‘Beyond regime change’: Reflections on Sudan’s ongoing revolution.

Nisrin Elamin, Columbia University

The ‘Arab Spring’, the label widely used to describe a wave of popular anti-government uprisings that took place across North Africa and the Middle East between 2010 and 2012, is often described as having failed. The uprisings are viewed as having failed to usher in a new era of electoral democracy and failed to have facilitated social change and economic stability, particularly when compared to the series of transitions that took place in Eastern Europe between 1989-91. Instead of thinking about the Arab Spring in terms of failure, the Lebanese socialist writer Gilbert Achcar urges us to understand these uprisings as the beginning of a protracted revolutionary process that moves beyond regime change and “would necessarily go through ups and downs, revolutionary upsurges and counterrevolutionary setbacks.”[1] I take a similar approach here to thinking about the ongoing revolution in Sudan, as the beginning of a transformative process that moves beyond the removal of the former regime and ruling party.

My aim here is to consider the revolution on its own terms, within the context of Sudan’s own history of repression and resistance, not as a late-comer to the Arab Spring, but in relation to a wave of revolutions and uprisings that have taken place across the African continent over the last decade. As a member of the Sudanese diaspora, my hope is to raise a few questions rather than to offer a comprehensive analysis of the revolution. How can the grassroots organizing that allowed the revolution to take hold, inform our understanding of its dynamics? How do the ‘radical elements’ of Sudan’s revolution reveal some of the limitations of mainstream framings and analyses of popular uprisings on the African continent?

Sudan in its African Context

As Zachariah Mampilly points out, there have been a staggering 90 popular uprisings in more than 40 African states since 2005.[2] Their causes and demands are often reduced to ethnic tensions or bread riots, thereby obscuring calls for a radical overhauling of existing arrangements of power. This reductive framing highlights the ways African popular uprisings represent the limits of revolutionary action as opposed to its promise.

The popular uprising that took place in Ethiopia between 2015-2016 is a case in point. It first emerged in opposition to a government plan to extend the capital’s administrative control into 1.1 million hectares of Oromo land through massive land seizures and the displacement of farmers. Popular protests led by students and farmers coalesced around a comprehensive set of issues including land grabs, reparations, the rising cost of living, the jailing and disappearance of political dissidents and stolen elections. And yet in many cases, mainstream media analysts reduced the uprising to ethnic violence or tensions between the Oromo on the one hand and Tigray elites on the other[3]. The activist and scholar Merera Gudina argues that this served to obscure demands for genuine political reforms aimed at an equitable re-organization and overhauling of existing arrangements of power.[4] Instead, this framing played into the hands of the Ethiopian government, which had been pushing an ‘Ethiopia Rising’ narrative of fast neoliberal economic growth and development that had been threatened by these protests. As Elleni Centime Zeleke aptly points out, we need new discourses and questions to understand the recent protests in Ethiopia, ones that move beyond the center-periphery paradigm and can “explain the contradictions of inserting the Ethiopian nation-state into global capitalist relations”[5] (2019, 174).

The discourse around Sudan’s ongoing uprising similarly draws upon a center-periphery paradigm that fails to take into account the transnational and geopolitical dimensions of the injustices to which protesters are responding. As in Ethiopia, narrowly framing the uprising as bread riots triggered by a temporary economic crisis has obscured the deep-seated inequities that protestors seek to undo. The creation of Sudan’s current transitional government, which is made up of elite representatives of the Forces for Freedom and Change-a civilian umbrella coalition which includes the Sudanese Professionals Association [6] (SPA)- technocrats, and several of the former regime’s military leaders, is thus viewed as marking the end of the revolution, despite the fact that one of the revolution’s principal demands – a transition to full civilian rule – has yet to be achieved. Declaring a successful end to the December revolution, has in fact been integral to the political marginalization of the more radical, grassroots elements of this revolution: the neighborhood resistance committees, farmer, factory worker and tea vendor unions and youth and feminist groups, whose membership is more popular and extensive than that of the SPA. Members of these groups have largely been left out of the transitional government and continue to engage in civil disobedience to hold those in power accountable to the original demands of the revolution. Their organizing persists, as they mobilize thousands of people across the country, many of whom believe that the revolution has simply entered a new phase.

When the revolution first began, international analysts struggled to understand how a movement that seemed leaderless and by extension disorganized, had managed to mobilize millions across Sudan’s ‘urban-rural divide’ and across ethnic and class lines. Unlike the 1964 and 1985 revolutions that successfully overthrew military regimes, the December revolution began in Sudan’s rural, marginalized areas before taking hold in Khartoum. And yet, what makes the ongoing revolution so powerful, is that it is leaderfull rather than leaderless. It emerged quite purposefully outside and in some ways in opposition to the failed leadership of entrenched, male-dominated opposition parties and relied instead on a sophisticated level of organization and coordination at the level of neighborhoods, schools, markets and workplaces.

