Shot in Mohamed Najeeb Street Khartoum in 2022, street demonstrations that continued all the way since 2021 coup. right to left translation: “No amount of bullets can kill our dreams — we will be victorious” “Our martyrs are not dead — they live within our revolutionaries” Image: Ala Kheir

Sudan War: A Counter-Revolution Against the Corporeal and the Imaginative

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On the first anniversary of the Sudan war, I am confronted with the thorny pains that accompany every act of remembrance. I am remembering the start of the war and everything that came before: the revolution in 2018, the protestors’ occupation of the military headquarters, the June 3rd Khartoum Massacre, the October 25th coup, and the mass uprising against it which lasted until the very last day before the war broke out.

I am remembering how the people of a revolutionary Sudan, from all its corners, from the centre to the periphery, ruptured normative space and temporality by imagining parallel futures beyond those we have inherited — buoyant subjectivities revoking their consent to be governed by the imaginings of systemic dispossession and fascism. 

Before the war became Sudan’s defining event, there was a revolution; an unprecedented collective uprising against austerity, indignity, and military fascism’s multigenerational grip. The 2018-19 revolution was my generation’s first introduction to the meaning of radical imagination, not as an impalpable, nebulous terminology thrown around progressive spaces, but as a material, collective reality within our reach. The carriers and deliverers of this imaginative practice were the Resistance Committees; horizontal, grassroots units organized through neighborhoods that subsequently became the centre of revolutionary and collective struggle across Sudan.

Since the eruption of the war on the morning of Saturday, 15 April 2023, popular media’s analysis of the war reduced it to a mere power struggle between two entities, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), under the leadership of Abdel-Fatah Al-Burhan, and the Janjaweed or Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militias, under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti).

This analysis, however, obscures far more than it reveals. It presents the war as an unforeseen, stand-alone event rather than a calculated endeavor decades in the making under a neoliberalist war economy. It portrays the war as a mere battle over resources between the SAF and the RSF rather than possibly the most effective reactionary maneuver either camp could have produced since 2018 as allies. 

A year on, the war has revealed itself to be a multilayered, imperialist counter-revolutionary effort against the Sudanese people and their resistance. Civilians are not mere collateral damage between airstrikes and bullets, the people – continuing to carry the ethos of resistance despite mass displacement, genocidal ethnic cleansing, and an imminent famine – are the common enemy of Al-Burhan and Hemedti. The RSF and SAF are attempting to skin civilians from their memories, radical imagination, and revolutionary fervor as they are forced to implicate themselves in the very same violence they once mobilized against six years prior. 

A Lesson in Applied Imagination

Radical imagination is one of those aspirational concepts we hear of but seldom see in action. On a surface level, it is our ability to imagine a different world than the one we live in, a world made by and for us. It is the ability to organize collectively, with reflexivity and criticality, and to recognize that the world can and should be changed — for whatever humans can imagine, they can create. Resistance Committees have been the sandstone for the Sudanese revolution in 2018 and beyond, their novel composition of being anarchic, horizontal units working through and across social, political, and racial strata of Sudanese society to bring the aspirations of the people to material life render them an exemplary composition of popular insurgence for leftist organizing globally. 

They not only organized protests and routine civil disobedience, but have acted as credible media sources, distributed resources necessary to make street mobilization accessible to all, and pierced through the material-political binaries of the rural-urban that have divided the Sudanese people in a purposeful effort to curb their rebellious potential. If we are to understand radical imagination as the space to formulate new solidarities and alliances necessary to realize a revolution, then we must look no further than the way Resistance Committees have done so, and how they have become contemporary incubators of new knowledge and praxis. 

Resistance Committees’ uncompromising unwillingness to enter the normative spheres of political negotiations saved the revolution from being co-opted by reactionaries within the deep state and the liberal bourgeois. They speak in absolutist terms — power to the street or nothing! The precarious laborers, street cleaners, un/underemployed graduates, artisans, impoverished industrial workers, and street peddlers, all of them living under the grip of military fascism and suffocating austerity have organized themselves through chants, sit-ins, barricade-building, art-making, and poetry. 

The Committees sprung out in small towns across Sudan such as the ones in Um Dar Haj Ahmed in north-east Kordofan where thousands of men and women have effectively pressured telecom giant Sudani into paying rent for the land they appropriated and were able to fund a local sports club. In Al-Jazeera, Sudan’s agricultural heartland where citizenship is bound to landownership, agricultural workers found new organizational configurations to claim their land rights much to the chagrin of the local landowners. And in Nertiti in Central Darfur, Resistance Committee organizers mobilized a weeks-long sit-in demanding the security of their land and livestock against violent raids perpetrated by militias.

