Hopes for a Green October in Sudan

What Sudan's history of protest against authoritarianism can teach the current generation.

Image credit UN Photo via Flickr (CC).

Early in January 2011 as Sudan was going through the process of splintering in two, I was filming “Our Beloved Sudan,” my documentary about the secession. I was interviewing Mohamad Wardi , the famous singer and political activist. Wardi interrupted me mid-interview and asked, “what about October? That should go in your film.”

Wardi was of course referring to the October uprising of 1964 when the military regime of General Ibrahim Abboud was overthrown as a result of a popular uprising. In January 2011 the Arab Spring uprisings had spread from Tunis to Cairo and hopes were high for a Middle East transforming itself from dictatorship to liberal democracy by the hands, feet and voice of the people. At the time Sudan remained untouched by the so-called Arab Spring fever. I said to Wardi, how is October shaping this generation, can you really compare us to the generation that realized the October uprising? He said, why not, you are the grandchildren of the October revolution, I have faith in the Sudanese people.

Wardi also said, “for as long as the artist is able to create he does not age.”

Had he lived, there is a big chance Wardi would have remade his famous anthem, “Green October,” in honor of the 1964 uprising for this WhatsApp and hip hop generation, or he may have produced an entirely new rousing anthem. I imagine him marching up to the presidential palace, demanding an audience with Omar al Bashir, Sudan’s de facto leader since 1989, and telling him in no uncertain terms that his behavior is despicably un-Sudanese. The late singer had the impetuous courage and stature for such actions. He would have been proud of and in solidarity with the young men and women who have gone out in the streets to face live bullets as they chant, “Down with the merchants of religion,” and “Peaceful, peaceful!”

The latest uprising began in Atbara in mid-December 2018 as a result of the removal of the subsidy on bread. It quickly spread to the capital Khartoum as well as to other cities around Sudan. Loss of oil revenue income following the secession of South Sudan, mismanagement of public funds as well as the free fall of the Sudanese pound following the lifting of sanctions, had derailed the Sudanese economy. Lifting of the subsidy on bread and fuel by the government was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But, underlying the immediate economic causes for the uprising are deeper political concerns. Bashir has been in power for 30 years. And his regime is no longer able to deliver on the most basic needs. Cues for bread and fuel abound and the banks have put caps on cash withdrawals.

Some commentators have referred to Sudan’s uprising as a late Arab Spring. On the contrary, the Sudanese are veterans of peaceful popular uprisings as was the case in 1964 during Abboud’s presidency and then again in 1985 when Gaffar Mohamad Nimeiri was toppled. In both instances peaceful popular uprisings resulted in military dictatorships being replaced by democratically elected governments, albeit short lived. The October uprising of 1964 is how Sudanese of a certain generation like to see themselves. It is an image of a people who do not wait for history to happen to them but who go out into the streets to make it. “Green October,” Wardi’s famous anthem to the revolution eulogizes the defiant will of the people, “Armed by October we will not retreat. We shall stamp upon stone until the stone yields green crops … in your name October the people are victorious and the prison gates crushed …”

But, the political landscape of 1964 and 1985 is not the landscape of 2019. The moral compasses of both Aboud and Nimeiri could not permit the army to shoot the Khartoumi unarmed, civilian demonstrators. These generals did have blood on their hands but it was the blood of armed rebellions in Sudan’s peripheries in the south and the west of the country although that is not to deny civilians in these peripheries were sometimes targets or that they suffered casualties in the crossfire. “Tasqut bas” (“you must fall”), the refrain of this uprising, is a reproach to Bashir and his regime. Spilling the blood of unarmed, peaceful protestors in the capital is unprecedented, it is un Sudanese and you must go, “tasqut bas.” In October 1964 Abboud agreed to go in return for an amnesty from prosecution for war atrocities in the south of the country. Those like Sudanese British billionaire Businessman, Mo Ibrahim who is recommending an amnesty for al-Bashir from the ICC where he is wanted for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur in return for his relinquishing power are doing so in the hope that this would facilitate a peaceful regime change in Sudan. What would you say to a mother who has lost a child in Darfur the BBC Radio presenter asked him, I will say we need to drop the ICC charges so as to save your second child, he said.

The West’s politicians as well as its mainstream media doesn’t seem to know what to do with the narrative of the 2019 uprising, it does not fit the story we are often told about Sudan. There are no Arab/ African or Muslim/ Christian schisms to inspire the righteous anger of the Hollywood celebrity class that has championed the plights of South Sudan and Darfur. This is simply the story of everyday Sudanese people from diverse ethnicities and backgrounds saying, after 30 years it’s time for change, time for an end to corruption, that we deserve and demand a viable civil service and institutions that serve the public interest rather than line the pockets of a regime affiliated elite.

