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The Impossibility of Actual Politics

8 min read.

After the Arab Spring, the African left was left demoralized and disorganized. However, a recent book argues that the revolution continues in quotidian life.



The Impossibility of Actual Politics
Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr CC BY 2.0, 2011.

Twelve years have passed since the Arab Spring, and both Egypt and Tunisia are facing a stark economic crisis. Both are currently under the mercy of extremely unfavorable structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, relying heavily on food imports, mired in debt, and facing historical inflation rates with unprecedented hikes in food prices. This dire economic situation is made all the worse by a relentless escalation of authoritarian measures in both countries. The prevailing atmosphere indicates that the counterrevolution has prevailed and that avenues of emancipatory possibility have shrunk almost to the point of extinction.

Every year, however, as the anniversary of the January uprisings approaches, dread ensues, not only because it prompts us to reflect on the defeat, but also because of the steady barrage of analysis we are inundated with, grappling with the same questions every year, and revealing an unsatiated desire to answer questions that we already probably know the answers to. Questions abound about horizontalism or verticalism, leadership, or leaderlessness that date back to the break between Stalin and Trotsky, which have eternally divided those in the 1917 camp vs the 1968 camp. Spontaneity contra organization ad infinitum.

A book that stands out in this genre, however, is Asef Bayat’s Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Published in 2017, it has become one of the most referenced in the field. In it, the Iranian-American sociologist grapples with the idea of what revolution means in a post-Cold War era. Bayat—correctly in my opinion—attributes the failure of the January uprisings, despite their extraordinary mobilization and resistance, to a lack of revolutionary vision, political organization, and a dearth of intellectual articulation by its leaders. He does so by comparing them to the revolutions of the 1970s when the concept of revolution was largely informed by socialism and anti-imperialism. Adversely, the January uprisings, affected by the NGOization of the world, seemed to be more concerned with democracy, human rights, and accountability.

Deviating away from the approach he took in Revolution Without Revolutionaries, Bayat—in his sixth and latest book, Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring, published in 2021—decides to focus on the granular rather than the structural by focusing on the “non-movements” as he refers to them, giving primacy to “what the revolution meant to ordinary people.” Focusing on Egypt and Tunisia, Bayat’s argument is that the events of 2011 set something in motion, and brought a different set of social relations in everyday life. The book is rich with examples of this everyday resistance from both countries, covering different categories.

With his starting point being the subaltern, Bayat attempts to investigate the relationship between the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary,” or the “mundane” and the “monumental.” Evoking Antonio Gramsci and American anthropologist and anarchist James C. Scott, his focus this time is civil society and everyday resistance as opposed to the macro approach he used in Revolution Without Revolutionaries, with the aim of finding the connection between both. He also aims to give the subaltern “agency” in relation to revolutionary moments. This is made manifest even in the naming of the chapters of the book (the poor and the plebian, women, children of the revolution, etc.), assigning a separate experience to every group. In doing so he tries to make us consider the meaning of revolution, providing us with an alternative narrative that doesn’t fall under the binary of “success” and “defeat.” Its strength lies in that it rejects the defeatist paradigm that has become the prevalent narrative of the uprisings.

“A ‘failed’ revolution may not be entirely failed if we consider significant transformations that may transpire at the level of the ‘social’,” Bayat contends. Arguably, one can attribute this approach to a sort of theoretical optimism that refuses to give in to defeat. However, it prompts us to think about the bleakness of the current post-counterrevolution reality that these everyday resistances—which one can argue are universal and present in all societies, not just societies that have undergone recent political transformations—are something to be celebrated.

Although the attempt to reframe the revolution from being seen through the lens of “failure” or “defeat” is notable, the premise of the book itself is indicative of the current impossibility of actual politics, be it in Egypt or Tunisia. The absence of which gives cause to the celebration of and the need to document the minutiae of these quotidian acts.

The book’s heavily researched chapters are divided thematically, each tackling a different demographic of the revolution. While these chapters are brimming with examples, the choice to divide them into categories that are arguably liberal watchwords is expressive of this absence of politics, defaulting to the reproduction of cultural subjects. Wouldn’t we rather develop class positions that traverse these social categories than have signifiers like “the poor” or “the children?”

In the chapter, Mothers and Daughters of the Revolution, Bayat references at least three different examples of women taking off their hijab as an example of changing social attitudes. One example was a woman who left her advertising job in the corporate sector to work in civil society and human rights and took off her hijab. Another example was a woman who took off her hijab and married a human rights advocate; another one obtained the courage to travel alone and also took off her hijab. While these examples do not make up the majority of examples of everyday resistance given in the book, they suggest an overreliance on anecdotal experience and cast what are extremely individualized acts of rebellion as resistance.

Nonetheless, Bayat explains that he understands that these categories are more complex than their titles and that they can be divided along class or racial lines. However, he is cautious of a “reductionist Marxism” that tends to “reduce the multilayered sources of subaltern dissent,” and emphasizes the importance of civil society formation, invoking Gramsci’s utilization of civil society as a way to counter Leninist vanguardism (understood as a small elite group leading the revolution on behalf of the working class). In the Gramscian sense, the method through which the working class can challenge this hegemonic dominance is through creating cultural institutions mired in broad-based, popular movements that would develop organically through civil society. However, I do not think this translates to the concept of civil society as it is used today.

As Adam Hanieh argues in Lineages of Revoltthe idea of civil society is mostly championed by international organizations and international financial institutions, linking it with free market economic policies as a bulwark against authoritarianism. For Hanieh, “the state/civil society dichotomy serves to ‘conceptualize away’ the problem of capitalism, by disaggregating society into fragments, with no overarching power structure, no totalizing unity, no systemic coercions—in other words, no capitalist system, with its expansionary drive and its capacity to penetrate every aspect of social life.” He posits instead for class to be used as the “key social category from which to comprehend the dynamics of any society, distinct from the catchall notion of civil society (as it is conventionally understood).”

