On 3 June 2019 there was a massacre of protestors camped around the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces in Khartoum – the protestors were attempting to reinvent politics for a world to come. Magdi el Gizouli and Edward Thomas write about the dynamics of the Sudanese revolution and the need to delve beyond the asphalt of cities and towns.
By Magdi el Gizouli and Edward Thomas
Over a year has passed since the momentous events that brought down the long rule of President Bashir in April 2019. In a second blow, Sudan’s revolutionary movement forced the hand of Bashir’s top generals to enter into a tenuous power sharing arrangement with the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad coalition of Bashir’s opponents. The thousands of protesters who camped around the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces in what was effectively a month-long siege restricted the manoeuvring space of Bashir’s generals and in the process attempted to reinvent politics for a world to come.
The 3 June 2019 massacre was the joint response of the military, the security and the militia, Sudan’s security establishment, to this daring popular assault. The unarmed protestors in the camp were gunned down at the break of dawn by an overwhelming number of troops in the uniforms of the militia Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the riot police. Corpses punctured by bullets were fished out of the Nile tied to concrete blocks and harrowing accounts of rape clouded public consciousness.
The massacre on 3 June was the moment of baptism for an upcoming generation in the fire and sword of Sudanese power games. No wonder, the politics of its commemoration is a competing ground for the querulous partners who came to inherit the levers of government.
Army generals, militia leaders, politicians and wannabe politicians all sing the praise of 3 June sacrifice and some even manage to display a few tears to the camera with the appropriate soundtrack in play. Despite these oft repeated pieties the facts of the event are yet to be officially established. The exact death toll remains unclarified, the number and fate of the forcible disappeared unknown and responsibility blurred in the smoke and mirrors of conflicting conspiracy theories.
A committee of investigation into the massacre was established by decree of the interim prime minister in October 2019 with a three months mandate that has since been extended. The committee, headed by a prominent lawyer with human rights credentials, joins representatives of the ministries of defence and interior, the very institutions accused of involvement in the bloodshed. Recently, the chairman of the committee said he was not bound by any timeline to declare his findings and in any case these findings will not be disclosed to the public but delivered to the judicial authorities. As expected, the committee of investigation into 3 June events, not unlike a growing list of other investigation committees established to probe incidents of state violence over the past 18 months, is so far a mechanism of bureaucratic obfuscation and deferral.
The massacre reflected the challenge that the imagination and the will on display in Sudan’s season of revolution posed to the array of forces that constitute the Sudanese establishment. The December revolution raised the question of political power, its locus, its bearers, its character and its accountability and answered that question with the invention of the residential neighbourhood-level ‘resistance committee’. Novel in content and form, the ‘resistance committee’ is an open access node of political power extraneous to the state that has stood its ground beyond the testing phase of mobilisation and protest and has managed since to divide, capture and exercise a good fraction of local authority. Indeed, the ‘resistance committee’ is arguably the gift of Sudan’s contemporary revolutionary experience to the world, a bold attempt at reclaiming the city and its hypercommodified resources, and the product of a globally recognisable collision of community and capital accumulation. Few if any of Sudan’s resistance committee activists have been exposed to the ideas of Henri Lefebvre but would probably easily recognise the ‘Right to the City’ as an anchor of their praxis.
Intrinsic to its challenge to the political order the December 2018 revolution pierced Sudan’s patriarchal hierarchies with a long lance. At the level of the spectacle, the iconic images of women at the forefront of the protest movement circulated widely in the shifting global circuits of digital attention. But beyond the economy of images, the social authority of Sudan’s jellabiya-clad preachers, teachers and fathers was temporarily suspended as a younger generation of women and men explored a realm of emancipation beyond the patriarchal grip. Preachers were shouted down from their mosque pulpits, teachers who had identified with the ideology of the regime were harassed on school grounds and fathers were disowned as regime stooges or complicit spectators to autocracy.
Interjected with these two planes of struggle, the political and the social, Sudan’s protest movement was a response to a regime of economic austerity construed in Islamist jargon at a moment of deep crisis. Unremitting monetisation, commercialisation and gruelling patterns of extraction that played out as cycles of rural wars, dispossession and urban immiseration engineered the set of contradictions that sustained Bashir’s rule for so many years and equally so prescribed his demise when their management escaped his designs.
