Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu, bringing you Episode 18 of our podcast – and another dive into a campaign or a struggle to see how activists are organizing themselves, what’s making them tick and to find out which tools and tactics are helping them to gain ground. Later in this episode, an Irish human rights leader explains how he actually managed to stop scrolling and put down his phone… But first, we are going to Khartoum, capital of Sudan…
AA: The chants of young Sudanese activists making plain their hostility to military rule. Three years ago a massive surge of non-violent activism achieved what had previously seemed almost unimaginable – the removal, by people power, of decades of military rule under Omar El Bashir. That success came at a cost… many activists were killed, particularly in the massacre of June 2019 in which soldiers used brute force to end a three month sit-in outside army headquarters. But by the end of eight months of sustained protest, African Union and other diplomats were able to broker an uneasy deal which saw a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, sworn in September 2019. In theory, the military were on a glide path out of government, but it didn’t work. Just two years later, in October 2021, General Al Burhan and other senior military officers seized power again. Remarkably, the activists returned to the streets within hours as if they had never left… I wanted to get a sense of how that remobilization happened – where that resilience comes from. Hala Al Karib, Executive Director of SIHA, the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, has been engaged in activism and advocacy in and on Sudan since the 1980s and when we spoke last month, she was going out with the protesters every few days…
AA: Welcome Hala.
HK: Thank you for having me.
AA: Seeing the way the protests have ramped up again, I’ve been recalling what a long history of activism there is in Sudan… it’s easy to forget that before military dictatorship, there was a profusion of political parties, trade unions, religious groupings – quite a well of popular political engagement…Do you see a link to that history in today’s protests?
HK: Oh, absolutely, I think, despite the fact that Sudanese has lived, for over 30 years under an extremely repressive regime who tried to brainwash them and failed miserably, as it’s shown on the revolution of 2019, and Sudanese deep commitment and interest in democracy, in pluralism, you know – it kind of defied and challenged a very, very dark and solid ideology like the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s quite interesting because what the Muslim Brotherhood has done for the past 30 years, they have tried to abolish that history as much as they can, but somehow they couldn’t and it remained the only point of reference that’s available for the majority of Sudanese to recall, you know, and to use it in their resistance against the Muslim Brotherhood.
AA: And that resistance came to a head in late 2018. Can you just refresh our memory about what happened then and into 2019 – what form did it take?
HK: The protest against Bashir started in December 2018. And then it went on all through January, March, and there was a very brutal confrontation between Bashir security apparatus and Sudanese people across the country. On April 11, something very interesting happened. The group of protestors somehow managed to find their way to reach the army headquarters and the minute that happened, the people they started to gather in front of the army headquarters and very quickly, and very spontaneously, a collective decision was made that we are not going to leave, you know, the space in front of the army headquarters and in less than, like, five hours, hundreds and hundreds of people, started to come to the army headquarters, so that kind of paralyzed the army. And that was the day when they announced that Bashir is going to step down. And villages from across Sudan migrated into that space to be part of that act of protest. People lived there for 24/7, they were running political events, there were debates, they were small protests. There was music, all kinds of social and political events has been ongoing and that was the only way for the Sudanese people and for the political forces to be able to pressure the military institution to hand power to the civilian people. And even the armed movements, at some point, they felt that they really needed to be a part of this and to participate in that peaceful and civil strike. And that was the Khartoum Sit-In which went on, as I said, for literally three months. Of course, the dispersement was extremely brutal by the army, extremely brutal; people were killed, women were raped. It was really terrible, and the military they thought that, okay, now, we can breathe, we managed to get them and they are going to be afraid.
AA: So that moment came after about six to seven months of presence on the streets – that’s a long time to sustain massive protest at maximum volume, as it were.
HK: What they failed to understand, similar to what what’s happening right now, is the level of determination and the level of rejection, you know, that was actually built among Sudanese people and how this kind of massive protest, having the opportunity to spend three months together, you know, and to get a glimpse of the possibilities of having a democratic and free country where people could hear each other, could have a conversation with each other, the hope – they failed to calculate. And so despite the brutality, again, on June 30th, millions of Sudanese people came out to the streets and, eventually the military has to give up.
AA: So that was, 2019, a period in which people found their strength and made it tell, they forced the change through. Fast forward to today, you’ve seen a major reversal – the army basically coming back and saying, no, we don’t agree, this transition was not permanent, we’re taking control again. Talk about the state of activism in this moment. Was it hard for people to remobilize and come out again?
HK: Extremely hard and very painful.
AA: What can you tell us about their organizational approach? They’d obviously imagined that they were done so this was an unwelcome surprise that they were gonna have to reorganize and come back to the streets. What did you see happen?
