A Hashtag Is Not Enough- International Assistance Needed To End Violence in Khartoum

In December 2018, protests ignited in Sudan in response to high bread prices, which were representative of a larger economic problems. As the protests escalated, they spread across the country as people from all walks of life joined together to protest about their living conditions.

Even after attempts to solve the food shortage problems and improve quality of life, the toppling of Omar al-Bashir’s government had become the focus of the protests. However, al-Bashir refused to leave his position and declared a state of emergency in February 2019. This led to the arrest and punishment of many protesters but failed to stifle the movement. In April 2019, the Sudanese military removed al-Bashir from office and then promised a transitional period during which the Transitional Military Council (TMC) would hold power. However, protesters wanted a civilian-held government and continued to push for it in negotiations with the TMC.

Though the two sides did gain some ground in these talks, this cooperation was complicated by the TMC’s efforts to break up the protesters’ continued sit-in in Khartoum. In June 2019, the TMC utilized the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, to exert violence over the area held by protesters, a move that led to the deaths of several protesters. In the wake of this attack, protesters, headed by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), refused to negotiate further with the TMC. As the violence continued in Khartoum and the body count continued to rise, internet access was cut off in the capital, isolating civilians from crucial information and communication. As a result, the hashtag #IAmTheSudaneseRevolution was shared across social media in order to draw attention to the situation in Sudan and encourage action from the international community.

As the number of protester deaths continued to grow, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed traveled to Khartoum and spoke with both the protesters and the TMC in separate meetings to try and rekindle the negotiations. Since then, an Ethiopian envoy to Sudan has proposed a civilian-majority governing group to rule during the political transition. While protesters have accepted this plan, the TMC has yet to issue a response.

After the violence erupted in Khartoum, many international actors voiced their disapproval and perspective on what should happen in Sudan. Representatives from the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries expressed that the violence on the part of the TMC should end and claimed that the protesters should be allowed to demonstrate peacefully to encourage the creation of a civilian government. In addition, the African Union and the United Nations also condemned the violent attacks by the TMC and encouraged the continuation of negotiations. The United Nations expressed the  intention to sending representatives to Sudan to investigate the killings that have taken place in Khartoum. A representative from Amnesty International, also proposed that the UN get involved by punishing or placing sanctions on individuals involved with the TMC.

However, in general, the response of  the international community to the violence in Khartoum seems to be characterised by comments rather than actions. Representatives from the SPA have specifically asked the international community to respond to and investigate the killings that took place during the attacks and also to push for the military’s acceptance of the idea of civilian rule. However, in meetings of the UN Security Council, international actors have had trouble coming to a consensus on the best approach for providing aid to the situation in Sudan. While it is important that actors take caution in deciding on a response to a crisis, in the interest of saving lives, it is imperative that action is taken to stop violence as soon as possible.

Though Ethiopia has taken major steps to help the protesters and the TMC reach an agreement, not many other countries have made physical moves to help protesters in Sudan. While the spreading of the hashtag #IAmTheSudaneseRevolution is extremely important, it cannot be the only step taken. Spreading awareness through social media is effective as long as it results in actual changes in the protesters’ situation. The danger involved in a reliance on social media comes when tweeting, posting, and sharing a hashtag become a sufficient response and the extent to which people get involved.

It is imperative that protesters aren’t silenced by violence in Khartoum. Their voices must be heard above all else, especially in the wake of the attacks against them. The protesters’ efforts led to the current situation in Sudan and toppled al-Bashir’s government. Their voices should be in the forefront when planning the new government and future for Sudan. Since the internet provides a place where the protesters can easily voice their opinions, the preservation and protection of their ability to access the internet and social media is crucial. The spreading of the hashtag #IAmTheSudaneseRevolution raises awareness of the internet blackout and holds the officials responsible for that blackout accountable.

Social media is a large asset to the spread of crucial information and it gives protesters the opportunity to promote their cause and remain influential, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011. During the Arab Spring, citizens of several nearby countries overthrew their leaders by spreading movements largely through social media. Citizens of other countries in similar situations saw the power of voices amplified by large numbers and wondered what was stopping them from attempting the same sort of endeavour.

Clearly, the spread of news about the Sudanese Revolution is important and can lead to enormous change. However, while the involvement of outsiders on social media is important to raising awareness and should continue, mediation and direct action by outside actors as soon as possible is also important in the case of Sudan. In order to prevent more violence in Khartoum, the international community must hold the TMC accountable and take action to protect protesters.

While negotiations between the two sides are important for lasting peace and for the creation of a plan for the governing of Sudan in the future, stopping the violence needs to be the first step. While deciding to intervene in such a situation can be a complicated decision, when a country’s own authority figures are inciting violence against civilians, there is no other choice. The intervention of outside forces is essential if even the highest authorities in the country can’t be trusted. The efforts by Ethiopia to intervene and facilitate conversations in an effort to establish a transitional government are admirable. In a time when the Sudanese people do not have faith in their government and military, an outside perspective has the potential to be very helpful in the search for peace and agreement.

Most actors seem eager to condemn the violence and to voice support for a civilian-led government, but besides urging the TMC to stop the attacks and pleading for peace, it seems that not much action has been taken to hold the individuals involved with the TMC accountable. Intervention, like that of Ethiopia, does not have to be militaristic in form. It could take the form of encouraging negotiations or facilitating meetings. If necessary, however, military forces could be used to protect protesters. If they ensure that they don’t add to the violence already occurring in Khartoum, military forces could help enforce peace while negotiations continue or hold members of the TMC accountable for the recent killings. No matter which form the intervention takes, it must happen soon. While it is important to make careful choices in such a delicate and dangerous situation, acting quickly can help to save the lives of protesters.