Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
It is one of the most widely circulated videos taken in the aftermath of the 2018–19 Sudanese revolution that ended Omar al-Bashir’s thirty year rule of Sudan. A bleeding Abbas Farah, one of the many Sudanese youth killed during the revolution by government forces, is seen staggering back and forth towards the barricades that surrounded the military compound in downtown Khartoum where the protestors set up their encampment site. It was as if, with his last living act, he was striving to use his body to shield the protestors from the military and militia running down the encampment. His refusal to collapse emulated Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish’s popular resistance phrase; ‘Thou crossing over my body shall not pass’.
Following a massacre in Khartoum in June 2019, the country’s sit-in barricades grew in size and symbolic meaning: they represented the difference between the revolutionary ‘us’ and the ugliness of state authority. These barricades came to stand for a possible Sudanese utopia built around the revolutionary slogan: ‘Freedom, Peace and Justice’. But what is left of that dream, the contradictory narrative of Sudanese youth who organised into Resistance Committees as guardians of the barricades, and Sudan’s journey towards democratic change?
It is clear that the antagonism towards Bashir’s regime which unified ‘the guardians’ during the revolution has unravelled in the aftermath of his downfall. Acrimonious disagreements emerged among these guardians, politicians and professionals in the Freedom and Change Forces (FCF), around the limits and means of negotiating with the military and militias. In these debates, many people used their own experiences of ‘Columbia’ (a ‘liberated zone’ of Khartoum), as an example of a more radical change that transforms power in its wider meaning and application.
For a brief second revolutionary moment – which culminated in countrywide protests on 30 June 2019 – it looked as if a united front could emerge again. However, the 2019 August joint agreement between the FCF (the civilian political arm of the revolution) and the military council which created a governing partnership that was ratified as constitutional, drove a wedge further between the protesting youth in the streets and their political representatives in the FCF. Accommodationists in the FCF saw the agreement as a practical method of ending antagonism and regaining a sense of normalcy after more than a year of hostilities between urban protesters and state forces. More militant guardians, however, considered the negotiated settlement treason against those martyred, diluting the revolution’s manifesto and subverting its primary demand: reinstating civilian rule. This point signalled their disagreement over the meaning of peace, justice and freedom causing a deadlock in their once joint pursuit of these revolutionary ideals.
Today, Sudan’s revolutionary youth are organised around the political institutions of Neighbourhood Committees or Communes. Among these the question of justice, which was once a call for an equitable redistribution of wealth and power, has been reduced to exacting retribution for the martyrs, captured in the popular slogan ‘blood for blood’.
Even at points where calls for justice are accommodative, they are narrowly focused on compensation for those affected by the previous regime’s policies without recourse to debate about what the full spectrum of transitional justice constitutes and requires. There is a failure to envisage – even preliminarily – transitional justice as a mechanism for achieving tangible political objectives in the rebuilding of Sudan’s politics. This is in spite of well-established critiques of the ongoing political processes, which include the Juba peace agreement. Instead, these young people’s oppositional discourse ignores the correlation between citizenship, peaceful co-existence and state hegemony in mediating a diverse and multicultural society. The failure to recognise this correlation means that the political polarisation of ethnicity and culture will remain a neo-colonial feature of the Sudanese state.
The ‘guardians’ lack of a shared ideological agenda, in spite of their stated revolutionary aims, can be seen in the recent debate around normalisation of relations with Israel. In this debate, there was no strong anti-normalisation voice that argued for international solidarity with the Palestinian people and the realisation of justice globally. Their hesitancy to identify with oppressed peoples on a global scale undermines their claims to be guardians of the revolution, and illustrates an alliance with the existing forces that dictate an inequitable global political order.
These ideological contradictions are both illustrative and constitutive of a general malaise among young Sudanese today around what constitutes social justice. For some, political positions are generally subdued, while for others, politics has been reduced to discussions of the accelerated liberalisation of the economy. No statements were published on the harsh implementation of austerity measures brought on by the de-subsidisation of fuel prices, or whether a post-Islamist neoliberal order will shape civic governance or achieve its stated intentions of ushering in democratic rule.