Bayat also refers to the work of James C. Scott as a necessary departure from this Marxist “economism” when it comes to thinking about resistance, and attributes the concept of everyday resistance to him. However, Bayat maintains that there is a certain reductionism in Scott’s work through his sole focus on everyday resistance as the structure for change, and aims in this book to bridge the gap between the study of everyday resistance and the study of revolutions by using a combined approach to analyze the Arab Spring. Scott coined “everyday resistance” in his 1985 book Weapons of the Weak to describe everyday acts of resistance that are not as impactful or obvious as other forms of organized, collective articulations of resistance, such as revolutions. Everyday resistance or infrapolitics as he sometimes refers to it, is more dispersed and is not as visible to society or the state. While Scott conceives of resistance as an act or acts that could be taken by a collective, his conception of a collective is merely a group of unorganized individuals. In this conception of resistance as the lived experience of scattered individuals with specific grievances choosing to act outside of calculated collective action, it is unlikely that this resistance will grow into broader political dissent that can lead to more organized action.

While the “idea, the ideal and the memory of Revolution need to be maintained,” as Bayat mentioned in a December 2017 interview in Open Democracy, the idea of an unfinished revolution or an unfinished project is one that I largely agree with. However, these forms of resistance that Scott and in this case Bayat bring forth, challenge Marxist accounts of theories of revolution by insisting that political action can also happen on a smaller scale—that way giving up on the more material and structural factors. And while Bayat recognizes in the introduction that these structural and macro factors exist and that Revolution Without Revolutionaries was entirely devoted to them, an acknowledgment of the fact does not explain this Scott-like romanticization of the quotidian in Everyday Life. This horizontally determined view of politics is difficult to square with the more structural analysis he offers in Revolution Without Revolutionaries and offers little politically emancipatory potential for any revolutionary movements to emerge. It leads us to a depoliticized place, unable to conceptualize how political agency is exerted at a structural level.

We can even go as far as to argue that this everyday resistance is a knee-jerk reaction to the counterrevolutions that took place and are therefore defensive and reactive. It fails to offer a transformative political project and is more interested in asserting individual choice and autonomy than the assembling and channeling of collective capacity to act to produce political effects. Of course, that is not a failing on the individuals mentioned but is demonstrative of how grim political prospects currently are and have been since the counterrevolutions.

The spontaneity of everyday resistance can provide insight into how oppressive societies operate. However, in order to overturn these structures, it is unlikely that the separated and defensive actions of individuals would pose an actual threat to the status quo. Such resistance is too disparate and scattered, therefore unable to affect society in a material way. What we need to think about here, what we need to prioritize, is the project of building collectiveness—the radical restructuring of society rather than acts of individual agency.

Is there really a need to differentiate between “everyday life” and “the revolution?” If Bayat’s theory of change is that scattered acts of protest can have a multiplier effect, and accumulate into collective power, then surely the goal is to build the latter. Ultimately, there must be some degree of political organization that can mobilize disparate actors. To that end, everyday resistance in and of itself is ineffectual, and can only mitigate existing social conditions.

In the introduction, Bayat says he attempts to “establish an analytical link between the everyday and the revolution.” He argues that “subaltern everyday struggles came together in the Arab uprisings to forge a collective and contentious force coalescing with the political mobilizations that had been initiated largely by young activists.” However, we saw that this was not sufficient.

Bayat says, “A surprising revolutionary moment may emerge from the underside of societies that appear safe and secure.” Is there even a causal relationship between the macro and the grassroots? There is an assumption that the plurality of organizational forms is a given, and that this plurality of forms in and of itself has an inherent value. If anything, history has shown us that not all forms of resistance can form blocks to morph into macro resistance, especially during times of political thinness and the absence of real political organization.

If resistance is indeed found in everyday life—yet does not evolve or account for further political ramifications in terms of political organizing beyond its moralizing qualities—all it serves to imply is an individualistic conception of politics or an assertion of politics as identity or affirmation; one that showcases the thinning of political formation in the region rather than resistance that can amount to tangible political transformation. The combined vision Bayet thinks or does not exist. In fact, politics within this context can at best be a means of reconciling ourselves to our precarious conditions, rather than a way out of them.

Macro and revolutionary moments have their own micropolitical transformations that emerge in tandem. One does not have to seek the emergence of the latter on its own; in fact, the former often informs the latter. We do not need to pose a false choice between the micro and the macro or the structural. Wouldn’t it be better to seek a structural change that is informed by the possibilities of politics? Attention to the micro is helpful when embedded within a larger political project, and when it can be considered to be developing political consciousness and shifting orientation towards the collective.

While the resonance is great and the memory of 2011 remains, we need to be wary of supporting cautious and defensive reformism, cloaked in the guise of everyday resistance and lacking the antagonisms of political struggle and successful processes of social change.

Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring (2021) by Asef Bayat is available from Harvard University Press.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Nihal El Aasar is an Egyptian independent researcher currently based in London.


Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy

Examining the recent and brutal attempts to suppress the Sudanese revolution, Magdi el Gizouli looks at the efforts by the regime and its various factions to seize the initiative from the streets. In recent months the ruthless figure of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka Himeidti), the leader of the infamous Rapid Support Forces, has moved into the centre of Sudanese politics. However, will the ‘neighbourhood committees’ be able to translate their revolutionary zeal into mass political action that can unite rural and urban discontent and challenge the regimes hold on power?



Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy

The last ten days of Ramadan, Islam’s fasting month, are supposed to be a period of spiritual transcendence. By this time, the discipline of fasting and nightly prayer is expected to have smoothed over the ugly creases of the believer’s soul in preparation for a new beginning. Likewise, it is the year’s peak shopping season, as families prepare for the Eid festivities and the associated cycles of gift exchanges. Not this year in Khartoum. Instead the remarkably peaceful city had on appointment with a ‘katla’, vernacular Sudanese for mass and senseless killing.

