I’ve written a number of posts in the last month or so, for UN Dispatch, about the protests in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. The protests were sparked by the announcement of austerity measures by the ruling National Congress Party in June, and were instigated by female students at the University of Khartoum. The protestors, however, are demanding the withdraw of the ruling regime and a new democratic system in which civil and political rights for all of Sudan’s diverse population will be respected. (See Girifna’s website and the Sudan Revolts website for an idea of what the protests are about.) The protests have also since gained the support of wider communities and professional associations such as the Sudanese Doctors’ Union and the Attorneys’ Bar, not to mention support from the diaspora and from around the world.
In the comments section of a post I wrote called “What Role for Celebrity Activists in #SudanRevolts?“, @fariniamujica left the following comment:
Carol I loved this! I think its really helpful for all us “non-Sudanese” on how to support. I was wondering if you could help me answer a question/comment I’ve seen around by some foreigners regarding the situation in Sudan: “NOW they protest because of rise in prices? Where were they when the genocide was going on?” I think you and me obviously know that this is not why they are protesting, but I also believe that up to a certain point this is why international support has been light…? I am probably wrong but I just wanted to know what you’re thoughts were on this. Thank you!!!
I responded, but there appears to be a glitch on the back end of the UN Dispatch platform and it doesn’t show up on the webpage. While that’s being worked out, I thought I’d convert my brief response into a blog post:
I’ve seen that sentiment once or twice on Twitter, yes. What I would say first is that I think it’s important to remember that a lot of these protestors are and have been opposed to the wars on the border, with the south, in Darfur, and in the east for a long time. It would be better to ask some Sudanese activists themselves, as I cannot speak for them, but my hunch is that it’s a matter of power and feasibility.
For example, you might ask an American why there are no mass protests over our continued attacks on Waziristan. It’s too far removed; it doesn’t affect your every day existence in the United States. In addition, the military is simply too powerful. You might be opposed to it, but it’s hard to imagine massive protests in the streets calling for the overthrow of the government because of it. But raise the cost of living, make good college educations tantamount to lifetimes of debt, turn a blind eye to (and participate in) corrupt banking and law-making practices, and you get Occupy Wall Street. Those may be unfair comparisons, and I’m aware of the ways in which they’re unfair, but it’s the best I can do to ellicit some form of empathy for the protestors and an explanation of sorts as to “why now” — now that austerity measures were announced.
I also don’t know the extent to which Sudanese in the north were writing about or protesting these wars in recent years, or the extent to which they would have even been able to. It’s easy to imagine any journalist writing with an anti-war slant being locked up or somehow silenced. So, although I can’t say for sure, I don’t think it’s fair to say that northern Sudanese have been apathetic or complicit in those wars over the years.
I’m not sure why international attention has been light, but I have a couple of thoughts. In one sense, the nature of the conflicts in Darfur and South Sudan is quite different from #SudanRevolts. War in Africa, particularly if there is a clear ethnic or religious ideological rhetoric being used to perpetuate it, is an easy narrative for outsiders to reproduce (even if it does overlook the inaccuracies of that narrative), and an easy story with which to appeal to readers’ emotions. I considered the possibility that the nature of the civil war with the south and the conflict in Darfur, with acts of genocide and aerial bombardments of villages, for example, was simply more dramatic and severe than the political protests and detentions that characterize #SudanRevolts. (Sexual violence, too, seems to be a hotter story if it’s a “weapon of war” than if it’s part of political repression.) Since #SudanRevolts is being repressed by what Mamdani calls the “normal violence of the state” as opposed to a genocidal mission (Saviors and Survivors, p. 281), it does not command the same kind of attention.
However, that doesn’t explain the relative silence on the conflict in the east. While South Sudan and Darfur have got a lot of attention over the years, in comparison, the rebellion in the east has barely been mentioned. It began in the 1990s, and there was a peace agreement in 2006. For more on the conflict in the east, you can research the main opposition movements there: the Beja Congress, the Rashaida Free Lions, and the Eastern Front.
This conflict was in the northeast of the country, a region which fits into the “Arab north” part of our Western story of Sudan. I’m guessing that the reason the war in the east didn’t generate widespread outrage and coverage is that it didn’t fit into the Arab-Islamic supremacy narrative. (Further confusing this narrative is the SPLM support of the Eastern Front. Adding to that, by the way, in the case of #SudanRevolts, is the demonstrated solidarity expressed, on platforms like Twitter, by Darfuris and Southern Sudanese for #SudanRevolts, and by northern Sudanese for those struggling in South Sudan and Darfur. This includes congratulations from northern Sudanese to South Sudan on the one year anniversary of their independence.)
So I think perhaps the reason for international support being a bit light is twofold; 1) it’s not an armed conflict, and 2) it doesn’t fit into the dominant narrative we have of Sudan. My feeling is that it’s very hard for many people, in the US for example, to alter that narrative in such a way as to be sympathetic to Sudanese in the north. Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, on an episode I was able to appear on, dealt with many of these same issues.
I think it’s probably true that the Western reaction you describe is part of why international public support and attention has been light, but I think that reaction itself comes out of a broader story we’ve been constructing about Sudan for many years now. The origins of that narrative are steeped in history and politics, and Mamdani goes into great depth in Saviors and Survivors explaining how it came to be (and what the implications are for US foreign policy toward Sudan). If you’ve read a bit about John Garang and his vision of a “New Sudan,” most of this should be making a lot of sense.
I’ll end with some recommended reading for those who want to learn more. These resources are regionally focused on Darfur (aside from the first, which focuses on South Sudan, and the next three, which focus on New Sudan and the north) because I wrote a book chapter about this topic and focused on Darfur (in New Directions in Genocide Research, ed. Adam Jones); thus these are the sources I’m familiar with. However, I highly recommend them for this particular topic. These sources do a very good job of deconstructing the dominant narratives and delving into the nuances of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, and power in Sudan.
Jok Madut Jok, Sudan: Race, Religion and Violence (Oneworld, 2007)
Amir Ahmad Nasr, “Ending Sudan’s Identity Crisis,” The Guardian, June 10, 2011
Mahmoud Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (paperback by Three Rivers Press, 2010)
Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (Zed Books, 2008)
Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed and Leif Manger (eds), Understanding the Crisis in Darfur: Listening to Sudanese Voices (University of Bergen, 2006)
Julie Flint, Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur (Small Arms Survey, 2009)
R. S. O’Fahey, “Umm Kwakiyya or the Damnation of Darfur,” African Affairs, 106 (2007)
Musa Adam Abdul-Jalil, “Nomad-Sedentary Relations and the Question of Land Rights in Darfur: From Complementarity to Conﬂict,” in Richard Rottenburg (ed), Nomadic-Sedentary Relations and Failing State Institutions in Darfur and Kordofan (Halle: Orientwissenschaftliche Hefte 26; Mitteilungen des SFB, Differenz und Integration 12)