Springtimes of the People in Sudan – Book Review by Alex de Waal
The first two Arab dictators to be overthrown by non-violent popular uprisings were Sudanese: General Ibrahim Abboud in 1964 and Field Marshal (formerly Colonel) Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985. Indeed, non-violent urban protest is the only way in which Sudanese have ever removed a military ruler””armed insurgency has never yet succeeded.
Yet the vast and growing literature on non-violence around the world, including in the Arab world, has largely overlooked Sudan, while there has been too little attention to non-violence among the country’s political historians. The uprisings have been mythologized more than they have been rigorously documented and analyzed. W.J. Berridge’s superb book fills that gap.
The October 1964 protests that rapidly and with astonishingly little bloodshed brought down the Abboud dictatorship were a foundational moment for Sudan’s politics””in some respects, as Berridge remarks, they represented the nationalist struggle that the country never had.
This book’s account of the uprising, of the politics of the university, the “˜modern forces’ and the political parties, and of the decision by the military to capitulate, is exemplary.
The protests began in the University of Khartoum, which already had gained the status of a temple of modernity and the cradle of the political elite. The protests turned violent and police on the campus opened fire, fatally wounding a student, Ahmed al Qoreishi. It was al Qoreishi’s death and funeral that in turn provided the focal point for an extraordinarily wide mobilization across the political spectrum, channeling all the streams of popular outrage into a disciplined demonstration of opposition to the junta.
Berridge writes, (p. 28):
“˜Although the October Revolution is rightly remembered for the successful adoption of non-violent strategies, it is impossible to characterize it as either a purely “peaceful” or a purely “violent” revolution. The very spontaneity with which the revolution occurred and the broad social and political background of its participants makes it particularly difficult to generalize on these grounds””different protagonists had different agendas. Pacific civil protest was mixed with chants to “hang the generals” and moralistic attacks on drinking establishments.’
Hasty and spontaneous organization in turn meant that fundamental issues were not addressed by the leaders of the uprising prior to their campaign, and were postponed for the subsequent government. But ad hoc-ery did provide for a veneer of unanimity””and probably, had the university lecturers and professionals debated goals and strategies, they would never have seized the moment.
On 26 October, Abboud announced the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the cabinet, just five days after the protests had begun, and four days after the enormous popular turnout for al Qoreishi’s funeral procession that led directly to a general strike.
“˜Commentators on the October Revolution have offered a number of different explanations for Abboud’s rapid capitulation. One theory credits the sheer effectiveness of the general strike; another popular interpretation is that it was pressure from the radical “Free Officer” movement within the army; and another contends that the ageing general himself sympathized with the popular movement and was far less keen to maintain power than some of his more hard-line lieutenants in the SCAF. “Abboud himself made the decision to resign, he never thought that he was so hated”, recalls Ahmad Ali Baggadi. Al-Turabi, who participated in the negotiations with Abboud that followed the 26 October broadcast, states: “honestly, we were surprised by his modesty … he said “˜I didn’t make the November revolution [the coup in which the civilian government handed over power in November 1958]…. I am an engineer and not a soldier, I don’t want to kill another student, go to the authorities and negotiate with them’.”’ (p. 23)
Half a century on, Abboud’s decency shines through. The paradox””or hypocrisy””of his position was that he had not hesitated to authorize extreme violence against southern Sudanese, including both massacres and political murders.
Another””and related””paradox is the role of Hassan al Turabi himself. Berridge’s account of Turabi’s role in the uprising, which was the launch of his career as a national political figure, is particularly interesting. His particular contribution was at a seminar in the university, in which he shifted the focus of political demands from the southern question to the issue of repression and representation in the capital. Turabi participated as a secular modernist, preaching a secular message to the elites and a moralistic one to the masses.
When the uprising achieved its immediate goal””Abboud’s downfall””the trade unions and political parties were less ready to make a similar commitment to the southern question. And the ongoing tragedy of Sudan’s first popular uprising was that, having achieved a model civic revolution, the outcome was an inept and divided parliamentary government that only intensified the civil war and staggered from one crisis to the next before succumbing to a military coup less than five years later.
The intifada of April 1985 was made possible by the memory of October: both protesters and soldiers knew the script. Yet it was far from a simple process or a foregone conclusion. When the principal organizers of the National Alliance for National Salvation met in January 1985, after the execution of Ustaz Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, they expected a long struggle.
They chose civil disobedience as their method, despite the existence of the SPLA which was, at the time, focusing its popular message on the overthrow of Nimeiri. Because the trade unions and professional associations had much experience of collaborating in strikes and political protests, there was a deep infrastructure and a set of scripts for how to organize non-violent opposition. The central organization was ad hoc and adaptable, hampered by both political divergences among its protagonists and the operational difficulties of organizing anything in a country without a working telephone system.
