With One Voice: Sudan’s Nonviolent Civil Society on the Rise

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Stella D’Acquisto

Since Sudan’s December Revolution in 2018 and 2019 with the overthrow of dictator Omar Al-Bashir, the country has been in turmoil. Two generals, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” led the military coup, promising at the time that the government would eventually transition to a civilian-led democratic government. However, as time has passed, this outcome seems increasingly less likely; in 2021, they removed the transitional civilian government from power. Most recently in April of 2023, Hemedti attempted to seize power from Burhan for himself, leading to violent conflict between his militia, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces.

Although it is primarily a battle between two unelected military leaders, civilians are not protected from the violence. More than 9,000 civilians have been killed, and 5.6 million displaced.[1] The war has also reignited conflict in the Darfur region, where Bashir’s government had allegedly been committing genocide since 2003, and accusations that the RSF is committing war crimes against Darfur’s Masalit people have arisen in recent months.[2][3] Beneath the surface of the violence, however, a powerful people’s movement holds the country together. This article is an exploration of those people: the groups organizing for nonviolent solutions and a peaceful transition to a true civilian government.

A crowd of protestors flying Sudanese flags.

In July 2023, a coalition of 75 civic organizations released a “Declaration of Principles of Civil Actors for Ending the War and Restoring Democracy in Sudan” also titled “Sudanese Civil Actors Speak with One Voice.”[5] This document perhaps best summarizes the positions of Sudan’s nonviolent activist organizations, called “resistance committees,” who are made up of women’s and youth organizations, civil society organizations, and trade unions. The document also includes civil forces, national political parties, and diaspora groups, who define themselves as separate from the resistance committees here.[6] These groups set forth ten “general principles,” five “general goals,” and four “practical steps.” Included in the practical steps is the representation of civilians, particularly women, in peace negotiations, and the formation of a transitional authority in the case of prolonged war.[7]

Resistance committees may have risen to greater prominence now, but the nation has a history of nonviolent movements. In September 2013, protesters flooded the streets of multiple major cities after the Bashir government lifted gas subsidies in a move that would have devastating effects on the Sudanese economy.[8] These protests were largely unorganized, with some participants destroying buses and gas stations. Sudanese police forces cracked down hard on the protests, with activists saying at least 100 people were killed.[9] The 2013 protests can be considered the start of the modern iteration of Sudanese protests, but it was the December Revolution that created the groups we know today.

Beginning in December 2018, protests came to a head with Sudanese people across the country taking to the streets. Resistance committees and other activist organizations would organize the protests, even when groups like trade unions were technically illegal.[10][11] Although Burhan and Hemedti ultimately orchestrated the coup against Bashir, it was the pressure of popular protest, culminating in a peaceful occupation of the military headquarters in April 2019, that pushed military leaders to act. This occupation was organized by what might now be called a resistance committee, the Sudanese Professionals Association.[12]

From 2018 on, the movement was largely nonviolent in its conception, from consistently advocating for a peaceful transition of government to taking its slogan, Silmiya, from Salam, the Arabic word for peace.[13][14] This is a noted change from previously more violent revolutions through Sudan’s history, and this explicit use of nonviolence served to engage a broader base of Sudanese people across the country than ever before.[15]

Resistance committees were involved throughout all of these processes. Following the massacre of at least 120 protesters in 2019, resistance groups collected evidence that the governmental forces were behind the attack. In 2022, as conflict began to escalate, resistance committees began tracking numbers of injured and dead civilians. They keep photographs of the dead to commemorate them and meet for organizing and conversation in public places like parks and tea houses, which are particularly important to Sudanese culture.[16] Through these few years, resistance committees became the guardians of the dead as well as the living.

Women, mostly in hijabs, at the front of a protest with Sudanese flags in the background.

Now, resistance committees have taken on a larger role than ever. In April, activists were still fighting back in small ways, whether through public demonstrations or political graffiti. Now, however, this has become less and less viable, with militias occupying many people’s houses and forcing them from their homes.[18] Instead, since the start of the April conflict, resistance groups have increasingly taken to mutual aid, organizing relief for Sudanese people in need. What began as a movement centered around street protest has now morphed into one of the few forces protecting the Sudanese people.

