Helena Puig Larrauri
Despite imbalanced economic growth and widespread poverty, access to technology in Sudan is growing fast. Even though it is above the average for African countries in internet and mobile phone penetration, Sudan—with its repressive government—presents a very challenging environment for any form of activism. This case study explores the obstacles faced by three initiatives using digital tools: Sudan Vote Monitor, #Jan30 protests and #SudanRevolts, and how their use of such tools has evolved. These examples serve to explore two key lessons learned for Sudanese digital activists: First, when protests are difficult to hold in physical space, documenting them online can create a sense of movement. Second, when widespread protests cannot be sustained activists can effectively use digital media to amplify smaller activities and communicate them to a wider audience within Sudan and beyond. Finally, the case examines how two activist movements—Girifna and Sudan Change Now—are incorporating these lessons into their strategy and tactics.
Along the dusty roads that make up most of Khartoum, a smartphone is a rare sight. But in the green island that surrounds Ozone, a café in a high-end neighborhood of the capital, middle-class Sudanese youth tap away at their iPhones and sip lattes alongside a potpourri of Chinese businessmen, diplomats and international aid workers.
I bumped into my friend Omer in the carpark, on my way out. Leaning against his car, he stared at his phone and looked puzzled. On his screen he showed me a map of Khartoum with lots of red dots – an Ushahidi instance plotting peaceful protests. It was February 2011, and since January 30, Sudanese students and young people in Khartoum and several other major cities had been protesting against the al-Bashir regime. Omer complained: “The map’s supposed to be live. But every time I show up at a place, there’s no-one there!” The protests were being shut down faster than he could follow them on the map. “I guess at least this way we’ll know they happened.”
Sudan is the kind of place where one would expect digital activism to be very difficult, due to challenges in both the political and digital space. Most political freedoms are restricted: freedom of assembly is curtailed, religious freedom (though guaranteed in the Constitution) is often not respected and the media is censored and intimidated. In 2011, Freedom House listed Sudan in its “Worst of the Worst”, a report that details the world’s most repressive societies. Human rights groups accuse the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) of detaining and torturing persons opposed to the regime. Government censorship and control of internet services is present in Sudan, under the National Telecommunication Corporation. In 2009, the Open Net Initiative reported substantial filtering of internet tools, whilst acknowledging that the Sudanese government is very transparent about its filtering activities. The few digital campaigns that Sudanese activists have engaged in have faced many challenges. This case study outlines the obstacles faced by three initiatives using digital tools: Sudan Vote Monitor, #Jan30 protests and #SudanRevolts. These examples serve to explore lessons learned for Sudanese digital activists, and examine how two activist movements – Girifna and Sudan Change Now – are incorporating these lessons into their strategy and tactics.
Research for this case study was conducted prior to the August 2013 floods in Khartoum (which led to the emergence of #Nafeer) and the September 2013 protests across Sudan (which led to the emergence of #Abena). Digital activists (from Girifna, Sudan Change Now and newly formed groups) played an important role in both these events, displaying a growing awareness of digital strategy and tactics. It is too early to undertake a full analysis of #Nafeer and #Abena, but they certainly deserve further attention. This case study only includes a few remarks on #Nafeer and #Abena in the concluding section that can point the way for further research.
Sudan has experienced armed conflict in some part of its territory for most of its existence. Shortly after independence (in 1956), the new Khartoum government reneged on promises to southern Sudan to grant partial autonomy through a federal system. This led to the First Sudanese Civil War (1955 – 1972). During this war, Sudan had two brief periods of democratic rule and two longer periods of military rule imposed by coup d’état. The second of these coup leaders, General Gaafar Nimeiry, negotiated the Addis Ababa Agreement that ended the First Sudanese Civil War.
The government’s introduction of Islamic Law in 1983 triggered the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005). This imposition from the Khartoum-based government was the final trigger added to the tensions that already divided the country along several lines: centre versus periphery, Arab (north) versus African (north), and Muslim (north) versus Christian (south). In 1986, the newly elected president, Sadiq al-Mahdi, formed a coalition government that attempted to resolve differences by drafting a penal code that provided an alternative to sharia’. The coalition’s failure, and a coup d’etat shortly thereafter in 1989 by military leader Omar Al Bashir, ended attempts at reconciliation. The Second Civil War ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Nairobi on January 9, 2005. The Agreement granted autonomy to the south for six years and the right to a referendum on secession at the end of this interim period. The referendum was held on schedule in January 2011 and the Republic of South Sudan came into existence on July 9, 2011. The two countries have since had tense relations, with agreements still pending on border security, oil revenues and disputed territory (the Abyei Area). Internal armed conflict in Sudan has also continued after the separation of South Sudan. Conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan State and Blue Nile State pit local rebel groups against government forces, in disputes characterized by demands for recognition by marginalized groups.
The North-South wars, ongoing internal conflicts and widespread insecurity have left a legacy of under-development in Sudan. In 2012, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita for Sudan was 1500 US Dollars. Although agriculture continues to be the sector employing most of the labor force, the development of this sector has been neglected since oil was discovered in 2000. The resulting imbalanced growth process has led to the concentration of manufacturing and irrigated land at the center, and consequent huge disparity in development indicators across regions. In 2012, 46.5 percent of the Sudanese population lived below the poverty line. The incidence of poverty varies widely: only 25 percent of the Khartoum population versus 66 percent of the population of Northern Darfur. According to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the external debt of Sudan (which reached 38 billion US Dollars in 2010) is unsustainable. Sudan did not fare well on the Millennium Development Goals in 2012: 32 percent of under-five children were moderately or severely underweight; primary and secondary school enrollment stood at 67 percent and 22 percent respectively, with rates dropping to below 10 percent in some regions; access to improved water sources varies from 5 percent to 73 percent by state; malaria is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity. Nonetheless, access to technology in Sudan is growing fast. In 2009, 8.2 percent of the population were internet users; by 2010 this rose to 10.4 percent. In 2012, there were 6.5 million internet users or approximately 19 percent of the population. This places Sudan above the average for African countries (15 percent). In 2010, there were over 17 million mobile phone subscriptions in Sudan (including South Sudan), by 2011 there were over 23 million or approximately 70 percent of the population. Sudan has never had well-developed landline networks (only 0.9 percent of the population had access to landlines in 2009), making the adoption of mobile networks more rapid.