Berridge writes of the “˜Ideological flexibility of the professional movement’ (p. 112), and also notes how both Islamists and secularists played important roles in the uprising. The University of Khartoum again played a central role, and the fact that the non-Islamists in the student union had united to wrest control of KUSU from both the Islamists and the pro-Nimeiri groups, was it possible for protests to gather pace. These were the facilitating conditions.
Berridge provides fascinating details on the meetings in which the Khartoum Hospital Doctors’ Union, the Bar Association and other leaders of the intifada rapidly drafted their political demands and planned their tactics. These were ad hoc and often chaotic.
Berridge describes the “˜impromptu manner in which the professional unions mobilized’:
“˜The various professional unions were all highly mobilized and well prepared for political activity at the time that the intifada broke out. However, it does not appear that they possessed a well-articulated strategy for effecting the removal of the regime. In spite of all their previous experience of conflict with Nimeiri, their activities during the intifada were relatively knee-jerk and sporadic.’ (p. 113)
At one dramatic and chaotic meeting of the Bar Association, there was standing room only with many participants unable even to enter the room, at another, the leaders read their political demands moments before they were arrested by the State Security Organization (SSO).
“˜After the detentions, the plans of the professional leaders still at liberty became even more frantic, as they were forced to change their dress and places of sleep to avoid the attention of state security. With the majority of the original leaders of the Union Alliance under arrest or in hiding following the meeting at the Bar Association, the shadow committee met at the Graduates Club on 2 April to prepare the statement that would be read to the demonstrators.’ (p. 114)
As with October 1964, the impromptu organization and spontaneity allowed for a passionate but insubstantial unanimity on the programme of removing Nimeiri, but left many issues unresolved that would soon come back to haunt its leaders.
The one issue on which I diverge from Berridge is how to interpret the intent and capacity of the leaders of the intifada (p. 218). Berridge’s account is scrupulous, detailed and correct, and tells the drama of the last week of the Nimeiri dictatorship. But there are some small gaps, and a difference in interpretation.
Note Berridge’s reference to the “˜shadow committee’ in the passage just quoted. This refers to the alternate leadership of each of the professional associations and trade unions, its members known only to one another, who stood ready to step into the vacuum created by the anticipated arrest of the leadership. This is an organizational mechanism that originated with the Communists, and was adopted by others including the Islamists.
The leaders of the uprising””both the original public leaders and the shadow leaders””may not have had an explicit and well-articulated strategy, but they possessed both a repertoire of tactics and a depth of leadership that provided organizational resilience.
Now consider two small but significant gaps in the account. One is that during the protests, members of the National Alliance were breaking the codes used by the police two-way radio communications, and planning their actions accordingly. In most popular uprisings of this kind, the security services have an informational advantage on the protesters””they have penetrated the opposition and can act pre-emptively. In April, it was the other way around.
The second gap is the shut-down of Sudanese airspace to prevent the return of Nimeiri from his trip to Washington DC. This action was critically important to the success of the uprising, as it helped sway the army leadership to decide that Nimeiri’s time was up. The shut-down was not an accident: Mohamed Kambal, a trade unionist in the air traffic controller’s office, changed the roster so that he was on duty for the critical shift, and ordered the closure of the airspace.
That was an opportunistic action. It certainly couldn’t have been planned a month in advance, as no-one expected Nimeiri to leave the country at the critical moment. It is not clear who gave the order, but it was the kind of action that could be taken only by an opposition leadership that understood how to sabotage a dictatorship, needed little instruction in how and when to do so, and had its members sufficiently well-placed to do the necessary””if need be on their own initiative. (One of the unacknowledged heroes of the uprising, Mohamed Kambal hails from the Nuba Mountains and ten years later put his skills to use in working on the clandestine humanitarian airbridge from Kenya to the SPLM-administered areas of Southern Kordofan.)
These are indications of the depth and range of organizational capabilities of the professionals in opposition. They had penetrated the state infrastructure in a manner that allowed them to undermine its repressive capability. In the context of a security apparatus that was desperate and creative, the protest leaders’ flexible use of a wide and deep repertoire of stratagems was more effective than any classic vanguardist strategy.
This observation is significant for the wider understanding of non-violent resistance. It shows the importance of what we might call “˜deep civil society’: the extent to which people with a civic commitment are present throughout all aspects of a country’s governing system, including the army, police, and specialist institutions as rarely considered as air traffic control. These individuals may not be formally organized into a political movement with a single leadership structure and strategy, but they represent something even more powerful: a civic counter-hegemony within the ruling apparatus.
