Young people lead the resistance in Sudan

State repression is no match for innovative forms of activism amongst the country's youth

Tuti Bridge. Khartoum, Sudan. Image credit Christopher Michel via Flickr.

When we talk of the crisis of governance in Sudan, the focus is usually limited to the incompetence and corruption of the ruling party. Yet, the opposition National Umma Party (NUP) is equally distrusted, due to its regular alliances with the regime, and moreover, it’s lack of vision, a plan to address the country’s problems and to drive meaningful change.

Since the National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar el-Bashir took power through a coup in 1989 (following a split with its coup partners the Islamic Movement), it has worked diligently to implement a comprehensive plan to weed out all forms of resistance. It introduced the Altamkeen (empowerment and solidification) Policy and launched a series of procedures to assure its grip on the economic and political resources of the country. It began by banning all political parties, professional associations, students’ unions and civic activities. It then dismissed thousands of people not aligned to the ruling party from civil services, including the army and the police. On the policy side, the NCP announced liberalization of trade, privatization measures, the lifting of subsidies and cuts to services spending.

The goal was to simulate the economic conditions that empowered it (as the Islamic Movement) in the mid-1970s-1980s, when it benefited tremendously from the corruption and profiteering that resulted from the liberalization policies of the International Monetary Fund and other western backers. The economic liberalization per the IMF framework was implemented rapidly, resulting in the wholesale privatization. The government sold publicly-owned enterprises and companies across sectors, such as transportation, communications and agricultural, through corrupt procedures that benefitted party affiliates. Transparency and accountability were all but absent; the government controlled the banking system, limiting loans for such purchases to party loyalists.

The social impact of these policies during the past three decades has been devastating. Like any country that applies economic liberalization without sequencing and strategic planning, the polarization of Sudanese society—where the opulent wealth of the few contradicts the poverty of the majority, coupled with cuts to healthcare and education spending—is stark. Moreover, civil wars beginning in the south of Sudan and in Darfur in the early 2000s resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced and an exodus of people into poverty in and around Khartoum. Thousands of Sudanese citizens also fled the country.

Young people in Sudan, those aged 15-35 who make up 41% of the population, have been particularly affected. Those who did not support the ruling party found it difficult to reach their potential. Unemployment amongst youth was high and student resistance, for example, was not tolerated. Student unions, professional associations and community / cultural organizations were infiltrated by cadres of the government, to ensure that they were towing the party line. The government understood, through experience, that these environments were breeding grounds for resistance and community organizing. It took further steps to suppress open challenges to its rule, introducing restrictions on where registered students could live (confined to campuses), cutting financial aid and limiting campus transportation. It launched “The Income-generating Student Project” and campaigned for students to “work hard.” Access to social, cultural and political expression was restricted, beyond that which was vetted by government. And sanctions imposed by the international community isolated the country and its young people further.

Currently, a key challenge in the political landscape is the lack of alternatives. The Sudanese public distrust the opposition and the regime leverages this public opinion by suppressing the efforts of the opposition to mobilize for change; people look to models of change from the past, from revolutionary movements that toppled two dictatorships and fought against colonialism. By doing so they overlook the reality that despite three decades of repression under el-Bashir, different forms of activism have emerged in contemporary Sudan.

Historically, the potent social capital of Sudan was not taken seriously, or even considered a source of strength. Generations of political leaders in Sudan were educated and trained under a colonial system, which aimed to create elites and further distancing the political realm from the social day-to-day of the majority Sudanese. Youth resistance to these imposed divisions is not new, indeed it has historical precedent dating to the 1980s at the University of Khartoum. Attempts by the then dictatorship to infiltrate and undermine efforts to challenge political authority, through student groups, affiliates and activities, was successfully neutered by a group of students who launched the highly influential Alheyad (Neutralism) Movement, which called for transforming politics in Sudan. The movement was successful politically and economically; it won student union elections and produced a significant body of literature that significantly shifted the language of student activism at the University of Khartoum.

The Alheyad Movement had much in common with contemporary street initiatives. It relied on social networking, it had a fluid organization, it responded to actual needs of the society and delivered practical solutions. It financed its activities by collecting money from students, recent graduates and from wider civil society networks. Most important, it produced a profound critique of politics in Sudan and embodied what politics should stand for in the larger society. The reliance on social networking facilitated the movement’s initiatives and protected its members from the harassment of the government security agents; it made it easy to gather information.

The fallout of three decades of repressive rule and policies of structural adjustment has created a contemporary crisis in Sudan that requires similar response. The country’s youth are mobilizing. For instance, the privatization of healthcare means that care for certain illnesses is a luxury rather than a right. In response, an initiative called Shar’i Alhawadith (Emergency Street)—after the road in Khartoum where it started—identifies sick people in the community who cannot afford their medication. The group raises funds through social media and street canvasing, to help pay for these medications. Another, Adeel Almadares (Doing Good for Schools), collects money for students’ school supplies and infrastructure maintenance, in the case of schools that have fallen into disrepair. Groups are mobilized to respond to crises as they arise. The Nafeer initiative rescues and supports people who have been affected by flooding. It provides shelter, food and labor to repair damaged homes, while also attending to building basic flood prevention infrastructure. Sadagat (Money Donated to Help Others) works during Ramadan to secure the main meal of the day for needy families. The importance of reviving the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of the community is also acknowledged. Mafroosh (Laid Out in the Open) organizes a monthly book street fair / exchange. It is a popular meeting place for youth. Another initiative is aimed at gathering poets and interested people in streets to recite and celebrate poetry.

All these initiatives have distinct goals, but also key features in common. First, they rely on highly celebrated values of the Sudanese society: responding promptly to others’ needs, for example. If we look to the meaning of their names we find that they are all traditional Sudanese words used to respond to help others, inferring selflessness, altruism and dedication to community members. Second, these initiatives do not have systematic structures or strict organization; they are fluid organic networks that rely on the will and interest of individuals who want to volunteer their time and energy. Any Sudanese youth who is moved by the urgency of the needs of others is a potential resource for such groups. Third, they operate without a fixed location. They meet on the street, usually in the tea-vendors’ spots, sitting on banber (traditional stools), which is a common way of socializing and passing time in Sudan. They rely on the ingrained nature of social networking of Sudanese society. The overlapping of extended families, neighbors, relatives of neighbors, friends and co-workers creates various domains of acquaintances and facilitates the information sharing. This has become even more efficient with the advent of technology, and social media in particular.

These youth initiatives are powerful acts of resistance and resilience given the tremendous stress and lack of resources with which the majority of young Sudanese live daily. The fact that they are often harassed and even arrested by the police speaks to their courage and commitment. Those who want to theorize for change and the future of governance in Sudan should take into consideration such treasures of social capital.

Further Reading