Skip to main content
By Magdi el Gizouli
July 5, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Review of African Political Economy — The last ten days of Ramadan, Islam’s fasting month, are supposed to be a period of spiritual transcendence. By this time, the discipline of fasting and nightly prayer is expected to have smoothed over the ugly creases of the believer’s soul in preparation for a new beginning. Likewise, it is the year’s peak shopping season, as families prepare for the Eid festivities and the associated cycles of gift exchanges. Not this year in Khartoum. Instead the remarkably peaceful city had on appointment with a ‘katla’, vernacular Sudanese for mass and senseless killing.
In the early hours of 29 Ramadan, 3 June, joint troops of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), stormed the site of the massive sit-in surrounding the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) with the aim of crushing the protest movement that had for almost six continuous months captured Sudan’s politics. The attackers did not spare bullets, within hours around 130 unarmed protesters were killed, some clinging to the concrete blocks and bricks of the barricades they had anxiously guarded throughout the months of the sit-in. Many corpses were pulled out of the Nile tied to rocks.
The tent city which constituted the geography of an alternative Sudan in the minds of its inhabitants was soon in flames. Throughout the months of the protest sit-in, the tent city was a Woodstock of sorts on the Nile, a site where urban Sudan struggled to reinvent itself in a fervour of festive creativity and solidarity. The protesters reimagined their world and in exercising their imagination forged new relations that transgressed the boundaries of patriarchal authority and the established social order. The bubbling democracy of the qiada – Arabic shorthand for the [army] headquarters – became a cultural attraction. A middle class Khartoumian would go to work in the morning, drive home in the late afternoon to pick up the kids and stroll through the qiada tent city in the evening in the company of family and friends.
As an organisational form for protest the qiada sit-in was wildly successful, probably far beyond the expectation of the parties involved. While it lasted, it was a place where mostly young women and men could live out their claim to identity as real citizens . Cash transactions were the exception in the qiada sit-in as the protestors fashioned an economy of their own devised around the socialist instinct of ‘from each according to her ability and to each according to her need’. Food, medical care, public health services, security and transport were organised on a voluntary basis and proved remarkably resilient. A minor flu epidemic, known as the ‘qiada cold’ troubled the protesters but otherwise the massive sit in registered no other public health crisis thanks to robust and efficient public health measures. From afar, expatriate Sudanese, contributed funds and information technology hardware as well an explosion of sympathetic protests in Western capitals.
The attackers of 3 June were not satisfied with destruction of the human and physical structure of protest. Their aim was to extinguish the drive that had propelled the thousands upon thousands of young Sudanese into political action during a winter of revolutionary crisis, so they raped men and women. By the evening, residents of the smaller towns down the Nile from Khartoum were fishing corpses out of the river. In their hurry to clear the protest site, the valiant butchers of the RSF and the NISS ordered their troops to dispose of the young bodies in the river clumsily tied to concrete blocks in an effort to keep them down in the deep, silent for ever, but even as hapless corpses the protesters seemed to be challenging the will of Sudan’s security lords, floating up and out into open sight. The sacrilege was not intended to hide the obvious crime but was primarily a demonstration of brutality and immunity from accountability.
The massive sit-in around the army headquarters in Khartoum was the culmination of five months of popular protests. The scale and tenacity of the sit-in forced the hand of the military-security establishment to do away with President Bashir and declare a new dispensation. For some time already a liability, President Bashir was politically eliminated by his very generals. His deputy, Lieutenant General Awad ibn Ouf declared on state television on 11 April that a transitional military council headed by himself would take over authority. Outside military headquarters, thousands of jubilant protesters were not convinced and demanded the transfer of power to a civilian government. Soldiers and junior officers at the army headquarters were equally unsatisfied with Ibn Ouf. Within less than 48 hours Ibn Ouf appeared again on state television, this time to announce that he was stepping down as head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the official title of the ruling junta. Ibn Ouf named Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan as his successor, another army general with no known record of association with the Islamic Movement. Significantly, al-Burhan was the liaison officer of the Sudanese military’s deployment in the Saudi-Emirati-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In his first address to the nation, al-Burhan made remarkable overtures to the protest movement. He announced that no attempt will be made to break up the massive sit-in around the army headquarters and declared that the former president and leading figures of his party, the National Congress Party (NCP), will be arrested and eventually face justice. An announcement of the composition of the TMC followed. Unlike Sudan’s previous juntas, the TMC is not exclusively a ‘military’ organ in the strict sense of the word. The officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) who had long enjoyed political dominance were now forced to share their authority with separate armed formations, the NISS and the RSF, both creatures of the Bashir era. However, the TMC is by all means a re-creation of president Bashir’s own ‘security committee’, a central organ under his chairmanship that joins military, security, police and militia bosses and is replicated at the various level of administration as a grid of oppression.