HK: Remind me who said, revolution is a process and not an event? Because, when I look at how very quickly the activists on the ground on October 25th, the same morning when Burhan announced that he is taking control and he put the prime minister and the cabinet in jail and everything, and the same morning, the streets was flooded with people. And so I honestly think, Akwe, that what happened back in April – June 2019, it contributed a lot to what’s happening right now, because it enabled a large number of young Sudanese to experience resistance independently, not to be under the guardianship of the traditional political parties kind of independent resistance, making decision, you know, uh, protecting the space, doing the right things, it was a fascinating space – 2019. I would never imagine that, for example, in such a conservative society that I would see, groups of LGBTQ communities, in that space and, you know, very well accommodated and protected by the young people and so on. So I think the roots of what’s happening today here, you know, it’s actually started in 2019, the fact that, those two or three months and the intensity of the interaction enabled young people to develop some sort of a vision and imagination that’s not really been censored by the traditional politics.
AA: So in a sense, those young people who were mobilized in June 2019, they’ve just been watching this African Union-brokered government gradually run into the sands, and when the coup came, they remobilized because they never really demobilized.
HK: Absolutely. they were extremely critical of the hybridity of the government. And they understood very well the fact that the military is not to be trusted, but they also appreciated the very limited space of freedom that they gained, you know, despite everything. 2019 is their revolution. The people they die in that revolutions are their friends, are their colleagues, are their neighbors and classmates and so on, you know. What’s really fascinating for me is, they are learning very, very fast. They understand, you know, the behavior of the military very clearly, they are not – like 2019 – not easily manipulated by the traditional. political forces. And I have to say that, you know, they also captured, all of us, in terms of our imagination, our hearts and our hopes, you know? And you would see, when the protest is moving from one area to the other, doors open and people will just give away sandwiches. Some people will give away buckets of juice and jerrycans of water and things like that.
AA: So can I ask you about how they are organized? You talked earlier about 2019 and the spontaneity of the mobilization but you also say that they’ve learned a lot – are they organizing now in a structured way? And if so, what does that look like? Or is it still a spontaneous process?
HK: It’s a very broad, very fluid structure. And I think this is why it’s very strong, you know, it’s a broad democracy movement. It’s a resistance movement. It has all kind of people that have agreed on one minimum demand, which is, Sudan should not be ruled by military any more. Very simple demand. You know, we want a democratic, we want a multi-party government, and a government that observes rule of law – extremely simple and basic demands. And this is why it appeals to a very broad range of Sudanese. I have seen people in wheelchairs, old people, people with disabilities, all of us. I mean, yes, those who are present in the protest naturally are the young people. I mean, not all of us can run as fast or can be at the front line of the protest.
AA: One thing I want to ask you about… in recent decades, there’s been multiple sites of armed resistance in Sudan – in Darfur, in South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces… these groups arose out of grievances against military rule from Khartoum… but the movement you’re describing is very different – fundamentally non-violent in its tactics and approach.
HK: I mean, what this movement, what these acts of resistance, this pro-democracy movement has managed to do is, it largely discredited, you know, the whole idea of armed movements as a solution for grievances and injustice. And so you would see a lot of young people in conflict areas actually organizing in similar ways, you know, and they are becoming part of prodemocracy, resistance committees idea, which is quite fascinating. You can clearly see that the era of armed movements and the trust on strong men it’s really vanishing. I’m not jumping into conclusion, but this is the beginning, I think, this is an absolutely bottom-up movement, very uniquely happening in this very poor country, you know, coordinated by those very poor people with very simple tools, but absolute courage, you know, because simply, a majority of the Sudanese, they don’t have a lot to lose.
AA: So when these regular protests are being called, you said you are going out on a regular basis. Is there some form of coordinating structure, is there some underlying committee system that makes decisions?
HK: There is basic, what they call coordination bodies, very much neighborhood-based coordination bodies, and then they have like central coordination body for each of the provinces, for example. Decisions have to be made, like, you know, for example, the dates of the gatherings, announced and unannounced protests, and things like that. So when you go to the protest, you know, it’s just like the time of movement and overall general behavior about how people should act during the protest. But at the same time, it’s quite open. Like, you know, there is group of young women that I worked with, which are really fantastic, and they were concerned about themselves being present regularly in the protests but not part of the coordination committees. And so they have this campaign called Join The Committee, they have their own logos and, advocate for women being part of the coordination committees, being part of the leadership of the resistance and so on. Also, you would see a lot of groups that comes with different identities, like, you know, people with disabilities, trade unions, they come with their own logos, all kind of women movements, other youth movements who are not part of the resistance committees, and of course, political parties, they come with their own signs. So it’s an extremely open space as well. Yes, coordinated by those young men, but everyone is literally there.
AA: Back in episode nine of this podcast, we had a really extraordinary insight into the way that poetry and music and cultural forms were a kind of motor for the grassroots movement, for the activism. Is that still true? Are poets and writers and musicians and singers still playing a kind of leading role in the mobilization?
