The Impact of Non-Violent Protests in Nigeria and Sudan
Gloria Na’antoe Longba’am-Alli
The surge of military coups in Africa since 2018 threatens democracy to the point where it has impeded mass political involvement in governance, human rights and constitutional freedom. This study focuses on the anti-coup protests and social movements in Sudan and Nigeria to examine their impacts, analyse institutional reactions, and examine the sustainability of the successes of the protests. The case studies show that anti-coup protests threatened military regimes which wished to continue protecting their political interests against opposition forces demanding democratic reform. Our findings reiterate that the most successful strategy for protest organisations to attain their policy objectives against conventionally superior opponents is to employ nonviolent tactics. Nevertheless, this achievement can only be accomplished if the opposition movements are adaptable, inclusive, and widely accepted.
People have long sought redress for their complaints and protested the unlawful takeover of government by the military through popular and anti-coup demonstrations. To advocate for constructive change, social and anti-coup movements from Tunis to Egypt, Burkina Faso to Sudan, and Uganda to Nigeria have learned from Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ and Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance. Civil resistance focuses on actions like strikes, boycotts, mass protests, and sit-ins to address society’s social, political, and economic deficiencies.
Civil resistance movements are potent because they inspire widespread participation in measures to resist oppression by giving a new vision of a freer, fairer society and possibly changing the allegiances of those who uphold the old system. When individuals stop cooperating with unjust authorities, it becomes too expensive to maintain the system. When a sufficient number of individuals choose to disobey, the system becomes unsustainable and must be altered, or it will collapse. Therefore, civil resistance movements and campaigns have attained some degree of success against their adversaries, even if the opponents of civil resistance are armed and state-funded. Nonviolent protests make it more complex and expensive for regimes to use violence. If the state employs violence to quash peaceful protests, it might backfire and increase sympathy for the protestors.
The study revealed that nonviolent resistance remains a powerful alternative to any form of violence that can effectively challenge both democratic and non-democratic opponents and, at times, more effectively than violent resistance. Our arguments align with Zunes, who states that democratisation is not primarily top-down transitions or the outcome of a struggle between competing political elites without recognising the critical role of civil society and the citizens in forcing democratic reforms from below. Furthermore, Schock, Stephan and Chenoweth, Chenoweth and Cunningham, and Pinckney assert that the ability of nonviolent movements to mobilise supporters more effectively, resist regime crackdowns, and develop innovative resistance techniques aids them in defeating repressive regimes or reversing a coup. This paper also challenges scholars like Gelderloos, who argued that change comes not solely from nonviolent but also from violent tactics, provided they are utilised effectively.
This article compares protests in Nigeria and Sudan by focusing on how these protest movements influenced democratic fundamentals like human rights, autocratic-to-democratic government, and free speech and assembly. These case studies are essential in the study of nonviolence because individuals and civil society used peaceful measures against their leaders to attain democratic aims or, in the case of Nigeria, better human rights. In Sudan, this research of 2018 exemplifies how applying strategic nonviolent protests have served as a critical component to a possible democratic transition.
These two instances reinforce Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s view that deliberate nonviolent action leads to democratic transformation. Therefore, this research examines the significance of strategy, alliances, and nonviolent discipline to the success of mass movements. Even more so now that military and civilian ideologues have destroyed democratic institutions in recent years. People’s civil resistance is frequently necessary to sustain a democratic system since they cannot rely exclusively on traditional political methods and established political institutions’ leaders to keep it in place.
After reviewing the literature, the following section examines the historical trend of the protests. We then present the empirical findings in the third section. Finally, we conclude with recommendations derived from the study’s results.
Richard Gregg’s central argument in his book The Power of Nonviolence is that nonviolent resistance employs the military virtues of courage, discipline, and endurance and “uses many military methods and principles on a moral plane.” Nonviolence employs many psychological processes and “retains some military objectives, with moral modifications.” Gregg’s contribution to the literature on nonviolence was profound because his study was written from both the pacifist and militarist perspectives. He acknowledged the role and writing of military strategists like Napoleon, Von Clausewitz, Foch, J. C. Fuller, and Liddell Hart to elucidate the workings of mass nonviolent action, mainly as practised by Gandhi in India.
