‘We are the true voice of the people’: Sudan’s civilian resistance is still alive

Can Sudan’s pro-democracy camp still play a role in forging a democratic future for the military-controlled nation? Obiora Ikoku reports on the escalating conflict, and asks whether civilian resistance committees can chart a new course for Sudan.  
People pass by damaged cars and buildings at the central market in Khartoum North.  
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters. 27 April, 2023

Under the cover of darkness, a group of young people can be seen in a video, spray painting anti-war graffiti on a wall in Khartoum amidst chanting and clapping. The footage, circulated on social media, captures the brave actions of members of Sudan’s resistance committees – neighbourhood groups that have led Sudan’s pro-democracy movement since 2019, when the country’s long-reigning dictator, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted from power. As the brutal power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) continues to escalate with devastating consequences for ordinary Sudanese people, the committees offer a glimmer of hope.

‘We are the true voice and power of the people,’ says Duaa Tariq, a Sudanese activist with the East Khartoum Al-Jeraif resistance committee, who’s members have been emblazoning walls in the capital’s eastern suburban neighbourhood with graffiti calling for an end to the war and full civilian rule. In the month since the fighting broke out on April 15, relentless airstrikes and shelling has devastated Khartoum, leaving at least 822 civilians dead and 3,215 injured, according to local medics, while tens of thousands have fled the country. A series of ceasefire agreements brokered by foreign governments have all collapsed in quick succession, diminishing hopes of humanitarian aid reaching civilians in desperate need of water, medicine and food.

But the resistance committees have provided some hard-hit communities with a lifeline. Connecting with people in need through social media, groups like Tariq’s have managed to provide humanitarian aid to hundreds of civilians trapped in the fighting and have reopened disused hospitals by turning the power back on and filling them with volunteer doctors and nurses.

Regime breakdown

Conflict erupted in the northeast African country last month after the fragile relationship between SAF leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary RSF head General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, collapsed. Until recently, the warring generals had been allies, having worked to topple al-Bashir, who had ruled Sudan for three decades, when mass protests erupted against his regime in 2019. Initially triggered by soaring bread prices, the protests quickly morphed into an uprising against Sudan’s former dictator.

While claiming to have ousted al-Bashir in the name of the people, the coup was in reality a move against the rapidly developing revolution. ‘The role of al-Burhan and Hemedti since 2019 was essentially to check the revolutionary wave in Sudan from going forward towards democracy and civil rule,’ Waliu Ismaila, a doctoral candidate in African history and British Imperial studies at West Virginia University, told New Internationalist. In June of the same year, both men collaborated in a brutal crackdown on protesters who had camped at the front of the military headquarters in Khartoum demanding that power be transferred to a civilian government. About 120 were killed and over 400 wounded in the dawn raid.

Although the brutal massacre helped to consolidate the power of the military, the new rulers soon discovered they could not return to full military rule as mass opposition on the streets persisted. Instead, the two generals agreed to a power-sharing deal with the pro-democracy coalition Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) in August 2019. This produced a Transitional Sovereignty Council headed by Burhan and Hemedti, but with a civilian Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok. In October 2021, both generals moved against the civilian government in a second coup. Hamdok and a number of cabinet members were ousted. The Council was reconstituted with new membership, leaving the army with undisputed power.

Having removed the civilians from power, the two strongmen have now turned on each other. The spark for this was a disagreement over timelines to integrate the RSF into the country’s military, as part of wider plans drawn up last year to restore civilian rule. On 5 December 2022, the military and FFC leaders signed a deal brokered by the UN to midwife a two-year civilian-led transition towards elections. This deal, which was met with widespread criticism both within the FFC and Sudanese society, exposed the weak link in Sudan’s revolutionary movement – the FFC itself. Their hesitation, at every turning point, to take the initiative to mobilise the people to seize power has arguably allowed the army to stay in power and opened the floodgate for the unfolding horror.