A parallel can be drawn to anti-government protests that took place in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe last year, which were described in the media as leaderless, disorganized and chaotic[7], in part because they were led by a group of trade unions as opposed to the main opposition party the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change). In January, “the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and the #ThisFlag social movement [8]called for a 3 day general strike or “stayaway” (Kademaunga 2019, 43)[9] after President Mnangagwa announced a 150% increase in fuel prices. On the first day of the stayaway, protests erupted that were brutally suppressed by security forces. The international media largely focused on the ‘pent-up anger’[10] of protesters burning tires, as opposed to the state violence they were met with. This tendency to highlight the lawlessness, ‘violence’ and ‘looting’ of protesters[11], served to downplay the brutality of the security forces that sought to repress them. It also overshadowed the transformative power of ordinary Zimbabweans organizing and coordinating revolutionary action outside the political space occupied by the MDC. It is through this organizing that youth and others disillusioned with the opposition redefined resistance in their defiance of the new Mnangagwa regime.

Sudan’s experience is thus well in line with recent protests in Zimbabwe and a larger trend across the African continent where people in countries like Algeria, Ethiopia and the Gambia have been mobilizing at the grassroots level – often after the ouster of a long-standing head of state – to demand more radical political and social changes than had been previously thought possible. These changes move beyond regime change to include issues such as constitutional reform, land justice, reparations, and a restructuring of national economies and transnational relations. The demands for these changes are emerging from a politicized base of youth and workers, who have been excluded from more formal political spaces dominated by opposition parties and civil society.[12]

Organizing Sudan’s Uprising

My 82-year old father, who participated in the protests that took place in Khartoum between December and April, believes that the neighborhood resistance committee members which built barricades after security forces raided and attacked people’s homes represent one of the most radical elements of the revolution. These committees are “informal, grassroots, neighborhood-wide networks of residents who opposed al-Bashir’s rule”[13], which emerged in urban areas in the mid 2010’s to coordinate grassroots civil disobedience actions. Using graffiti, marches, strikes and other tactics, they mobilized people at the neighborhood level against government land seizures, cuts in fuel and food subsidies and lack of access to water. By the end of 2016, several of these committees had come together as a coalition to coordinate city-wide actions and campaigns. To my father, the barricades they rebuilt after each attack represented people’s determination to function autonomously without intervention or support from the state, until a government that represents the people is elected.

It is this autonomy and willingness to  ‘take matters into their own hands’ that ultimately poses the biggest threat to existing arrangements of power. As one person active in a neighborhood committee in Khartoum explained to me: “Beyond regime change, this is about creating the kind of society we are fighting for at the very local level, between neighbors…where everyone belongs and nobody is left behind…yaani in terms of the basic things you need to live, you see…and we will continue to resist until we have a government that provides this for everyone.”[14] Over the course of our conversation, it became clear that he is less interested in what their organizing will produce in a concrete, teleological sense, as he is in the process of building alternative ways of being within the context of a political system and national economy that has “left people behind” for a very long time. The revolution has in fact been filled with examples of grassroots mutual aid efforts, from elderly people opening up their homes to shelter protesters to street vendors organizing food and tea drives, to artists reclaiming public spaces as they commemorate their martyrs. The strength of this revolution, as my father explains, lies precisely in people’s willingness to sacrifice and support one another as they build towards a more secure and just future for all.

Land Reform and Restorative Justice

The December revolution gained mass support and participation in part because of a convergence of decades-old grievances against state violence and marginalization in peripheral areas, with rural demands for land reform and urban calls for justice and economic security. At the center of these demands and grievances is land, the right to live on and off it, the right to return to it and the right to benefit from the resources that lie above and beneath it. Given that close to 70% of Sudan’s population relies on agriculture-based production for their food and income,[15] land reform is integral to many people’s understanding and articulation of what justice should look like during and after Sudan’s transitional period. My research, based on fieldwork carried out in central Sudan between 2013 and 2018, explores how different stakeholders talk about and define what land, land ownership and land justice means to them. It asks: what does land justice look like for people whose livelihoods depend on access to and movement through land?