Since 2011, civil unrest has been sporadic but constant. In January 2011, fueled by the energy of the Arab Spring, an unsatisfactory election process and worsening economic conditions, a series of protests organized by youth and student movements sprung up across cities in Sudan, calling for an end to National Congress Party rule and government-imposed price increases. According to Human Rights Watch, the demonstrations resulted in widespread arrests and possibly ill treatment of those in custody. Despite arrests, sporadic protests continued throughout March and April. In December 2011, the arrest of Darfuri student leaders triggered a renewed bout of demonstrations culminating in an attempted sit-in at Khartoum University, which was dispersed by police and security services. With a deepening economic crisis, demonstrations throughout 2012 increasingly drew in people concerned about inflation and economic hardship, adding fuel to demands for regime change. June and July 2012 saw the most widespread and populous demonstrations in decades, and a strong-handed response from the government. Tear gas was used frequently to disperse protests, and live bullets were reportedly fired on occasion, leading to the death of at least 12 activists. The security services also increased arrests of prominent activists and used intimidation tactics, leading to reports of torture. Despite the repression, demonstrations flared up again in December 2012 following the death of 4 Darfuri student activists, and continued throughout January and February. In September 2013, the lifting of fuel subsidies resulted in widespread protests in Khartoum and across Sudan. The protests lasted ten days and drew more people into the streets than the June / July 2012 protests. They were met with an unprecedented level of state violence: thousands of activists were arrested and Amnesty International reported more than 200 killed.
Government repression extends to the digital sphere too. Censorship and control of internet services is officially present in Sudan, administered by the National Telecommunication Corporation (NTC). Media censorship was officially lifted in July 2005, but reinstated in 2008. Since then, a number of media outlets have been closed down for publishing content contrary to the views of the government. The 2001 National Strategy for Building the Information Industry states that the internet will be filtered for content that is “morally offensive and in violation of public ethics and order”. Filtering is handled by a special unit of the NTC, which screens internet media before it reaches users in Sudan. The NTC has an email address on its website where users can request to add / remove websites from this blacklist. Sites that facilitate anonymous browsing or circumventing internet filters are blocked, as are sites with content related to hacking and a few translation sites. In 2012, following protests over a YouTube video depicting the Prophet Mohamed, YouTube.com was blocked. The government also reportedly monitors internet communications, including reading email messages between private citizens, and reviewing content on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere. Some blogs have been temporarily blocked. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net 2013 categorises Sudan as “Not Free”, placing it among the bottom 14 countries in this category. The report also addresses claims from activists of hacked email accounts and Facebook pages and reports that they were forced to share passwords upon arrest. Not all restrictions on online content come from the Sudanese government: a number of downloadable software products are not available in Sudan as a result of US sanctions.
Sudan Vote Monitor
Sudan Vote Monitor (SVM) was the first attempt at civic activism in Sudan that was centered on a digital tool, and as a result was well documented in reports, media, blogs and crisismapping forums. SVM was an initiative of the Sudan Institute for Policy Research (SIRP) in partnership with Asmaa Society for Development to use connection technologies in support of independent monitoring by local Civil Society Organizations, local media and the general public of the Sudanese presidential elections in 2010 and the South Sudan referendum on independence in 2011. SVM aimed to support these groups by deploying a live map that tracked incidents related to the elections, including violence and fraud.
The SVM system used an Ushahidi platform that received reports via email, SMS and web. The system had three sources for reports:
- Independent local observers working for participating civil society organizations (CSOs).
- Observers reported back using standard reporting forms and / or text messages. When texting, observers used coded categories to relay information (e.g. 1 = election fraud).
- The general public could send reports via SMS (using a shortcode in the 2010 elections and a longcode in the 2011 referendum) or via the Ushahidi web platform. These crowdsourced reports were verified by trained volunteers.
- Selected press media and social media reports were monitored for the 2011 referendum by online volunteers from the Standby Task Force, an online network of volunteers.
Reports received in the platform were mapped and posted to the SVM website in real time by SVM staff and volunteers. Reports included information on people voting without IDs, lack of voter registration lists, polling centers opening very late or closing very early (or both), observers denied access to polling centers, ballot boxes missing and different versions of ballots. SVM also produced summary blog posts of reports received.
Introducing digital tools for grassroots monitoring As polls closed for the 2010 presidential elections, only 218 reports had been mapped by SVM. The results for the 2011 referendum were even lower, with only 96 reports mapped. In contrast, the Ushahidi election maps for Egypt (2010) and Liberia (2011) gathered over 2500 reports each. The small number of reports received by SVM is to some extent a reflection of calm polling with little to report, but that is not the whole story. Two other Sudanese civil society organizations conducting paper-based monitoring received thousands of reports. There were a number of difficulties specific to the deployment of SMS and internet technology that affected the performance of SVM. During the presidential elections, the SVM website was blocked for two days before it was reportedly unblocked following pressure from US Special Envoy to the Sudan, General Scott Gration. The interrupted service may have accounted for a drop in reporting.
Lack of coordination with civil society on the ground was a more significant problem for SVM. Due to inadequate funding, SIRP did not have a continued presence on the ground in Sudan. As a result, the local CSOs and local media whose monitoring work SVM planned to support were not contacted until very close to polling. Local CSOs had an established workflow by this point, and integrating SVM’s support at such a late stage proved difficult. Likewise, the local media already had a full program for coverage, and was not given enough time to plan coverage of the SVM message. Finally, SMS reporting numbers (shortcode for the presidential elections; longcode for the referendum) were on both occasions only made available by the telecoms provider and publicized a few days prior to polling. Equally problematic was the limited capacity to process reports demonstrated by participating civil society organizations. For the presidential elections, SIRP reports that over 500 reports were received, but only 200 made it onto the web platform. This might in part be due to insufficient training, but more likely was a result of insufficient human resources to cope with various reporting activities. Adding reports to the web platform was not top priority.