HK: I think definitely, yah. Poets particularly are very critical. There is a long chanting, you know, reciting very long poems throughout the process. So it’s extremely inspiring. Definitely. There is drums, there is music, there is dance. So there is a lot of creativity that accompany the protest. It’s not as intense as in 2019, it’s more kind of street-driven, at this point. So people, they come out with their drums, they come out with their own musics and chantings and, and things like that.
But I have to say that recently, the level of brutality is intensifying by the military because they do feel that they have their, uh, their backs against the wall. They are becoming more and more brutal, which is making it much more difficult, I would say now, as opposed to 2019, and the space we had during the Khartoum Sit-In.
AA: OK. Thank you so much, Hala.
HK: Thank you.
AA: Hala Al Karib, executive director of SIHA Network. You can find a transcript of our conversation and suggestions for further reading on our website, StrengthandSolidarity.org.
AA: For our “Coda”, we ask someone in the human rights field to share something that’s helping them do their work – whether by inspiring it, or making its burden lighter. Liam Herrick is the director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and we find him reading to his kids at bedtime…
Liam Herrick: OK. Has everybody brushed their teeth? Yes. OK. So Chapter 15… (I’ll get you one in a minute now)… “Good Luck and Bad Luck”. So where did we leave Elinor and Meggie last night?
LH: Where did we leave Eleanor and Meggie?
Children: Just when they, just when they were, and that, when they were, Capricorn was going to put them into…
LH: OK. “The cages, as Basta had called them, kept ready by Capricorn for unwelcome guests, were behind the church…
LH: The one kind of fixed point in my day, I think is, is probably that little, um, short kind of five, 10 minutes at about 8:30pm on a good day and 9:15pm on a bad day,, when we do a bit of storytelling. I have five kids between the ages of six and 13. The eldest two read themselves at this stage, but the youngest three are currently the ones that we do the bedtime routine with. And we sit down for the story, uh, and it’s about 10, 15 minutes, but it’s one thing that happens every day. And I think for the kids, you know, it really is just this experience of seeing the pleasure they get from stories, but then the enthusiasm that they have for reading that comes from it, that really just has made me think a lot again, over the last couple of years in particular, in the pandemic and everything, about just getting back into books in a serious sort of way.
Like for a lot of people, when I was in high school I used to read voraciously, when I was in college I still read a lot of stuff and then you get to being busy and being a grown-up and having a job and you just wake up one morning and you realize that you’re reading Twitter and Facebook and newspaper articles online and your brain and its capacity to actually process, you know, reflective information, has just kind of dropped off into nothing. And I mean, the biggest challenge when you are trying to run an organization is to not be reactive all the time, to get your head over the parapet, to start being reflective, to be strategic, to see the wood from the trees. And it’s the absolute antithesis of actually how we consume information all the time.
Starting off, I mean, it was difficult because you do find that the muscle for reading and processing information in your brain has become so degraded over time, so lazy that it is difficult, but it comes back really quickly. Just by starting to read again in the last couple of years, you suddenly find your attention span changes, and that you’re able to think about the wider narrative arc, you know, where do we all fit in, the wider processes of change of, of policy-making, of society, which really is – when it comes down to it – the essence of what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to – in our work – effect change. Alongside that, I mean, it’s the absolute pleasure, you know, from reading.
I’ve tried to put a bit of shape on it by, you know, giving some personal goals here. So just over the last year, so I’ve kind of come to the idea of setting a goal of a book a week. And I alternate them a little bit in terms of the type. So one might be kind of contemporary fiction, which is really about the aesthetic, being part of culture, then a little bit of kind of classical fiction, which is, I suppose, the things that you always meant to get to but you haven’t got to yet, and then nonfiction, in particular, history, which really I find just a rich source of ideas for work in particular, you know, ideas around campaigning, ideas around policy change. Nothing is new in this world. None of the changes that we are trying to effect as a human rights organization are, are things that others haven’t dealt with before in other social and political contexts. So I think there’s so much to be gained by that.
All of us, no matter how busy we are, there are parts of our day where we are flicking our thumb over the screen of a phone for half an hour, 45 minutes, an hour. And there are parts of our day when we are, you know, watching TV or trying to absorb little bits of news or maybe, you know, stuck on a bus or a train. The time is there.
AA: Thanks, Liam Herrick for those reassuring reflections – perhaps after all there IS life beyond the phone. That’s it for episode 18 of Strength and Solidarity. We’re grateful to have you along with us and we would love to know if we’re getting this right. If you have just five minutes to spare, send us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how we’re doing. We’d especially love to know if there are questions you would like to explore, or people you’d like to hear from. For now, though, our thanks to Cate Brown for production help and to Peter Coccoma, our producer – I’m Akwe Amosu – see you next time.