In 2011 as I was making “Our Beloved Sudan” I was trying to capture how the Sudanese talked about themselves in the lead up to the partition of their country. The popular slogan emanating from the Omdurman national radio service was, we are all brothers and all Sudan. Rather than acknowledge and attempt to heal the resentments and contradictions propelling the country toward splintering, the official mouthpiece of the state was trying to smooth these contradictions over with sweet sounding but meaningless words.

It is debilitating and heartbreaking to witness from the distance and safety of diaspora the images of sun scorched, determined youths being beaten by security personnel, shot at by snipers, bleeding and dying in the arms of their comrades. The WhatsApp posts from and about the uprising are an interesting barometer of the direction the conversation on nationhood and on what it means to be Sudanese is taking. This is no longer a cosmetic slogan coined by a state broadcaster but a conversation kneaded in the blood, sweat and tears of the people. When some of us express our shock and dismay at the brutal arm of the state battering youths we are reminded that although this brutality is new to Khartoum it has been commonplace in the peripheries like Darfur and the Nuba mountains. The Khartoum middle classes have perhaps been stuck in the past; in what Wardi called Alzaman Aljameel, the beautiful times, the times when a dictator like Abboud flinched at the spilt blood of a handful of peaceful demonstrators. As president, Abboud had the integrity and the courage to relinquish power, to put the interests of his country before his own narrow party political interests. The final chapter of this uprising is still in the making but whether Al-Bashir remains or is toppled the Sudanese people have come together as one. My hope is that any project for the further splintering of Sudan has suffered a setback. Through their suffering, mothers in Khartoum share the experience and the pain of mothers in remote war zones. In these ugly times those in the center as well as the peripheries are losing their sons to the brutality of the state. More than ever before the conditions for an honest and healing dialogue about what it means to be Sudanese are ripe.

Another notable achievement of the uprising has been the discrediting of the political Islam narrative. In the wake of the recent uprising Ali Osman Mohamad Taha, first Vice President of Sudan 2011 -2013 came out of semi-retirement to proclaim on a Sudan Television interview that the sons and daughters of the Sudanese Islamic revolution are ready to give their lives to safeguard it. Moments after the interview an eloquent letter by a former party member refuting Taha’s proclamation was circulating on WhatsApp. “Do not speak for us,” the letter stated. “We are no longer your sleeping army. We will not be dying for your phony slogans in the name of God as we were fooled into doing in the Civil war with the South. Let those who have profited from the Islamic revolution defend it.” Many political Islamist supporters of the regime are reconsidering their position or have distanced themselves from the ruling party. However, just as it is a mistake to categorize Sudan’s civil wars in terms of binaries such as Arab/ African and Muslim/ Christian divisions, it would be a mistake to think of the political divisions underpinning this uprising in terms of secularist/ Islamist schisms. The Sudanese public is on the whole religious and spiritually focused, these characteristics made them receptive to the political Islam curriculum . The hope for us on the secular spectrum of the political debate is that now that the moral bankruptcy of political Islam as implemented over the past thirty years in Sudan has been exposed the people will be less susceptible to its influence.

Reflecting on the lessons of October 1964 can prepare this generation for the opportunities that this uprising if it succeeds in toppling the government will present. In 1964 it was the trade unions and the professional membership bodies like the doctor’s and lawyer’s associations that led the uprising, maintained it coherence and discipline and ultimately its success through civil disobedience. For this uprising the people are organizing through social media, in particular WhatsApp. And, overwhelmingly, protestors are urging each other to keep the uprising peaceful. Maintaining a peaceful uprising in the face of violent provocation from the state will take resolve and discipline but the alternative could mean the unravelling and collapse of Sudan. Perhaps the most important lesson of 1964 is for the leaderships of the Sudanese political elites in waiting. History will remember them if like Abboud they put the interests of their country before their narrow party political interests. It would be a travesty if one or, a coalition of the rusty old politics in the form of the military junta, the two traditional sectarian parties, Umma and Itihad or, the various iterations of political Islam vie-up to receive the people’s sacrifices on a silver platter. Uprising are as much about ideas as about political and economic discontent. The youths putting their lives on the line every time they step out on the streets to protest deserve a seat at the table, they deserve to be active participants in forging a new political agenda. The tired same old politics of privilege, of religion, of old or new money would be a betrayal of those who have lost and are losing their lives for a better Sudan.

Further Reading

The Two Sudans

On July 6 2011, the world’s diplomatic elite flocked to one of the globe’s most underdeveloped regions to bask in the warm glow of the birth of a new nation. That South Sudan’s struggle …