Unfinished business at the birthplace of Sudan’s revolution


Standing on the platform where he and other protesters boarded a train to Khartoum in April to pressure Sudan’s military into sharing power with civilians, Abdelaziz Abdallah made clear the revolution driven by their city has further to go.

A veteran railway worker-turned union leader, Abdallah was among the first to take to the streets in this labour stronghold in December, sparking a national uprising that toppled long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir four months later.

It took another four months for the military, which ousted Bashir, to formally agree a three-year power sharing deal with a civilian-led transitional government.

People in Atbara, a colonial era railway hub, support the national government in the capital 350 km to the south, but say some grievances which drove their uprising – poor salaries and unemployment – remain.

“Railway workers have among the lowest state salaries” earning as little as 1,200 Sudanese pounds ($26.67) a month while needing at least 10,000 pounds to get by, said Abdallah, who took over the union after Bashir’s ousting.

They also want funds to revive the railway — once Africa’s longest network but now largely derelict.

These are tough demands for Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok trying to avert collapse of an economy wrecked by three decades of mismanagement and US sanctions.

Whether he can meet the expectations of thousands of railway workers will be a test for the country, as Atbara has been a hotbed of unrest since independence from Britain in 1956.


Protesters formed resistance committees, which maintained the uprising and now want a say in their city.

Able to meet freely since bans on gatherings were lifted, they discuss issues such as how to create jobs for youth by finding farmland to grow crops.

They also fume that the city is still run by a military governor. Bashir’s security network lost some power but its officers remain in Atbara as elsewhere and soldiers, while no longer patrolling, are stationed in nearby barracks.

“Nothing has changed for citizens and the youth. The civil service is still made up of the former regime,” said Adel Sheikh, a senior member of Atbara’s Forces for Freedom and Change coalition, the main umbrella group that negotiated the national power sharing deal with the generals.

Finding jobs is on many people’s minds.

“I hope to get a job as engineer,” said Mohamed Abdelathim, jobless since 2007. “State jobs under the old regime were for regime people,” he said.


Atbara, at the junction of the Nile and Atbara rivers, is a barometer for Sudan since British colonialists established a railway hub, building villas to house railway managers which now lie empty.

Maps titled “Sudan Railways” still hang in administrative buildings where receipts printed in English and Sudanese lie on abandoned desks.

Workers pushed for independence, formed the backbone of a powerful post-independence Communist Party and rose up against military rulers ever since, paying the price for activism with mass dismissals.

Sudan had only three brief three civilian governments, all toppled by generals who took over after saying civilians failed to fix an economy in crisis.

Hamdok is in a similar situation, heading a government shared with the military. He wants to increase public salaries and compensate 4 000 workers fired by Bashir but needs up to $5 billion in donor support for next year alone.

That dilemma gives Atbara’s activists pause.

“We have fears of a new coup if the main issues aren’t solved,” said 70-year Ali Abdallah, a former national head of the railway union imprisoned under Bashir and now a respected figure.

The United States hopes to lift sanctions imposed in 1993 over allegations Bashir’s Islamist government supported terrorism so donor money can flow.

Western countries are wary, but also fear instability in Sudan will increase migration to Europe and encourage Islamist militants.

It will take time to heal local wounds.

When protests began in December, security forces opened fire, killing among others 23-year-old engineering student Tareq Ahmed.

“He was not political person but fed up with the regime and inflation,” said his father.

He could not bring himself to go to where his son was killed stopping at the university where students painted his face on a wall to keep memories fresh. There he struggled to hold back his tears.

“He sacrificed himself for change in Sudan,” he said. “We will never forget.”