The emergence of a strongman
Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka ‘Himeidti’), the leader of the infamous RSF emerged as the deputy chairman of the TMC and the critical agent of ‘change’ at the top. Himeidti, the name is a motherly diminutive form for ‘my little Mohamed’, was born in a family of agro-pastoralists north of Kutum. His people, the Mahariyya , a subsection of the wider Rizeigat, are predominantly pastoralists whose subsistence existence was convulsed by the penetration of commodification and the cash economy in twentieth century Sudan. The inadequacies of the Mahariyya ’s pastoral livelihood were laid bare in the 1984-1986 famine that struck Kordofan and Darfur as part of the wider Sahelian drought. Mohamed Hamdan the boy and his kin were displaced by the famine to Nyala, Darfur’s largest city and trade hub connecting regional trade networks that stretch through Chad, the Central African Republic and beyond, and into Libya and Egypt. Many Mahariyya became settled millet farmers around Mellit, others remained camel herders. Whether settled or on the move most had to supplant their livelihoods with alternative strategies connected to the cash economy including labour migration, trade, and petty commodity production.
Many Mahariyya men, including Mohamed Hamdan, flocked to Libya as migrant labourers or traders. In one study carried out in Mellit, four out of every ten Mahariyya households had a male family member working in Libya. Mohamed Hamdan, the youngster, began his career as a merchant procuring goods from Nyala to Mellit. By the mid-1990s he was engaged in cross-border trade between Darfur, Chad and Libya. When the Darfur insurgency erupted in 2003, he was a livestock merchant with a base in Mellit and operations mainly in Libya . The war encircled Mellit. Both farming and livestock migration were severely curtailed while the closure of the Sudanese-Libyan border and widespread looting endangered trade routes and restricted the movement of labour. Mahariyya traders including Mohamed Hamdan Daglo were under the impression that they were specifically targeted by the Darfuri insurgents. For many, Mellit became a place of siege. Two of Mohamed Hamdan’s brothers were killed in an incident on their way to Libya when insurgents attacked their trade caravan and looted their camels close to Karb al-Toum.
The racialisation of the conflict in Darfur was the background from which Mohamed Hamdan Daglo emerged as militia leader of his angry Mahariyya and Rizeigat kin. He joined the Sudanese army’s Border Guards, a militia formation fighting on the side of the government against the Darfur insurgents in 2003 and began a recruitment campaign in Nyala amongst his own ‘nas’ (Arabic for people) starting with a squad of 200 kinsmen. The brutal efficiency of Himeidti’s forces soon attracted the attention of Khartoum’s rulers. At the time, General Ibn Ouf was head of military intelligence. Himeidti demanded the formalisation of his militia and their inclusion in the wage-system of the SAF.
Three years later, Himeidti was granted court with President Bashir. Khartoum had signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) granting southern Sudan the right of self-determination as well as the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement with the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) faction led by Minni Minawi granting the rebel group regional authority over Darfur. In response, the still active Darfur rebel groups led by the then powerful Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) formed the umbrella National Redemption Front (NRF). The JEM under the leadership of its late founder, Khalil Ibrahim, was beginning to break the racial barrier in Darfur and actively winning supporters among Darfuri pastoralist Arabs including Himeidti’s own Mahariyya . Himeidti was in a position to negotiate. He asked for a share of power akin to the southern Sudanese militia leaders who had fought alongside the government in southern Sudan. The government was reluctant to accept his demands. In response, he camped outside Nyala with his troops in protest leaving the demoralised SAF units to their fate in Darfur’s harsh war-fields.
Soon, the Mahariyya merchant turned militia leader was in a position to punch even higher. He proved his worth in the bitter battles that followed the 2008 JEM attack on the capital Khartoum. In Darfur, JEM’s forces encircled al-Fasher and Himeidti came to the rescue after pleas from the garrison commander at the time, the SAF officer Imad al-Din Adawi.
As a reward, President Bashir summoned the war hero to Khartoum for decoration. Himeidti was granted the medal of courage and the authority and funding to expand recruitment under the umbrella of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, for all practical purposes a private militia outside the formal chain of command of the SAF. President Bashir and his officers effectively outsourced their entire counterinsurgency operations to the RSF. Himeidti’s shock troops were in deployment across Sudan’s war zones, in Darfur, in South Kordofan and in the Blue Nile. When a wave of riots erupted in Khartoum in September 2013 against the government’s decision to slash fuel and bread subsidies in the aftermath of the independence of South Sudan it was the RSF’s teenage fighters who did the shooting in the capital. Hundreds of protesters lost their lives in the confrontation.