These land issues are linked to broader questions of restorative or transformative justice.  While international attention may fixate on the prospect of former president Omar Al-Bashir facing trial at the International Criminal Court, a larger debate is taking place in Sudan about what restorative justice should look like during the country’s political transition. The focus has rightfully been on demands for justice for the massacres and crimes against humanity the former regime committed. In marginalized areas however, (and increasingly in rural areas of central and northern Sudan), land dispossession is very much linked to these forms of state violence. The violent displacement of communities in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and South Sudan for instance, was part of a strategy used by the former regime to bring communal lands under state control in order to extract natural resources. The ongoing debate around what justice means during this transition raises several questions that Kamari Clarke explores in Affective Justice[16] and that Jok Madut Jok addresses in a recent op-ed[17]: What does transformative justice for survivors look like and what are the mechanisms through which it can be achieved? In what ways does the law, at various scales, reproduce particular kinds of inequalities and embody spaces where global inequality can play out?

Many of the farmers and agricultural workers I spoke with over the years viewed land justice as integral to addressing deep-seated inequities that predate the former regime. Several argued that justice will depend on a radical transformation of the existing legal system, which has protected the interests of the state and those of landed elites for generations. And yet, Sudan’s constitutional charter, drafted by members of the new transitional government, says very little about land, land rights or land reform. The word land itself appears only twice under “essential issues for peace negotiations” in a line that reads “issues of land and tribal lands (hawakir).” It is unclear what this means within the context of ongoing peace negotiations and whether the right of return for war-displaced communities, and the right to the resources that that lie beneath their land will be protected.

There are numerous examples of the connection between land justice and pre-revolutionary mobilization. For many whose livelihoods are tied to land, the revolution did not come as a surprise and was instead seen as a response to the grievances and injustices they have been organizing around for years. In the Gezira, for example, about 60% of the agricultural labor is carried out by landless workers (many of whom are originally from western parts of Sudan or northern Nigeria), who constitute almost 40% of the population. In 2018, an association known as the Kanabi congress formed to represent the approximately 2.5 million people who work as planters and harvesters and live in Kanabi (worker communities) across the region. The congress was established after a series of home demolitions and targeted attacks were carried out by the former regime on several of these worker communities in the aftermath of a land dispute. Originally formed to demand better housing and living conditions, the congress and the communities it represents have increasingly become politicized. An active member of the Kanabi congress explained to me during a phone conversation in late 2018, that land justice is not simply about better living and work conditions for agricultural workers, but about challenging generational landlessness and a system of land ownership and land use that has long marginalized their communities. Ultimately, he insisted “it is about giving workers rights to the land they have worked on for generations.”[18] In other words, it is about challenging the way land ownership and access to land is defined and protected by the law.

Similarly, women harvesters have been organizing to demand higher wages and better work conditions by threatening to strike. Just a few months before the revolution began, a group of harvesters mobilized against their employer’s excessive use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, linking land justice to the way food is grown on large-scale farms. The use of these toxins has led to rising rates of cancer, asthma and reproductive health problems among harvesters and farm managers and has contaminated potable water sources.

Another example is the case of Um Doum, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Khartoum where a 2013 deal between Sudanese government elites and a Saudi billionaire over communal land that pastoralists and farmers had been utilizing for generations, was successfully reversed through coordinated civil disobedience. In the aftermath of the reversed deal however, a community of settled pastoralists was excluded from the land redistribution process, because they could not trace their ancestry back to Um Doum’s founding fathers. The deal Um Doum activists had negotiated with government elites relied on notions of land ownership tied to ancestry, inheritance and burial practices that are not only classed but also gendered and racialized. This particular notion of land ownership as tied to ancestry necessarily marginalizes pastoralists and other mobile communities such as seasonal agricultural workers. This conception of property is in turn protected by land laws that were created by the British colonial government to facilitate ongoing processes of accumulation by dispossession.

There is also a Middle East regional political dimension to the conflict over land. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Sudanese government elites devised a plan to revive the country’s post-oil economy following South Sudan’s likely secession, by attracting foreign investments in agriculture. Approximately 32 land deals have been signed with foreign investors over the last decade, for periods ranging from 20-99 year leases. To date, these deals have brought over 5 million acres of Sudanese land under the control of domestic and foreign agribusiness investors primarily to produce crops for animal consumption on dairy farms.[19] Of the investors, (which include Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria) Saudi and Emirati companies have signed the largest number of leases for over a million acres of Sudanese land, bringing more land under their control than all of Sudan’s domestic agribusiness investors combined. Land reform will necessarily require Sudan to reverse many of the land deals signed over the last decade, as it reconsiders its relationship to the Gulf and builds new investment partnerships with other countries. The task ahead, for farmers and others whose livelihood is bound to land, is to ensure that the transitional government puts investment regulations in place that will protect their rights and access to their land and to the natural resources that lie above and beneath it.

