Amid Sudan’s battle between security forces loyal to rival generals, young civil society leaders are working to stem the violence. These leaders are part of grassroots youth networks that have been central to Sudan’s five-year-old citizens’ movement for a transition from military rule to democratic civilian governance. Against the current violence, youth-led efforts are combating misinformation, providing humanitarian aid and organizing crowdfunding to secure food and medicine. As the international community presses combatants to end the conflict and safeguard civilians, it is crucial that they also support the youth-led civil society initiatives to stop the violence and address its causes.
Sudan’s Youth: A Force for Change
Sudan's youth, who form over 60 percent of the population, have been at the fore of the country’s pro-democracy movement, organizing nonviolent sit-ins and other protests. One such youth-led movement Girifna, ("we are fed up" in Arabic) has worked since 2009 to educate Sudanese youth and the public about their rights as well as the methods of nonviolent resistance movements.
Grassroots youth networks played a crucial role in ending the regime of the former military ruler, Omar al-Bashir, and working toward a transition to peace and democracy. In 2018, students in Damazin, a southern provincial capital, protested the government’s reduction of subsidies and rising prices for basic commodities, which sparked a nationwide movement culminating in a peaceful mass sit-in at the military headquarters in Khartoum in April 2019.
The successes of the Sudanese revolution can largely be attributed to the innovative, participative and nonviolent approaches promoted by the country's youth activists. These young people leveraged social media to spread information, organized protests, and used art, music, and other forms of expression to make their voices heard. However, the youth movement has faced challenges, including violence, arrests and intimidation by authorities. Even though young people played a significant role in the ouster of Bashir, Sudan’s most influential civilian and military faction leaders have largely excluded youth from representation and involvement in the negotiations for a transition to democracy.
Sudan’s Crisis: Youth Groups Respond
The fighting between the forces of the army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (known as Hemetti), has inflicted humanitarian crises on roughly 5 million people of the Khartoum area, plus others in the Darfur region and in cities nationwide. Hospitals have collapsed, either struck by bombs or gunfire, or overwhelmed by the wounded. Families have lost water and electricity supplies and markets have run short on food. Prices for food and fuel have tripled or quadrupled, reported a young woman resident who spoke to USIP.
The warfare in Khartoum has resonated nationwide, pushing tens of thousands of Sudanese to flee to Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia and other nearby countries. Prices for bus tickets from Khartoum to the Egyptian border have spiked from the equivalent of $130 to $750. The violent chaos forced the U.N. World Food Program and other aid agencies to suspend their work, and Sudanese citizens say they feel abandoned. In response, Sudanese youth groups (as well as Sudanese living abroad) are mobilizing to help, in part by providing displaced people with scarce information on options for transportation, housing and humanitarian aid for those displaced.
Sudan’s youth networks have been providing much-needed humanitarian assistance, including food, water, medicines and fuel to people in need, said Alhussain Mohammed, who leads the Youth Forum Organization, a Sudan-based voluntary human rights organization founded by youth. Youth activists helped people fleeing the violence connect with drivers and available vehicles. The activists set up improvised emergency rooms in public spaces such as schools and clubs to help those injured. A group of youth engineers and web developers quickly created a website and app that let people connect quickly via cellphone to help each other meet their urgent needs amid the crisis.
Rumors and false information can cause escalation in any conflict zone, of course. In Sudan, national and international constituencies contending for power often use disinformation, spread through traditional and social media, according to a November study by a Sudan-based news and fact-checking organization, Beam Reports. That study describes disinformation operations by both of the factions fighting now — the Sudan Armed Forces, commanded by Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces of Daglo. Beam Reports has debunked false news reports from combatant forces. Youth movements provide updates on the fighting and locations of the combatant forces to help people avoid danger and travel to seek safety.
Youth movements use social media to organize online campaigns against the war and urge a ceasefire. The Midanik Feminist Movement is developing an advocacy initiative called “Sudanese Women Against War” with youth women groups to press the international community to help end the armed conflict.
Midanik’s founder, Reel Muaz, underscored the difficulties for youth civic leaders in confronting the violence in a city that has been almost completely blacked out in recent weeks. They must pursue their activism on behalf of peace while also scrambling to keep themselves and their families safe. “It´s really hard to organize [efforts] while everyone is suffering from burnout,” Muaz said.
Summoning International Support
“Sudanese youth are displaying acts of heroism every single day,” Sudanese designer and women’s rights advocate Mayada Adil told the U.N. Economic and Social Council’s annual Youth Forum last week. “The international community must do everything they can to support us now.”
While Sudanese youth played a leading role in the nonviolent movement that led to the end of 30 years of authoritarian rule, they were excluded from participation and decision-making in the transitional government, which has since failed to bring about lasting peace. As young people in Sudan again mobilize to restore peace and justice, the international community should center youth voices and leadership in all relief and response efforts.
The international community can support youth-led efforts in Sudan by listening and taking concrete actions to meet activists’ immediate needs. As tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians seek refuge in neighboring countries, young people are calling on national governments to establish safe, legal routes for those seeking protection. Youth leaders have commended the support shown by the South Sudanese people in welcoming refugees and have asked other nations to follow suit.
As international, notably regional, partners urge a lasting ceasefire, they should refrain from supporting any of the parties in the conflict and instead support civic movements that can help shift power toward a democratic, elected civilian government. Young civic leaders who have energized those nonviolent movements over recent years remain committed both to their democratic goals and to their nonviolent methods, said youth leader Ahmed Osman. “We are not trying, nor [do] we have the intention, to militarize our peaceful movement,” he said. “Rather, we want to stick to our nonviolent protests, which we will resume when the time is suitable,” he said.
To this end, the international community should engage with Sudanese youth leaders to involve them in any negotiation process between conflicting parties, and should use the effective organizational skills of Sudanese youth in helping to monitor and ensure compliance with an eventual ceasefire agreement.
Working closely with Sudanese youth is a way to promote a peaceful and democratic future for Sudan. The international community thus should invest in young leaders who can guide the country toward a stable, prosperous future.
Rachel Palermo is a program specialist with USIP’s team on Youth, Peace & Security.