Fareed Zein, who led the SVM efforts, summarizes the challenges faced by the initiative:
“There were many challenges such as funding, technical systems integration with SMS provider, on the ground logistics for monitors, and interference and shut down by the government. It was only through sheer determination and an incredible team effort this campaign got off the ground.”
Despite these difficulties, SVM had one clear success: the initiative demonstrated to local civil society groups that it was possible to leverage crowdsourcing and technology to monitor elections, or other possible causes of conflict. In Fareed’s words:
“The main success of SVM was the introduction of the power of grass roots online reporting through Ushahidi. This has enabled successful adoption of the technology evidenced by a few follow-up Ushahidi campaigns, and a collaboration with Google to map South Sudan. In that sense SVM has exceeded my expectations and I consider it a success.”
Fareed’s assessment echoes the observations of Max Grömping in his study of various tech-enabled, crowdsourced election monitoring projects:
“The added value of crowdsourcing lies mainly in the strengthening of civil society via a widened public sphere and the accumulation of social capital with less clear effects on vertical and horizontal accountability.”
This first introduction of digital technologies was a way of modernizing civil society monitoring. It was an extension of an existing practice, rather than something radically new. As such, it had limited impact on the election and referendum events, but may have had some effect on the interest among civil society to take up digital technologies.
A more fundamental challenge to participation in Sudan Vote Monitor was the nature of the election itself. Fearing corruption, a majority of the major opposition parties eventually decided not to challenge the ruling National Congress Party, leaving many activists and civil society organizations feeling disillusioned with the possibility of change through an electoral process. The months following the Presidential elections were dominated by a sense of foreboding about the Referendum on the secession of South Sudan, and the eventual declaration of independence of South Sudan in July 2011. All the while, economic conditions worsened in northern Sudan and the region exploded into the Arab Spring.
In mid-January 2011, a group calling itself “Sharara Youth for Change” created a Facebook page calling for national protests in January 30. Days before, Zine AlAbidine Ben Ali had been forced out of power. In Egypt, protests were still raging and Hosni Mubarak would step down shortly after. Inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the group was responding to government-imposed price increases and the failures of the National Congress Party to lead Sudan towards a sustainable post-secession future. Facebook invitations stated:
“It is the right time to rise against oppression and despair…if the Egyptians and Tunisians can break the fear barrier, so can we. What are we waiting for? Our history says we can!”
Throughout January 30 and 31, students staged sporadic, short-lived protests in Khartoum, El Obeid, Wad Medani, and Kosti. There are no clear reports on the turnout at these protests, but social media talked of many small protests (dozens), a few larger ones (hundreds) and at least one numbering thousands. Common chants were “No to high prices, no to corruption” and “Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan together as one.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the Sudanese authorities responded with excessive use of force, dispatching armed riot police and national security forces both on the streets and in university premises. Many protesters were beaten on the streets and one protester was reportedly killed by live ammunition from the police. Over 100 people were arrested, including journalists and protest organizers, and many of those arrested were subjected to beatings and other ill treatment.
One more step to online awareness If Sudan Vote Monitor served to introduce Ushahidi to Sudanese civil society, the January 30 protests consolidated the use of this and other digital tools for organizing and communicating.
The protests were accompanied by a serious clamp-down on media online and off. SudanesOnline.com (a web forum where many protest announcements were posted) was blocked from January 30. Journalists covering the protests were targeted and arrested, and many newspapers were censored or cautioned. On February 1, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) confiscated the issue of Al-Midan (a Communist Party newspaper) covering the demonstrations. The following evening, NISS surrounded the Al-Midan Khartoum offices and arrested journalists, staff, a visitor, and the newspapers’ driver as they exited. There were reports that some journalists arrested were subjected to ill treatment and forced to give interrogators access to their email and Facebook accounts.
As other media shut down, activists resorted to Twitter (#Jan30) and live mapping (Jan 30 Sudan) to communicate what was happening on the ground. As well as mapping the location of protests that were occurring, the Jan 30 Sudan crowdmap published long lists with the names of those arrested. Omer’s frustration with the map as a tool to discover and join protests was echoed by other activists, so the map’s added value was more likely as a record of what was happening than as a tool for organizing.
In fact, it seems the use of digital tools – particularly Facebook – to organize was not optimal. One Sudanese activist explains:
“In the matter of using Facebook as our only connection yes we can recruit youth and talk to them about the problem that they are facing but in order to transfer from Facebook to the Sudanese reality you need a prepared arena, i.e., at least 50% of the city residents need to know what you will do before you do it. So I suggest more communication with the public before a month at least from the event and this needs creativity and persuasiveness.”
Tactically, Sudanese activists felt a critical mass was necessary for protests to hold successfully (and not be shut down before they started as was most often the case). For this critical mass to come onto the streets, at least 50 percent of the population had to receive the call to protest. Facebook does not reach 50 percent of the population. Its power was that it reached a smaller group who were particularly active (in the major cities). Provided enough lead-time, these activists could spread the message through their (offline) social networks. In #Jan30, the lead-time was simply not long enough to translate online communication into offline dissemination.
More importantly, the use of digital tools may have at times put activists at risk. The Jan 30 Sudan crowdmap provided instructions to online participants to maintain their anonymity, but the protest organizers offered no resources on safety. Calls to protest on Facebook were not followed up with coordination on the ground, and little support was provided to those who went beyond clicktivism and risked the streets. One activists explains the problem:
“People were really mobilized by the Facebook event of the first peaceful demonstration in Khartoum and the rest of Sudan cities, the number of people who hit attending button were more 14,000 this morning. At 9:00 am I went for a tour around downtown including Qasar Street where the demonstration would begin. Policemen trucks full of riot policemen were in all the street in downtown area. I returned to work for half an hour and then went to Qasar St. where I met two friends and went up with the road towards the presidential place at the end of the street. Apart from the massive policemen presence, there were young people who were wandered. I knew that they were confused about where the demonstration would begin. People did not know who with them and who against them.”