In the early hours of 29 Ramadan, 3 June, joint troops of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), stormed the site of the massive sit-in surrounding the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) with the aim of crushing the protest movement that had for almost six continuous months captured Sudan’s politics. The attackers did not spare bullets, within hours around 130 unarmed protesters were killed, some clinging to the concrete blocks and bricks of the barricades they had anxiously guarded throughout the months of the sit-in. Many corpses were pulled out of the Nile tied to rocks.

The tent city which constituted the geography of an alternative Sudan in the minds of its inhabitants was soon in flames. Throughout the months of the protest sit-in, the tent city was a Woodstock of sorts on the Nile, a site where urban Sudan struggled to reinvent itself in a fervour of festive creativity and solidarity. The protesters reimagined their world and in exercising their imagination forged new relations that transgressed the boundaries of patriarchal authority and the established social order. The bubbling democracy of the qiada – Arabic shorthand for the [army] headquarters – became a cultural attraction. A middle class Khartoumian would go to work in the morning, drive home in the late afternoon to pick up the kids and stroll through the qiada tent city in the evening in the company of family and friends.

As an organisational form for protest the qiada sit-in was wildly successful, probably far beyond the expectation of the parties involved. While it lasted, it was a place where mostly young women and men could live out their claim to identity as real citizens . Cash transactions were the exception in the qiada sit-in as the protestors fashioned an economy of their own devised around the socialist instinct of ‘from each according to her ability and to each according to her need’. Food, medical care, public health services, security and transport were organised on a voluntary basis and proved remarkably resilient. A minor flu epidemic, known as the ‘qiada cold’ troubled the protesters but otherwise the massive sit in registered no other public health crisis thanks to robust and efficient public health measures. From afar, expatriate Sudanese, contributed funds and information technology hardware as well an explosion of sympathetic protests in Western capitals.

The attackers of 3 June were not satisfied with destruction of the human and physical structure of protest. Their aim was to extinguish the drive that had propelled the thousands upon thousands of young Sudanese into political action during a winter of revolutionary crisis, so they raped men and women. By the evening, residents of the smaller towns down the Nile from Khartoum were fishing corpses out of the river. In their hurry to clear the protest site, the valiant butchers of the RSF and the NISS ordered their troops to dispose of the young bodies in the river clumsily tied to concrete blocks in an effort to keep them down in the deep, silent for ever, but even as hapless corpses the protesters seemed to be challenging the will of Sudan’s security lords, floating up and out into open sight. The sacrilege was not intended to hide the obvious crime but was primarily a demonstration of brutality and immunity from accountability.

The massive sit-in around the army headquarters in Khartoum was the culmination of five months of popular protests. The scale and tenacity of the sit-in forced the hand of the military-security establishment to do away with President Bashir and declare a new dispensation. For some time already a liability, President Bashir was politically eliminated by his very generals. His deputy, Lieutenant General Awad ibn Ouf declared on state television on 11 April that a transitional military council headed by himself would take over authority. Outside military headquarters, thousands of jubilant protesters were not convinced and demanded the transfer of power to a civilian government. Soldiers and junior officers at the army headquarters were equally unsatisfied with Ibn Ouf. Within less than 48 hours Ibn Ouf appeared again on state television, this time to announce that he was stepping down as head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the official title of the ruling junta. Ibn Ouf named Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan as his successor, another army general with no known record of association with the Islamic Movement. Significantly, al-Burhan was the liaison officer of the Sudanese military’s deployment in the Saudi-Emirati-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In his first address to the nation, al-Burhan made remarkable overtures to the protest movement. He announced that no attempt will be made to break up the massive sit-in around the army headquarters and declared that the former president and leading figures of his party, the National Congress Party (NCP), will be arrested and eventually face justice. An announcement of the composition of the TMC followed. Unlike Sudan’s previous juntas, the TMC is not exclusively a ‘military’ organ in the strict sense of the word. The officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) who had long enjoyed political dominance were now forced to share their authority with separate armed formations, the NISS and the RSF, both creatures of the Bashir era. However, the TMC is by all means a re-creation of president Bashir’s own ‘security committee’, a central organ under his chairmanship that joins military, security, police and militia bosses and is replicated at the various level of administration as a grid of oppression.

The emergence of a strongman

Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka ‘Himeidti’), the leader of the infamous RSF emerged as the deputy chairman of the TMC and the critical agent of ‘change’ at the top. Himeidti, the name is a motherly diminutive form for ‘my little Mohamed’, was born in a family of agro-pastoralists north of Kutum. His people, the Mahariyya , a subsection of the wider Rizeigat, are predominantly pastoralists whose subsistence existence was convulsed by the penetration of commodification and the cash economy in twentieth century Sudan. The inadequacies of the Mahariyya ’s pastoral livelihood were laid bare in the 1984-1986 famine that struck Kordofan and Darfur as part of the wider Sahelian drought. Mohamed Hamdan the boy and his kin were displaced by the famine to Nyala, Darfur’s largest city and trade hub connecting regional trade networks that stretch through Chad, the Central African Republic and beyond, and into Libya and Egypt. Many Mahariyya  became settled millet farmers around Mellit, others remained camel herders. Whether settled or on the move most had to supplant their livelihoods with alternative strategies connected to the cash economy including labour migration, trade, and petty commodity production.

Many Mahariyya  men, including Mohamed Hamdan, flocked to Libya as migrant labourers or traders. In one study carried out in Mellit, four out of every ten Mahariyya  households had a male family member working in Libya. Mohamed Hamdan, the youngster, began his career as a merchant procuring goods from Nyala to Mellit. By the mid-1990s he was engaged in cross-border trade between Darfur, Chad and Libya. When the Darfur insurgency erupted in 2003, he was a livestock merchant with a base in Mellit and operations mainly in Libya . The war encircled Mellit. Both farming and livestock migration were severely curtailed while the closure of the Sudanese-Libyan border and widespread looting endangered trade routes and restricted the movement of labour. Mahariyya  traders including Mohamed Hamdan Daglo were under the impression that they were specifically targeted by the Darfuri insurgents. For many, Mellit became a place of siege. Two of Mohamed Hamdan’s brothers were killed in an incident on their way to Libya when insurgents attacked their trade caravan and looted their camels close to Karb al-Toum.