Gene Sharp recognised the strategic political brilliance of Gandhi’s methods, and in 1973 his book, titled The Politics of Nonviolent Action, became a classic in nonviolence scholarship. The book’s first two chapters provided a theoretical framework for understanding the influence of nonviolence. In the subsequent seven chapters, Sharp categorised the methods and tactics of successful nonviolent resistance, such as simple letter writing, to establish alternative governments using historical illustrations.
Holmes and Nagler also draw from Gandhi’s ethics and philosophy of nonviolent resistance by emphasising the spiritual roots of nonviolence and acknowledging its various applications in everything from personal development and personal relations to institutional practises and international relations. Holmes approaches the study of nonviolence from a philosophical perspective, using ethics and principles to guide his theory.
Sharp and Holmes use the theory of power to explain the effectiveness of nonviolence. For example, Sharp posits that people in society may be divided into rulers and subjects, but the subjects’ consent grants rulers power. He accentuates political and social power by emphasising rulercitizen connections in nonviolent activity. Specifically, through nonviolent action individuals stop consenting to dictatorships, genocides, wars, and repressive institutions. People and groups pressure authorities to address problems through persuasion, refusal to comply, and peaceful demonstrations. Holmes, like Sharp, sees power as best mobilised through peaceful means. He presents moral and ethical arguments, as well as practical ones, as to why people should not murder, go to war, or use violence during a movement or protest.
Numerous scholars have researched, evaluated, and analysed nonviolent action in Africa. Existing literature in this regard is, however, fragmented. In the literature that assesses the overall trends of protest, Branch and Mampilly assert that protests are constrained by the disparities across societies and the repressive state apparatus that stifles resistance. Furthermore, It is challenging to overcome the urban-rural divide, and ethnoreligious differences mitigate the potential of protest from being more coordinated and national in outreach. From a very different perspective, Rotimi and Aderinto studied Fela Kuti’s use of music to carry out revolutionary movements. Tamale, Okech, Tibbetts, Brownhill, Ukeje, and Alozie broaden the scope beyond nonviolent protests by focusing on women’s protests, especially naked women’s protests in Africa. These scholars reiterate how many tactics of nonviolent demonstrations in Africa differ from those in the global north. In addition, they highlight how geographical, ethnoreligious, and cultural factors contribute to or hinder the effectiveness of peaceful demonstrations. Nepstad and Chenoweth emphasise that defection is the single characteristic that determines successful nonviolent resistance movements. Most nonviolent campaigns are successful when a regime loses power, especially when it loses military support.
In this study, the primary mode of analysis was qualitative historical analysis. Firstly, this research analysed newspapers, articles and secondary data from Afrobarometer, Freedom House, the United States Institute of Peace, and the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict. The researcher used social media data to supplement those secondary sources to articulate the protesters’ experiences and agency towards achieving their goals. Together, these two different data sources generated a robust perspective on the events and outcomes in the two countries.
Mawkib, the word describing the Sudanese protests since 2018, offers a glimpse of hope for attaining democracy for a country that has experienced long military rule. The Arabic word, translated to English means ‘parade,’ spans from the peaceful protest that ousted Al Bashir’s regime to the protests against the 25th October 2021 coup of General Abdallah Alfatah Burhan and his coup supporters. Economic policies were the immediate driving force pushing the people to demonstrate and remain resilient until change occurs. As the 2021 Afrobarometer report indicates, 73.6 percent of respondents to their survey believed that the country is moving in the wrong direction. Poor management of the economy and prevailing poverty rates stood out as the major problems of the citizens. So, it was unsurprising that the rise in bread prices sparked the 2018 protests for political change.
The protests have united the Sudanese in opposition to an autocratic government. They have not fully achieved their objectives, but protestors are determined to continue, as Galal, a respondent quoted in the Observer, explains:
It is impossible that I will stop coming to the streets to protest; what I came out for three years ago hasn’t been achieved. We called for freedom, peace and justice, but none of them is actually here. These nonviolent demonstrations, expressed through slogans, songs, sit-ins surrounding the military headquarters, and tweets, generate collective memory and celebrate unfinished historical revolutions. Azzam, a respondent in a blog post explaining the root of the Sudanese revolution, stated that the 21st October 2021 Sudanese protest revived the memory of the October 1964 revolution, which peacefully overthrew a military regime. Azzam attributes emotions and feelings as essential to the resilience of the protesters, even in the face of brutality.