Dalia Haj-Omar explains that a Sudanese activist who was arrested in the January 30 protests gave her the following account:
“Most of us heard of the protests online from Facebook. We did not know the organizers in person and in most cases none of us knew who else would show up. There was a feeling of optimism as it was after the Tunisian revolt. As we arrived in pairs or small groups, we were at first fooled because we did not see any police presence—the Sudanese security agents were wearing civilian clothes and mingled well. They started arresting us as we arrived and forced us into vehicles. It was easy for them, we were not prepared and we could not resist given our limited numbers.”
Many Sudanese activists report being galvanized by the role that social media had (reportedly) played in Tunisia and Egypt. There were many exaggerated reports of the power of Facebook: for example, a picture of graffiti in Tunis reading “Merci le people, merci Facebook” went viral. Perhaps this enthusiasm led Sudanese activists to be naïve about the dangers of organizing protests via social media. In Sudan, the NISS regularly monitors content on social media, so it is reasonable to assume that Facebook groups and pages discussing protests were being monitored. Through the combination of being relatively few in number and organizing online, the protesters guaranteed that they would be quickly arrested. This hard lesson was not lost on future organizers.
Following the #Jan30 protests, there were a few small protests in February and March 2011, and then again in November 2011. However, it was not until June 2012 that Sudanese activists again took to the streets in significant numbers. Protests began on June 16, when students at the University of Khartoum organized responses to increased prices for meals and transportation. The University of Khartoum has a rich history of protest – among other things, it’s where the movement that led to the overthrow of the military government in 1964 started. Scattered protests followed that week, culminating in call for wide-spread protests on June 22 (after Friday prayers). Hundreds of protesters took to the streets that day in Omdurman, Khartoum North, Khartoum, Al-Daim, El Obeid and Sennar.
Unlike previous protests, the ones on June 22 were not exclusively student-led. What began in the universities quickly spread to young professionals in the cities who shared grievances about the future of Sudan post-separation. Thus, protests spread into neighborhoods and cities that had previously been quiet. Many activists also reported that the motivations for protest had moved beyond the initial response to austerity measures, with many calling for the President and his government to stand down. In July, President Omer Al-Bashir gave a speech where he called those protesting austerity measures and trying to overthrow him “elbow-lickers”, people attempting the impossible. And thus, the popular “elbow-licking Friday” protest took to the streets, with similar numbers to June 22.
Throughout these protests, police responded with force and tear gas. Close to 100 arrests were reported, including mass arrests of youth leaders such as Mohamad al-Boshi and members of Girifna, a grassroots activist group. Girifna leaders were among the main organizers of activities in the lead up to and during the #SudanRevolts protests. People involved in reporting the protests were also targeted. Maha El Sanosi, a prominent human rights activist, and Usamah Mohamad, a citizen journalist who had spoken to AlJazeera’s “The Stream”, were both arrested. Nagla’a Sid Ahmad, a video blogger who was very active during #SudanRevolts, left the country because of harassment and threats to her family. Egyptian journalist Salma Elwardany was detained, put under house arrest and eventually deported.
More effective, also riskier Many of the organizers of the June and July protests were keenly aware of the failings in the use of digital tools to organize for #Jan30. Dalia Haj-Omar, a Girifna activist, wrote in her blog about #Jan30:
“Not only were the organizers of this protest not known even to the mainstream civil society, but the call for protests was limited to Facebook, and lacked coordination and clear communication with civil society groups, political opposition parties and most importantly, normal citizens. The call for protests was within a week after the creation of the Facebook page, not giving enough time for fans of the page to grow in number, to communicate, to create strong links, to discuss strategies, and to share tips on how to handle police violence or arrests, and how and where to assemble before heading to the assigned protest locations.”
This time, social media campaigns were more effective and consistent. On Facebook, information on protests was shared and distributed well in advance. On Twitter, #SudanRevolts and its Arabic equivalent #السودان_تنتفض gathered many followers. Not only were digital campaigns more effective, activists were also more aware of the bias in using digital means, as the tweets below demonstrate.
For elbow-licking Friday, a few activists also started to share posters through social media, such as the one below. Although this was not a common practice, it showed the beginnings of a new digital tactic.
Poster reads: “We licked the elbow and there is no going back. Revolution until victory.”
With more effective use of digital media also came greater risk to those using it. Activists speculated that the police and security forces used Facebook and Twitter both to track protest activity and to identify the activists that should be arrested. Some activists report that while in detention, security officers quoted from their Facebook and Twitter accounts. NISS officers also showed an interest in obtaining information from the phones of detainees, as detailed in Usamah Mohammed’s account of his detention. These reports and speculations led some to believe that greater digital presence and online publicity at times put activism on the streets at risk.
Another important difference of the #SudanRevolts protests is that many of the leaders were better known – both to the public and to the security forces. In part this was a deliberate strategy of certain activists, particularly those in the Girifna leadership, who believed that people were more likely to take to the streets if they saw that an organized group was behind the call to protest. But in part it was a result of #Jan30 protests, where many activists were first identified. To take the case of Usamah Mohammed again, his arrest on June 22 at a protest in Khartoum allegedly happened not because of his actions that day but because a NISS agent recognized him as one of the leaders of #Jan30 protests.
The June – July protests were eventually stopped by a security clampdown, but they also forced the government to backtrack on a number of economic policies and reinstate subsidies on key commodities. Protests and arrests have continued since #SudanRevolts, spiking again in December 2012 and January 2013, and will likely continue for months to come. Sudanese activists will also continue to use digital tools, but two slightly different strategies for digital activism are emerging. Girifna and Sudan Change Now are two of the largest grassroots activist groups, both defined by three common characteristics: (1) non-violent, direct action practices; (2) impartiality with respect to opposition political parties, and (3) neutrality with respect to funding (they do not accept funds from foreign governments or organizations, only from individuals). Each group has taken different lessons on digital activism from #Jan30 and #SudanRevolts, resulting in contrasting strategies.
“On October 30 of 2009, three university students gathered in Omdurman, Sudan and discussed the creation of a pro-democracy movement that could unite Sudanese people and the opposition parties to defeat the National Congress Party (NCP) in the 2010 general election.”
