To give the horror a name

The dissonance between what is communicated through local and international propaganda machines and what is actually taking place across the streets of Sudan.

Image credit Elsadig Mohammed, used with permission.

[a]ll social phenomena today are so completely mediated that even the element of mediation is distorted by its totalizing nature. It is no longer possible to adopt a vantage point outside the mechanism that would enable us to give the horror a name; one can tackle it only where it is inconsistent with itself.

– Theodor W. Adorno

During the early days of the Sudanese revolution of December 2018, the limited but defiant resistance against the military-Islamist regime revealed the depth of its violence, utilitarianism and ideological inconsistencies. That widened the revolution’s base and eventually ousted the dictator. Now, as the second wave of the revolution attempts to achieve the slogans that fuelled it, the fight is moving beyond individuals to challenge the dominant social and political structures, revealing this time the inconsistencies of our postcolonial order. Though without the elaborated analysis of the global order or its imperial capitalism, youth across the country are giving the “horror a name.” The calling out of the perpetrators of this horror can be heard in the comic dissonance between what is communicated through local and international propaganda machines and what is actually taking place across the streets of Sudan.

What happened

On the October 25th, 2021 the military (one of the two parties leading Sudan’s transitional period), unilaterally decided to suspend some of the constitutional declaration articles concerned with the involvement of its civilian partners from the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC)—the same partners who led the ousting of al-Bashir. By the time General al-Burhan, head of the armed forces, announced the decision, several ministers and political leaders had been arrested. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was removed to an unknown location.

A few hours after the announcement, 10 protestors were shot dead in front of military headquarters, and more than 100 were injured. Within days, heads of civil service entities opposing the decision were dismissed or arrested. At least 60 more were killed, more than 1000 injured and unknown numbers forcibly disappeared or arrested during the violent repression of successive protests. The true plot twist came on November 21, when the erstwhile prime minister appeared from house arrest at the presidential palace to co-sign a political declaration with the head of the military. The new declaration reinstated Hamdok as prime minister of the now military-headed government.

What was communicated

Condemnations of the coup by international and regional states and organizations were followed shortly thereafter by congratulatory letters. The UN mission to Sudan, the US, the EU and troika countries took the release and reinstatement of the “civilian” prime minister as a return to constitutional order that “could allow for a democratic transition.” Apparently, that one party has the power and immunity to suspend the constitutional order whenever it deems necessary is something that the Sudanese people should be satisfied with since “calling into question this particular solution … would be very dangerous for Sudan,” as Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General’s legitimizing statement suggests. The statement in which Guterres appealed “for common sense” was not only legitimizing the coup, but also the violence the resistance faced. The peaceful resistance that lasted for almost three years has never been “dangerous” for Sudan. Meanwhile, instability, atrocities, and all sorts of dangers have been orchestrated by the power-hungry generals.

The fact that the so-called “democracies” of the world are supporting such an undemocratic arrangement was relatively new for Sudanese people. From the time that the anti-Bashir resistance and the first wave of the Sudanese revolution toppled the Islamist regime in April 2019, the international community has been an ally. The alliance was repurposed to ensure Sudan’s smooth return to the “arms of the international community” with its delisting from the US list of sponsors of terror and Hamdok’s unconditional implementation of liberalization policies prescribed by the World Bank. Unlike Bashir, the new multi-headed dictator is openly willing to collaborate with the neoliberal missionaries, normalize ties with Israel, and provide access to strategic ports for regional agents in the Gulf states.

What could be more evocative of the old colonial rhetoric of how natives are not ready for independence or self-rule than fans and supporters fully embracing the new arrangement that maintains the exploitation of resources and populations? As in many postcolonial contexts, Sudan’s political club has been both heir and guardian to the elitist colonial mindset, where the enlightened and exposed local elite replaced the white faces of the civilizing mission. This local elite made sure to level Sudanese expectations and aspirations to the interests of international and regional powers. Moreover, it is trying to convince the millions who are marching the streets of Sudan today that there is no alternative but to share power with the military.

How people reacted

But the Sudanese collective memory has made it difficult for many of us to trust the military in any way. Sharing power with the military after each uprising has allowed it the opportunity to restore its power and legitimacy through the gradual absorption of the revolutionary fervor and the vilification of political parties. Hence, the three Nos slogan—“No negotiation, No partnership, No legitimacy,”—adopted by the Resistance Committees and calling for the removal of the military from political life.

The al-Burhan-Hamdok deal didn’t lead the military junta to soften its repressive measures, or to pretend to be a democracy. All sorts of violence against civilians continued, whether in the old forms of live ammunition and forced disappearance, or the rape and sexual assaults of women protestors.

Protestors across the country couldn’t find a better language to express their disregard for the condescending pleas of local and international imperial agents to accept the deal, other than to keep on self-organizing, protesting and denying any legitimacy to the new order. They forced Hamdok to resign in early January after he failed to restore calm or form his cabinet. They exposed the global propaganda machine and its deafness to a movement spearheaded by youth under the age of 25; youth who are reclaiming their “common sense” through real time communication platforms; youth whose upper hand is best expressed by a protest banner that reads: “you are fighting a generation that knows everything about you, but about whom you know nothing.”

Further Reading