The December 2018 revolution identified the self-enriching apparatchik of the Islamic Movement as the enemy. In the political jargon of the transitional government ‘dismantling’ of the old regime is deemed equivalent with plucking Islamists out of the state apparatus and confiscating assets of the ruling party and its numerous tentacles, frontmen and women. The protesters directed their anger against a recognisable figure of oppression, a form curated from fragments of scripture and the racist ideology of the propertied classes that had run its course as an idiom of dominance.
Already in Bashir’s twilight years a competing syntax of entrepreneurial glamour, investment hype, hygienic efficiency, digital flamboyance and liberal mores had overtaken clunky Islamism of yesteryear as a carrier of modernisation. The Islamists themselves were enchanted by the neoliberal successes of the Malaysian and Turkish models and agonised over the inability of their people to withstand ‘modernity’ with composure. Beards were neatly reduced to symbolic stripes, ablutions economised, and prayer outsourced to Sufi sages. The convergence of mosque and market had exhausted its rationale as the market penetrated even into the world thereafter with the differentiation of a superior version of high-cost access-limited tight-fenced cemetery grounds equipped with ready-dug graves and professional reciters.
Bashir’s Islamism, an enabler of the crude and visibly blood-drenched capture of resources, proved unfit to screen the more subtle and sharp processes of market penetration; content broke the seams of form. In its place, Sudan’s business moguls – wheat importers, commercial capitalists, telecommunication lords, real estate and hard currency speculators, gold and livestock traders – adopted the slick form of entrepreneurial acumen in line with the determinations of regional capital circuits and global requirements. Khartoum is not Dubai on the Nile, but the Nile is channelled through Dubai as it were.
So far, the transitional government has barely taken its foot off the pedal Bashir was pressing and has repackaged known policy formulas in the jargon of international development. Bread and fuel subsidies are being phased out with the introduction of a two-tier price system for both commodities, an available commercial and a scarce subsidized variety. Means-tested cash-transfers for ‘vulnerable’ families supported by the World Food Programme (WFP) are planned to be rolled out in the second half of the year to great applause. Whether further entanglement in the world of cash is the answer to Sudan’s crises is doubtable. Evidence from internally displaced camps in Darfur suggests that cash transfers had the paradoxical effect of aggravating food price hikes and market volatility. An increase in public sector wages, probably the largest single increase in the country’s history, exacerbated an inflationary wave with spiralling commodity prices. In dollar terms, the minimum wage increased from SDG 425 to SDG 3,000 per month. The Minister of Finance is hoping to offset the economic recession, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 lockdown measures, through spurring consumer spending.
The government was less ready to dish-out cash to producers and is still struggling to requisition wheat from farmers in Gezira and the Northern States at a fixed price negotiated in March 2020 that was even then considered by some below market price, and is now almost 30% above the government offer. The military governors of Gezira and Northern States ordered a prohibition under emergency law on the sale, purchase and transfer of wheat outside of their states to enforce the government monopoly and agents of the General Intelligence Service were deployed around the country to secure the wheat harvest.
The hakuma’s biases are hard to unlearn. The term hakuma, Arabic for government, is often deployed in a broad and creative sense to denote powerful structures: armies and police, bureaucracies and business. ‘We are with the hakuma and support President Bashir’, an elderly man in a hamlet close to the border between Sudan and the Central African Republic recently told a visiting government delegation joining members of the cabinet and the sovereignty council; he had no idea yet of the change of authority in Khartoum. A journalist who accompanied the delegation wrote in precise terms, the December 2018 revolution is locked on the asphalt road and is yet to delve into the vast wilderness of Sudan. The actual meaning and the metaphoric interpretation are probably both worth considering.
Magdi el Gizouli is a scholar and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs here and regularly contributes to roape.net.
Edward Thomas is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute and a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
ROAPE is hosting a webinar on the Sudanese revolution, with Magdi el Gizouli, Kholood Khair and Salma Abdalla, on 22 June at 5pm London time/ 6pm Khartoum time. If you want to attend please email email@example.com for the log-in details after 17 June.
Featured Photograph: Train arriving from Atbara city about 300 km from Khartoum where the revolution started in December 2018 (17 August 2019).
 John Emmius Davius, 1991, Contested Ground: Collective Action and the Urban Neighborhood, Cornell University Press, p.291.
 Henri Lefebvre, 1996, Writings on Cities, Oxford.