This was the founding meeting of Girifna. In the lead-up to the Presidential elections of 2010, Girifna activists distributed leaflets and held “mukhatabat” (Arabic for “street talks”) challenging the National Congress Party and addressing issues of corruption, economic disparity, political freedoms and voter education. Girifna’s activities covered Khartoum, Madani, Gedaref, Al-Jazeera, Atbara, Al-Obeid, Meroe, Dongola and Nyala. The group has grown to have hundreds of active members.
The withdrawal of all opposition parties from the elections was a huge blow to this initial Girifna campaign:
“It was a moment of grave disappointment to Girifna members, many of whom had endured harassment, arrest, and torture in their efforts to defeat the NCP.”
Seeing no future in change through elections, the group turned to organizing humanitarian aid for Abyei and South Sudan, in part to raise awareness of marginalized groups. Girifna also continued its public education activities, targeting youth across the country, the Sudanese diaspora and a global audience. Girifna activists produced poems, songs, music videos, advertisements and a newsletter to spread their message. Through education and organizing, Girifna activists played a pivotal role in the #Jan30 protests and the #SudanRevolts protests.
As the movement grew, their use of digital tools increased. Dalia Haj-Omar explains:
“Since the beginning of the movement, Girifna has emphasized utilizing technology and new media, including Facebook and creating a website. Girifna communicates through on-line chats, emails, and skype meetings.”
The Girifna Facebook page has over eighty thousand likes and its website is constantly updated with news items. Girifna also produces a series of popular posters that are shared online (see for example below) and keeps a YouTube channel with videos on Sudanese political events and popular messages. Girifna’s “soap ad” was particularly popular.
Girifna also uses social media for advocacy purposes. For example, in November 2012 they ran the #Jalila8Months campaign in support of Jalila Khamis, a woman from the Nuba Mountains who had been detained after speaking out on a Youtube video about the plight of civilians in the Nuba Mountains. The Facebook and Twitter campaign led to coverage in the international media, and in December 2012 (after 9 months of detention) Jalila was finally allowed a trial. She was released in January 2013 as there was not enough proof of the charges against her.
A popular Girifna poster, taken from their Facebook page.
Shortly after the Presidential elections, the policy and security forces began harassing people thought to be associated with Girifna in an attempt to dismantle the movement. This escalated during both the #Jan30 protests and #SudanRevolts, partly due to the greater exposure afforded them through social media. The police and security forces have detained Girifna members, raided their homes, confiscated printing materials and engaged in sexual harassment, with a particularly horrific episode leading to the gang rape of Girifna member Safia Ishaq (who came out publicly to denounce this and is now exiled in Juba).
As a result of ongoing harassment, several Girifna members have gone into hiding or fled Sudan. The outflow of opposition members from Sudan has also affected more institutionalized organizations that have spoken out or acted against the government. There is a growing community of opposition members in Uganda, Kenya and Egypt, and some civil society organizations have been shut down in Sudan and shifted their headquarters outside Sudan.
Creating a single narrative From a Girifna activist:
“I have seen the euphoria amongst Sudanese youth activists, after Tunis and during Egypt’s revolution that made those activists conclude, rather naively, that it is the digital tools that make revolutions and not the people.”
Girifna activists are keenly aware of the limitations of digital tools for their purposes, and understand that organizing on the ground cannot be replaced by social media. Dalia’s analysis of the lessons to be learned from Egypt and Tunis goes on to say:
“The main message we are getting from Egyptian activists about the role technology played in mobilizing the masses, is that new-media and social networking tools helped provide a platform where, “a single narrative that talks about revolution” can be shared with a diverse public that was otherwise difficult to reach.”
This understanding of the need to create a narrative informs Girifna’s strategy on education campaigns (using online and offline tools) to connect with and inform more people. Girifna activists explain that the use of digital tools has become even more important after the separation of South Sudan because of the government clampdown on freedom of the press. More than 16 newspapers have been closed in the past two years, and the remaining ones are controlled by the government (e.g AlIntihaba).
To this lesson from the Arab Spring, Girifna have added what they learned from activism in Sudan: it’s important to know who is calling you to action. Hence their choice to make their digital campaigns very public, with the Girifna name and logo prominently associated with public education campaigns and calls to action. Girifna activists on Facebook and Twitter also used their real names, giving up anonymity in a defiant move that they hoped would bring more people on the streets. The Girifna website details the identities of detained activists associated with the movement, giving their first and last names, and often providing their pictures too.
This strategy of public facing, branded education campaigns has been very successful, but some activists have questioned whether it is sustainable given the extent of repression in Sudan and the consequences for activists. Sudan Change Now has some misgivings about this strategy (as will be explored in the following section), but also agree that Girifna’s education strategy has been very successful in the short term:
“Girifna’s main successes is in communicating the feeling of hope and empowerment when it first began in terms of giving people an alternative concept of change that is outside the general sentiments that opposition parties are useless etc. This influence in public opinion really helped especially with youth in Khartoum.”
Girifina also managed to successfully communicate their vision and the work of non-violent activists in Sudan to a broader audience outside the country, most notably through a feature on AlJazeera International.
“With time we realized that our online presence has helped us have a voice both inside and outside Sudan. I think this is mainly because the “institutionalized” civil society in Sudan communicates badly and rarely, and the rest of the world and the Sudanese are always looking for alternative perspectives.”
Sudan Vote Monitor relied on existing CSOs and their offline communications processes. In contrast, Girifna’s communication strategy was ‘born digital’ and could thus effectively integrate digital tools to spread its message more broadly. Girifna is aware of the risk its activists face in part as a result of this public-facing campaigns and strong branding. They are also becoming aware that this may eventually have an effect on their ability to organize on the ground. Still, they remain hopeful:
“Even during #SudanRevolts when most of our members had to go into hiding or leave, we managed to coordinate the street and mobilize it. Although this showed our popularity on the ground, it also showed the limitations and taught us a lot about our weaknesses and the work that needs to be done to get more people out to the streets.”
Sudan Change Now
“SCN believes strongly in peaceful means of resistance and works on the public mobilization at the grass roots level. SCN supports, facilitates and initiates public acts of resistance with a varied focus on specialised groups of society such as war affected populations, student bodies, professional groups/ unions. The ultimate goal of SCN is to create a conducive space for democratic transformation that can last and because of this it works on creating sufficient public awareness towards the ideas of change and works on ensuring that citizens’ level of awareness of civic rights are in place.”
