the streets.

It also coincided with the International Women's Day, Friday March 08, 2019. This fed into another remarkable and unexpected element of the Sudan protests was the high profile presence of women. The have since been dubbed the "Sudanese Women Queens", kandakes.

When students from the National University joined, they were threatened with dismissal. Female students were expelled for wearing the white gowns; the Toub, symbol of protest.The security forces attacked the university and tear-gassed and battered students. Hundreds of students were arrested.

For 77 day across the country, the protests continued. And the security forces attempted to infiltrate the protests. They masqueraded as civilians, rode in unmarked vehicles, and masked their faces during attacks in so-called "Shadow Battallions". They hit the protesters with tear gas and live bullets. Many were killed, many more arrested. Even the Sudanese in the Diaspora joined in. In the USA, Canada, Europe, and Australia, they held protest vigils in front of Sudanese embassies and made pitches before parliaments there. Bashir appeared bamboozled. He issued directive after directive. None was effective.

Bashir, it appears to tried to execute a power transition formula that long-staying authoritarian regimes are increasingly adopting. It starts with grabbing power and holding on to it by any means for as long as possible. When holding on becomes impossible for whatever reason; civilian protests, sickness, or old age, pass it on to someone within your inner circle. That locks out the true opposition. It had worked in Egypt, Zimbabwe, DR Congo, and lately Algeria where ailing Bouteflika was kicked out on Fools Day April 01. Executed by a panicky Bashir, however, it was a failed fumble. Bashir had a month earlier contemptuously referred to the young men and women as "rats that should go back to their holes," insisting he would only move aside for another army officer, or at the ballot box.

"They said they want the army to take power. That's no problem. If someone comes in wearing khaki, we have no objection," he said, "When the army moves, it does not move in a vacuum. It does not move in support of traitors. It moves in support of the homeland."

But Gen. Awad Ibn Auf, the former Defence Minister, First Vice-President and head of Sudan's notorious and hated Military Intelligence and Security, served a single day. He was replaced by Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan. He is considered cleaner than the others. But the protests continue. It is not clear if Burhan will offer a clean transition from Bashir.


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