Linda Bishai, George Washington University
While Sudan’s generals have unleashed indiscriminate destruction and occupation on wide swaths of the capital, Khartoum, neighbourhood resistance committees and pro-democracy activists have stepped up to respond to the needs of citizens.
They have risked their lives to drive people to safety or to working hospitals. They have maintained up-to-the-minute information on where medicine can be found or which roads are safe.
These actions have solidified this decentralised network of youth and civil society groups as the most trusted and legitimate organisations in Sudan. Resistance committees are part of a diverse collection of Sudanese pro-democracy groups. These groups include political parties, university students and staff, professional associations and unions, and civil society organisations.
Together, they helped bring down long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 after months of protests. Women emerged as particularly visible and vocal in these protests, stepping forward after years of being arbitrarily targeted by Bashir’s morality police.
Sudan’s hopes for democratic change were dashed, however, when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a coup in October 2021 against the transitional government.
Resistance committees led marches against the military takeover. Their insistence on non-violence maintains their status as citizens and civilians. They are not insurgents, combatants or the enemy.
I have spent nearly two decades researching the role of Sudan’s civil society organisations in managing conflict. I have also studied the rise of resistance committees and what keeps them going in the face of vicious repression by Sudanese security forces.
In my view, these groups’ consistency of action and messaging has given them a form of political power that Sudan’s traditional elites have struggled to attain. Sudan’s resistance committees provide a model for young people in Africa to participate in politics, even without the approval of established structures.
The growth of a movement
Sudan’s resistance committees grew out of youth activist groups that formed in 2009-2010. The members were largely aged below 40. The groups coalesced around years of anger at Bashir’s authoritarian regime, its inability to provide basic services and its divisive politics.
They engaged in a range of political activities, including voter registration and awareness raising around the 2010 general elections. The hope was that they could bring down Bashir’s National Congress Party.
Bashir’s reelection only made the groups more determined. They continued to operate in local and decentralised ways. For example, they assisted during disasters such as floods and other emergencies where the government was absent.
In 2012-2013, the regime hit back hard. It attacked demonstrators, arrested known activists, and tortured and killed youth leaders. This forced a pause in activities as activists lay low.
In the years that followed, many youth leaders began to study the techniques of non-violent movements in other countries and shared the lessons with their colleagues. In early 2019, when pro-democracy protests began in regions outside Khartoum, many of these leaders and new youth activists joined in. Drawing structure and cohesion from their home bases, neighbourhood committees became part of the resistance, too.
These groups augmented the coalition of trade unions, political parties and civil society organisations that brought down al-Bashir.
After the October 2021 coup that ousted prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, resistance committees took centre stage in the fight against a return to military rule.
Alongside other civilian protest groups, they led relentless street marches and social media campaigns calling for the coup leaders to step down and make way for legitimate civilian leadership.
Despite a violent clampdown by security forces, resistance committees persisted. They maintained a momentum for protest that kept civilians motivated to march right up until the recent war between Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. The committees’ campaign slogan of “the three nos” – no negotiation, no partnership, no legitimacy – affirms their resolve to change Sudanese politics.
The potential for democracy
In March 2023, resistance committees set out plans to form a parallel government. This was to be done through local legislative councils based on collectively negotiated charters written and approved by two main clusters of committees.
These local councils didn’t take root, but if they had, they would have represented a serious challenge to the two generals’ claims to the sovereignty of Sudan. While Sudan has collapsed into war and appears to be further than ever from a democratic transition, it would be wrong to disregard the potential of resistance committees to bring change.
They continue to act collectively and provide for citizen needs.
During the course of my research between June 2022 and March 2023, resistance committee leaders explained to me that their commitment stems from a belief that their generation is the one to carry the burden of standing for change. Therefore, they would rather risk paying the ultimate price than stand by and watch their country be looted.
In continuing to provide public safety and services at the local level, resistance committees are actively performing legitimate citizen-centred leadership.
And the lesson for Africa’s youth from Sudan is that when it comes to providing leadership at the local level, they don’t need permission from absent government structures. They can provide civilian-led, citizen-centred governance.
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Linda Bishai, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs, George Washington University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.