The resilience of the protesters resembles the historical successes of the 1964 and 1985 protests that successfully ousted military regimes and saw other protesters’ demands being met. Marovic and Hayder argue that Sudanese resilience since the 2018 demonstrations is explained by the violent repressions of the Sudanese Arab spring in 2013. The experiences of 2013 helped develop about 5,000 neighbourhood-based resistance committees and labour unions whom the people trusted and respected because, through the years, they have filled the gap in the government’s health care and service delivery services to the people. Alongside these committees and trade unions were shadow unions such as the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), which spearheaded political demands. These experiences and organisations helped the nonviolent resistance to withstand most military onslaughts based on the ability of neighbourhood-based resistance committees to operate in tandem with the trade unions and their ability to the centre-periphery differences.
Women played a crucial part in the 2019 protest movement and have requested more involvement in administration and peace talks. Nevertheless, their involvement in governance has been minimal, and they have not fully enjoyed human rights privileges. For example, two women joined the TSC in August 2019, but one resigned in May 2021, citing military domination. Despite provisions of equal treatment in the interim constitution and other legislative amendments established as part of the July 2020 reforms, women had disadvantages in many areas of the law, and perpetrators of numerous crimes against women—including during armed conflicts—enjoyed impunity. In April 2021, the transitional government signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. However, it did not support measures equalling marriage, divorce, and parenting rights.
The protestors had to sustain nonviolence against repeated violent provocations. After al-Bashir was ousted from power, the government security forces responded with excessive force, using live bullets to disperse the unarmed protesters. They arrested thousands of protesters, opposition leaders, organisers, and activists, often violently, and held hundreds without charges for months, beating and abusing many of them. They restricted the media by seizing newspapers, arresting journalists, censoring social media, and closing or expelling foreign news outlets. Human Rights Watch reports that between June 3 and 18, and in the following days, it recorded more than 120 deaths and over 900 injured. Freedom House also reports that violence by the authorities against protesters increased from the October coup through the end of the year, with security forces killing 53 anti-coup protesters and injuring hundreds more. Security forces also obstructed demonstrators’ access to medical care by arresting doctors and patients, firing tear gas into hospitals, and blocking access to ambulances and health facilities. The Sudanese authorities shut down the internet to prevent more demonstrations. Journalists and reporters were stopped from reporting. The military’s aim for these audacious measures was to instil fear in people’s minds and discourage them from further protests. However, these measures only worked for only a short period.
The most important gain for the protesters was ousting Omar al-Bashir from power. After the constitutional declaration in August 2019, the transitional government of Sudan mediated the Juba Agreement in October 2020 to settle the Blue Nile, Darfur, and South Kordofan hostilities. Further talks between the government and the protesters identified issues such as some groups’ political and socio-economic marginalisation, a lack of freedom and justice, the hegemony of the centre over the periphery and the failure to manage ethnic and religious differences as essential and needing immediate attention and negotiation. Protesters believe their goals would remain unmet if only al-Bashir stepped down but his regime continued. Furthermore, any local or international negotiation that excludes resistance committees effectively excludes Sudanese demands.
In the two weeks following al-Bashir’s ouster on 11th April 2019, the on-street activists and signatories of the Declaration of Freedom and Change attempted to force Burhan’s led Military Transition Council to allow their in-house coup to give way to a genuine transition through a mix of negotiation and continued protest. Subsequently, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FCC) and the coalition groups that led the unarmed protests that led to al-Bashir’s removal signed a political agreement in August under the auspices of the African Union (AU) which ushered in a 39-monthlong political transitional period.
