Protesting a Dictatorship in a Dictatorship

In the early aughts, a campaign to “Save Sudan” became the bipartisan issue of the time. Celebrities and politicians alike implored a global audience to pay attention to and advocate against Suan’s human rights crisis. 

As interventions waned, so did the attention of many global onlookers. But, since the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces began fighting in April 2023, over 500,000 Sudanese civilians have been displaced. What has happened in Sudan since the world stopped paying attention? 

Mohamed Osman: Researcher, Africa Division at Human Rights Watch

Christopher Tounsel: Associate Professor of History, Director of Graduate Studies and Director of African Studies Program at the University of Washington 


Ngofeen: Can you tell me your name and what you do for Human Rights Watch?

Mohamed Osman (Mo): So my name is Mohamed Osman and I have been the Sudan researcher with Human Rights Watch since 2018.

Archival: It began a little over a year ago. It's now become a full-blown civil war …

Dr. Christopher Tounsel: With approximately 4 ,000 people killed, but then 10 million displaced which, you know, drowns out the numbers in Ukraine and in Gaza, right? We're talking about the world's largest IDP crisis right now.

Ngofeen: What is it like being the sort of human rights watch person, when you're from the place that you're doing the work on?

Mo: It's - it's different. It's more than a job. Some people would say, ‘well, you know, you can always take a break from work’, but then, you know, I can stop working and still will have to check on my family and friends because it's my country. The anger around it, the anger around the unfairness of it, the anger about how it's forgotten, the anger about how it's introduced ...

Ngofeen: Muhammad, or Mo, hates the way people portray the conflict in Sudan.

Mo: … two tribes who just woke up one day and decided that they need to exterminate each other. This is not a tribal conflict. This is a power conflict. This is a conflict about regional interest, about global interest.

This is a conflict, when there is a world that, years and decades ago said, ‘never again’. And it happens again and again and again. It's a conflict that exposed a hierarchy of what lives actually matter.

Ngofeen: This is Rights and Wrongs, a podcast from Human Rights Watch. 

A common reaction, I think, to Sudan in the headlines, right now, stated or unstated, which is ‘Sudan, again? What's going on there? Like, I don't even know what's happening there.’ 

Ngofeen: Didn’t we talk about Sudan in 2003?

Archival: ... it's unfair, but it is nevertheless true that this genocide will be on your watch.

Ngofeen: This is a two part episode.

Archival: How you deal with it will be your legacy.

Christopher: Africans just can't seem to get things right. 

Archival: Your Rwanda. 

Christopher: Uncivilized, untamed, um, a place of chaos, illness, child soldiers, coups, civil wars, corruption ... 

Archival: Either this is the first Arab revolution of the 21st century, or it will be brutally suppressed.

... We were brought up to believe that the UN was formed to ensure that the Holocaust could never happen again. We believe in you so strongly.We need you so badly.

Christopher: Sudan became a kind of perfect emblem that confirmed for lots of people those stereotypical ideas. 

Ngofeen: The thing that you hear about Sudan is that it's super complex, which it is. But the thing that I think about is how quickly we metabolize the story of what's happening in Ukraine ...

Archival: Because we are united: Ukraine, America and the entire free world.

Ngofeen: ... Or how we as consumers love complexity. It’s giving Dune.

Archival: Lisan al-Ghaib - Lisan al-Ghaib - Lisan al-Ghaib.

Ngofeen: It’s giving Game of Thrones ...

Archival: You are my most trusted advisor, my most valued general and…

Ngofeen: And so in this episode, here's what we want to try to do. 

Archival: I’ve been by your side longer than any of them Kalissi.

Ngofeen: We're going to take three people from the African diaspora to try to tell this story. First you got Mo ...

Mo: So my name is Mohamed Osman …

Ngofeen: who works for Human Rights Watch.

Christopher: I am an African American, um, born in Chicago.

Ngofeen: Then you've got Dr. Christopher Tounsel. Historian in Sudan at the University of Washington. And then me in New York City.

So part one, Sudan's on the verge of collapse. How did we get here? Next time, part two, what's going on now?

Sophie: Scene one, 2003.

