Sudan: Unions take the lead in the fight for democracy

Military coups are, sadly, a fairly regular occurrence in Africa. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen the military seizing or attempting to seize power in Mali, Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon and Sudan. What makes the recent military coup in Sudan of particular interest to us is the extraordinary role played by the country’s trade unions in the fight to defend democracy.

The coup began, as might be expected, by a crackdown on journalists. According to reports from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), “Bloomberg/Al Sharq correspondent Maha Al-Talb and her crew were arrested and held for two hours in the country’s capital city, Khartoum. On the same day, military officials stormed the headquarters of the Sudanese state radio and TV broadcaster and arrested several of its workers.”

The government used Facebook to announce that “Joint military forces have stormed the TV and radio headquarters in Omdurman and detained a number of staff.”

According to the IFJ, the coup “also disrupted the free access to internet, mobile services and radio stations.”

None of this is new, as Sudanese authorities have been making life difficult for journalists for several years. Last year, an arrest warrant was issued for the President of the Sudanese Journalists’ Union. And last December, 84 broadcast workers were fired over alleged loyalty to the former regime. More than 30 news websites were blocked in the run up to protests demanding the resignation of the government in July this year.

While the crackdown on the media may not be new, the response of Sudan’s organised workers to the military coup is something worth noting.

Workers at the state petroleum company, Sudapet, announced last week that they would join in the nationwide civil disobedience movement that had already been called by other trade unions. Meanwhile, the doctors’ union announced it was going on strike. The Unified Doctors’ Office, which is made up of different unions, was quoted as saying: “As we promised and previously announced we would enter a general strike across Sudan in the event of a coup, we are keeping to our word and timing completely.”

The international trade union movement was quick to speak out. The IFJ’s General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “The military must stop the crackdown on media and reestablish the free flow of information and access to the internet. The IFJ will closely monitor all the incidents against journalists to ensure press freedom and a free access to information in such a critical moment for Sudan.”

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) noted that “Sudan’s trade unions are at the forefront of widespread civil opposition to the military’s seizure of power.” Its General Secretary Sharan Burrow said : “We unequivocally condemn the actions of the military, which are designed to allow military leaders to fully regain control of key economic sectors and escape accountability for human rights violations over many years, much like the military junta in Myanmar.

“We stand in solidarity with the Sudanese trade unions and the people of the country who are opposing the military and demanding the resumption of a democratic transition. All those who have been detained by the military must be released immediately, and the authors of the coup must be held accountable for their murderous crimes against the people.”

The Sudanese people are showing incredible courage in standing up to the new military regime and they deserve the full support of trade unionists and democrats everywhere.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.