The racialisation of the conflict in Darfur was the background from which Mohamed Hamdan Daglo emerged as militia leader of his angry Mahariyya and Rizeigat kin. He joined the Sudanese army’s Border Guards, a militia formation fighting on the side of the government against the Darfur insurgents in 2003 and began a recruitment campaign in Nyala amongst his own ‘nas’ (Arabic for people) starting with a squad of 200 kinsmen. The brutal efficiency of Himeidti’s forces soon attracted the attention of Khartoum’s rulers. At the time, General Ibn Ouf was head of military intelligence. Himeidti demanded the formalisation of his militia and their inclusion in the wage-system of the SAF.

Three years later, Himeidti was granted court with President Bashir. Khartoum had signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) granting southern Sudan the right of self-determination as well as the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement with the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) faction led by Minni Minawi granting the rebel group regional authority over Darfur. In response, the still active Darfur rebel groups led by the then powerful Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) formed the umbrella National Redemption Front (NRF). The JEM under the leadership of its late founder, Khalil Ibrahim, was beginning to break the racial barrier in Darfur and actively winning supporters among Darfuri pastoralist Arabs including Himeidti’s own Mahariyya . Himeidti was in a position to negotiate. He asked for a share of power akin to the southern Sudanese militia leaders who had fought alongside the government in southern Sudan. The government was reluctant to accept his demands. In response, he camped outside Nyala with his troops in protest leaving the demoralised SAF units to their fate in Darfur’s harsh war-fields.

Soon, the Mahariyya merchant turned militia leader was in a position to punch even higher. He proved his worth in the bitter battles that followed the 2008 JEM attack on the capital Khartoum. In Darfur, JEM’s forces encircled al-Fasher and Himeidti came to the rescue after pleas from the garrison commander at the time, the SAF officer Imad al-Din Adawi.

As a reward, President Bashir summoned the war hero to Khartoum for decoration. Himeidti was granted the medal of courage and the authority and funding to expand recruitment under the umbrella of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, for all practical purposes a private militia outside the formal chain of command of the SAF. President Bashir and his officers effectively outsourced their entire counterinsurgency operations to the RSF. Himeidti’s shock troops were in deployment across Sudan’s war zones, in Darfur, in South Kordofan and in the Blue Nile. When a wave of riots erupted in Khartoum in September 2013 against the government’s decision to slash fuel and bread subsidies in the aftermath of the independence of South Sudan it was the RSF’s teenage fighters who did the shooting in the capital. Hundreds of protesters lost their lives in the confrontation.

Thanks to Himeidti, herdsmen from northern Darfur had tapped into a new livelihood resource, war on commission. Geopolitics created ample opportunities for a mobile and capable fighting force on rent in a volatile region. Himeidti troops functioned as an extension of the European Union’s borders against intruding migrants deep in the African Sahara and as a long arm for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their battle against Houthi militants in Yemen. At the command of a loyal fighting force spread across the country and backed by powerful and rich patrons in the region, Himeidti was ready to displace the ageing resident of the palace on the Blue Nile. When coup officers confronted Bashir in the early hours of 11 April, he shouted that this is a Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian plot carried out by RSF commander Himeidti and the NISS boss Salah Gosh, or so claim Khartoum’s loud whisperers.

Himeidti’s rise from camel merchant in the Darfur wilderness to militiaman to ruler in the heart of the Nile Valley is a remarkable feat of historical cunning. The most recent example of such a transformation in power dates back to 1885 when Abdullahi son of Mohamed Taur Shein (arabic for vicious bull), a Baggara faki (holy man) from Darfur and Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi’s earliest disciple, succeeded the charismatic mystic and revolutionary from Dongola to become the Khalifa, ruler of the nascent Mahdist state. Abdullahi the Khalifa was significantly challenged by the Mahdi’s powerful kin, the country’s pre-modern coup plotters. Thanks to a massive standing army recruited predominantly from Baqqara herdsmen, the Khalifa persevered, defeated the putschists and was only dislodged from power sixteen years later by British Maxim guns, the first recoil operated machine-gun.

As a child in Omdurman, al-Khalifa’s capital west of the Nile, I went on school trips to the fields of Karari to the north of the town where over twenty thousand Mahdist fighters were massacred in the early hours of 2 September 1898. Every rainy season, some of those brave bones glittered dazzling white in the blazing sun against the reddish-brown soil of the Karari plain.

It is then not much of a surprise that Himeidti’s emergence at the top of the chaotic crowd of Bashir’s last years was perceived as an opportunity in many quarters. As a foreigner to the Khartoum establishment, Himeidti was generously interpreted by some as a hero of the downtrodden who could rework power relations in favour of Sudan’s marginalised peoples and finally win authority from the elite of the riverine heartland. From this perspective, his major achievement is perceived to be the subversion of the SAF, since Sudan’s independence the guarantor of the hegemony of the riverine elite. Accordingly, he became the betting horse of a Darfuri merchant class of predominantly Rizeigat and Zaghawa composition and the politicians and intellectuals in their orbit.

Uniting rural and urban politics

Bashir had managed subnational interests through a system of ethnic politics that involved a division and redivision of state and locality boundaries to match and create ethnic majorities with a dominant position in state and local government under the mantle of the ruling NCP. Hence, power conflicts often took the form of intra-NCP competition and manipulation of competing blocs was a constant preoccupation of the NCP high command. Likewise, ministerial positions at the central level were apportioned according to a complex calculus of political party and ethnic power division and sub-division. In this apportionment of posts and since the eruption of the Darfur insurgency and the secession of south the third position in the formal hierarchy of power, the office of vice president, was the preserve of Darfuri figures as successors to ethnic South Sudanese who had traditionally occupied the post before the independence of South Sudan. As a result, Bashir’s cabinets were more a warehouse of clients and far less so an effective executive. In his late years, he attempted to bypass this dysfunctional state of affairs born out of political convenience by further centralising power into his own hands. He created a series of councils that dealt with critical aspects of government business – defence, economic policy, investment and foreign relations amongst others – under his direct chairmanship that were superior to the individual ministries.