Christopher: So, where I start with in my undergraduate courses, which I will maintain until the day I die is what maps can tell us and how important maps are in terms of kind of explaining.

Ngofeen: Step one, we need a setting.

Christopher: If we looked at a map circa 2003, Sudan would have been the largest country, geographically speaking, in Africa. It is a ginormous country.

Ngofeen: Y'all know Sudan on the continent, sort of northeast.

Christopher: Darfur is a region in the Sudan larger than the country of France. 

Ngofeen: but...

Christopher: however, the kind of epicenter of national power within Sudan is located at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers at the city of Khartoum, Khartoum being the capital of Sudan.

Mo: So. I grew up as many of my my siblings and family members at the time in our grandmother's house in Sudan in Khartoum.

Christopher: The Blue goes towards Ethiopia to the east and then the White goes further down into central Africa.

Ngofeen: What language did you speak in in your house in that in your grandma's house?

Christopher: So Khartoum is kind of if you look at Sudan is in the upper right, where the heart, if you will, of the country might be.

Ngofeen: Khartoum is the big city. 

Mo: So we all spoke Arabic, um, [speaks Arabic]. And she was, you know, in a way, probably a typical African matriarch in the way that she was very solid, strong, stubborn to a degree.And she had no fear. And she was a very loud person.

Ngofeen: Moe, Dr. Tounsel, and I are all similar ages. Moe is growing up in Khartoum. Dr. Tounsel in Chicago. I in Tennessee.

Christopher: Because Sudan, um, is such a geographically large country, typically those populations in and around Khartoum have had privilege. A disproportionate control on civil, political and military structures.

Archival: ... President Omar al Bashir, who ruled the country since coming to power in a 1989 military coup.

Christopher: He was controlling the country from Khartoum.

Ngofeen: So what happened in 2003?

Christopher: In 2003. The country had already been involved in a very long civil war with southern Sudan. And so people in western Sudan, in Darfur, basically launched their own rebellion. Right? They are very, um, annoyed, right, by being on the margins of economic power. And a rebel movement is launched in the early two thousands.

Sophie: Scene 2: al-Bashir.

Christopher: Now, Omar al Bashir, who again, had been in power since 1989,

Ngofeen: Hashtag dictator …

Christopher: Right. He responds brutally and he says, ‘Oh no, I'm not going to take any uprisings way out West in Darfur’. What he does is that he uses middleman interlocutors known as the Janjaweed militia.

Ngofeen: Janjaweed, these guys are very important.

Christopher: The Janjaweed were basically individual armed groups, technically separate from the Sudanese armed forces, because again, the Sudanese armed forces at the time were kind of bogged down in a war against Southern Sudan.

Ngofeen: Official government army is fighting a civil war down in the South, but the Janjaweed go to Darfur in the West. 

Christopher: And so these Janjaweed militias on Bashir's behalf wage a relentless assault against the Darfurian rebels. These Janjaweed, right? These Arab militias start to embark upon ethnic cleansing. They basically embark on this scorched earth kind of total war campaign, where you had Black ethnic groups in Darfur, like the Masalit, M A S A L I T, who have entire towns destroyed.

Darfur really was a kind of hell on earth; consensus is that certainly multiple hundreds of thousands of people killed. Then of course, you've got the number of people displaced. These scars that perhaps cannot be seen with the eye, but that are, you know, still all too very real. You know, sexual violence, internal displacement, the whole bit.

It was just really bad. And the world constituted what occurred in Darfur as the 21st century's first genocide.

Archival: “Imagine all the people” - Imagine the greatest artists of our time United to save Darfur now. Instant Karma: the Amnesty International campaign to save Darfur. 

Ngofeen: Now I remember the Save Darfur Campaign because it was when I was in college. I was in college in Indiana. Dr Tounsel was in college at Duke…

Christopher: So, Save Darfur becomes I think also the 21st century's first major international humanitarian campaign.

Ngofeen: And Mo was in Law School at Khartoum University.

Christopher: This was like the cause. Movie stars like George Clooney and Don Cheadle ...

