Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 30 April 2013

Sudan’s Security Forces and the Intifadas

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By William Berridge

It was in this month, 28 years ago, that the Sudanese people- for the second time in recent history – brought an end to military dictatorship in the country. Although - as was the case with the October Revolution of 1964 - the movement that initiated the civilian uprising against Jafa’ar Nimairi was purely civilian in character, its pivotal moment was the declaration of 6 April made by the commander in Chief of the Army, Siwar al-Dahab, that the military would ‘side with the people’. This moment has been interpreted differently by different groups, some whom have chosen to understand it as the decision that safeguarded the Intifada, and others as the act that aborted it. In this regard, it has resonances with the role of the military in the Arab Spring – particularly in Egypt, where Hussein al-Tantawi’s role could easily be compared to that of Siwar al-Dahab. It has been remarked in the wake of the 2011 Uprisings that the security forces have tended to act as the makers of breakers of Revolution in the Middle East, and this can also be applied retrospectively to the Sudanese uprisings of 1964 and 1985.

It is worth observing that the security forces in Sudan have never been the pliant tools of either colonial or post-colonial authoritarianism. During the ‘Condominium’ era, the Sudanese Police Force developed a strong sense of corporate and professional identity which was used by its officers to challenge the colonial state, which frequently preached the values of ‘civil’ policing but rarely practised them. In 1951, large sections of the Sudanese Police Force including the main branch in Khartoum went on strike, signifying the force’s identification with other urban professional and labour groups that were pursuing the twin goals of improved working conditions and national independence.[1]

Unlike other sectors of the urban workforce, however, the police were closely identified with the state and it was thus natural that they found themselves trapped between government and society during times of civil protest. This occurred in 1964, when officers of the Khartoum force were held to have been responsible for the shooting of Ahmad al-Qurayshi, Sudan’s Bouazzizi, following their invasion of a student seminar convened to protest the government’s military policies in the south of the country. Meanwhile, separate movements within both the junior ranks and the senior echelons of the army contributed towards pressurizing the ruling military junta of Ibrahim Abboud to step down.

The relatively pacific response of the Sudanese security forces to these protests has often been explained through the argument that the post-colonial Sudanese state has always been ‘soft at heart’. It is true that the second half of the twentieth century saw bloody conflict within the marginalized rural peripheries of the country. However, in the Khartoum of the early 1960s the security forces – particularly the police – tended to be drawn from the same relatively homogenous social groups that comprised the urban population at large. High ranking soldiers and police officers shared similar ethnic and social backgrounds to the privileged elite of lawyers, doctors, judges and lecturers who established the Professional Front, the body that led the October Revolution. As Alex de Waal has observed, it is the very threat that this urban elite senses from the rebellious peripheries that makes it so cohesive at times of conflict within the centre.

The fact that the government’s instruments of coercion were so poorly divorced from Sudanese society taught the dictators that followed Ibrahim Abboud to establish parallel systems of control. When he came to power in 1969, Sudan’s secondary military president, Jafa’ar Nimairi, established the National Security Organization (NSO) to bypass the role of the police in controlling civil dissent. However, the NSO lacked experience, and so Nimairi continued to rely in practise on the security branch of the police, the Public Security Organization, to maintain the stability of his regime. The social interconnectedness of the riverain elite thwarted Nimairi’s efforts to brutalize his security apparatus. In 1976, the heads of both the NSO and PSO confronted the president over his suggestion that they assassinate the opposition leaders Hussein al-Hindi and Sadiq al-Mahdi, to whom they had personal links.[2]