As a countermeasure to Bashir’s rationale of government, the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) demand the formation of a government of ‘meritocrats’ solely drawn from their ranks to rule over a transitional period and pave the way towards free and fair elections. While on first consideration a reasonable demand, government by merit is interpreted by the Rizeigat and Zaghawa nationalists and their allies as a refashioning of the narrow effendiyya nationalism of the riverine heartland at the root of rural grievances and a replay of the exclusionary ‘Sudanisation’ of independence. In a bid to groom a counterforce to the urbanite neo-effendiyya of the FFC, Himeidti and his allies were quick to seek the support of tribal notables from Sudan’s vast and largely impoverished rural worlds with the promise of ethnic representation as a reward. In many ways, Himeidti’s political operation seems to recreate Bashir’s very sultanic politics absent the organisational framework of the big tent NCP.

While the bare-knuckle negotiations between the TMC and the FFC revolve around one character of government, military or civilian, an underlying contradiction remains the rural-urban divide that has long bedevilled Sudan’s politics. Protesters in Sudan’s urban centres crystallised their demands into the singular slogan of ‘civilian’ government while the rustic rural support base of the TMC and its champion Himeidti shout for continuation of ‘military’ rule. The FFC, unfortunately, are yet to imagine a political formula that can provide a bridgehead into rural Sudan. I would argue that the notion of a government of ‘meritocrats’ drawn from Sudan’s best educated cosmopolitans misses the target. Meanwhile, Himeidti was savvy enough to engage the leaders of the Darfur insurgencies he had almost obliterated on the battlefield securing friendly hand-shaking photoshoots and an embryonic alliance.

The brutality of the RSF and the ineloquence of their leader and his many gaffes, he once referred to the minister of higher education as the minister of ‘giraya’, colloquial Sudanese Arabic for learning, were identified by Khartoum’s cosmopolitans as markers of a violent pastoral essence. He was ridiculed as a backward herdsman and as a rogue general in contradistinction to the ‘true’ military college generals of the SAF. In anguish, Khartoum’s political class rummaged the officer corps in search for a ‘enlightened’ soldier who could save the day, crush the RSF with a bold strike of military advantage and rescue the honour of the SAF corps. This political wish acquired the form of myth in popular imagination, the myth of the Atbara armoured battalion expected at any moment in Khartoum. Himeidti and the RSF are as much an expression of the rural crisis as they are of the chaotic war-driven urbanisation of Sudan. In a way, Himeidti is today the political name of Nyala, the trading capital of Darfur that has long displaced Wad Medani in the Gezira heartland as Sudan’s second largest urban centre and possibly the country’s most important commercial hub trading in narcotics and cross-border smuggling of livestock.

The revolutionary challenge from below

Now, in the face of these trials Sudan’s revolutionary surge remains a formidable challenge to Himeidti and his powerful allies and patrons. At the core of revolutionary action is a radical component drawn from urban subalterns who are neither subsumed under the FFC meritocratic model nor liable to co-optation by Himeidti’s pledge of ethnic representation under sultanic authority. The most successful organisational form of this precariat spread across Sudan’s urban landscape is so far the neighbourhood-level ‘resistance committee’. These neighbourhood committees are accessible to precariously employed and unemployed labour and dominated by groups of militants whose political orientations are drawn from confrontation with the abusive and extractive state and the relations of power that sustain it. It is these militant elements, with no recognised place in the social order and with little to gain from its racial hierarchy and ethic building blocs, who have faced the greatest wrath of the military security establishment.

Ahead of the 29 Ramadan massacre state media launched a vicious smear campaign against the protesters of ‘Columbia’, the name the subalterns of the qiada sit-in chose for their favoured spot on the bank of the Nile, for their disregard of middle-class norms. Columbia, state media claimed, had become a site of flagrant moral corruption rife with debauchery, drugs, crime and unnameable social ills. The Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), hitherto the trusted guardian of the revolution, dithered and issued a statement distancing itself from Columbia and its inhabitants. In government speak the 29 Ramadan massacre was hatched as an operation to sweep Columbia ‘clean’ but ran out of control and in the words of the spokesman of the TMC ‘what happened happened!’. Significantly, it was in Columbia where fraternisation between subaltern protesters and their fellow SAF and RSF soldiers was most marked, at times threatening military command and discipline.

The TMC generals, al-Burhan and Himeidti, attempted to reach out to the stricken masses in an effort to soothe the revolutionary anger fuelling the daring protest movement. Himeidti addressed a rally in Mayo and al-Burhan another in Um Badda, both sprawling impoverished and heavily populated neighbourhoods in the outer circle of Khartoum and Omdurman respectively. Himeidti promised the allocation of residential plots to squatters and al-Burhan reproduced the discourse of marginalisation promising a new beginning of social equality with some success but the masses were not satisfied. Both men were incessantly interrupted by cries of ‘madaniyya’ – Arabic for civilian – the catchphrase of the protest movement.

As al-Burhan spoke on 30 June, the anniversary of the 1989 putsch that brought President Bashir to power, demonstrators filled the streets of Khartoum and almost all of Sudan’s major towns in their tens of thousands in a remarkable show of popular will to bring down the rule of the junta and install the pursued ‘madaniyya’. The response of the military-security establishment to this enduring determination was a series of extrajudicial killings targeting militants of the ‘resistance committees’. A policeman who inspected the corpses shot at close range to the head identified one of the slain militants as his own son.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the TMC and the FFC, now mediated by the African Union (AU) and the Ethiopian government as well as a cohort of Western diplomats including newly reappointed US envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, the course of the Sudanese revolution is for the now in the hands of the ‘resistance committees’. Some have claimed local authority in their neighbourhoods toppling the petty autocrats of the Bashir-era ‘popular committees’ and are refashioning micro-authority to fit an emancipatory zeal. The question remains, will they be able to translate this zeal  into mass political action that can take on the brutal machinations of the Sudanese state?