Archival: In many ways it's unfair, but it is nevertheless true that this genocide will be on your watch. How you deal with it will be your legacy.

Christopher: A young junior senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, right, goes to Chad, meets with Sudanese refugees.

Archival: I think what struck me was how anxious and eager the people in the camps are to get the UN Protective Forces on the Ground.

Christopher: There's this enormous Save Darfur rally that takes place in Washington D. C. in 2006, and it was truly a kind of who's who, right? Which might be hard for people in our country to imagine now, but in terms of a truly kind of bipartisan, you know, cause, Save Darfur was that cause.

External Narrator: Scene 3: The ICC

Christopher: It was more than just talk. There were actual tangible fruits. 

Archival: A warrant of arrest, for the arrest of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir... 

Christopher: Omar al Bashir is charged by the International criminal court ...

Archival: For Crimes committed against millions of civilians in Darfur for the last 5 years. His victims are the very civilians that he as a president was supposed to protect ... 

Christopher: He becomes the first incumbent head of state to be indicted by the ICC.

External Narrator: Interlude: The Janjaweed and Hemedti

Christopher: The kind of large-scale bloodletting that kind of captured the world's attention - that ends, but there's still sporadic rebellion. Darfur does not successfully secede from the country, different from what happens with South Sudan. In 2011, South Sudan officially secedes and becomes the world's newest state, the Republic of South Sudan.

The same does not happen with Darfur. But what's really interesting is that these Janjaweed, who were on the front lines, if you will, of conducting the 21st century's first genocide, the Janjaweed do not disappear. They actually move closer to the corridors of power. 

Archival: The events in Darfur showed Bashir how to keep his power, and he turned to the Janjaweed in search of another protector. ...

Christopher: They are made into a paramilitary force by Omar al Bashir, known as the Rapid Support Forces. 

Archival: But there was one particular Janjaweed leader that Bashir trusted the most, Mohamed Hamdan de Gallo, or Hemedti.

Christopher: One of the kind of main figures in the Janjaweed becomes this man known as Hemedti, who is one of the two main individuals at the center of the current conflict.

Archival: Bashir called him "my protection," a particular play on the Arabic word "himayti," which is "my protection" versus "Hemedti," which is his nickname. 

Ngofeen: When we come back, the people rise up.

‘Reveal’ Promo: Samuel Miller; 40 acres on Edisto. Fergus Wilson; 40 acres on Sapelo Island. Primus Morrison; 40 acres on Edisto. 

More than 1,200 formerly enslaved people got land from the federal government and then had it taken away.

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I’m Al Letson, host of the Reveal podcast. Our new series ‘40 Acres and a Lie’ is available now. Subscribe to ‘Reveal’ wherever you get your podcasts.

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Mo: [Speaks Arabic]

Ngofeen: Remember Mo's grandma? We love her … 

Mo: she was just very solid, strong, stubborn to a degree… 

Ngofeen: We got to go back to Mo growing up with her for a second…

Mo:  And she had no fear and she was very loud person. Until we people start talking about politics and you'd realize very quickly how the tone change people look left and right. Even her voice dropped down a bit and she'd be like ‘[Speaks Arabic]’ She will just be like, "Oh well, let's just delegate this, let's pray to God and hope things will work out." My grandmother worried, she would always say to me, "Oh, I don't want you to get influenced so much and get excited and go out of the house and speak about certain things that can get you hurt." Okay, like there is something clearly wrong, right? Like, why thisapowerful, strong women would have to censor herself when it comes to talking about politics at that time.

Ngofeen: Now Mo, like a good grandkid, did not listen to his grandma's advice. 

Now there was a time that you were taken to prison, to jail. Can you tell me more about that story?

External Narrator: Scene 4: The Early 2010s - The Arab Spring.

Mo: I was in my first years as a lawyer. We’d been  networking and discussing with a lot of activists from different parts in the capital. Coordinating. And that was a time when, when people fed up about the dictatorship. Complete lack of hope about an alternative.

Ngofeen: And this is when Mo went out to protest a dictatorship In a dictatorship.

Moe: So it is , I think, around 2012, which is basically coinciding with the momentum of the Arab Spring.