The New Humanitarian reports in their podcast that “Emergency Response Rooms” (ERRs) created by local activists are filling the gaps international aid organizations cannot fill. They shelter wounded and/or internally displaced people, including some ERRs specifically for women who have experienced gender-based violence. One of their guests, Hajooj Kuka, is a local activist who has long been involved with resistance committees, and he discusses how he formed a WhatsApp group (a very common method of organizing in Sudan) made up of people from domestic and international NGOs and humanitarian groups. As people on the ground began to form these ERRs, he started sharing this information with his colleagues abroad, translating (both literally and figuratively) their ideas into language like “women’s co-ops,” “group cash transfer,” and “mutual aid.”[19] Eventually, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs became involved through this person-to-person network, funneling money from international donors to help the ERRs increase their effectiveness.

This example shows how local and international networks are connecting, but current aid to civilians affected by the violence in Sudan remains largely on the shoulders of local organizers. For the most part, international actors have instead focused on negotiations between the two generals, with no civilian inclusion.[20] Sudan is certainly not without civilian representation, though, and resistance committees are proof of this. These committees have transformed from outbursts of street demonstrations to organized protest movements to committees filling the roles the government does not. Even in the face of devastating violence, Sudanese civilians are more than ready to take power for themselves.

[1] Kate Bartlett, “Sudan’s War Passed 6 Months, with Much of the World Consumed by Other Conflicts,” NPR, October 21, 2023, sec. Africa.

[2] Ahmad Sikainga, “‘The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis’: Understanding the Darfur Conflict,” Origins, February 2009.

[3] Patrick Wintour, “War Crimes Being Committed in Darfur, Says UK Minister Andrew Mitchell,” The Guardian, August 22, 2023, sec. World news.

[4] Mohammed Amin, “Fresh Protests in Sudan to Demand Full Civilian Rule,” Andalou Ajansi, July 2, 2022.

[5] Representatives of 75 Civic Organizations, “Declaration of Principles of Civil Actors for Ending the War and Restoring Democracy in Sudan: Sudanese Civil Actors Speak with One Voice” (Sudan Transparency, July 13, 2023).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Isma’il Kushkush, “Sudan Erupts in Deadly Protests as Gas Prices Rise,” The New York Times, September 27, 2013, sec. World.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kate Bartlett, Michele Kelemen, “As Sudan’s Conflict Continues into Its Second Week, Here’s What to Know,” NPR, April 27, 2023.

[11] Mohammed Elnaiem, “Armed, Unarmed, and Non-Violent: The Sudanese Resistance in Sudan’s 2018-2019 Revolutionary Uprising,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 43, no. 2 (Summer 2019): 5–25.

[12] Elnaiem, “Armed, Unarmed, and Non-Violent,” 8.

[13] Abdi Latif Dahir and Faiz Abubakar Muhamed, “‘Democracy Is Life’: The Grass-Roots Movement Taking On Sudan’s Generals,” The New York Times, February 7, 2022, sec. World.

[14] Reem Awad, “The Power of Non-Violence: Silmiya & the Sudanese Revolution,” Revolution, Conflict, Security, & Development 22, no. 1 (2022): 1.

[15] Awad, “The Power of Non-Violence: Silmiya & the Sudanese Revolution.”

[16] Dahir and Muhamed, “‘Democracy Is Life.’”

[17] Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah, “Demonstrators in Sudan demand justice for army crackdown victims.” Al-Jazeera, July 14, 2019.

[18] Bartlett, “Sudan’s War Passed 6 Months, with Much of the World Consumed by Other Conflicts.”

[19] Heba Aly and Melissa Fundira, “How Mutual Aid in Sudan Is Getting International Support,” The New Humanitarian, October 19, 2023.

[20] Mohamed Osman, “With War Raging, Sudan Needs Justice More Than Ever,The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, August 13, 2023.