The Funambulist Correspondents #02 Khartoum: Students Were the Revolution in Sudan



Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

Read the introduction /// Explore the rest of the series 

In December 2012, four students from the University of Al-Jazeera were found dead in Al-Neshesheba pond near Wad Medani after their disappearance. A few days earlier, students hailing from the Darfur region were protesting the administration’s decision to force them to pay tuition fees citing an article in the 2006 Darfur peace agreement that essentially exempts Darfuri students from paying fees taking into consideration the mass economic hurdles and displacement they face due to the conflict. Just a few weeks earlier, the Ministry of Higher Education pushed through a decision that the students to be exempted must prove that they took their high school examination inside refugee and IDP camps. Students protested this new unfair decision and organized a sit-in that was heavily attacked by the authorities.

The university administration and the police insisted that the cause of death was drowning, however, the autopsy proved that the cause of death was a blunt force head and chest trauma and that they were thrown into the water after their death.

Angry protests shook the university of Al-Jazeera and other universities across the country as students chanted “death of a student is the death of the nation”.

Nothing matches the anger of parents when they lose children and worse when they work so hard to empower their children in hopes to put them through college hoping that their education will alter the circumstances of the family. The mother of Al-Sadig Yagoub was a displaced woman raising her children in the largest IDP camp in Sudan, Kalma IDP camp in South Darfur state, after fleeing war in their village. She would leave at dawn to collect firewood and sell it to provide for her children and build their future. Her son, Al-Sadig Yagoub, struggled to study using a torch and firewood. When he did well and received his high school diploma, his community raised funds to finance the transportation cost to Al-Jazeera state which is far from South Darfur.

Salma Al-Tijani, a journalist, who interviewed Yagoub’s mother in 2012 kept thinking of her. In September 2013, when I met Al-Tijani while covering a massive protest movement in Khartoum, she said she is protesting for her and the lost lives of the students. Al-Tijani became famous in Al-Sahafa when she held on a tear-gas canister with her bare hands and threw it back at the police forces. Her hand was a bit swollen and she was casually nursing her burns as we drove around to examine the aftermath of protests.

Sudanese students always played a critical role in the political arena and especially in resisting dictatorial rule – Sudan’s main curse in the last half of a century. The role of students was first recognized in the 1940s in the struggle against colonial rule. Students participated in small numbers in the protest movement of the 1920s which came to be known as the 1924 revolution. But in 1945, university students entered the political arena with force when they protested in solidarity with Egyptian students who were massacred by the British in the infamous Abbas bridge incident[1]. In the 1950s, after Sudan’s first post-independence coup d’état, the student union of the University of Khartoum proclaimed their opposition to Aboud’s military government, and in 1959, “they submitted a memorandum to the higher council of the armed forces asking them to unleash democratic freedoms such as freedom of the press and allow the return of trade unions and political parties.[2]”. The confrontation continued until 1964 when government forces opened fire on a student protest and killed Ahmed Al-Gorashi, a leftist-leaning University of Khartoum student. His killing quickly built momentum for the political movement and pushed trade unions to announce civil disobedience and the government of Aboud collapsed soon afterward. Student political groups and alliances continued to play a critical role in the 1970s even though the Nimeri dictatorship which again came to power through a coup d’état had politically invested in controlling the university administrations through legislations and policies and creating their own political party and affiliated student group[3].

Following the 1989 Islamist coup d’état, students were drastically affected by the dire political conditions. As thousands of civil servants who are not affiliated with Islamists were sacked to the public good causing widespread impoverishment and thousands of academics, students, journalists, artists, and politicians were held in political detention for months at a time, universities became extremely dangerous.

In December 1989, the University of Khartoum witnessed one of its most difficult weeks. An artistic event was attacked by Islamist students who controlled the student union and, in the aftermath, an art student, Bashir Al-Tayeb, was stabbed to death by an Islamist student[4]. In just a few days, another student, Saleem Abubakr was also killed and the student body began protesting. Al-Taya Abu-Agla, a female student was shot dead as she was on her way to join the protests[5]. Mohamed Farouk, who studied at the University of Khartoum at the time, knew both Bashir Al-Tayeb and Saleem Abubakr and had lived in dorms with both at different points of his life. He remembers Abubakr as a strong man who left his home at a young age to seek education and had lived in dorms since primary school[6]. Abu-Agla was from the suburbs of Al-Dinder in Sennar state, a place where women rarely make it to the university during that period.

Violence against students was widespread during the rule of the Islamists (1989-2019). It was systematic as they used intimidation, assassinations, and even suspension from the university as a tool to silence the student body into submission[7]. This caused more anger and radicalized the student body enough to continue fighting back and protesting against economic policies and political decisions that affected the country. The situation was so pressing that it would take six to eight years for a student to graduate from a state university because the administration would repeatedly shut down the university for months at a time after the killing of students or a rising tide of student protests. The University of Khartoum alone was shut down for months in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018.

At the morgue in Wad Medani, it became clear to me that students are the real catalyst for political change in Sudan. Hundreds of students were staying put near the morgue and were putting their lives at risk just being there. Months earlier in June 2012, it was university students that initiated the protests against the reduction of fuel subsidies, and in September 2013, it was high school students that sparked the protest movement, and this is why they are over-represented in the over 200 deaths of protestors that were recorded over just four days of protests.

In the protests that led to the fall of the Islamist government in April 2019, students were not only present, but the culmination of their struggles for three-decades was finally bearing fruit. As protestors gathered at the sit-in in front of the army headquarters, the student martyrs were commemorated. When the family of Abu-Agla was arriving at the sit-in to finally attempt to find closure for their tragic pain, loss, and absence of justice, they were greeted by protestors who chanted “Where is Al-Dinder? Al-Dinder is coming, why is it coming? To avenge those that killed Al-Taya” and “We are not late, we are surely coming to those that killed Al-Taya in the name of religion.”[8]

Notes ///
[1] Salah Ali “ the student movement at Cairo University- Khartoum branch and the resistance to Aboud’s regime in 50 years since Sudan’s October’s revolution (1964-2014)- Edited by Ali, Haydar, Mahmoud, Nour Al-Deen and Hemat. 2015. Sudanese Studies Center.
[2] Mohamed Mahmoud. “How did the Aboud government complicate the Southern issue” in 50 years since Sudan’s October’s revolution (1964-2014)- Edited by Ali, Haydar, Mahmoud, Nour Al-Deen and Hemat. 2015. Sudanese Studies Center.
[3] Khalid Mustafa Medani “Between Grievances and State Violence,” Middle East Report 267 (Summer 2013).
[4] Interview with Mohamed Farouk over zoom and jitsi. 25 February 2021.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Interview with Maa’ni Mubarak, activist and former activist and students from the University of Al-Jazeera. Khartoum. 1 March 2021.
[8]Al-Tay, Ahmed Yousif. “First female revolutionary martyr”. Sudafax. 30 April 2019. <أحمد-يوسف-التاي-أول-شهيدة-في-الحراك-الث/>

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese journalist, writer, blogger, and feminist activist based in Khartoum, who has been published in the Washington Post, Index on Censorship, The Nation, Raseef 22, AJ English, Al-Araby, and more. She is currently researching cyber-bullying against women activists and influencers in Sudan.