Archival: The demonstrations that erupted in Tunisia last December, sparking a wider revolt throughout the Arab world ...

Ngofeen: Arab Spring ...

Archival: ... Were touched off by a young fruit seller, who set himself on fire after being harassed by Tunisians...  

Ngofeen: this moment where, it was right after I got out of college. It's sort of when social media went from like the thing that we did in our college campuses to like a broader thing.

Christopher: So it starts in late 2010 in Tunisia - a change in the Head of State there and then just up north in Egypt 

Ngofeen: Back to the Map, Sudan is directly south of Egypt.

Christopher: With Hosni Mubarak being kicked out in early 2011.

Ngofeen:  It's spreading across the Arab world and therefore it's also touching Sudan.

Christopher: But Bashir, his position becomes increasingly untenable, right? Because Sudanese civilians, obviously, are keeping an eye on what's going on in Tunisia, Egypt, the fall of Gaddafi, Syria, Yemen, you know, Bashir is getting a little nervous, right? 

Mo: You know, we felt like the moment we're gonna start chanting thousands of people would join us and we're gonna march to the palace. 

External Narrator: Scene 5: The Protests

Mo: We took the bus, you know, we split into different groups so we are not followed. We were like 50 people, I would say, in the main bus station in Khartoum, which is very close to the presidential palace. And we looked at each other and there's a moment realized we're going there and starting that protest,  And there was a moment of like, yeah, maybe one of us not going to go home tonight. Like, oh, so maybe I will not see you tonight or ever.

Ngofeen: What did that that moment, before you keep going, pause there for a moment… that moment… what did that feel like in your body? Did you feel anything?  What was that moment like?

Mo: I think it’s interesting, it’s maybe a bit of the adrenaline rush. I remember very well that I was having this conversation when this feeling started kicking in among us and they bought some chocolate on the side.

Ngofeen: Not Mo buying a chocolate bar... 

Mo: … I mean the moment we started chanting people start chanting that we want freedom and we want bread… Few minutes, you know, we were surrounded by the police. Actually some of the street vendors in the market started calling the police on us. And for a long time, I was, you know, ‘we are fighting for you. Why are you doing this?’ But you realize very quickly, I mean, we did this fight from an elitist place. We did not consider that us protesting in the high time for the market, we are disrupting their income. And that was a very important lessons around solidarity and alliances, you know, you talk to people as equals, you don't fight on their behalf, you fight with them. 

Ngofeen: Those are the lessons that Moe learned for the future, but in that moment, he was a little bit more, let's say, frozen. 

Mo: I think it paralyzed. There was a bit of tunnel vision and you just can't see. I think then the police started beating up and then we started dispersing and then they started throwing some of the tear gas and they took five minutes to kind of gather some sort of understanding about where I am at. They realized I'm still at the corner of that main bus station near the palace. And then I remember very well I was standing next to an old woman. She was waiting for a bus or something so I pretended I'm waiting for the bus, but I was clearly followed. So this guy who came in two point something meters grabbed me from my shirt and he just carried me all the way to the police car. I was just chewing on my chocolate bar and the old woman was next to her, she was saying ‘son, maybe you need to stop eating chocolate, it's not good for your health’. And that is a very surreal moment. 

Ngofeen: Keep thinking about Mo just chewing on this chocolate bars, he's being carted off to jail. But there's one moment that sticks with Mo about this protest, which is how it started. 

Mo: The first person who shouted was a woman. And I think that's very important detail in the sense that the former regime, in terms of the oppression and crackdown on civic spaces, it particularly aggressively targeted women. Having her leading the chants, it definitely curated the crack into the system of having women leading, and that's exactly what we saw after, you know, in the different moments of protesting and uprising ending in the 2018 -19 protest movement.

Archival: On December 19, 2018, a revolution started to spread throughout Sudan.

External Narrator: Scene 6: 2018 - A Crack in the System

Ngofeen: By 2018 -2019, the country under Omar al -Bashir is weakening. Remember how South Sudan seceded? Well, when they did that,  they took a whole ton of money with them because ...

Christopher: Because South Sudan sits on an ocean of oil.

