Black Monday: The Political and Economic Dimensions of Sudan’s Urban Riots

The sudden death of John Garang de Mabior, the long-time leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) recently named first vice president of Sudan, unleashed a torrent of anger and protest in Khartoum. Suspecting that the July 30 helicopter crash that killed Garang and 13 others was not an accident, thousands of young men and women took to the streets of the Sudanese capital, setting fire to scores of businesses and numerous government offices and public facilities. In the ensuing three days of rioting, which spread to the southern city of Juba, as many as 130 people were killed and thousands more were injured. The Khartoum government, SPLM lieutenants and Garang’s widow Rebecca insisted that the crash was accidental and appealed, somewhat in vain, for calm before the disturbances finally fizzled out. Garang’s August 6 funeral in Juba was quiet, but the rioting has laid bare structural tensions that persist as the Khartoum government and the SPLM seek to consolidate a permanent peace on the north-south front of Africa’s longest-running civil war.

Like the war itself, the unrest on what Sudanese term "black Monday" has been widely depicted as driven by ethnic or religious hostility between the "Arab" Muslim north and the "African" Christian and animist south. But while Garang’s death was the immediate spark, the three days of riots were not a spontaneous protest against "Arab" northerners by southern Sudanese "Africans." Rather, the riots were ultimately a reflection of economic and political grievances long harbored by a wide range of poor and marginalized Sudanese — southerners and others — living in and around Khartoum’s urban fringe. The disturbances, like Sudan’s civil war, are best understood as the outcome of frustration resulting from years of neglect and political repression of the periphery by the central government.

Ethnic and Racial Enmities

The riots began in the commercial districts of al-Suq al-Arabi and al-Suq al-Markazi in downtown Khartoum. They then quickly spread throughout the metropolitan area to the neighborhoods on the city’s perimeter that are home to an estimated four million persons displaced during the north-south war’s latest (and, it is hoped, last) phase from 1983-2005. Few areas of Khartoum were spared. In the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods of Khartoum North (Bahri) and Riyadh, affluent residents could only watch as a number of homes were looted and burned. Hardest hit, however, were working-class neighborhoods like Hajj Yusuf, al-Kalakla, al-Maamura and Dar al-Salam, where the vast majority of the deaths and injuries occurred.

On the surface, the assaults and looting throughout greater Khartoum did take on an ethnic and racial dimension. In areas near the displaced persons camps, and in the generally ethnically heterogeneous working-class neighborhoods in Omdurman, some southern youth clearly targeted lighter-skinned "Arab" residents. These residents belong to branches of the Jaaliyyin, the Arabized ethnic groups from the central and northern regions of Sudan who are perceived by many to have monopolized control of successive regimes in Khartoum. While the rioters burned and looted the homes and commercial establishments of these groups, many purposely spared the "darker"-skinned residents and shopowners. (Many "Arab" Sudanese are in fact just as "dark" as non-Arab southerners; the difference lies in claimed lineage, not in skin color per se.)

In Hajj Yusuf, as well as in the middle-class districts of Bahri, home of the traditional "Arab" quarters, ethnic and racial enmities have indeed emerged. Many local residents have closed up their stores, boarded up their homes and asked neighbors to keep a look out for suspicious "southern"-looking individuals in the neighborhood. Even more disturbing, there are have been several counter-attacks on southerners by residents of Hajj Yusuf and al-Maamura in the "spirit of self-defense," and a number of Arab areas have set up neighborhood watch committees.

The government-held garrison towns of Juba and Renk in the Upper Nile province witnessed ethnic violence against Arab merchants, referred to by some southerners with the pejorative term "Jallaba." In Renk, non-Muslim southern rioters entered and destroyed local mosques, while in Juba over 250 Arab merchants saw their stores burned and looted. The northern Arab merchants had to seek the refuge of government security forces after fleeing their homes. The attacks against "Jallaba" in the south were a result of a long history of commercial competition and exploitation (including the involvement of some Arab merchants in selling southerners as slaves).