Nevertheless, the hopes of a transition to democracy were squashed when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and head of the Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC), staged a coup on 25th October 2021. He declared a state of emergency and dissolved the transitional government that had been in place since 2019. Under the deal signed in November, elections are scheduled for 2023 and would officially end the security forces’ control of the country. Few people believe Burhan will permit elections to take place because the military coup has undermined the transition to democratic rule. Therefore, protests continued despite the civilian prime minister Abdulla Hamdok’s reinstatement and the release of political detainees. Hamdok’s critics believed that the deal with the TSC and Burhan betrayed their democratic cause and would only pay lip service to their sacrifices and democratic agenda while leaving the generals with enough power to either rig a poll or prepare for another coup. The coup’s ruthless security forces and impediments to achieving democracy have not diminished the people of the political will for change.
The coup affected the political dynamic in Sudan by reconsolidating political and economic power in the military. Unable to rally public support, the coup regime turned to members of the ousted alBashir regime for support. National Congress Party (NCP) adherents have been rewarded with lucrative appointments in the General Intelligence service (GIS), the judiciary, the state media, embassies, the educational sector and embassies abroad. The international community’s influence is crucial to breaking the stalemate between the Sudanese military and the people. Instead of consolidating the influence of civil society organisations in Sudan, the international community has been working towards a power-sharing administration whose sustainability appears impossible. If the international community continues giving the TMC more credibility, the people’s demonstrations and fatalities will be in vain.
In October 2020, Nigerians staged the #ENDSARS protest against human rights violations and abuse of power by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian police force. They reflected widespread public attitudes. According to the Afrobarometer, 68.9% of Nigerians felt the country was moving in the wrong direction. Crime and insecurity are among the most pressing issues that 19.5% of citizens believe the country must address.13.3% complained of poor electric power supply, and 11.7% highlighted unemployment.
Protest strategies included protest walks in some southern and Middle Belt states, musical concerts, and social media hashtags. The protesters did not seem to have a leader who would negotiate with the government. However, funding from the diaspora community and other supporters helped coordinate protesters’ feeding, cleaning, and mobilisation. Popular opinion on social media, newspapers, and broadcast media suggested that the protesters’ outcry against human rights violations by the police would force the government to tackle other social issues such as security, poverty, and poor governance. As a result, the movement continued to protest even after the government agreed to look into the five-point demand. The conveners requested that the government reconsider political office candidates’ age and impose tenure restrictions. The protesters also proposed that all public officials, from the president to the council chairman, be prohibited from receiving medical care overseas, and their children should be prohibited from attending schools abroad.
The mass action was relatively peaceful at the initial stage, but it later turned violent and culminated in the breakdown of law and order in over 23 states of the federation. Some people used the public protest to loot some government and privately owned warehouses, burgle stores and private residencies; destroy and vandalise some public properties; engage in arson and forcefully release inmates from lawful custodial facilities. The climax of the protest occurred on the 20th October 2020, when the military opened fire against peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, leaving 78 people dead.
Looking at the #ENDSARS protest’s impact, the protesters’ primary challenge was poor framing. A section of the country, especially Northern Nigeria, did not share, understand, or accept the problem or situation that necessitated a change in Nigeria. There was also no articulation of alternative arrangements that would encourage others to act in concert to facilitate positive change. Therefore, while the southern and some north-central states were advocating for an end to police brutality and making other demands, their northern counterparts tagged it as a revolution to oust their “brothers”— President Muhammadu Buhari—out of power. The movement’s failure to be inclusive also meant that the movement fell apart into chaos and anarchy.
Nonviolent protest movements in Sudan and Nigeria have recorded varying degrees of success in protesting against coups and maintaining democracy. Both case studies showed that gathering a band of enthusiastic individuals is not enough to garner success. The organisers need to make their purpose clear, establish their values, and create plans for success. This explains why, despite the military’s repressive measures in both countries, the Sudan protests continued years after erupting in 2018 because they had more explicit goals than their Nigerian counterpart. This study agrees with Chenoweth and Schock’s thesis that armed violence might achieve short-term goals during nonviolent protests but will not deliver enduring change. The protesters may also argue in support of self-defence, the diffusion of an oppositional culture that strengthens the commitment of more radical members, or catharsis associated with the ability to “blow off steam.” However, violent outliers often get in the way of longer-term strategic goals, like keeping a growing diverse base of participants, getting more support from third parties, and getting security forces to support their cause.