Sudan Change Now was started by a group of activists in 2010 who had been involved in other youth movements (including Girifna), but felt the need for a group with a broader target audience and a different focus. SCN’s membership base is older (age 28 to 40 approximately, while Girifna’s is mostly under 30). They focus on raising public awareness on rights and government policies, particularly exposing shortfalls of the government. They also support groups working to campaign on a variety of rights issues, including health, land ownership, religious tolerance and illegal detention.
During #SudanRevolts, SCN activists set up a map of the protests. Unlike the Jan 30 Sudan map, this map did not attempt to do a live update of what was happening on the streets and did not intend to organize protest activity. Rather, the map was curated and updated by activists at the end of each day and provided a comprehensive repository of activity, to counter the lack of media coverage and ensure all activities were recorded for posterity. With dedicated curators, the map was much more complete than the Jan 30 Sudan map – on June 24, for example, 50 separate reports were added. The map also reached international media, appearing for example on AlJazeera’s “The Stream”. The map continues to be curated by SCN, recording activities the movement supports, and to date has over 800 reports (about 150 of demonstrations; the remainder on related topics).
Amplifying offline activity SCN uses social media actively, but understands that its membership base needs much communication offline too. In their words:
“SCN realizes the limitations of internet due to the low internet access in Sudan. However, we also know that the internet, specifically social media does have influence with Khartoum based youth who can play a major role in creating change.”
Beyond this understanding of their base, SCN also takes a strategic view of digital tools. The movement has remained a little more in the shadow, deliberately choosing to have a less public, less branded online presence. This strategy, they explain, is born from observing the challenges faced by other movements such as Girifna:
“I think the main lesson learned from Girifna is that communication should be proportional to actual existence of the movement on the ground. SCN tries hard not to create an over “branded” movement in order to not create any exaggerated expectations of the public. SCN also understands that protection of members is protection of the movement’s effectiveness at this point and that making public associations can have a serious damage to the progress of change in the country and therefore SCN does not always want to be perceived as “leading” an event.”
SCN’s organizing strategy is to focus on building the capacity of smaller groups working on specific causes, with an understanding that by supporting these smaller groups and causes, a broader public alliance will gather gradual momentum towards public mobilization against the current government. Their digital strategy in many ways reflects this organizing strategy by focusing on amplifying small offline activities through a strategic use of Facebook, YouTube and the Ushahidi map.
“During times where protests are underway, digital tools support in protecting protesters and ensuring more room for media attention and coverage. The Ushahidi map is a useful tool when protests are heightened since it efficiently covers incidents as they occur.”
The key difference from Girifna and other activist movements in Sudan is that digital tools follow action on the ground. SCN activists explain this is a way to ensure the safety of activists. They believe that Girifna may have made a tactical mistake by having too much online publicity prior to events. SCN activists explain that online activity can at times exaggerate the presence of activities on the ground, creating a false sense of security for those who actually choose to go out. This publicity exposed Girifna activists to a security crackdown, which has slowed down their effect on the ground. In their own words:
“Girifna’s challenges may be related to the issue of relying heavily on an online audience […] who may not always be initiators of change – it’s not clear whether they will go out in a protest unless following a large number of people.”
This points to a major shortcoming of digital media for organizing – if most of the enthusiasm is from people who will not come out into the streets, it creates a very dangerous situation for activists. It also explains why SCN focuses its use of digital media on amplifying offline activity. Coverage of demonstrations and other activities through digital media have helped get the protester’s messages out given the limitations on journalism in Sudan. And as they amplify the voices of those on the streets, SCN also integrates their own messages into their coverage.
“Digital tools also help with civic education and NCP exposure campaigns.”
“SCN’s communication strategy is based on the overall goal of deconstructing the NCP “brand” which is the result of decades of strategized propaganda using all the key state media instruments.”
SCN has a very deliberate strategy to construct an alternative narrative in Sudan, building up from the small grassroots campaigns it supports and bringing them all together under a common set of slogans to slowly show they are all part of a broader movement.
“Slogans and posters produced by SCN play an important part in creating awareness, influencing public opinion and mobilization. The slogans and images used are oftentimes evoking of feelings of hope and empowerment with language use that is culturally effective (triggering certain culturally relevant sentiments).”
Sudan digital activists
Over the past three years, the use of digital media by Sudanese activists has evolved. Sudan Vote Monitor introduced digital tools to traditional civil society actors. The protest movements of #Jan30 created greater online awareness among newer activists, who by the time of the #SudanRevolts protests were using digital media more effectively (and also at greater risk). Since then, the two largest activist groups – Girifna and Sudan Change Now – have been consistently using digital media to create an alternative narrative to that offered by official sources and to amplify the reach of (relatively small) offline activities.
This progress from awareness, to un-planned, chaotic use, to deliberate, tactical deployment of digital media has not been smooth. The comparative failure of Sudan Vote Monitor shows that traditional Sudanese civil society was not strong enough to turn digital-enabled election monitoring into an effective elections situation room. Using SMS reports and an online map could have given CSOs engaged in Sudan Vote Monitor a formidable tool to quickly react to reports of electoral violence or fraud. The key to understanding this failure is that Sudan Vote Monitor added a digital tool to an existing practice rather than introducing a new tactic for promoting accountability. Had the CSOs involved in SVM been strong enough to use digital media to hold institutions to account, they could have moved beyond electoral monitoring and become a clearing-house of civic reports, providing a transparent way to monitor government activities.
Yet SVM’s clear achievement was to introduce digital media to civil society in Sudan. The #Jan30 and #SudanRevolts protests consolidated the use of digital tools for organizing and communicating. Girifna and Sudan Change Now understand that digital tools are crucial to their success. Unlike the CSOs involved in SVM, these newer Sudanese activist groups have adopted digital tools from the start. Through the protest events, they learned two key uses for digital media in Sudan.
