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Sudanese youth drove the demonstrations and uprising that toppled former president Omar al-Bashir’s nearly 30-year-long rule. They were instrumental in mobilising and creating a social movement urging the military to eventually step in to remove al-Bashir from power in a popular coup in April 2019.
Two and a half years later, the military staged another coup in October 2021 following a fragile transitional period. As a response to the October coup, Sudanese youth continue to organise almost weekly demonstrations and protests rejecting military rule while the one-year coup anniversary fast approaches.
Despite being the major driving force behind calls for a free, democratic and prosperous Sudan, youth are largely excluded from avenues and platforms to implement transitional outcomes. Instrumentalised but not trusted to lead, perhaps?
In July, army chief and coup leader Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan announced that the military would abstain from political negotiations to allow room for civilians to form a new transitional government. This announcement received widespread condemnation, largely perceived as a ploy to stall the transitional process further. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), Sudan’s main civilian bloc, rejected this announcement urging people to continue protesting.
These calls for further civil disobedience and demonstrations raise two pertinent issues. First, youth are often expected to carry out and sustain demonstrations, often becoming collateral damage. Youth disproportionately bear the burden of the state’s heavy-handed security response to protests. Since the 2021 coup, more than 100 protesters, mostly youth, including 18 children, have been killed. Second, despite being mobilised to exert pressure, youth are largely excluded from political processes such as conflict resolution efforts and transitional processes.
Approximately 68% of Sudan’s population is under 30. This has significant current and long-term political, social and economic implications. The fact that over two-thirds, approximately 31 million people, are youth creates two possible long-term scenarios. The first is that youth demand for improved services, employment, healthcare and education will likely continue. Socio-economic hardships and grievances were the root cause of the 2019 revolution, and the persistent lack of opportunities will continue to shape Sudan’s domestic politics as youth seek better democratic dividends.
The second scenario is that Sudanese youth will continue making dangerous journeys to Europe and the Middle East searching for better life prospects. In 2022 alone, the International Organization for Migration estimates that 15 000 Sudanese will emigrate. While fertility rates and population growth are slowly dropping, 60% of Sudan’s population is still projected to be under the age of 30 in 2043. With a large dependency ratio, youth are likely to seek better futures elsewhere, further draining skills and capacity domestically – skills needed for any future state-building efforts.
For those youth who choose to stay in Sudan and put their lives on the line to achieve democracy, there are no guarantees of a role in the transitional or future government.
Sudanese youth served as change agents in toppling the former regime. Yet young people responsible for catalysing al-Bashir’s downfall were largely side-lined during the formation of the transitional government. Youth played little to no role in key decision-making bodies and peace-making processes, including drafting the Juba Peace Agreement and the constitutional charter. Out of a cabinet of 25, only one youth minister was selected to lead the Ministry of Youth and Sport, perpetuating the same clichés regarding youth participation in leadership positions.
Sudan has a laundry list of challenges. These include constituting a civilian-led transitional government, ushering in a transitional justice process, and breathing life into a failing economy. It also includes securing food and energy for millions in a region experiencing its worst droughts in decades and resulting from the implications of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. But excluding the needs and interests of two-thirds of the population in any peace-making process is likely to lead to poor outcomes.
Realistically, a highly divisive political environment means little room for prioritising youth interests as national, regional and international actors rush to resolve the political crisis. The trilateral partnership between the United Nations, African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development has engaged youth groups. But these consultations haven’t translated into a meaningful role for young people in the draft transitional frameworks written by various civilian groups including the proposals drafted by the FFC and the Sudanese Bar Association.
Political parties, professional unions and resistance committees calling for a civilian-only transitional government should harness youth energy through increased inclusion in political processes such as constitution-making and the formation of a transitional government. It’s the only way to guard against anti-coup groups instrumentalising the youth. Anti-coup does not equate to pro-youth.
There are few opportunities and many obstacles to placing the youth agenda on the table in a complex post-coup environment. Regardless, Sudan’s youth have proven to be the country’s most effective change agents. That has to reflect in the formation of a transitional post-coup government.
An added opportunity is that youth interests augment the interests of the pro-democracy factions calling largely for the same demands and democratic dividends including better education, healthcare and service delivery. Youth groups should capitalise on the surge of popular support for democracy and human rights and ensure that youth interests are adequately represented.
In the short term, increased and enhanced avenues for youth inclusion and participation can occur through grassroots mobilisation. Youth groups should equally demand greater representation in professional bodies, unions and political parties, structures that have traditionally side-lined them. Coalitions such as the FFC and political parties should give youth a larger platform to influence the national dialogue process, trilateral consultations and any future mediation or conflict resolution efforts.
Youth wield massive social capital in Sudan that can help secure democratic and equitable outcomes. To achieve the demands of the 2019 revolution – freedom, peace and justice – greater and more meaningful youth inclusion is vital.
Maram Mahdi, Research Officer, Executive Director’s Office, ISS Pretoria
Image: © REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
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