It is difficult to write the present as if it was history. Ola Hassanain nonetheless attempts to provide us with an account of the unfolding situation in Sudan, where protesters against the October 25, 2021 military coup risk their lives in the streets. She reflects on the quasi-continuous military regime and what civilian lives (and deaths) mean in this political context.
I write this text as the sounds of yet another round of gunshots echoes into the skies of Khartoum. Another procession and its chants continue to ring in the air: “The people are stronger and there is no turning back!” Upon hearing the shots I turn to my mother and we exchange looks as if to ask: why do they insist on shooting at people? What is it that makes the State respond that way when they hear our calls for freedom? My mother tells me about her experience of the 1971 coup when she laid on the ground of her dormitory at the University of Khartoum while bullets flew through the windows of their rooms for what felt like hours. Since then, there have been a recorded eight coups in Sudan. My mother gets up to look through the window and I sit back in the armchair, the silence in the room giving way to my mother guessing what kind of weaponry might be at use here. My mind starts wandering. Where did the shots come from? Was it from the eastern part of our neighborhood, in Aldiem? Or was it north? I start to picture the sites where these bullets landed. Did they kill anyone?
One question emerges from reflections on the State’s response to these precessions made up of neighborhood committees, resistance committees, and other civilian organizations: what is this condition of continuous catastrophe illustrated by the obliteration of civilians when they revolt and demand that political power be shared so that people can have agency over their lives? With a climbing death toll in the continuing anti-coup protests, it is clear that the military has overestimated its capability of governing through violence. The Sudanese public is manifesting political imaginaries and there is simply no return to the old ways of politics. They are imagining a future where the State does not have such a vexed relationship with the civilians’ social worlds, but rather make space to engage with the local arguments about what works for them or not. They are imagining a much needed epistemological shift in political discourse that does not entail military assaults as a response to the most basic political demands.
But Black people’s death is part and parcel of the continuation of the nation-state project, and any notion of civil society as we know it requires this category of non-person to exist in order to ensure its longevity: if you are a non-person (i.e. a civilian), you cannot conjure agentic power. This was consolidated by the signing of the 14-point political agreement of November 21, 2021 by the head of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan (leader of the coup and self-inaugurated head of state) with Abdallah Hamdok (the now-resigned prime minister), which had an eerily similar desire of “stopping the killing.” Although the document itself was presented as a main means of ending violence, the “stopping of killing” was presented as a solution to the crisis created by the military’s coup itself in the previous month. However, under the guise of “stopping the killing,” the political agreement clearly and deliberately ousted the civilian part of the civilian-military transitional government; al-Burhan has since handpicked civilians loyal only to his Islamist ideology.
What does the recurring removal of civilians from spaces of bureaucracy or from physical space (via deadly assault) mean? This, for me, is what Frank B. Wilderson describes as “being buried beneath the world.”
When military rule dominates the political landscape, controlling all of the regional governorships and holding a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly in Sudan, this signals that during its rule, an entire world is being created without the people.
The 14-point agreement plan signed on November 21, 2021 reinstated Hamdok as prime minister and gave the military total control during the transitional period until a handover to an elected civilian government.
The Sudanese public has read the political agreement as yet another rabbit hole of negotiations by Burhan. It constitutes an open-ended reign for the military, especially since the civilian component is officially removed from the agreement, and that there will be no guarantees that military rules do not last indefinitely. Popular protests previously opposing the coup transformed into protests against the political agreement and the very legitimacy of the government. At this point, I firmly believe people cannot be convinced that the current political formation comprised of the military and the same constituencies from the previous regime will ever deliver transitional justice, eliminate corruption, or be held accountable for rampant human right abuses. This is especially true as the Islamist government has been the political incubator for the military for the past three decades and is largely seen as complicit.
The military remains a state apparatus that forecloses the democratic civilian power that ought to flow through political institutions. The various political parties in Sudan have historically seized power of the State by way of deadly violence just as their political projects begin to fail, and the coups riddling the country’s history since “independence” are a testament to how these parties have bled their ideologies into the military formations and mobilized them through coups as needed. Fifty-two out of the 65 years of Sudan’ independence have been under military rule. And although al-Burhan’s coup in October 2021 is always spoken of as an individual act, he is the product of the State’s nurturing of a militarized consciousness whereby domestic politics is akin to a state of war.