First, when protests are difficult to hold in physical space, documenting them online can create a sense of movement, even if such a movement has a hard time being visible offline. Facebook communications may have not been a great organizing tool for the #Jan30 and #SudanRevolts protests, but it did allow activist groups across University campuses and beyond to become aware of each other and realize that a bigger movement was emerging.
Second, widespread protests are unlikely to be sustained in the current repressive environment. However, activists can effectively use digital media to amplify smaller activities and communicate them to a wider audience within Sudan and beyond. As Omer said at the start of this case study, at least this way people know protests are happening. Girifna and Sudan Change Now use their websites, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Ushahidi to spread the word among a growing audience. The stories they put out complicate government narratives and create a new, alternative narrative.
Where these activist groups differ is not in the reasons they use digital tools, but rather in how they use them, their choice of tactics. The key tension is between how much to use digital tools to make activities public and create momentum, whilst balancing safety concerns and remaining true to activity on the ground. Speaking to the public outside Sudan is important, but the activism should also remain rooted in local participation. More importantly, online engagement is important to encourage participation, but sometimes the activism remains online only and does not make it into the streets. One demonstrated danger of online activism in Sudan is that it may give activists a false sense of security – they may believe that they will be part of a crowd, while no crowd is forthcoming. In organizing online, activist leaders may have led people towards very dangerous behavior.
Sudan Change Now and Girifna respond to these tensions differently, and show us two ways that thoughtful digital activism can be effective in even the most unlikely of places. These activists are well aware of the risks they take – online and offline. Their understanding of the role of digital media is far from naïve clicktivism. It has grown out of experimentation over the past three years and is developing into a clear strategy to construct an alternative narrative. The emergence of alternative narratives (largely via digital media) was critical to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Observing the strategies of Girifna and Sudan Change Now, there seems to be a common theory of change about digital activism, that goes something like this: if activists can communicate their messages online, then they will produce a more creative narrative that inspires a wider audience. This inspiration through an alternative narrative is crucial in building the momentum for peaceful change in Sudan.
Addendum: on #Nafeer and #Abena
Research for this case study was conducted prior to the August 2013 floods in Khartoum (which led to the emergence of #Nafeer) and the September 2013 protests across Sudan (which led to the emergence of #Abena). It is too early to undertake a full analysis of #Nafeer and #Abena; what follows are a few remarks that can point the way for further research.
Digital activists (from Girifna, Sudan Change Now and newly formed groups) played an important role in both these events. During the floods in Khartoum, the lack of response from the Government led to an unprecedented civic response, coordinated by the Nafeer initiative. Nafeer used many traditional civic organizing techniques and ran an impressive on the ground response, coordinating with UN relief efforts. They also organized heavily using online tools, most notably a digital flood map.
The September protests organized under the slogan “Abena” (“We Refuse”) were a combination of peaceful demonstrations and rioting. Initially triggered by the removal of fuel subsidies and associated austerity measures, the heavy-handed response of the Government soon drew increased support from a broad section of society. Sudan’s doctors (a powerful association) went on strike. The director of the Khartoum morgue resigned rather than sign death certificates indicating “natural causes” for protestors shot by security forces. Digital activists were instrumental in calling for and documenting many protests, using Twitter, Facebook and a dedicated digital map.
Both #Nafeer and #Abena demonstrate a growing awareness among Sudanese activists of digital strategy and tactics. As they become more effective at using online tools, digital activists are increasingly becoming a key target for the Government. Nafeer activists were reportedly arrested by security forces, largely in response to concerns that online publicity of their activities was damaging the image of the Government. Arrest of activists during the #Abena protests was much more widespread, but for the first time activists were being targeted exclusively for their online activities. The Government also shut down the internet on September 25 for 24 hours.
Despite the intensity of the protests, they have now faded and the austerity measures will still be implemented. Some commentators have argued that an over-reliance on digital tactics is a key reason why the protest movement is unsuccessful. “Today’s demonstrators may possess cellphones and Twitter feeds but they do not have a fraction of that organizational capability,” says Alex de Waal. This position is backed up by other research that shows digital activism is “organized around a ‘not’ not a ‘go’” and is “not easily steerable towards complex, strategic political action”. DeWaal goes on to identify the same two concerns that this case study argues digital activists themselves have about their tactics:
“The government has penetrated cyberspace and is using various tactics to monitor and divide the opposition. Intelligence agencies can turn social media against its practitioners, with false pages and announcements aimed to mislead and entrap activists, or to sow distrust among them by implying—truly or falsely—that some of their members have been turned and are security informers.”
“Much of the Twitter conversation was in English or French, and even that in Arabic often seemed aimed at an external audience. The focus of at least some of the activists was borrowing and applying a script derived from a particular narrative of the Arab Spring, or even the Enough Project, rather than exploring how best to innovate methods appropriate to the specific circumstances of Sudan.” 
These concerns are certainly valid. Yet the short history of digital activism outlined in this case study suggests a more hopeful conclusion. Digital activists in Sudan are learning and becoming more strategic with each iteration. The Abena umbrella allowed existing youth movements and professional groups to work collaboratively to a much greater extent than they had managed to in the past, channeling common resources and coordinating activities. The movement was very active offline, but much coordination and common branding happened online. Digital activists are also very aware of the need to construct an alternative narrative. In a recent article on youth activism, Khaled Mustafa Medani explains:
“Nonetheless, student and youth leaders acknowledge that support born out of shared grievances rather than ideology is deeply vulnerable, not only to the coercive apparatus, but also to deep-seated problems of public awareness and coordination.”
#Nafeer and #Abena are steps on the path to constructing a new narrative and a new social reality in Sudan. Digital activists will continue to play an important role in the months and years to come.
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About the Author
Helena Puig Larrauri (@helenapuigl) is an independent consultant, focusing on the use of technology to promote peace and prevent conflict. She has worked on projects in conflict and post-conflict environments including Sudan, Libya, Cyprus, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq. Helena is also on the Board of Advisors of the Standby Task Force, an online volunteer technical community that she co-founded in 2010.
