“We resist, we build, we watch” – in Sudan, neighbourhood resistance committees are the guardians of the revolution

“We resist, we build, we watch” – in Sudan, neighbourhood resistance committees are the guardians of the revolution

Members of the Haj-Youssef neighbourhood resistance committee (in orange vests) monitor a bakery to prevent the embezzlement of flour.

(Claire Debuyser)

On a vacant lot in the middle of dry earth houses, three men set up tarpaulins and trestles loaned by a local trader. Meanwhile, Bashir Ahmed, pen in hand, counts the bottles of sesame oil that have just been delivered: “These bottles of oil come directly from the factory. They cost 17 Sudanese pounds, compared to 32 in the shops. Market prices are very high right now, people cannot afford to go shopping.”

Ahmed and a dozen volunteers, aged 20 to 35, form the resistance committee of Ombada, a district of Omdurman, the most populous city in Sudan, located just across the Nile from the capital Khartoum. They organise a solidarity market there once a week. The products are sold at cost price “to make life easier for the inhabitants”. “We helped each other during the demonstrations. We prepared meals for the people in the sit-ins, so it’s part of our identity to help our neighbourhood by all possible means,” says Ahmed in a calm voice.

These neighbourhood gatherings were held in opposition to the old regime. They were on the front line during the popular uprising that led to the fall of Omar al-Bashir on 11 April 2019, after 30 years of dictatorship. But in reality, this resistance had begun to organise a decade earlier, secretly and informally. “In certain districts of Greater Khartoum, committees were set up in the years 2008-2009 under the auspices of a coalition of opposition parties, including the Sudanese Communist Party,” explains Lucie Revilla, a doctoral student in political science and a specialist in local government in Sudan. Some youth movements also emerged at that time, such as Girifna (“We are fed up”, in Arabic), a student movement opposed to the then government. The first resistance committees as such were born during the demonstrations against the high cost of living, violently repressed by the al-Bashar regime, in September 2013.

When the revolution broke out in December 2018, the resistance committees were more numerous and better organised. They functioned as a sort of grassroots extension of the Association of Sudanese Professionals, a network of independent unions at the heart of the uprising, playing a crucial role in giving renewed impetus to the movement.

“In neighbourhoods that had previously been less mobilised since the beginning of the movement than other central neighbourhoods historically opposed to the regime, the resistance committees played a decisive role after the 3 June massacre, to organise civil disobedience at the local level”, explains Revilla. On that day, soldiers attacked a sit-in outside the army headquarters. The death toll was more than hundred and in excess of 500 people were injured. Despite the shock and fear, the resistance committees discreetly passed on instructions in all the districts in Khartoum. And just as the army thought it had stopped the mobilisation, the Sudanese people went out en masse into the streets. It was the “million-people march” of 30 June 2019. A few weeks later, the military and the leaders of the protest signed a transition agreement, paving the way for a transfer of power to a civilian government, which is now in place until in the elections to be held in late 2022.

Resistance committees on all fronts

However, the work of the resistance committees is not over. Under the tent which shelters the small solidarity market in Omdurman, a banner displays their slogan: ‘We resist, we build, we watch’. “Before, we organised demonstrations, we wanted to make our views heard. Now that the regime has changed, the best way to help the country and help us ourselves is to support each other,” says Ahmed, putting the goods on the tables. On this particular Sunday, residents can buy basic products such as oil, rice, powdered milk and soap. Help is welcome in this working-class neighbourhood, as Sudan faces serious economic difficulties and runaway inflation. Fatma, a mother of four, goes shopping at the solidarity market every week: “I appreciate the prices here. If the committee did not exist, no one else would organise a market like this. I thank them for what they do, but it would be even better if there was also meat!”

The resistance committees have become key players. In local neighbourhoods, they have supplanted the popular committees from the old regime, which have been accused of corruption. They are now the ones whom the locals call to manage day-to-day matters or settle a neighbourhood dispute. In the popular district of Haj-Yusef, there are a dozen young people who meet regularly to decide what actions to take. Some have jobs, others don’t; everyone is committed to improving the daily life of their community. Street cleaning campaigns, road works, school repairs: they work on all fronts. All this is thanks to the money raised from the inhabitants. “People have given us 25,000 Sudanese pounds to renovate the public school for girls. We re-painted it, installed fans and electricity,” says Mohamed Abd Alaziz Shrf Eldeen.

Mohamed, 30, took part in all the protests. Today, he wants to participate in the construction of what he calls “a new Sudan”: “When we took to the streets during the revolution, the authorities accused us of being nothing but saboteurs. We want to show all Sudanese people that this is not the case. So we launched the Hanabniho campaign, which means ‘We will build it’. We do work in hospitals, schools, orphanages and a lot of other places.”

Since the end of January, the resistance committees have also been fighting the illegal trading of flour, while the country is facing a new bread crisis. The Sudanese state subsidises flour to allow bakers to sell their bread cheaper, but some take the opportunity to resell some of this flour on the black market.

To prevent the contraband, volunteers monitor the bakeries. Mohammed Mekki, 29, arrived at the bakery in his neighbourhood in Omdurman at five in the morning. “I count the number of bags of flour delivered, I check that everything is used here and that no one buys more bread than the authorised amount,” explains the young man. Four of them take turns all day in this bakery. Again, the resistance committees act as public authorities. “Basically, it’s not up to us to do this work,” admits the volunteer, “but the police sometimes intervene too late or not at all. We have to react. It’s our responsibility to take care of ourselves.” In a tweet, Sudan’s Minister of Industry and Trade of Sudan even praised their actions with enthusiasm: “The revolution is them! Neighbourhood committees have been and still are the real wealth of Sudan.”

These committees intend to protect the gains of the revolution. They still fear the military could return and want to prevent any destabilisation of the country. While they support the transitional civilian government, they are not afraid to take to the streets to remind them of their obligations. And so, on 11 February, several thousand people demonstrated in Khartoum and other major cities of the country to demand the appointment of civilian governors to replace the governors who still belong to the old regime.

Thawara! (“Revolution!”) sings the crowd, like at the time of the demonstrations against al-Bashir. “There is a whole counter-revolutionary movement working against us. We must support the government until all those who are against us are dismissed and replaced,” says student Abdullah Ibrahim, with a Sudanese flag wrapped around his shoulders.

Resistance committees readily describe themselves as the “pillars and protectors of the revolution”. For them, the revolution has only just begun. They are ready to fight as long as necessary to achieve the establishment of a stable democracy. These words of a protester sound like a warning to the members of the new government: “We chose them, we trust them. But they were brought to power to work for the people. If they don’t, we will replace them.”

This story has been translated from French.