Sunday, October 17, 2021
I was standing outside the smoking lounge at Bole, Addis Ababa’s principal international airport, inhaling a cigarette as I stared at the images on my phone. Smoking outside the lounge was forbidden, but the smog inside was such that I, along with my fellow addicts, had rebelled. Occasionally, officials would ask us to go inside, but I barely noticed them. My friends were sending me photos of a sit-in beginning right outside the Republican Palace in Khartoum, and I was rapt. The palace was Sudan’s White House, and these scenes were as unimaginable as Bernie supporters suddenly pitching up on Biden’s lawn. According to my friends it was a fake protest, set up by the military to stir up unrest and prepare the groundwork for a coup, but I didn’t want to believe them.
In a few hours, I told myself, I would arrive in Khartoum and be able to see for myself, even if visiting demonstrations was not exactly part of my job description. For eleven years, I had worked as a conflict researcher in the Horn of Africa, mainly in South Sudan. Often, I worked for a Swiss organization, and often, I would do my research during the dry season, when waterlogged roads harden and the fighting begins. Unfortunately donor funds, too, have their seasons, and the Swiss organization’s money was running out. I was going to Khartoum to meet diplomats, peacock my expertise, and see if anyone would fund the Swiss’s research in Sudan. While in the capital, I would also contact some South Sudanese rebel groups that were seeking succor across the border and find out what they were planning. I had a week to get some good information and avoid attracting too much attention from Sudan’s intelligence service.
None of this held much interest when compared to the protests. The images on my phone showed white tents offering free medical services and young people joyously milling together in scenes that evoked the demonstrations of 2019, when months of protests against the reign of Omar al-Bashir culminated in a sit-in just outside the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). I had watched those protests unfold from afar, in Berlin, and marveled at the carnivalesque scenes.
Growing up, I thought that real politics was collective struggle, but over the past decade I’d begun to fear the era of mass movements had come to an end. My political life had desiccated. I briefed diplomats and wrote angry missives for the United Nations and Swiss NGOs about brutal government military campaigns in South Sudan. Increasingly, I became convinced that the diplomats who were the primary audience for my reports were deeply uninterested in changing their positions. For over a decade, they had backed a predatory government intent on pillaging South Sudan while the country descended into a low-intensity conflict, often fought along ethnic lines. I struggled to know how to position myself—neither ethnic militias nor diplomats are my constituency—and felt expectant about my trip to Sudan. If South Sudan was a land of ethnic violence and indifferent diplomats, Sudan, I told myself, was a country of political parties and street protests—protests so effective they had brought down Bashir. It was in Khartoum, I thought, that I would find the sort of collective politics I could recognize as my own.
By the time Bashir fell, he had been Sudan’s ruler for thirty years, having taken power in a coup in 1989 while still an army brigadier. Bashir captured a state racked by a civil war that pitted the country’s margins against its urban centers, which have long dominated Sudanese politics. Successive colonial regimes had installed themselves in Khartoum and extracted resources and labor from the country’s peripheries. After Sudanese independence, in 1956, the postcolonial government continued the same pattern of domination, and the peripheries fought back. One civil war (1955–72) led to a decade of southern regional government, during which Sudan’s inability to service its debt, coupled with rising oil prices, nearly bankrupted the country and led the state to withdraw from the peripheries. A second civil war began in 1983.
From this inauspicious material, Bashir created a lasting dictatorship, dependent on personal relationships and backroom deals. He became the fixer-in-chief, ceaselessly maneuvering at the top of an unstable coalition of Islamists, security men, and merchant capital. In 1999, oil began to flow in Sudan, most of it extracted from the south of the country—the hotbed of the civil war. Oil enabled Bashir to cut a deal with Sudan’s cities. He would provide cheap commodities and subsidies, paid for in petrodollars, if they tolerated dictatorship and repression in the peripheries. As long as the commodities flowed, the cities could be placated. To police the impoverished peripheries, in revolt against their marginalization by the country’s elite, Bashir raised militias. As a form of payment, he encouraged these forces to loot and pillage, effectively franchising the state’s monopoly of violence.