Ngofeen: Dr. Tounsel and his maps!

Chrirstopher: So immediately, right? The economic situation in Sudan starts to deteriorate, right? With higher gas prices. 

Ngofeen: South Sudan takes something like 70 % of the nation's oil revenues with it, of Sudan's oil revenues with it when it secedes and so Bashir ends up in this situation where he doesn't have a lot of money. But remember those Janjaweed and that and that General Hemedti. What Bashir figures out is ‘Okay, well the way that I'm gonna strengthen my position, remember the Arab Spring is happening and his position is pretty weak, is by investing my money into the Janjaweed, which are now the RSF, Rapid Support Forces, and this guy Hemedti, who is my protector, I will spend the money on him’. And really what causes a change is the prices in things in the country, because basically it's a budgetary issue. Like he ends up spending something like two thirds of the nation's budget on war and security, and not spending that money on the people, which means the prices go up and people feel the price hike, especially at the dinner table. 

Christopher: The price of bread ... 

External Narrator: Scene 7: The Budget Crisis & Bread

Christopher: ... which is so, I think, poetic, because one thinks about bread as being one of those foundational parts of the human experience, right? But the price of bread had gotten so high within Sudan, right? While Bashir, of course, is basically pouring all of this money, all of this kind of astronomical proportion of the country's GDP into the army and into the rapid support forces, right? Really trying to maintain his grip on power. That it is the rising price of bread that basically leads people to taking the street and that being kind of the proverbial nail in his coffin.

Archival: They wanted a democracy in their country…

Ngofeen: Like Mo in 2012, the people rise up, including some of Mo's friends, in solidarity with people from across classes, across groups, now in 2018 2019 and start protesting. And they managed to oust Bashir.

Mo: We were building a democracy. This place of hope, of a vibrant civil society and vibrant activism and then that got snatched by military dictators under, you know, the watch of the world that allowed it to happen in the first place. And I think that even make it harder. You know, some people who are not really exposed to the situation in a country like Sudan, sometimes they ask me this question, right? And they hear about the conflict in Sudan, they're like, ‘oh, but it has been there for decades, right?’ And it’s like, "Yeah, no, it's not." This is not a tribal conflict. Two tribes who just woke up one day and decided that they need to exterminate each other. This is a power - this is a power conflict. This is a conflict about regional interest, about global interest. And I think I always believed that this war is war against Sudanese civilians by far and large.

Ngofeen: Next time, democracy collapses and we end up where we are today. Which takes us back to Dr. Tounsel’s idea about maps. Where Sudan is is incredibly important. Sudan sits on the Red Sea 

Christopher: 10 to 12 % of the world's shipping goes through the Red Sea. The only US naval base in Africa is located in Djibouti which is very close to Sudan. You've got Russia who would love to build a naval base on the Red Sea because if they have Russian warships on the Red Sea it could very much destabilize both the US presence but also the supply of energy to continental Europe. Russia has faced massive sanctions because of its invasion from Ukraine but it has used Sudanese gold to insulate itself from the economic impact of these sanctions. And then you've got Saudi Arabia, which has been actively engaged in conflict with Houthi rebels in Yemen. Well, you know Sudan used to help Saudi Arabia in that so if you've got an unstable Sudan, now the position of the Houthi rebels who are tied with Iran, right, that gets strengthened. And last but not least, I haven't even mentioned China, which uses Sudan for its oil. So the world is very much invested in the outcome.

Ngofeen: See you next time on Rights and Wrongs for part two.

You’ve been listening to Rights and Wrongs, from Human Rights Watch. This episode was produced by me and Curtis Fox. Scoring by me. Our associate producer is Sophie Soloway. Thanks also to Ifé Fatunase, Stacy Sullivan, and Anthony Gale.

The archival clips in this episode are from France24, PBS News Hour, Dune, Game of Thrones, Channel 4 News, CTV News, Save Darfur, NPR, AFP News Agency, International Criminal Court,  VOX and The Guardian.

You can read Human Rights Watch’s report on Sudan, “The Massalit Will Not Come Home” on

See you next time on Rights and Wrongs for part two.