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Raw Macadamia Nut Exports: Kenya Executes an About-Turn

The government has decided to lift the ban on exports of raw nuts but what the country’s macadamia nut sector sorely needs is policy support from the national and county governments.



Raw Macadamia Nut Exports: Kenya Executes an About-Turn

The government has backtracked on a directive that was, ironically, issued by President William Ruto when he was Kenya’s agriculture minister. In 2009, Ruto banned the export of unprocessed macadamia nuts to allow local processors access to larger quantities of the raw material which in turn would create jobs in this labour-intensive sector.

In recent years, macadamia farming has gained traction in even non-traditional growing areas beyond Mt Kenya such as the Rift Valley and western regions. However, both the county and national governments have consistently failed to put in place all the measures necessary to support the macadamia sector and this has significantly affected farm gate prices today, leading to huge losses for farmers.

A number of factors have contributed to the poor farm gate prices, which the government wrongly assumes will improve once competition is introduced by bringing in more exporters of raw macadamia.

Following the export ban, both the national government and county governments in macadamia catchment areas failed to provide the policy support necessary to promote a sector where four years ago the farm gate price for a kilo of raw nuts was Ksh180 due to the increased number of processors. Fears have emerged in recent years that Kenya is losing its grip on the niche international market due to the low quality of the nuts produced, which makes the KSh180 per kilo price unsustainable.

At the time Kenya instituted the ban on exports of raw macadamia nuts in 2009, there were only three other macadamia nut-producing countries in the world—Australia, South Africa, and Hawaii in the United States, with Kenya supplying about 20 per cent of the total global demand.

Between 90 and 95 per cent of Kenya’s macadamia is produced for export. Key export destinations for Kenyan macadamia are the US, the European Union, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Canada. In 2020, the demand for Kenya’s macadamia globally declined by 40 per cent, a drop the processors attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New entrants who now threaten Kenya’s global market include China, Guatemala, Malawi, Vietnam, Colombia, New Zealand, Mozambique, Brazil, Paraguay and Swaziland. In total, 15 countries in the world have joined the macadamia producing club in the last decade.

The Chinese government established the International Macadamia Research and Development Center in Lincang in 2018 and the country’s market potential for macadamia is now the largest on the planet, recording an 11-fold increase in macadamia consumption between 2012 and 2018.

In an earlier interview, the Chief Executive Officer of the Nut Processors Association of Kenya (NutPAK),  Mr Charles  Muigai, said that the biggest challenge to Kenya’s market competitiveness in the global arena is the low quality of nuts produced by Kenyan farmers due to the insufficient support the sector receives from the government and other actors.

A report by the Netherlands Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries titled Value Chain Analysis for Macadamia Nuts from Kenya 2020 cited climate change, the impact of pests and diseases, poor agricultural practices, lack of access to inputs, use of unsuitable or old macadamia varieties and immature harvesting as Kenya’s main challenges.

At a critical point of transition following the ban, there was no functioning formal association of macadamia farmers. The Ministry of Agriculture did initiate the creation of the Macadamia Growers Association of Kenya in 2009, but it remains underfunded and without offices.

Unlike the tea and coffee sectors, the macadamia sector has evolved without any regulation or policy support from the government, the only major interventions being the 2009 ban and its anchoring in law in 2018.

The production of macadamia nuts in Kenya traces its history to 1944 when a European settler named Bob Harries introduced the crop from Australia in his estate near Thika town for ornamental and household consumption purposes.

The government would years later facilitate the creation of a joint venture between Japanese investors led by Yoshiyuki Sato and a Kenyan, Pius Ngugi, to set up the Kenya Nut Company (KNC), which to this day still runs the factory in Thika.

Initially, the company built a modern processing plant and established its own macadamia plantations on about 400ha and also set up a nursery for the propagation of adapted and grafted seedlings to supply out-growers.

The production of macadamia nuts in Kenya traces its history to 1944 when a European settler named Bob Harries introduced the crop from Australia.

By 1975, the company was processing nuts from its own estate as well as from out-growers. It enjoyed a monopoly purchase right for in-shell nuts, sourcing 90 per cent of the raw nuts from 140 smallholder coffee cooperative societies, as well as from another 47 buying centres.

Like the cashew nut sector, the macadamia sector was affected by the liberalisation of the economy. Being a private company, KNC could not be privatized, which shielded it from the decay that ensued in the cashew nut sector.

However, liberalisation accelerated domestic competition. In 1994, Equity Bank founder Peter Munga  opened a macadamia processing factory called Farm Nut Co. in Maragua in then Murang’a District.

With the entry of Farm Nut, the role of middlemen became predominant, due to the logistics challenges faced by the company in sourcing nuts from farmers. Brokers would buy nuts directly from the farmers, offering better prices than the cooperatives had, and immediate payment. Consequently, this significantly reduced farmers’ costs of transporting nuts to collection centres and collecting payments from banks.

Moreover, reduced volumes from the cooperatives increased processors’ transactional costs.  It became more convenient for them to deal with middlemen, and by the early 2000s, the role of the cooperatives in the macadamia supply chain had diminished.

A dramatic shift in the industry came in the early 2000s when China became a mass consumer of the nuts. The emergence of a growing middle class in China with an appetite for in-shell nuts, and the increasing number of container ships docking in Mombasa demanding cargo for the return journey, tempted Chinese traders to venture into the export of raw macadamia nuts from the country.

Local processors would buy nuts mainly from Kiambu, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, and Nyeri, where Kikuyu processors had established processing units and created networks with local communities that they hired for factory jobs. This helped to lock the Chinese out of these regions.