In 1978 Nimairi attempted once more to bind the security forces to himself, appointing his vice president Umar al-Tayyib to oversee a new State Security Organization. He subsequently crippled the regular security forces, dismantling the police leadership in 1979 and dismissing his 22 highest-ranking army generals in 1982. This was one of the principal reasons that both the army and the police chose to ‘side with the people’ during the civilian uprising of 1985. Whilst Nimairi had chosen Siwar al-Dahab precisely because he was pliant and unambitious, as in 1964 the senior officers immediately outside the army leadership made it clear that they would refuse orders to fire on crowds. These same officers were infuriated by attempts by the SSO to impersonate military officers so as to drive a wedge between the army and the public. Meanwhile, the police force, which had been economically starved whilst Nimairi had been inflating the salaries of the SSO, also avoided any form of confrontation with the demonstrating public. In 1964, police and public had avoided serious confrontation because of the relative homogeneity of Khartoum’s population. In 1985, Khartoum’s population was considerably more diverse, having been filled by migrants fleeing war and famine in the country’s marginalized peripheries. However, the since the police force had itself been marginalized by Nimairi, it avoided confrontation with the rural migrants that the regime’s newspapers labelled ‘vagrants’ during the Intifada.

The toppling of Nimairi’s regime offered an opportunity to the Intifada’s protagonists to prevent any further manipulation of the security forces by the government. Unfortunately, it was not taken. Initially, Siwar al-Dahab was forced to dismantle the SSO after the crowds surrounded its headquarters in Khartoum, demanding revenge. However, several political parties saw it more profitable not to campaign for the trial of former SSO operative but rather to re-hire them for their own private security organizations.[3] The most successful of the parties in this regard was the National Islamic Front of Hasan al-Turabi. Its close links to the army and intelligence services were of considerable use to it in the coup which it launched in collaboration with Umar al-Bashir in 1989. The new NIF/military regime was wary of the role that both the army and police had played during the Intifadas of 1964 and 1985, and consequently in 1989 it launched far more extensive purges of both the police and the military than Nimairi had ever managed.

The new security organs of the NIF, which recruited from the marginalized populations of Western Sudan, were far more willing to break the ‘Nile Decorum’ that had previously governed the behaviour of the security services, and ‘Ghost Houses’ were established in which professionals, trade unionists and high ranking members of opposition political parties were brutally tortured. Since the rift within the NIF in 1999, the outbreak of the Darfur conflict in 2003, and the regime’s recent policy of co-opting the more conservative opposition parties, security service behaviour has once more become somewhat more pragmatic. It is certainly true that activists from the Darfur or the Nuba Mountains are at risk of beating, torture and extrajudicial execution at the hands of the National Intelligence and Security Services. However, highly educated members of the opposition who hail from the historic riverain elite are now unlikely to be physically harmed. In late 2011 Farouk Abu Eisa, the chairman of the National Consensus Forces and a graduate of Sudan’s prestigious Hantoub Secondary School, ‘was interrogated in a manner so informal, it more closely resembled a casual conversation. After the interrogation, he was discharged from the headquarters of the national security service, unharmed, with a belly full of tea.’[4] Understandings of the ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ of Sudanese society continue to dictate the activity of the security services.

  1. ‘“What the men are crying out for is leadership”: the Khartoum Police Strike of 1951 and the battle for administrative control’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth
  2. ‘Sudan’s security agencies: fragmentation, visibility, mimicry, 1908-1989’, Intelligence and National Security 2013.
  3. ‘Sudan’s security agencies: fragmentation, visibility, mimicry, 1908-1989’, Intelligence and National Security 2013.
  4. Elfadil Ibrahim, ‘Why Sudan is Yet to See an Arab Spring’, The Guardian 7 December 2011.

Dr William Berridge has recently taken up a three year post at Northampton after completing a PhD in Sudanese History at Durham in 2011. His PhD research focused on the history of policing, prisons and homicide trials in colonial and early post-colonial Sudan, and this has been complemented by recent research on Sudan’s ‘morality police’. He has published material on political violence in the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, and is now composing a monograph on the history of Sudan’s two civilian uprisings of 1964 and 1985. His work deals with topics such as post-colonialism, Islamic radicalism, and ‘post-Islamism’. He has travelled to Sudan on a number of occasions, and engaged in volunteering there.



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