By Hamad Gamal et Sarah Bachellerie

Workers councils have developed at the highpoints of working class struggle over the last 100 years or more. In Russia from 1905 they were termed soviets, in Iran in 1979 they were called shoras. In Sudan currently, they are called resistance committees. In each case they formed the basis of working class power and the possible beginnings of a new state in circumstances of duel power between the old government and the new workers state. The experience of resistance committees in Sudan now is important because it shows how a workers state, or socialism, can be organised in practice. The following article provides a first-hand account of these institutions in Sudan.

Resistance committees – also known as neighbourhood committees – have emerged as a central player in the struggle of the Sudanese against the previous Islamist regime and the current military regime. They were pivotal to the success of the December 2018 revolution, which uprooted the regime of the former dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Many political actors are betting that the resistance committees will play a central role in the democratic transition in from the current military regime. They also open up real prospects for direct democracy, “from below”, thanks to their experience of self-management and their local presence.

In Khartoum, supervision of the barricades

Neighbourhood committees: a convergence between local solidarity and political resistance

Originally, the resistance committees were simple groups of citizens who were formed in the neighbourhoods of different cities in Sudan, in order to set up, by themselves, the basic public services that were lacking in their neighbourhoods, such as such as electricity and water, and to improve conditions and services in schools and hospitals (by buying school or medical equipment, by renovating buildings). For example, in September 2019, in the village of Zuhal (Gezira State), the resistance committees launched a campaign to rebuild the village well; in the Klakla neighbourhood in Khartoum, in January 2020, they organized a large collective cleaning of public spaces as garbage piled up in the street due to the indifference of the public authorities. In the city of Al Obeid, in April 2021, they planted trees to support the production of gum arabic which is the economic wealth of the city. These local self-management movements bring together residents of the neighbourhood who belong to all different age groups of the popular classes, even if young men and women are particularly active in them.

Al-Obeid, young people from the resistance committee plant gum arabic trees in the city

In September 2013, after the independence of South Sudan and the loss of the oil resources from this region, a major economic crisis hit the north Sudan, which triggered a popular uprising. The resistance committees then found themselves at the forefront of this revolt, demanding the fall of the regime. From that time, the “resistance committees” became an important political actor in the Sudanese political arena, on the same level as political organizations and trade unions.

Their appearance prompted the old regime, led by Omar al-Bashir, to concentrate repression on these resistance committees. The regime sought to dismantle them so that they did not expand their influence in the neighbourhoods where they were active, sometimes as political organizations and sometimes as social service and humanitarian associations. The important field work carried out by the resistance committees has earned them the confidence of the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods.

The dream of the citizens and militants of the resistance committees was to rebuild the country from the base, starting with the local neighbourhood level. Gradually, the trust and support shown to them by the inhabitants gave them the enthusiasm to extend this dream to the entire nation. They launched the hashtag “Hanabniho”, which means “we will rebuild it”, implying the country.

Discussion organized by the resistance committee of the village of Khomasy (State of Kordofan)

Constant political and social activity since the 2019 revolution

After the fall of the regime in April 2019, the resistance committees remained constantly active, trying to protect the gains of the revolution. At the same time, they tried to rebuild what the previous regime had destroyed. It had disintegrated the social fabric and cultural life in the neighbourhoods (notably by closing cinemas and cultural centres, and putting their premises up for sale) . The neighbourhood committees also organized many political events to support the interests of the revolution, with the aim of building a country for everyone, such as commemoration ceremonies for martyrs in each neighbourhood, and the celebration of the international days for the rights of women and the disabled. For example, on the occasion of International Women’s Rights Day on March 8, 2020, the resistance committees of the Arkawit district in Khartoum set up an open clinic where all women could come for free treatment and free medical analysis, as well as the distribution of sanitary napkins and training workshops on breast cancer.

