19 Dec 2023

Sudan’s trump card: The persistence of the youth

Youth under 30 constitute about 60% of the population in Sudan. They played a crucial role in the uprisings that led to the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. To Mai Azzam, a Sudanese researcher, the revolution has proved how difficult it can be to distinguish between academia and activism. But she believes it is possible to bridge the gap.

African youth has become a significant player in African politics, particularly in these times of uncertainty. Africa is perceived as a ‘young’ continent given the percentages of youth among the population. Mai Azzam is writing her PhD thesis on how African post-conflict regimes deal with the African millennials. In this interview, she talks about the role of youth, activism, and research, as well as her role as an engaged citizen and an academic.

-Sudanese youth are such a big group that they are visible by default. They will play an important role in shaping the future of Sudan, she says.

Engaging from the outside
In 2018, when the protests started Mai Azzam was abroad, she was only abroad physically but her heart and mind were both in Sudan, as she says. She kept following the news day and night, making phone calls, and getting updates. However, that was not enough for her, and she went back to Sudan to be even closer.

When protestors took to the streets in Blue Nile, Atbara, Port Sudan, Khartoum and other cities in 2018, they brought a sense of agency back to the Sudanese people. What began as a protest against tripled bread prices set within the frame of a challenging economic situation quickly evolved into something bigger. The uprisings   mobilized many people in Sudan and diaspora and fed energy into the protests in the streets of Sudanese cities. Living abroad at the time she found herself mentally preoccupied with a movement that she was not physically in, a feeling she shared with many in the Sudanese diaspora. Also, some people in the diaspora took to the streets, organizing protests outside Sudanese embassies worldwide, hence putting what was going on in Sudan under the scrutiny of Western media and the international community. The effect of this engagement should be considered, argues Azzam.

-The revolution pushed the diaspora to reset and redefine their connections to Sudan, even those who did not actively join the protests and marches in their countries of exile. El moghtarbeen, as we call the diaspora, in Europe, the Gulf countries, the US and elsewhere played a significant financial role during and after the revolution. Some started fundraisers and opened platforms for donations to support the protesters, and the ones who were injured during the protests and after the sit-in massacre in Khartoum in June 2019.  Many are still providing financial support, says Azzam. The diaspora also played a role in drafting political statements, particularly those who left Sudan for political reasons. For many in the diaspora, the uprising was also a negotiation of belonging and not only a political act.

Azzam did the fieldwork for her PhD thesis before and during the revolution. She joined the protests in Khartoum, in January 2019. For her, this was a historical moment, it was a moment of a new unfolding order.  Many events happened in Sudan since then, youth groups continued to protest and demand a new order for power. Unfortunately, war forced many people to leave, and we are witnessing a very serious situation. Nonetheless, again youth groups rose to the challenge and started to organize wide humanitarian interventions.

War forced her to flee from Sudan and take temporary refuge elsewhere. Watching the Sudanese people continuing to fight for their slogan ‘Freedom, peace and justice’ – and now also carrying the burden of the war was challenging, admits Azzam. Trying to focus on academic work has been hard, but it is also something that adds a sense of purpose amidst chaos. This situation has also forced her to dive deep into the divide between academia and activism.

-As a researcher who sometimes encounters an activist role, it can be challenging to separate the two mindsets. It is tough during times of political upheaval, she says.

Several factors are at play according to Azzam. One is the preconceptions that follow from a Western/ colonial education system. The reality is usually more complex than the dualities Western academic traditions like to adhere to. Even though there is a growing body of post-colonial studies and literature that offers a different perspective and a critical way of thinking about knowledge production, it can still be hard to detach from pre-installed ideas about what society should look like.

Another is the very fine line between observing events unfold as a researcher and engaging with the same events as a citizen.

-There is a wide discussion among scholars on activism and academia as to whether you can be both at once. My own journey tells me that you can, even though there are times when it is essential to detach from one mindset and shift to the other. That skill requires training and awareness. It is not a close-ended question, but rather a journey of ups and downs, discoveries and reflexivity.

A diverse group
Youth has played and plays a key role in several post-conflict countries in Africa, but Azzam finds it pertinent to ask a particular question: Does youth as a political concept reflect the dynamics on the ground?

 Despite being one of the driving forces behind Sudan’s revolution, youth were pushed to the sideline of decision-making processes and excluded from the negotiations leading up to the transitional government and in the aftermath of it. Even the transitional government, she argues, tried to co-opt groups of youth that had played a crucial role during the revolution. They were at best given ‘limited’ positions within the government offices.

Nonetheless, many youths were influential in local governance dynamics especially during 2019 and 2020 through their role in for example “services and change committees” in the neighbourhoods. Some were officially asked to take these roles, while others volunteered to do it.

-You could of course argue that also this was a form of co-optation, but the fact is that these committees were key in making life easier for many citizens. They provided a model for governance from below that started as organic efforts, says Azzam.  Understanding political processes in Sudan needs more than one narrative, it was different things to different people.

- In a survey conducted by Carter Centre in 2021 about youth in Sudan, they found that about 50% of their surveyed respondents think the goals of the revolution “have been met only to a small degree”[1]. This says something to how youth felt during the transitional government and to the politics of symbolization, says Azzam.

She argues that if politics is seen as a negotiation with the state for services provisions and rights, then the youth involved in these committees were definitely an important player in Sudanese politics during the transitional period. But on the level of decision making and representation in government offices, the youth were largely excluded or only symbolically represented. The continuing youth protests during the transitional government points to the latter. As an interlocutor once told her, “We do what we can to build a local community where we support and we get supported, this is the only way to make people on grassroots level stronger in political participation”.

-Looking back on the 2019 protests, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) at some point used the Randowk language, a street lingo primarily used by youth, in their statements. Using Randowk may look inclusive. It may look like embracing the youth’s values and culture. However, it also has a simplification aspect. It turns what is a true political struggle into a merely symbolical one, and it may jeopardize the struggles of diverse groups of youth across class, ethnicity, and region, says Azzam.

She argues that instead of being a sign of respect, it plays a double role:  It can be a way of limiting youth agency.  

Azzam also stresses that youth cannot be seen as a homogenous group with shared values and attitudes.

-Just like the diaspora, the youth is a very diverse group, and broad generalizations may lead you to lose some of the perspective that can help explain the plethora of different ways of engaging and relating to the developments in Sudan.

Keeping the momentum despite war
The sit-in in Khartoum in June 2019 was a watershed moment for the feeling of agency among Sudanese youth, says Azzam. The protestors were met with brutality and violence.  It was a moment that caused a lot of anger and frustration, but it was also a moment that proved to the world that the people would not be threatened into silence.

After the revolution, Sudan has both seen a coup and now a war. A sense of pessimism reigns among many civil society activists. Azzam is a bit more optimistic, but the optimism is conditional – on keeping the spark ignited during the revolution, and on proper inclusion that will give the leaders of tomorrow the experience they need.

-The revolution prepared the young generation more for mobilization and less for leadership. Participating and engaging in civil society organizations has given some training, but it is not sufficient. The lack of experience made it hard for example to take leadership during such challenging circumstances as the transitional period, says Azzam.

But the youth have a trump card, a card that can make them into a game changer: Their persistence. This persistence is still fueled by a sense of agency.

The war has forced many to flee. But that does not mean they have given up on a better future for Sudan, says Azzam.

-The war has deprived people of their lives, families, belongings, and networks. It is shaking a familiar system into something different. Despite that, when peace finally does arrive, people will go back and start building the country anew.