Thanks to Himeidti, herdsmen from northern Darfur had tapped into a new livelihood resource, war on commission. Geopolitics created ample opportunities for a mobile and capable fighting force on rent in a volatile region. Himeidti troops functioned as an extension of the European Union’s borders against intruding migrants deep in the African Sahara and as a long arm for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their battle against Houthi militants in Yemen. At the command of a loyal fighting force spread across the country and backed by powerful and rich patrons in the region, Himeidti was ready to displace the ageing resident of the palace on the Blue Nile. When coup officers confronted Bashir in the early hours of 11 April, he shouted that this is a Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian plot carried out by RSF commander Himeidti and the NISS boss Salah Gosh, or so claim Khartoum’s loud whisperers.
Himeidti’s rise from camel merchant in the Darfur wilderness to militiaman to ruler in the heart of the Nile Valley is a remarkable feat of historical cunning. The most recent example of such a transformation in power dates back to 1885 when Abdullahi son of Mohamed Taur Shein (arabic for vicious bull), a Baggara faki (holy man) from Darfur and Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi’s earliest disciple, succeeded the charismatic mystic and revolutionary from Dongola to become the Khalifa, ruler of the nascent Mahdist state. Abdullahi the Khalifa was significantly challenged by the Mahdi’s powerful kin, the country’s pre-modern coup plotters. Thanks to a massive standing army recruited predominantly from Baqqara herdsmen, the Khalifa persevered, defeated the putschists and was only dislodged from power sixteen years later by British Maxim guns, the first recoil operated machine-gun.
As a child in Omdurman, al-Khalifa’s capital west of the Nile, I went on school trips to the fields of Karari to the north of the town where over twenty thousand Mahdist fighters were massacred in the early hours of 2 September 1898. Every rainy season, some of those brave bones glittered dazzling white in the blazing sun against the reddish-brown soil of the Karari plain.
It is then not much of a surprise that Himeidti’s emergence at the top of the chaotic crowd of Bashir’s last years was perceived as an opportunity in many quarters. As a foreigner to the Khartoum establishment, Himeidti was generously interpreted by some as a hero of the downtrodden who could rework power relations in favour of Sudan’s marginalised peoples and finally win authority from the elite of the riverine heartland. From this perspective, his major achievement is perceived to be the subversion of the SAF, since Sudan’s independence the guarantor of the hegemony of the riverine elite. Accordingly, he became the betting horse of a Darfuri merchant class of predominantly Rizeigat and Zaghawa composition and the politicians and intellectuals in their orbit.
Uniting rural and urban politics
Bashir had managed subnational interests through a system of ethnic politics that involved a division and redivision of state and locality boundaries to match and create ethnic majorities with a dominant position in state and local government under the mantle of the ruling NCP. Hence, power conflicts often took the form of intra-NCP competition and manipulation of competing blocs was a constant preoccupation of the NCP high command. Likewise, ministerial positions at the central level were apportioned according to a complex calculus of political party and ethnic power division and sub-division. In this apportionment of posts and since the eruption of the Darfur insurgency and the secession of south the third position in the formal hierarchy of power, the office of vice president, was the preserve of Darfuri figures as successors to ethnic South Sudanese who had traditionally occupied the post before the independence of South Sudan. As a result, Bashir’s cabinets were more a warehouse of clients and far less so an effective executive. In his late years, he attempted to bypass this dysfunctional state of affairs born out of political convenience by further centralising power into his own hands. He created a series of councils that dealt with critical aspects of government business – defence, economic policy, investment and foreign relations amongst others – under his direct chairmanship that were superior to the individual ministries.
As a countermeasure to Bashir’s rationale of government, the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) demand the formation of a government of ‘meritocrats’ solely drawn from their ranks to rule over a transitional period and pave the way towards free and fair elections. While on first consideration a reasonable demand, government by merit is interpreted by the Rizeigat and Zaghawa nationalists and their allies as a refashioning of the narrow effendiyya nationalism of the riverine heartland at the root of rural grievances and a replay of the exclusionary ‘Sudanisation’ of independence. In a bid to groom a counterforce to the urbanite neo-effendiyya of the FFC, Himeidti and his allies were quick to seek the support of tribal notables from Sudan’s vast and largely impoverished rural worlds with the promise of ethnic representation as a reward. In many ways, Himeidti’s political operation seems to recreate Bashir’s very sultanic politics absent the organisational framework of the big tent NCP.
While the bare-knuckle negotiations between the TMC and the FFC revolve around one character of government, military or civilian, an underlying contradiction remains the rural-urban divide that has long bedevilled Sudan’s politics. Protesters in Sudan’s urban centres crystallised their demands into the singular slogan of ‘civilian’ government while the rustic rural support base of the TMC and its champion Himeidti shout for continuation of ‘military’ rule. The FFC, unfortunately, are yet to imagine a political formula that can provide a bridgehead into rural Sudan. I would argue that the notion of a government of ‘meritocrats’ drawn from Sudan’s best educated cosmopolitans misses the target. Meanwhile, Himeidti was savvy enough to engage the leaders of the Darfur insurgencies he had almost obliterated on the battlefield securing friendly hand-shaking photoshoots and an embryonic alliance.