- “Omer” is a pseudonym. For reasons of safety, many names in this case study have been changed or omitted.↵
- “Worst of the Worst 2011: The World’s Most Repressive Societies | Freedom House.”↵
- “Sudan | OpenNet Initiative.”↵
- Some commentators note that these lines of division have emerged in more recent history and are the result of politicisation and use of state media to create this reality. See for example Kustenbauder, “The Politicization of Religious Identity in Sudan”.↵
- “Status of MDGs in Sudan in 2012.”↵
- Sudan Millennium Development Goals Progress Report 2010.↵
- “Status of MDGs in Sudan in 2012.”↵
- “Internet Usage Statistics for Africa.”↵
- “Sudan | Africa.”↵
- “Internet Usage Statistics for Africa.”↵
- “Nyala Revolts نيالا تنتفض | GIRIFNA.”↵
- “Attacks on Journalists in Yemen, Sudan Amid Street Protests - Committee to Protect Journalists.”↵
- “Amnesty International Says More Than 200 Killed in Sudan Protests - Sudan Tribune: Plural News and Views on Sudan.”↵
- “Sudan Country Profile.”↵
- “How Sudan Used the Internet to Crush Protest Movement | World | McClatchy DC.”↵
- “Sudan Revolts, Government Cracks Down on Dissent | Electronic Frontier Foundation.”↵
- “Regime Repression Stifles Sudan’s Net Freedom - Index on Censorship | Index on Censorship.”↵
- “U.S. Sanctions and Digital Activists | Let Them Talk.”↵
- SVM appeared on FastCompany (), Global Voices (), the Ushahidi blog (http://blog.ushahidi.com/2010/11/03/report-on-sudan-vote-monitor/), and the Standby Task Force blog (http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/connecting-the-crowd-notes-on-sudan-vote-monitor/).↵
- SIRP is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research organization based in the United States, dedicated to the promotion of knowledge about The Sudan. For more information, see www.sudaninstitute.org↵
- The initiative also received technical support from Ushahidi (www.ushahidi.com) and eMoshka (www.emoshka.org).↵
- Meier, “Do ‘Liberation Technologies’ Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive States and Civil Society?”. The election period was scheduled from April 11 to 13, but was extended through to April 15 due to logistical challenges. The SVM website was blocked on April 12 and 13.↵
- Personal correspondence with source.↵
- Grömping, “Many Eyes of Any Kind?”.↵
- “Sharara” means spark in Arabic.↵
- Quoted in https://jan30sudan.crowdmap.com/page/index/2↵
- “Sudan: People’s Revolution in the Making? · Global Voices.” and http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=U6fL1besZPg↵
- “Sudan: Violent Response to Peaceful Protests | Human Rights Watch.”↵
- “Civil Resistance: Early Lessons Learned from Sudan’s #Jan30 | iRevolution.”↵
- @sudaneye quote in https://jan30sudan.crowdmap.com/page/index/2↵
- “Thoughts, Hopes & Speculations: What Are Sudanese Youth Learning from Online Activism?”.↵
- “How to Use Facebook If You Are a Repressive Regime | iRevolution.”↵
- “Sudan Regime Targets Citizen and International Journalists استهداف حكومة السودان المدوّنيين السودانيين والمراسلين الدولين | GIRIFNA.”↵
- “Thoughts, Hopes & Speculations: What Are Sudanese Youth Learning from Online Activism?”.↵
- To back up the suspicions of activists, recent research by The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto showed the extensive use of malware to target Syrian opposition groups (“A Call to Harm: New Malware Attacks Target the Syrian Opposition.”). Researchers at the Citizen Lab have found evidence that there are similarly powerful and stealthy surveillance capabilities present in Sudan [citation needed here].↵
- Personal conversations with source.↵
- “Thoughts, Hopes & Speculations: What Are Sudanese Youth Learning from Online Activism?”.↵
- https://www.facebook.com/Girifna and http://www.girifna.com/↵
- “About من نحن | GIRIFNA.”↵
- Personal correspondence with source.↵
- In June 2011, an armed conflict started in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan State between the Khartoum government and a rebel group (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North). The Khartoum government has since regularly bombed military and civilian targets, driving most of the civilian population to seek refuge in South Sudan. Those that haven’t made it to South Sudan hide in caves, facing regularly bombing and risking starvation.↵
- For a personal account from an exiled activist, see http://www.girifna.com/8124↵
- “Thoughts, Hopes & Speculations: What Are Sudanese Youth Learning from Online Activism?”.↵
- See for example: “Update on Political Detainees In First Month of Sudan Revolts | GIRIFNA.”↵
- Personal correspondence with source.↵
- Personal correspondence with source.↵
- Personal correspondence with source.↵
- “Crisis Mapping the End of Sudan’s Dictatorship? | iRevolution.”↵
- [This is from an email from Sudan Change Now. They have asked that I quote the movement, not the individual who wrote the email.]↵
- Ibid For a slideshow of popular posters see: http://www.sudanchangenow.org/ (hover over the poster for English translation of the slogan).↵
- For more on the links between election monitoring and citizen monitoring, see: “What Comes after Election Monitoring? Citizen Monitoring of Infrastructure. | ... My Heart’s in Accra.”↵
- http://www.girifna.com/ and http://www.sudanchangenow.org/↵
- Barkai, Revolution: Share!.↵
- “UNFPA - Youth to the Rescue as Flooding Paralyzes Sudan.”↵
- “Abeer Khairy, The Woman Behind The Khartoum Flood Map - The Daily Beast.”↵
- “Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum | African Futures.”↵
- “Protesters Are Dodging Sudan’s Internet Shutdown with a Phone-Powered Crowdmap | Motherboard.”↵
- “Sudan’s Nafeer Targeted by Government Security Agents - Sudan Tribune: Plural News and Views on Sudan.”↵
- “Social Media Activist Held in Dragnet after Sudan Demos | Capital News.”↵
- “Sudan Blacks Out Internet to Hide Brutal Suppression of Protests - Index on Censorship | Index on Censorship.”↵
- “Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum | African Futures.”↵
- “Networked Politics from Tahrir to Taksim: Is There a Social Media-fueled Protest Style? | DMLcentral.”↵
- “Making Sense of the Protests in Khartoum | African Futures.”↵
- Mustafa Medani, “Between Grievances and State Violence.”↵