In the capital Khartoum, street sweepers organized strikes in September 2022 against their precarious short-term contracts and demanded they be incorporated into the government’s pay scale through permanent contracts. In Gedarif, Sudan’s centre for seasonal agricultural labor, proletariat protestors stormed and burned down the NCP (ruling party) headquarters only to raid the Zakat chambers and redistribute the funds and grains to the masses. It is no coincidence that the spark that ignited the revolution across all states came from Atbara, a small town in East Sudan with a potent memory of working-class defiance.

What made this moment in history so powerful, beyond the obvious victories, is how it fulfilled the core tenets of a radically imaginative practice: it brought those possible futures back to work in the present, it inspired new forms of solidarities across boundaries and borders, and, most of all, it stripped the bloody institutions of austerity and militant fascism from the emperor’s clothing they used to render themselves infallible and indestructible. As protestors flooded and occupied the military headquarters and turned it into a space of art, music, and storytelling of struggles, the very oppression that has cascaded Sudanese society for over three decades was revealed for what it truly is: a construction of the powerful’s imagination.

The radical imagination is a space where awareness of difference can lead to new futurities, ideas, and possibilities, a space where collective mobilization can lead to what David Graeber calls “insurrectionary moments”, and Resistance Committees are a novel experiment in bringing to life a practice that is too often scoffed at for being too ephemeral, too intangible, too sentimental. 

Today members of Resistance Committees and their post-war offshoots are continuing their efforts, acting as a surrogate state by providing necessary medical, therapeutic, housing, and food services to a population under siege. In addition to the systematic denial of aid and resources to the Committee’s localities, security forces and the militia frequently target organizers, subjecting them to arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, and torture.

The revolutionary priorities have shifted from dissolving the standing economic-political apparatus through strikes, protests, and civil disobedience, to keeping the very fabric of civil society alive in the most basic ways possible. The destruction of the war has gone beyond the immediate material damage of displacement and deprivation, it has waged a violent offensive on the Sudanese people’s sense of futurity and place in the world. Where does the ongoing war leave Resistance Committees? Are we justified in seeing the war as the ultimate defeat of the revolution? What happens to the radical imagination when the space it occupies turns into rubble and the people who once embodied it are facing impending annihilation and mass dispossession? 

The Red Hand of the Free Market 

Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand the economic-political conditions underlying the war. 

The armed conflict between SAF and the RSF is not a surprise in timing or nature, but an inevitable outcome of their project to turn Sudan into a lucrative, deregulated war economy. Neoliberalism manifests differently in the periphery than in the centre — the former is where capitalism is stripped to its bare primitivity. Decades of centrally-mandated austerity and financial deregulation have created a reserve army of labor leaving civilians in the rural periphery vulnerable to destruction, armed violence, and desperation. 

In a war economy, a particular marketised form of violence arises through what scholar and writer Magdi Elgizouli terms as “accumulation via rural militia.” The RSF acts as a private mercenary army accountable to no one, operating through horizontal networks throughout rural regions by recruiting poverty-stricken underage youth as outsourced militarised labour with the promises of upward mobility: in the petrodollar war in Yemen on the behalf of the Saudis, in Libya on the behalf of its warlords, as offshore border police units for the EU, and to smuggle gold on the behalf of the UAE, etc.

It functions as a corporation, commodifying security, trade routes, agriculture, and labor to be bought and sold by regional imperial powers. This contextualizing analysis by Shahenda Suliman helps us understand how the RSF has diversified its funds and portfolio and, as she argues, allowed the RSF to exploit the uneven development between the urban centre and rural periphery in its favor by engulfing groups that would have otherwise been rendered as excess under capitalism. As Elgizouli remarks “If Margaret Thatcher were to create an army in rural Sudan, it would be the RSF”

This form of militarised extractive capitalism creates its own logic whereby war becomes the means and the end in and of itself. This helps us understand the inevitability of an armed conflict extending from the periphery to the centre and across the country as it has now. The ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Masalit and Zaghawa tribes in El-Gineina in West Darfur is a perfect example of how the insatiable nature of the war economy quickly lends itself to an expansionist genocide in an effort to displace populations and take hold of the fertile, gold mining resources in Darfur and Kordofan.  

SAF, on the other hand, quickly adopted similar tactics of accumulation via militant recruitment. The military has consistently deployed mass operations to recruit and arm civilians in territories within its control. Similarly to the RSF, the military is leaving residents with no choice but to take arms as they redirect all public spending towards the war, abandon basic services such as urgent care, housing regulations, and education, and actively prevent aid from reaching affected areas, confiscate lands and resources from residents, and redirect displaced peoples to desolated locations without amenities. These are more than the actions of a neglectful state more preoccupied with war than with fulfilling its duty towards the populations it alleges to protect. This is a consistent campaign to impoverish and dispossess civilians from their choices and forcibly implicate them in the very same war economy that has rendered them in this state of deprivation in the first place. 