Clouded Vision of Pluralism

As many Sudanese note, the irony is that just prior to Garang’s demise there was an emerging new acceptance among both northern and southern Sudanese that a "New Sudan" based on ethnic and racial tolerance and political pluralism was both possible and desirable. Garang himself would be the inspiration for such a "New Sudan."

By the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the Khartoum regime and the SPLM in Naivasha, Kenya on January 9, 2005, the veteran rebel commander Garang was to be sworn in as first vice president to Sudanese President Gen. Omar al-Bashir exactly six months later. Garang was indeed included in the government on July 9, inaugurating a six-year "interim period" that is supposed to culminate in national elections in 2009 and a referendum on self-determination for the south in 2011. The CPA also made Garang president of a new South Sudan Government that is to have extensive autonomy and mediate between Khartoum and the southern provinces. Khartoum and the South Sudan Government are to split oil revenues 50-50 in the interim period.

Initial anxiety that the CPA will now collapse was ameliorated on August 4, when Bashir named Salwa Kiir Mayardit, Garang’s deputy in the SPLM, to the first vice presidency and the presidency of the south.

But Salwa Kiir may be less committed to the vision of a "New Sudan" than was his late predecessor. The greater danger after Garang’s death is that, if the CPA is not implemented speedily, the fallout from the August 1-3 riots could easily derail hopes of spreading that vision at the popular level. Following the riots, many residents of Arab descent talk openly of a "unified" and Arabized Sudan with closer ties to Egypt, while southerners are more than ever convinced that the "lack of respect" paid to Garang indicates that there are two Sudans and that the South must be "liberated" and fully independent of the north. Southerners cite the initial bulletin of the Sudanese news agency that Garang was not dead, as well as delays in declaring a period of official mourning and organizing a formal investigation into the crash, as evidence for the "lack of respect."

Regardless of whether these complaints are justified, they express very real sentiments of southerners vis-a-vis Khartoum. As Rebecca Garang eloquently put it, the ethnic and racial violence in what had been one of the region’s most peaceful capital cities is a wakeup call to Sudanese. The message is clear: without the implementation of the CPA and the transition to genuine democracy, the riots could cement the positions of hardliners on both sides of the Sudan question.

Socio-Economic Roots

Despite the riots’ undoubted ethnic dimension, they also reflected deep anger at the very difficult social and economic conditions facing the most marginal communities in the capital. Rising social inequality, coupled with an inflation rate of over 40 percent and the paucity of social and health services, has fed a groundswell of resentment among millions of Sudanese living on the urban fringe. While there are no official figures as of yet, property damage is estimated in the millions of dollars. These estimates include the cost of the destruction by arson of several car dealerships belonging to Sudan’s most prominent business families, as well as grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, gold stores, and vegetable and meat market stalls. As the general secretary of the Khartoum Merchant Association, Muhammad al-Atiyya, put it: "The trading sector suffered the most and paid the highest price for Garang’s death." The protesters themselves did not loot the commercial establishments; the robberies seem to have been committed by criminal opportunists who followed in the protests’ wake.

The socio-economic roots of the riots are also evident in the evolution of the protests in Khartoum, as well as in southern towns with mixed northern-southern communities. While the protests and banditry began in the center of Khartoum, they quickly spread to several displaced persons camps outside of Khartoum proper. Residents of the largest camps of Angola and Mandela entered the nearby working-class districts and open markets of Omdurman, burning police stations, hospitals and local government offices. Carrying matches and cans filled with gasoline, southern youths (both men and women) then broke into and burned down numerous homes. A multitude of others followed in the wake of the first group looting homes and offices and carrying off what they could. Despite reports to the contrary, the residents of Angola and Mandela are not exclusively southern Sudanese — and the rioters were not exclusively southern either. Their ranks included a large contingent from the war-torn western province of Darfur as well as the Nuba Mountains region in the east. Not coincidentally, in recent years these regions have endured the greatest suffering and displacement as a result of the wars pursued by the regime.