The Coming Stage

Over the past few months, people in Sudan have continued using civil disobedience tactics and marches to protest fuel shortages and corruption, the exclusion of women from peace negotiations, the illegal disposal of toxic waste by mining companies[20], the dismissal of army officers, who supported the uprising and the continued targeting and killing of activists and protestors, particularly in Darfur. In many cases, a strike or action in one part of the country has garnered the support and solidarity of people elsewhere. The transitional government has been slow to respond to people’s demands for justice, repeating an assumption made by the former regime that delay tactics will eventually quiet people down. Underlying this assumption is the idea that the December revolution has run its course and that the creation of the transitional government represents its conclusion. For many however, including my father, the demands of the revolution have yet to be met. As long as the material conditions, state violence and unequal arrangements of power that fueled this revolution persist, people will likely continue to mobilize and hold the transitional government accountable to their original demands. If we understand the revolution as part of an ongoing process of transformation, then it could in fact take years or even decades to unfold.




[1] Matta, Nada. What Happened to the Arab Spring? An Interview with Gilbert Achcar. Jacobin Magazine. December 15, 2017.

[2] Mampilly, Zachariah. “Burkina Faso’s uprising part of an ongoing wave of African protests.” Washington Post Monkey Cage Blog. November 2, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/11/02/burkina-fasos-uprising-part-of-an-ongoing-wave-of-african-protests/

[3] See Schemm, Paul. “Ethiopia confronts its worst ethnic violence in years.” January 14, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/ethiopia-is-facing-its-worst-ethnic-violence-in-years/2016/01/13/9dbf9448-b56f-11e5-8abc-d09392edc612_story.html and

[4] See Maasho, Aaron. “Ethiopian opposition leader pleads not guilty to incitement charges.” Reuters. March 3, 2017.

[5] Zeleke, Elleni Centime. 2019. Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016. Brill.

[6] The Sudanese Professionals Association is a union comprised of lawyers, professors, doctors and engineers formed initially in 2016 around demands to raise the national minimum wage. They form part of the Forces for Freedom and Change, a group of 23 civil society, grassroots community and opposition groups who were signatories of a declaration outlining the demands of the revolution.

[7] See “Looting and Chaos in Zimbabwe as angry protesters react to massive fuel hike.” January 14, 2019. The Citizen. https://citizen.co.za/news/news-africa/2062980/watch-looting-and-chaos-in-zimbabwe-as-angry-protesters-react-to-massive-fuel-hike/ and

[8] The #ThisFlag movement is a Zimbabwean hashtag campaign turned pro-democracy social movement that was sparked by pastor Evan Mararire in April of 2016. It utilizes social media to mobilize people against state violence, corruption and poverty under the former and present ZANU-PF regimes.

[9] Kademaunga, Maureen. “Civic Activism in the Post-Mugabe era.” In After Protest: Pathways beyond Mass Mobilization. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. October 24, 2019.

[10] Bearak, Max. “Zimbabwe’s President raised fuel prices above 12$ a gallon and then jetted off to Russia. Deadly chaos ensued.” January 15, 2019. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/01/15/zimbabwes-president-raised-fuel-prices-over-gallon-then-jetted-off-russia-deadly-chaos-ensued/

[11] Thompson, James. “Looting feared as Zimbabwe protests turn violent, ‘overwhelm police.’ January 14, 2019. Times Livehttps://www.timeslive.co.za/news/africa/2019-01-14-looting-feared-as-zimbabwe-protests-turn-violent-overwhelm-police/

[12] I rely here on Zeleke’s definition and critique of the term civil society in African contexts as a “supremely political space, but that the specificity of its politics lies not so much in its structural defects but in the crystallisation of a form of power that continually reproduces the binaries of rural vs. urban, customary vs. modern, tribal vs. civilised, etc.” (2019, 229).

[13] Abbas, Reem. “In Sudan, neighborhoods mobilized against Al-Bashir.” Al Jazeera Opinion. May 7, 2019.

[14] Interview conducted over the phone, April 17, 2019.

[15] Source: Food and Agriculture Organization.

[16] Clarke, Kamari Maxine. 2019. Affective Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Pan-Africanist Pushback. Duke University Press.

[17] Jok, Madut Jok. “Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, the ICC and the future of peace.” In Daily Nation. February 13, 2020.


[18] Interview conducted via phone, November 4th, 2018.

[19] See Schwartzstein, Peter. “One of Africa’s most Fertile Lands is Struggling to feed its own People.” Bloomberg. April 2,

  1. https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2019-sudan-nile-land farming/.

[20] See “Sudan: Protests against mining, old regime, increased fees.” Radio Dabanga. February 25, 2020.