Perhaps the unity between SAF and RSF is most apparent in their targeting of ongoing resistance efforts on the ground. Since the beginning of the war, Resistance Committees have been steadfast in their initiatives by building an anti-war coalition urging civilians not to take up arms for self-defense or on behalf of either camp, establishing Emergency Response Rooms to shield affected populations and providing them with urgent medical and therapeutic care, as well as establishing communal kitchens to feed a starving population facing imminent famine.

Organizers have been routinely targetted by both military intelligence and the militia, both camps accusing them of conspiring on the side of the other. Week after week, we receive news of organizers being kidnapped, tortured, raped, and murdered by both entities. In the middle of a war that has been characterized as primarily a struggle for power between the warring factions, it seems that the mutual aid initiatives providing civil society with an alternative to the camps’ “enlist or die” ultimatum are the gravest threat to both a military positioning itself as the sole legitimate protector of the people and to the militia that is positioning itself as the voice of a destitute periphery.

Before turning against one another, the RSF and SAF were allies against the revolution but could not bribe nor infringe on the integrity of Resistance Committees. But now, divided and dueling for ultimate power, they have created a situation with far more disastrous consequences for the ongoing revolution than ever before. The routine subjection to wanton violence, expropriation, and dispossession is meant to force civilians to recklessly abandon their memories, hopes, and struggles, to implicate themselves in the same violence they once stood unwaveringly against.

The conditions of commodification, fungibility of bodies and land, and mass militarisation aim to leave no space for moments of insurrection or popular revolt. In targeting Resistance Committees and their post-war offshoots, both SAF and RSF are engaging in a futurist project of exterminating all political dissidents, where the proletariat gains of the revolution wither in the wind and the perfect militarised fascist regime of infinite extraction and mass obedience reigns, regardless of who comes out victorious. 

The Politics of Imagination and Futurity

Returning to the questions posed above — where does the ongoing war leave Resistance Committees? Are we justified in seeing the war as the ultimate defeat of the revolution? What happens to the radical imagination when the space it occupies turns into rubble and the people who once embodied it are facing impending annihilation and mass dispossession? 

In her counter-archival reading of the visual representations of the 2018 uprising, Leena Habiballa warns us against analyzing revolt through a teleological, spectacularised lens which reifies revolution into a life cycle of outburst, confrontation, and resolution. Doing so, Habiballa argues, “has implications for the forms of solidarity that arise in response” rendering them brief and easy to recluse back to dormancy as uprisings reach a state of perceived finality. “The predictable, rapturous images that bolster anemic narratives of change work to overshadow the existing social and political conditions that overdetermine people’s realities and that remain intact beyond the frame.”

To render the current war as a defeat to the Sudanese revolution is to impose the retrospective gaze of spectacularised history, which demobilizes people and asks them to abandon their struggle altogether. Instead, we should look at these apparent ‘failures’ as potential sites of rupture and possibility, as producers of new ecologies of perseverance and pluralization of resistance tactics as we have seen Resistance Committees evolve into emergency response rooms, communal kitchens, and urgent relief centres. For if these offshoots are deemed as ‘failures’, if they are neither revolutionary nor disruptive, then why would a military-security apparatus and a militia of this scale dedicate so much of its resources attempting to eradicate them? 

The ideological warfare waged on the imaginative capacities of the Sudanese people intends to collapse their memory of the revolution to a humiliating defeat or a fever dream of a delusional past that cannot and will not withstand the brutality of the present. It wishes to constrict them to binaries of success/failure, enlist/die, and individualist survival/collective struggle. The war is laying down the conditions by which one’s body and corporeal existence are hinged on its integration into a murderous war economy. 

To view the war as simply a power struggle between two generals risks erasing the historical and political contingencies underlying its emergence and, more importantly, distracts us from seeing it for what it actually is: a counter-revolution. Failing to analyze the war as a counter-revolution erases the resistance efforts of Resistance Committees and the Sudanese populace as a whole, past or present. It tacitly feeds into the eradicating tactics of the RSF and SAF as it ascribes a sense of finality or failure of the revolution, posing grave implications for how we can engage in solidarity with Sudan.

The radical imagination is not an individual possession to be taken away or given back, it is a collective process, a space where, as Robin D.G. Kelley puts it, “we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born.” Resistance Committees, in feeding and protecting civilians, are engaging in futurity not yet born but presently invented, futurity where resilience is just as important as outright resistance as it creates new forms of self-organizing and grassroots initiatives, which render the state useless and undesirable if it ever was. 

A revolution is not a memorialized project, it is not an event, it is an ongoing, incomplete process that is produced and reproduced against the normative spatial-temporal grains of a capitalist death machine. I don’t have the answers to where we go from here, nor do I claim to fully grasp the lived experiences of resistance actors on the ground in Sudan, but I know that the least we owe them is remembrance and solidarity that does not erase. There is no finality to a revolution, for a revolution’s time is a circle.

Lina Dohia

Lina Dohia is a London-based writer interested in exploring subjectivity, blackness, and film/visual culture.

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