Estimates by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service indicate that nearly 60 per cent of macadamia had been exported in-shell in 2008, implying that exporters had been able to purchase most of the crop from Embu and Meru. This posed a huge threat, bringing processors together to push the government to ban the export of raw nuts that was finally instituted on 16 June 2009.

A dramatic shift in the industry came in the early 2000s when China became a mass consumer of the nuts.

With the exit of the Chinese and the creation of processors’ and farmers’ associations, there was hope that the industry would get organised and receive the necessary support.

This did not happen. Both the farmers and processors would soon be left to their own devices, competing with each other to fight the Chinese who were still smuggling nuts out of Kenya. However, the competition and the need to create more volume saw processors increase production five-fold in the last decade, reaching close to 50,000 metric tonnes by 2020. They also grew in number from 5 to over 30, a move that saw farmers get an unprecedented Sh200 a kilo despite complaints that the quality did not justify the price.

In Meru and Embu the belief remained that things would be different were the Chinese buyers still available, and this may have prompted the recent lifting of the ban. The processors blamed the poor prices on brokers and the resultant high percentage of immature nuts. A narrative was also pushed that if farmers started selling the nuts to processors directly—rather than via brokers—good prices would return.

According to the report of the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing countries, the main opportunity for yield improvement lies with supporting extension service providers, such as the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation (KALRO) and the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA), to increase farmers’ capacities and to multiply and disseminate high-yielding macadamia seedlings that are suited to the different macadamia growing regions of Kenya.

There are two main areas of intervention for quality improvement. The first involves supporting processors who wish to obtain loans to buy crops in advance, thereby addressing farmers’ need for quick cash. The second is the implementation of region-relevant harvesting moratoria.

Upstream traceability of Kenyan macadamia is severely challenged by the large number of smallholder farmers and independent buying agents. Small plantations typify Kenya’s production system as opposed to producers like China, South Africa and Australia, which have large plantations. Around 200,000 small farms in Kenya currently produce an estimated 42,500 tons of in-shell nuts.

Upstream traceability of Kenyan macadamia is severely challenged by the large number of smallholder farmers and independent buying agents.

Moreover, support should go to the creation of a registry of farmers, including data such as landholding size, age and number of macadamia trees and macadamia varieties and traders. This registry should be governed and accessed by members of the sector’s associations and by the AFA.

Communication and dialogue among macadamia stakeholders is lacking, with conflicting interests among actors often leading to rivalry.

To address this, sector associations should establish, adopt and enforce codes of conduct to regulate sector players. Dialogue and transparency should be the ruling principles of this code of conduct. Moreover, all actors should discuss a multi-stakeholder strategy to address the challenges facing the macadamia sector.

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Local Knowledge is Crucial for Crisis Preparedness

Over the last 20 years, the accuracy of early warning information has improved, at least for short-term predictions, but the main challenge has been reaching local communities.



Local Knowledge is Crucial for Crisis Preparedness

Eastern Africa has been grappling with multiple humanitarian crises exacerbated by climate-induced drought emergencies, disease outbreaks, floods and social instability due to civil conflict and the prolonged effect of 2019 locust plagues and the COVID-19 pandemic. Between 2017 and 2023, the population needing humanitarian assistance in parts of Eastern Africa rose from 22.5 million to 68 million and, as reported in the financial tracking systems of the United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair- UN-OCHA, the cost of humanitarian assistance doubled from US$4.1 billion to US$9.4 billion.

Of the crises besetting the region, severe drought is the most significant humanitarian emergency, especially for rural communities, as livelihoods primarily depend on animal husbandry and farming. Over the past 40 years, the region has experienced severe droughts: in 1976-1978, 1985-1988, 2010-2011, 2016-2017 and 2020-2022. Due to these crises, there has been significant interest in early warning systems and anticipatory planning in development and humanitarian contexts.

In particular, following the 1985 famine that resulted from severe drought and production failure, huge investments in early warning, preparedness and response were made. For example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) created FEWSNET—Famine Early Warning System Network—an agency for evidence-based early warning information. FEWSNET’s primary focus is to provide scientific information on acute food insecurity, agro-climatic conditions and drought early warning to governments, international relief agencies, scientists, and NGOs, among others, for actionable response in preventing drought and famine emergencies. Equally, Eastern African states established ICPAC, initially known as the IGAD Drought Monitoring Centre in Nairobi (IDMC-N). ICPAC is the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) regional climate centre of excellence. These agencies, together with others, work closely with government meteorological departments at the regional, national and local level to provide timely early warning information for preparedness, contingency planning and early action.

Over the last 20 years, the accuracy of  early warning information has improved, at least for short-term predictions, but the main challenge has been reaching local communities—what some call the “last mile”. The result is that early warning information often does not reach where it is most needed. Despite all the talk of early warning, disaster risk reduction, shock-responsive systems, contingency planning and anticipatory action, the end results are mixed to say the least. We need to ask, how can these big investments in early warning be linked to local approaches to prediction and response?

Predicting droughts and communicating the predictions through risk reports and early warning bulletins is now standard practice. In Kenya, the impressive National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), a government outfit based in 23 Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) counties, was established in 2011 with significant donor support. It produces monthly bulletins stacked with information derived from earth observations by satellites as well as surveys of key vulnerability indicators (household food consumption, market prices for livestock, food, water, livestock body condition, vegetation, status etc.) collected across each region. These bulletins are shared with the county government, the array of NGOs working in each area, and local communities.

Despite the deluge of high-quality information, the gap between early warning (which is increasingly accurate, at least for the short-term) and action on the ground is enormous. This has been a perennial problem. There are issues of trust (why should I believe the government?), inertia (surely if I wait a bit, then things will get better) and communication styles (a dozen pages in English rather than vernacular and visual versions, although this is apparently going to change). Moreover, those working on the ground know that there’s a drought right now (livestock is dying in numbers, there is no grass and water), so they don’t need information that the situation is dire. As one frustrated NDMA officer observed, “With early warnings you are telling them what they already see. We are ambassadors for what they already know!”