The resistance committees have also organized conferences on the future of democracy in Sudan, as well as political self-training workshops. They participated in creating unions for women and students, taking advantage of the space of freedom granted by the revolution.

Over the past two years, when the country was hit by destructive inflation, and in the grip of insane fluctuations in the value of the currency (the Sudanese pound), the neighbourhood committees got down to fight against petty corruption by forming teams of “market observers” who ensure that traders do not raise their prices by taking advantage of the shortage of certain resources and thus profiting from the misery of the inhabitants. On social networks, we can see photos from several cities of young people camping in bakeries to check that bakers are not monopolizing stocks of flour in the hope of selling their bread at a much higher price on days of shortage. In the village of Al-Hilalia (Gezira State), in October 2019, the resistance committees filed a complaint against a baker who was selling expired flour to the whole neighbourhood.

Khartoum, Al-Shuahada district, public meeting

Under the regime of Omar El Bashir, local authorities were grouped into “popular committees” which carried out authoritarian policies and characterized by corruption, seeking to destroy any form of local democracy. After the revolution, the resistance committees tried to prevent this system from reoccurring by simply transferring power from one authority to another: some tried to destroy the administrative papers necessary for the new authorities to take office to protest against this old system and demand new forms of local democracy.

In some cases, the resistance committees succeeded in recovering the public goods seized by the previous regime, such as public squares that had been sold to bosses and investors close to power.

While the regime was pursuing a policy of divide and rule on a racist base, the activists of the resistance committees worked daily to create links between the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to rebuild a social climate of peace.

Suriba village (Gezira State), a resistance committee member paints slogans on the walls

Spearhead of current mobilizations

In recent weeks, during the mass mobilizations that erupted following the coup of October 25, 2021, the resistance committees emerged as the main actors in the organization and coordination of the various processions. They thus replaced the Association of Sudanese Professionals which had played the same role during the mobilization of 2018. Following the revolution, it was the Association of Professionals which played the role of representative of civil society in the transitional government, made up of a coalition of civilians and soldiers. The very disappointing experience of the transitional government, which led to the current coup d’etat, has largely contributed to discrediting the Association of Professionals in Sudanese public opinion. However today, if the resistance committees have been able to take the place of the Association of Professionals, it is because they have been able to obtain the confidence of the revolutionaries, a confidence that the Association of Professionals, like the political parties, had lost in recent years.

Thus, as soon as the coup was announced, the resistance committees called for demonstrations to oppose it. They activated themselves to mobilize in the neighbourhoods and inform the inhabitants of the importance of participating in the demonstration, distribute leaflets in their neighbourhoods, draw graffiti covering the walls with slogans and schedules of demonstrations. They also used the loudspeakers of mosques to broadcast political speeches. On the eve of demonstrations, they build barricades at night with bricks and salvaged objects in order to hinder the movement of law enforcement and to protect the inhabitants of the neighbourhood from attacks by soldiers and militias. This ingenious strategy has largely proven its effectiveness in protecting demonstrators.

A future for democracy in Sudan?

In conclusion, although the resistance committees are made up of citizens who do not all have experience in the political world, they organize themselves with great professionalism, trying to implement democracy in their way of making decisions. They organize themselves without having recourse to chiefs, only to delegates who then coordinate at the level of the district, then even above, at the level of the city. It is this internal democracy that has allowed them to remain united and strong, and not divided as the political parties are in Sudan. It is also what makes certain observers hope that the resistance committees are a means of breaking the monopoly of the traditional political party elites in the field of politics in Sudan.

Sudanese see today that resistance committees can be an alternative to political parties that have failed to create a common climate of collective action to find solutions to the problems of Sudan. However, the resistance committees, thanks to their self-managed structure, are based on local action led by the inhabitants of neighbourhoods or villages, in which everyone participates regardless of their level of political experience: their method therefore initiates a real participatory democracy in Sudan in which everyone has the right to decide.

This article was translated from the French original written in November 2021:

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