These scattered people, with just a few recognized nodes of mobilization (such as the Bar Association and Doctors’ Union), when activated, are able to act in pursuit of a common objective, with the minimum of formal organization. Though they cannot establish a political party (let alone a government), they can neutralize and counteract the repressive and manipulative stratagems employed by a ruler.
This analysis is relevant to understanding more recent protests, such as those organized using social media by Girifna, and the October 2013 demonstrations and riots. Their ad hoc-ery and opportunism are reminiscent of their forebears of 1964 and 1985, but without members scattered through the governing institutions, they lack the breadth of repertoire of effective protest actions.
This might lead us to conclude that Islamist-security network was effective in building its own governing apparatus, largely impenetrable to the rest of society. However, that governing apparatus is highly mercenarized””those with money can readily enter. Perhaps the next Khartoum spring will be coordinated by Sudanese political financiers.
There are many fascinating and revealing passages in Berridge’s book, including near-forgotten but very relevant episodes. One of these is the transitional justice enacted after the intifada, through the Sudanese courts. The new government, political parties and private individuals all brought cases against senior figures in the previous regime.
There was no special prosecutor and no special courts: the trials were conducted in the regular courts, and were broadcast live. The effort was sporadic, uneven and was not sustained and, as Berridge concludes, “˜in many respects, a spectacular performance was all that was achieved’ (p. 191).
One of the mysteries of the popular uprising was the inaction of Nimeiri’s SSO at the critical moment and its swift dissolution after his fall. In some of her most interesting and important sections, Berridge details the conflict between the SSO and the Sudanese Armed Forces, and how and why the SSO was dissolved and with what result. Rivalry between the SSO and SAF was one reason why the army leadership decided to take over (p. 140): it feared its institutional and political competitor.
Berridge later challenges the commonly-held view that dismantling the SSO was a victory for the radicals:
“˜an alternative explanation contends that the dissolution of the SSO was not a victory for the leftists or the political forces that had driven the uprising, but part of the wider “intelligence battle” being waged by the ICF/NIF and its allies in the military.’ (p. 192)
Abdel Aziz Khalid, a free officer who later served in the chief of staff’s office before defecting, “˜asserts that the dissolution of the SSO was engineered by Islamist officers within the army so that the Islamic Movement could rebuild a new security apparatus from the ashes of the SSO.’ (pp. 192-3).
In the wake of the abolition of the SSO, all the political parties””but most particularly the NIF””hired former SSO men to run their private security operations. The NIF also had a big hand in recruitment to the post-1985 security services. Therefore, the downfall of the SSO was an opportunity for the Islamists to enter one of the bastions of power that had hitherto been closed to them, and reshape it to their own purposes.
Colonel Omar al Bashir played a central role in this: he was one of the army representatives on a panel charged with investigating the SSO and personally took possession of its files. Berridge writes:
“˜Al-Bashir requested that [Hashim Abu Rannat, a senior security operative] hand over the organization’s records, so that “the Ba’athists and communist parties do not get their hands on them.” Abu Rannat informed Bashir that the records were available only on microfilm, and gave him the names of the few people who knew how to access it. Al-Bashir’s intervention seems to have played a crucial role in determining the future of Sudan’s main intelligence agency. According to Bayoumi, 99 per cent of the intelligence documentation that had been produced by the May Regime was, thus, kept by the army. Meanwhile, it seems that the senior members of the interim cabinet were denied this information, as were the lawyers who served on the investigation committees. Therefore, it appears that the crucial battles that occurred in the wake of the Intifada for control over Sudan’s political intelligence were won by the Islamic Movement and its military allies. Being denied access to such a crucial body of intelligence would have significantly hampered the efforts of the Alliance leaders to reform the Sudanese state, and of course, the SSO itself.’ (p. 193).
With his famously encyclopaedic memory for persons, alongside his modest, devout and sociable demeanour, Bashir discreetly became the most knowledgeable army officer in the country.
One reason why students of non-violence in the wider Arab world, and political scientists studying Sudan, have neglected the two intifadas, is that neither of them succeeded in establishing peace or durable democracy. Free Officers, Communists and Baathists wrote the history of the 1964 uprising as a prelude to the 1969 coup, and the Islamists similarly narrated the 1985 uprising as the draft for the 1989 salvation revolution.
Berridge scrupulously avoids the risk of writing history backwards: the stories of these uprisings and their sequelae are recounted with the historian’s eye to the contingencies of events and the uncertainties facing the protagonists. This book has a fine eye for the delightful paradoxes of Sudanese political life, such as the fine and blurry lines between secularists and Islamists, and between democrats and autocrats. For these reasons Berridge’s conclusions are tentative and nuanced, which is precisely what Sudanese democrats need to be.
This is a fine book: modern history at its best.
Alex de Waal is director of the World Peace Foundation.