An Uncertain Future

As ceasefire talks between the two warring parties continue in Saudi Arabia, there is no certainty that any post-conflict scenario that has either general playing a role would be supported by the Sudanese people. As Suliam Baldo, the Executive Director of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker argues, both leaders ‘have little interest in ending the fighting’. He continues: ‘They are battling over power, control, and the kleptocratic networks that allow them to extract the country’s resources to both enrich themselves and buy off supporters to ensure the continuity of the system.’

This view is shared on the ground in Khartoum. ‘This is an absurd war between generals over power,’ says Tariq, the Khartoum activist. ‘The only solution we can accept now is the two generals stop the fighting and hand over power to a civilian government. The only solution we see for Sudan is the only demand we have been trying to achieve through revolution since 2018 – a full civilian rule.’

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that regional powers involved in the talks in Saudi Arabia have such an objective in mind. Since the ousting of al-Bashir, Western powers and the Gulf States have declined to empower civilian leaders in Sudan, instead opting to engage with military generals in the vain hope a deal with pro-democracy movements can be struck between them.

Moreover, the country’s heavily militarized neighbours Egypt, South Sudan and Saudi Arabia, along with the United States and Russia, each gain from installing a pliant regime in Khartoum which could serve their own interests. Lying at the crossroads of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and bordering the Red Sea, Sudan is an important access point for global trade routes. Earlier this year, Russia ramped up plans to set up a naval base which would station up to 300 Russian troops in the strategic Port Sudan. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates also have interests in the country related to food security and investments, with leaders of the latter known to have backed Hemedti and al-Burhan on different occasions.

Civilian response

‘To avoid the debacle of Libya, [the] initiative [to find] a way out has to be taken by the Sudanese people themselves,’ warns Ismaila. In Sudan, the pro-democracy camp remains strong and can play a role in forging a new future. While the FFC is the largest pro-democracy coalition in the country, the local resistance committees, made up of hundreds of neighbourhood groups across Sudan, are arguably the most representative bodies of the people. As Atta El-Battahani, a professor of political science at the University of Khartoum argues, the resistance committees are the ‘only force trusted by the general public’.

The committees’ membership is drawn from young people across all socio-economic classes and ethnic backgrounds. They’re organized horizontally, allowing for greater democracy and internal resilience. At every turn of events since 2019, these revolutionary groups have stood trenchantly against military rule. Following the 2021 coup, they have continued to hold regular protests and taken part in civil disobedience. In October 2021, a local resistance committee acting together with trade unions managed to win back control of a local hospital, which had been converted into offices for the administration during the al-Bashir regime. Activists joined forces with workers to return the hospital to the people.

Amid the escalating violence in Sudan, the committees have turned their efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to conflict-stricken communities while continuing to build a movement opposing the war. Volunteers are carrying out this vital work despite the huge risks. Earlier this month, 27-year-old engineering student Muhammed Fadul Idris Wadi, who volunteered with the Al-Thawra Youth Initiative in El-Fasher, died while trying to restore electricity at a local hospital in Darfur. Resistance committee members are also at risk of being targeted by the warring armies, with reports of several volunteers subjected to arrest and torture. On May 8, it was reported that two volunteers from Bahri city, who were providing emergency services to war casualties, had been arrested by the Sudanese army, and accused of collaborating with the RSF.

‘They represent a centre of power aligned to a revolutionary agenda,’ says El-Battahani. But as talks open in Jeddah to try to end the conflict and discuss a new plan for a democratic transition, the country’s civilian leaders, and the resistance committees are being deliberately ignored. For Tariq, the committees represent the country’s best hope to forge a new path for Sudan away from the ruins caused by the warring generals. ‘Our role in leading the movement now and organizing has helped us to build a stronger way to communicate and discuss what is best for Sudan,’ she explains. ‘The resistance committees emerged and grew from inside the neighbourhoods, which is one of the strongest bonds of Sudanese society. They are presently working in building from below local councils to represent all Sudanese and strengthen local governance.’

However, Tariq warns the committees could soon be viewed as a greater threat by the warring generals: ‘At some point, either al-Burhan or Hemedti will most likely move to extinguish the resistance committees unless the Sudanese people act now to complete the revolution we began three years ago.’

Obiara Ikoku is a freelance journalist and activist from Lagos, Nigeria. He writes about social movements and the geopolitics of Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.