Deliberating on uncertainties: the need for local debate

The big problem with such information systems is that they are usually one-way: we have the information, you should listen and act. There is no space for dialogue, deliberation and debate. There are always uncertainties: Does this really apply here? Why wasn’t the drought predicted correctly last time? Is this information relevant to me right now? The assumption of specialised expertise filling a “deficit” in local knowledge and understanding has long prevailed in debates about science-policy interactions; it applies as much to early warning and drought alert information in pastoral drylands.

Despite the deluge of high-quality information, the gap between early warning and action on the ground is enormous.

This gap was recognised by a number of agencies that came together to design the Community-Managed Disaster Risk Reduction (CMDRR) approach, based on a participatory diagnosis of problems and joint construction of solutions. While the CMDRR committees are aimed at producing development and contingency plans that can then articulate with funding programmes from the government and NGOs, the most essential part of these committees is the process.

Meeting monthly and composed of a group of locally selected “experts”, they draw on local experience and knowledge and discuss impending or unfolding crises. This may be drought, but also conflict, animal disease or other challenges facing them, right there in their own context. This deliberation is crucial as diverse views are shared, dispute and contestation are possible, and in this way, uncertainties (for they are always there) are addressed.

For example, in one village some way off the main road near Moyale, we met the chair of the local committee who explained its functioning. There are 23 members, 15 men and 8 women. The roles are voluntary although they have been supported—now over nine years—by a local NGO. The membership includes elders with long, historical experience of past crises and how these were addressed, and several people with specialist expertise.

The assumption of specialised expertise filling a “deficit” in local knowledge and understanding has long prevailed in debates about science-policy interactions.

Among these local experts is a man who is an expert in treating sick and injured animals (specialised in local techniques for bone-setting). His knowledge is sought by community members when animals become sick in “normal” times, but when a particular disease spreads dramatically, he is a crucial point of contact. With veterinary officers few and far between, he must link with those selling drugs, but also those with knowledge (as he has) of traditional herbs and treatments. The local “disease reporters” pass information upwards to their superiors, but their local knowledge is also crucial in understanding disease at a local level. Connecting these networks is crucial in responding to a crisis, as described for North Horr, also in Marsabit county. The CMDRR is thus a vital platform for integrating and sharing this knowledge.

Local early warning: the role of community-based prediction and response

In addition to those with expertise in particular facets of crisis response, there are others who act as the local early warning system; they claim that they never make use of the NDMA bulletins but have their own system. This is perhaps not surprising: there is no phone network in the village, and they are not provided with data bundles to download the documents with all their graphs and tables. Instead, they make use of locals who are experts in predicting droughts and other crises.

Two such experts are members of the committee. One woman recently inherited the role of Uchu from her mother, expert reader of animals’ intestines. Her mother was renowned throughout the area as someone who could accurately predict what will happen by inspecting the intestines of a recently slaughtered goat, cow or bull. They must be animals that have been born and raised in the area and ideally are young calves or kids. Usually, the intestines of animals slaughtered for weddings, funerals or naming ceremonies are used by such experts. If the signs are unclear, the process is repeated with a newly slaughtered animal of the right type. Those who read the signs are offered a fried portion of the liver. Once eaten the predictions are made, and people discuss. Sometimes there are conflicting versions from different people, and further deliberations have to be made. Even in the indigenous science of making predictions using animal intestines, there are uncertainties.

Although intestine readers can divine the future across a range of hazards, others may be referred to. Some throw shoes to see what the future might bring, while others gaze at the stars. These indigenous astronomers are especially well regarded. In the same village where we conducted our interviews, an interpreter of the patterns of the stars was also present. People view the local astronomer as especially good at predicting future climate events, usually over a more extended period than those who read from the intestines of slaughtered animals.

Even in the indigenous science of making predictions using animal intestines, there are uncertainties.

Of course, predictions only happen at a certain point in time, and in relation to a certain set of questions that community members pose. But droughts, conflicts, disease outbreaks and so on unfold over time in uncertain ways. This is why predictions must be repeated, and adaptations and responses to these must be continuous, part of a process. Combining multiple knowledge is essential, along with discussions around uncertainties, if a humanitarian crisis is to be contained based on early warning information.

Closing the early warning gap 

The problem with the centralised early warning systems, and the whole paraphernalia of reporting that follows, is that they too often do not reach the “last mile”—the affected communities. This is where the early warning’s “missing  link” has long been identified. Often distrusted and perceived as alien to local contextual knowledge, recommendations are frequently rejected.

This is why the NDMA in Moyale has, with the encouragement of a local NGO, started to work with local early warning specialists in workshops where external, “scientific” information is shared at the local level and debated alongside the local interpretations and predictions. In Moyale sub-county the NDMA has invited traditional forecasters from across the region, including different ethnic groups. At a workshop, they slaughter a goat, and each individual inspects the intestines. After completing their inspections, they share the results and compare them with the ICPAC and Meteorological Department forecasts.

Often distrusted and perceived as alien to local contextual knowledge, recommendations are frequently rejected.

As the local NDMA officer explained, despite debate about the specifics, there was remarkable convergence between the different views. Building trust with local communities through using local knowledge in tandem with external, “scientific” sources is seen as an important route to communication, with community radio programmes planned where the results can be discussed.

And yet, the huge investments in early warning systems using the very best satellite technologies and highly sophisticated interpretation techniques often assume a linear transformation of information, from those who know and those who don’t. But this ignores the fact that local pastoralists are well practised in predicting and responding to drought. In the end, the fancy technological solutions are no match for the local deliberations on the ground about uncertain futures using multiple sources of knowledge.

No-one expects these predictions to be correct all of the time—whether local or external—but it’s the deliberation around uncertainties that ensues following a prediction that is important in shaping local responses. Effective responses always have to be embedded in local contexts, drawing on local knowledge and social relations, and this is why too often external interventions around “resilience” fail and why alternatives are needed.

This is article is adapted from the second of a series of three blogs written as part of a scoping study and supported by ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). 


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