The brutality of the RSF and the ineloquence of their leader and his many gaffes, he once referred to the minister of higher education as the minister of ‘giraya’, colloquial Sudanese Arabic for learning, were identified by Khartoum’s cosmopolitans as markers of a violent pastoral essence. He was ridiculed as a backward herdsman and as a rogue general in contradistinction to the ‘true’ military college generals of the SAF. In anguish, Khartoum’s political class rummaged the officer corps in search for a ‘enlightened’ soldier who could save the day, crush the RSF with a bold strike of military advantage and rescue the honour of the SAF corps. This political wish acquired the form of myth in popular imagination, the myth of the Atbara armoured battalion expected at any moment in Khartoum. Himeidti and the RSF are as much an expression of the rural crisis as they are of the chaotic war-driven urbanisation of Sudan. In a way, Himeidti is today the political name of Nyala, the trading capital of Darfur that has long displaced Wad Medani in the Gezira heartland as Sudan’s second largest urban centre and possibly the country’s most important commercial hub trading in narcotics and cross-border smuggling of livestock.
The revolutionary challenge from below
Now, in the face of these trials Sudan’s revolutionary surge remains a formidable challenge to Himeidti and his powerful allies and patrons. At the core of revolutionary action is a radical component drawn from urban subalterns who are neither subsumed under the FFC meritocratic model nor liable to co-optation by Himeidti’s pledge of ethnic representation under sultanic authority. The most successful organisational form of this precariat spread across Sudan’s urban landscape is so far the neighbourhood-level ‘resistance committee’. These neighbourhood committees are accessible to precariously employed and unemployed labour and dominated by groups of militants whose political orientations are drawn from confrontation with the abusive and extractive state and the relations of power that sustain it. It is these militant elements, with no recognised place in the social order and with little to gain from its racial hierarchy and ethic building blocs, who have faced the greatest wrath of the military security establishment.
Ahead of the 29 Ramadan massacre state media launched a vicious smear campaign against the protesters of ‘Columbia’, the name the subalterns of the qiada sit-in chose for their favoured spot on the bank of the Nile, for their disregard of middle-class norms. Columbia, state media claimed, had become a site of flagrant moral corruption rife with debauchery, drugs, crime and unnameable social ills. The Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), hitherto the trusted guardian of the revolution, dithered and issued a statement distancing itself from Columbia and its inhabitants. In government speak the 29 Ramadan massacre was hatched as an operation to sweep Columbia ‘clean’ but ran out of control and in the words of the spokesman of the TMC ‘what happened happened!’. Significantly, it was in Columbia where fraternisation between subaltern protesters and their fellow SAF and RSF soldiers was most marked, at times threatening military command and discipline.
The TMC generals, al-Burhan and Himeidti, attempted to reach out to the stricken masses in an effort to soothe the revolutionary anger fuelling the daring protest movement. Himeidti addressed a rally in Mayo and al-Burhan another in Um Badda, both sprawling impoverished and heavily populated neighbourhoods in the outer circle of Khartoum and Omdurman respectively. Himeidti promised the allocation of residential plots to squatters and al-Burhan reproduced the discourse of marginalisation promising a new beginning of social equality with some success but the masses were not satisfied. Both men were incessantly interrupted by cries of ‘madaniyya’ – Arabic for civilian – the catchphrase of the protest movement.
As al-Burhan spoke on 30 June, the anniversary of the 1989 putsch that brought President Bashir to power, demonstrators filled the streets of Khartoum and almost all of Sudan’s major towns in their tens of thousands in a remarkable show of popular will to bring down the rule of the junta and install the pursued ‘madaniyya’. The response of the military-security establishment to this enduring determination was a series of extrajudicial killings targeting militants of the ‘resistance committees’. A policeman who inspected the corpses shot at close range to the head identified one of the slain militants as his own son.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the TMC and the FFC, now mediated by the African Union (AU) and the Ethiopian government as well as a cohort of Western diplomats including newly reappointed US envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, the course of the Sudanese revolution is for the now in the hands of the ‘resistance committees’. Some have claimed local authority in their neighbourhoods toppling the petty autocrats of the Bashir-era ‘popular committees’ and are refashioning micro-authority to fit an emancipatory zeal. The question remains, will they be able to translate this zeal into mass political action that can take on the brutal machinations of the Sudanese state?
Magdi el Gizouli is a scholar and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He writes on Sudanese affairs here.