Activist group Girifna aims to educate voters in Sudan

Young activists in Sudan, where political dissent is rarely tolerated, seize on a small opening before April's elections to educate voters.
By Rebecca Hamilton
Saturday, August 14, 2010

KHARTOUM, SUDAN -- Like any aspiring pro-democracy movement, the young Sudanese activists needed a name. They picked Girifna, Arabic for "We are fed up." They chose orange for their color and the V-for-victory sign as a logo, then began distributing their first pamphlet.

Challenging the ruling party was risky in a country where political dissent is rarely tolerated, the activists said. But they saw a small opening before elections in April, as the United States and the European Union pressed the government to ensure a free and fair vote.

Girifna now has more than 7,000 members on its Facebook page, a YouTube channel and an online radio station. But members have been tear-gassed, beaten and tortured, the group's leaders say. "We know they can put us in jail at any time," said co-founder Nagi Musa, 23.

Faced with these challenges, Girifna's success at conducting voter education and election monitoring campaigns before the vote was a hopeful sign, suggesting that a lively civil society could emerge in one of Africa's most repressive dictatorships, the group and its supporters say.

"The government's harsh crackdown on Girifna's peaceful organizing activities is a testament to the potential power of youth activism," said Olivia Bueno, associate director of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, an organization that supports human rights advocates across Africa.

* * *

Girifna was established two days before the voter registration process was to begin for the country's first multiparty vote in nearly a quarter-century.

"We were looking forward to the election as an opportunity for peaceful change," Musa said.

Part of Girifna's mission is to encourage Sudanese to learn about their rights and start demanding them through nonviolent protest. The group is tapping into a history of peaceful dissent: Twenty-five years ago, a dictator was forced to step down after a popular uprising. But Girifna is the first effort of its kind under President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

About 5,000 Sudanese have helped spread the group's message throughout the country, the founders said. Musa closely monitors volunteers' safety, raising the alarm by text message or Skype whenever someone is arrested or abducted.

Ghazi Mohammed Abuzied, 22, joined Girifna on Facebook before the elections and offered to volunteer his time. Like most members, he had never before engaged in any political activity. "I thought: We are in the same fight, we are looking for the same thing," said Abuzied, a chemical engineering student.

Today, he coordinates the movement's activities in Khartoum, arranging when volunteers go to markets and bus stations to speak and hand out leaflets. His father told him he was "wasting his time," but Abuzied said he believes he can help shape the future. "Change will be slow, but we believe it will happen one day."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company