This is by no means a call for the ‘guardians’ to develop alternative economic policies. This is beyond their mandate. However, the fact that they have not levied any sustained critique against a technocratic government that is increasingly disavowing its welfare role through policies dedicated to hollowing out the state represents an important omission on their part. This is because the substantive values of justice and equality, which the ‘guardians’ claim to be fighting to uphold, cannot be established without an interventionist state that genuinely represents the public interest and which seeks to prevent Sudanese public life from being dominated by the interests of a small and influential economic elite.
These blind spots in young activists’ political ideology and discourse can be explained, at least in part, on the basis of the military-civilian duality that was enshrined in the constitutional document.The signing of this document has informed the belief that any criticism of what the civilian wing offers must necessarily signal an agreement with or support for its military counterpart. These incongruities were built on the falsified liberal notion that for youth to jump-start the democratic shift they must engage in a ‘revolution of consciousness’ first.
This slogan, peddled by the ‘guardians’ themselves, suggests an ignorance of the priorities of the transition. It reflects their failure to recognise a fundamental contradiction inherent in their movement: for while they demonstrate a quasi-religious reverence for the revolutionary event and the youth groups that accomplished it, their continued deference to the authority of the new technocratic elites exposes the weakness in their revolutionary discourse and ideology.
As such, while baptising themselves as guardians of the revolution, these young people’s rhetoric inadvertently reproduces the same old power politics. Their revolution, therefore, is not understood as a breakaway from the political and social status quo, captured in their deference to ‘customs and traditions’, which still underlie the governing order of social relations within society. Instead of challenging this prevailing social order with its inequitable power relations, they simply demand the replacement of one political system with another.
So while these ‘guardians’ pay lip service towards freedom, it only takes minimum provocation to expose the perceived limits of their commitment to this ideal in practice. Issues such as women’s right to abortion or alternative sexualities have been rejected as legitimate topics of public debate, because, it is claimed, they are alien to the customs of the Sudanese people. By adopting these positions, the ‘guardians’ fall into the state’s practice of hegemonising a ‘majority’ culture, further perpetuating centralised authoritarian values of rule.
As such, these ‘guardians’ who call themselves ‘freedom fighters’ and demand deterrent laws against homosexuality, on the grounds that it violates local values, seem either unbothered or even supportive of the liberalisation of the economy under the guise of reforms that promise unfettered development. The more progressive positions held among the guardians call for the strategic postponement of the agenda of individual liberties on account of possibly detracting away from the path of ‘revolutionary action’. Such narratives are justified on the basis that ‘raising such issues – the freedoms of women and homosexuals – are at best cause for intentional confusion or may cause a backlash amongst the most conservative ranks of society.’ These calls to postpone addressing the rights of women and people’s alternative sexualities in order to prioritise more traditional ideas of ‘political affairs’ aim to redraw the revolutionary agenda. They’re doing this by emphasising the instability of the transitional period and the insecurity of the gains that have been made.
Here, once again, we encounter the ‘guardians’ playing according to rules set out by the regime, and not on the basis of a people-centred discourse that guarantees freedom for all. Thus, the revolutionary narrative ends up striving for a peaceful coexistence with its predecessor, despite all the efforts exerted to overthrow the Islamist project, its protectors, legislators and those who benefit from it.
It is striking how few transformative ideas have survived within Sudan’s revolutionary politics. Discussions around the secularisation of public spaces and the correlation between secular politics and democratisation are also absent on the pretext of preserving the cohesion of the Committees’ politics. The revolution’s fracturing alliance is most commonly seen today as a means of bringing forth a thin version of a civil state with its rule of law and functional institutions. Hardly any consideration is being given to the question of how to go about instituting legitimacy between those demanding the restoration of Islamic law and those calling for radical legislative reforms. These variations in opinion have totally failed to be melded into a unified political agenda.
As the heirs of the new state apparatus show reluctance to break with the past, many ‘guardians’ are laying down the barricades and extending the limits of a new neo-colonial hegemony. Emulating the past, the ‘post-revolutionary’ moment is reduced to a superficial change in state authority without any meaningful structural reform of its violent machinery.
In the face of this, the act of resistance is dependent on the creation and maintenance of a political discourse and ideology whose components are systematically interconnected in a way that is difficult to compromise. Whether the ‘guardians’ of the barricades are capable of an indivisible dream against the current nightmare remains to be seen.