The riots are therefore best understood as a spur-of-the-moment, albeit short-lived uprising by southerners, Nuba and Darfurians living in the capital against the regime. This is clearly evident in the fact that the initial protesters did not loot property but only sought to demonstrate their anger and opposition. The protesters’ chants did not attack northerners in general, but instead focused on the ruling Islamist National Congress Party: "The National Congress is traitorous!"

For their part, in order to deflect criticism, the government has alternatively described the riots as a spontaneous outpouring of "grief and hysteria" or a result of an organized fifth column led by the "enemies of peace." In reality, they were rooted in grievances shared by communities in peripheral regions to the south, west and east of the capital: decades of economic neglect, forcible imposition of rigid interpretations of Islamic law and the stifling of independent civil society institutions and political freedoms.


In particular, the groundswell of anger comes in reaction to the Islamist-backed regime’s economic polices of the last 16 years. These policies of "consolidation," designed in the 1990s by Hassan Turabi, once the primary Islamist ideologue behind the regime but now an opposition figure, effectively brought the entire economic and political system under an Islamist monopoly. For almost two decades, the Islamists purged rivals from government, military and civil service posts, monopolized a host of financial institutions, limited credit access to members of the National Islamic Front, and controlled the majority of export and import licenses and commercial enterprises. These policies have long been a source of much public dissatisfaction, not only in the south and Darfur, but also among disenfranchised Sudanese in Khartoum.

Anger at the government is rooted in a sense that the unjust "consolidation" has proceeded apace, while educational and job opportunities, health, housing and transportation for the majority of the population have been left to stagnate. While many rioters exploited these grievances to loot and destroy private property, the majority belonging to Khartoum’s working class were moved to attack commercial and business enterprises out of anger, and the fact that they saw, in John Garang, the hope of achieving some level of economic and social justice after years of increasing pauperization. The fact that the National Congress is to have, in accordance with the CPA, as much as 52 percent representation in the interim government, to the exclusion of other parties and civil society organizations (with the exception of the SPLM), will remain a bone of contention.

In the aftermath of the riots, while state officials belatedly called for all Sudanese to guard against communal discord and chaos (fitna), it was left to long-repressed civil society and volunteer organizations to fill the gap. Such groups, ranging from religious organizations to professional syndicates and labor unions, not only immediately called for harmony but also began to do the actual work of delivering food and services to communities devastated by the riots. They have also convened inter-faith and inter-ethnic working groups to guard against the pending threats to the hard-won Naivasha peace agreement. These organizations have demanded not only that owners of destroyed and damaged property be compensated, as the government has promised, but also that the livelihoods of Khartoum’s poorer strata be secured. In a conciliatory move, the Sudanese Red Crescent has begun delivering relief supplies to the Angola and Mandela displaced person camps.

On The Margins

Many Sudanese, rather than blame intractable north-south tensions for the riots, have placed the blame squarely on the regime. As a resident of Hajj Yusuf, one of the most ransacked neighborhoods, put it: "It is really the fault of the government. The authorities should have expected that there would be this kind of reaction to the death of Garang, but there was an inexplicable security vacuum nevertheless." Another commented: "The security forces were very late in preparing a contingency plan to secure the capital despite the fact that they had information about Garang’s death [before the protesters did]. The government should have anticipated that this would happen, especially since our ‘Sudanese brothers’ saw in Garang the beginning of a new chapter in their history in this country."

Garang was well-known for advancing the thesis that a new Sudan will have to include the "marginalized." The riots in Khartoum have proven that his diagnosis of Sudan’s political problems was accurate. "Black Monday" and the succeeding events have certainly highlighted the fragility of the peace on the north-south front and underscored the weakness of a deal that excludes rebels in Darfur and parts of the east. But the disturbances also point to the perils of focusing too much on the mechanisms of power-sharing and autonomy — and too little on the quotidian burdens of the marginalized men and women whom those mechanisms are supposed to serve.