Within this political state, these cycles of military rule are sustained by and rest upon what Alessandra Raengo calls the “plasticity of Blackness”: the repetitive and durative temporalities of Black life that foreclose the possibility of futures. Imagine the cartography of world-making processes within this vision, what our urbanscapes look like and how abstract and impossible the futures seem. We are perceived as simply taking up space in and forestalling the full expression of the State’s imaginary. When people are deeply constrained in their life choices, place-making becomes difficult. It is thus promising to see the emergence of local resistance committees as one of the forces against the removal of civilians from the political processes that impact them.
If we consider the temporality of Black life, one wonders how the ruling political parties in Sudan never prioritized the creation of infrastructure. Instead, everything was designed for their own preservation: new construction has always seemed to be a business venture for the political parties to make governance serve their personal agendas.
An example would be when the National Congress Party took power in 1989 led by Al Bashir (also through a military coup), the party gradually started to deploy political empowerment strategies known as Tamkin. This essentially consisted in decentralization policies that granted the private sector government functions, thus dismantling civil institutions and chipping away all the civic infrastructure of Sudan. Every new project that could have improved upon past infrastructure ended up being outsourced to private companies which were usually owned by members of the same political party. Construction has been a means of hemorrhaging public money and funneling it into the pockets of the ruling political parties and their international partners; namely China, Qatar, and the UAE amongst others. China remains one of Sudan’s main trading partners and invests across multiple sectors, including in mining. The process of constructing the nation-state from the perspective of the NCP consisted in perpetual negotiations to broker deals for national projects. This was used as a means of holding onto power, to level the playing field against stronger opponents, to corrupt and co-opt countering organizations and civil mobilisations, to assert that it is the principal partner for any and all deals in Sudan—thus legitimizing itself and extending its time in power. Their need to rely on negotiations made it possible to enforce their will enough to hold onto political and economic power. This placed the Sudanese civil society in a position where we are only allowed to be as long as we are inscribed into capital through exploited labor. We become the capital and we are then used as leverage.
What does this tell us about the vagueness (imposed or otherwise) attached to the civilian in a worlding process? The state of affairs in Sudan seems to affirm that we as African people, are not viewed as valuable other than as a leverage for their political agendas. The State gets to administer life and we must perform their demands; otherwise, it administers death. But people resist and continuously carve out spaces to live the lives they want. Many people are not particularly interested in mobilizing towards modes of legible organizing that are deemed “eligible” to engage in the political dialogue as unstably structured by partisan politics.
The neighborhood committees are made up of mostly youths of the community, both male and female, engaging in action-based approaches incorporating readings of landscape and the spaces they inhabit.
“This requires recognizing that native voices do not sing in unison or with singular clarity, but just as importantly, it also requires acknowledging that our interlocutors are never merely describing their world—they are perpetually analyzing their world and making arguments about it.
The challenge then is not simply to incorporate native voices, but to engage seriously with native arguments.
Whose voice can be deployed as evidence of
culture? Whose as political ideology?
And whose as theory?”
(Yarimar Bonilla, Non-Sovereign Futures, French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment, 2015).
…Who is eligible to live life?
Why should we, as a Black geography, focus on these spaces specifically? Because we should be rallying around a multiplicity of living, not towards the singularity imagined by the civic society composed of the “citizen” and the “civilian” that makes it so easy to scrap us off of documents. The local arguments demonstrated by neighborhood committees and resistance committees operate as forms of unfinished critique: they are durational attempts to escape from the epistemic constraints of political modernity while still considering its normative categories. Political projects in Sudan never last long enough before military intervention interrupt them. The military recognize the potential of the “unfinished,” and use these interruptions in order to integrate themselves within state structures. This is a major obstacle that prevents entities like the resistance committees, policymakers, and intellectuals from envisioning how the short-term success of nonviolent action can be turned into long-term sustainable political change. Resistance formations like the neighborhood committees thus need to be understood as both a positive project and a negative placeholder. However, I would like to suggest that its unfinished characteristics allow for transformations and changes to be imminent, and fully informed by real emergencies of a particular territory, not by preconceptions shaped by postcolonial nationalist ideas of what freedom, peace, and justice could be. Just like the NCP held its place in power through continuous negotiation, resistance committees can hold time through steady transformations. ■