What is the history of nonviolent political change in Sudan–under what conditions and with what complications were civil society actors able to challenge the state structures? Read what happens when two expert Sudanese scholars debate the finer points of Sudan’s lesser-known history of popular protest. Alex de Waal reviews W. J. Berridge’s book, Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The ‘Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985 and the author responds. This exchange is excerpted from African Arguments’ site, Making Sense of the Sudans, where you can find the full texts.

From Alex de Waal’s review:

This book’s account of the uprising, of the politics of the university, the ‘modern forces’ and the political parties, and of the decision by the military to capitulate, is exemplary.


The one issue on which I diverge from Berridge is how to interpret the intent and capacity of the leaders of the intifada (p. 218). Berridge’s account is scrupulous, detailed and correct, and tells the drama of the last week of the Nimeiri dictatorship. But there are some small gaps, and a difference in interpretation.

Note Berridge’s reference to the ‘shadow committee’ in the passage just quoted. This refers to the alternate leadership of each of the professional associations and trade unions, its members known only to one another, who stood ready to step into the vacuum created by the anticipated arrest of the leadership. This is an organizational mechanism that originated with the Communists, and was adopted by others including the Islamists.

The leaders of the uprising—both the original public leaders and the shadow leaders—may not have had an explicit and well-articulated strategy, but they possessed both a repertoire of tactics and a depth of leadership that provided organizational resilience.

Now consider two small but significant gaps in the account. One is that during the protests, members of the National Alliance were breaking the codes used by the police two-way radio communications, and planning their actions accordingly. In most popular uprisings of this kind, the security services have an informational advantage on the protesters—they have penetrated the opposition and can act pre-emptively. In April, it was the other way around.

The second gap is the shut-down of Sudanese airspace to prevent the return of Nimeiri from his trip to Washington DC. This action was critically important to the success of the uprising, as it helped sway the army leadership to decide that Nimeiri’s time was up. The shut-down was not an accident: Mohamed Kambal, a trade unionist in the air traffic controller’s office, changed the roster so that he was on duty for the critical shift, and ordered the closure of the airspace.

That was an opportunistic action. It certainly couldn’t have been planned a month in advance, as no-one expected Nimeiri to leave the country at the critical moment. It is not clear who gave the order, but it was the kind of action that could be taken only by an opposition leadership that understood how to sabotage a dictatorship, needed little instruction in how and when to do so, and had its members sufficiently well-placed to do the necessary—if need be on their own initiative. (One of the unacknowledged heroes of the uprising, Mohamed Kambal hails from the Nuba Mountains and ten years later put his skills to use in working on the clandestine humanitarian airbridge from Kenya to the SPLM-administered areas of Southern Kordofan.)

These are indications of the depth and range of organizational capabilities of the professionals in opposition. They had penetrated the state infrastructure in a manner that allowed them to undermine its repressive capability. In the context of a security apparatus that was desperate and creative, the protest leaders’ flexible use of a wide and deep repertoire of stratagems was more effective than any classic vanguardist strategy.

This observation is significant for the wider understanding of non-violent resistance. It shows the importance of what we might call ‘deep civil society’: the extent to which people with a civic commitment are present throughout all aspects of a country’s governing system, including the army, police, and specialist institutions as rarely considered as air traffic control. These individuals may not be formally organized into a political movement with a single leadership structure and strategy, but they represent something even more powerful: a civic counter-hegemony within the ruling apparatus. […]


From W.J. Berridge’s response:


With regard to the interception of police radio transmissions, I agree that this does highlight the ability of the professional activists to fight the regime’s intelligence apparatus. It is important to bear in mind that it was police not State Security Organization (SSO) signals that were intercepted, and the various professional activists had much more support within the police and army than they did within Nimeiri’s premier intelligence establishment.

However, since the police themselves were reporting on the movements of the State Security Organization in the transmissions that were intercepted (p. 60), this could well have helped the professional activists. Meanwhile, contacts within the military helped to keep the National Alliance leadership aware of the army’s planning and enabled them to adjust accordingly (p. 137).

At the same time, the main reason the army and police did not act against the demonstrators was their disaffection with the regime, not any lack of intelligence. This was not the case with the SSO, but one might argue that the reason they failed to pre-empt the Intifada was that by moving against the Islamic Movement in mid-March 1985 – allegedly as a result of American pressure – Nimeiri had deprived his security forces of access to the then nascent ‘Islamist-security network’ De Waal refers to.

As observed in the review, this grew stronger following the Intifada, but even before 1985 the Islamists had begun to penetrate the SSO and the future security chief Salah Gosh had helped establish an ‘intelligence bureau’ as part of the Islamic Movement’s student wing, which helped the regime control campus dissent (p. 107). However, Nimeiri’s alliance with the Islamists was always uneasy, and two weeks before the Intifada, he ordered his security services to arrest the entire leadership of the Islamic Movement (p. 50). […]

The full review and author response are available on African Arguments.

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