Sudan’s crisis spills into conflict
The fighting that has broken out between two military forces in Sudan shows that the latest transition plan for civilian rule never had a hope of succeeding. Civilians are being killed and many have been forced to flee. Vital supplies are running out and humanitarian access is almost impossible. Both sides must commit to an immediate ceasefire and peace negotiations. But the international community must also learn from its mistakes: it should stop investing its faith in military leaders and instead listen to the voices of civil society that are calling not just for peace, but also for a genuine, civilian-led transition to democracy.
Fighting is currently taking place in the heart of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Even though it’s the holy month of Ramadan, supposedly a time of peace and reflection, a long-simmering disagreement between two military leaders has broken into open conflict. The fighting has rapidly spread from Khartoum to multiple other locations across Sudan. The danger is of full-scale civil war.
On one side is the army, headed by Sudan’s current leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. On the other are the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti. Both sides blame the other for starting the fighting – although it seems clear the RSF fired the first shots – and say they will refuse to negotiate.
The two worked together in the October 2021 coup that overthrew a transitional government, put in place in August 2019 after long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted following a popular uprising. They were never committed to democracy. Military forces initially tried to suppress democracy protests and sought to retain control when they forced al-Bashir to step aside, deploying lethal violence. The grimmest day came on 3 June 2019, when the RSF ended a sit-in outside military headquarters with indiscriminate gunfire, killing over 100 people. There has been no accountability for the violence, including sexual violence, committed that day.
The October 2021 military coup, which brought mass protests and civil disobedience, was followed by a short-lived and palpably insincere attempt at a civilian-military power-sharing deal that only lasted from November 2021 to January 2022. Protests, and military violence against them, continued. December 2022 saw the signing of a deal between the military and some civilian groups.
Sudan’s democracy movement has been consistently ignored, and these are the consequences.
This deal was supposed to kickstart a two-year transition to democracy. Some pro-democracy groups and political parties rejected the plan, but the international community urged all sides to get behind it. A plethora of states and international organisations have played a role in brokering transition negotiations. They include the ‘troika’ grouping of Norway, the UK and USA, and the ‘quad’, in which the UK and USA work with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with the United Nations (UN), African Union, European Union (EU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African regional body.
The army was already seeking to backtrack on transition plan commitments before the fighting began. Now those who doubted the sincerity of the two forces’ intentions and willingness to hand over power have been proved right.
Civilians in the firing line
Relations between the two military leaders had become increasingly strained, and fighting finally broke out on 15 April, continuing since. Two attempts at a humanitarian ceasefire have come to nothing. Currently the RSF say they’re prepared to respect a three-day ceasefire to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday, but fighting continue.
Civilians are in the firing line. There’s much confusion on the ground, making it hard to get accurate numbers of casualties, but currently over 300 civilians are reported to have been killed, with thousands injured.
Khartoum’s major sites of contestation, such as the airport and military bases, nestle side by side with civilian housing, leaving people vulnerable to airstrikes. The outbreak of fighting caught civilians by surprise. People are stuck in their homes and at workplaces with limited supplies of food, and water and electricity have been cut. Some have had their homes seized by RSF soldiers. Thousands have fled, many crossing the border into Chad.
Many hospitals have been forced to evacuate or are running out of vital supplies, and there are reports of attacks on health facilities. It’s near impossible to provide any humanitarian help to those stuck in Khartoum. There are also reports that UN staff and other aid workers are being targeted and offices of humanitarian organisations have been looted.
A battle for power
The origins of the current crisis lie in al-Bashir’s deployment of paramilitary forces, then called the Janjaweed, to brutally crush a rebellion in Sudan’s Darfur region that arose in 2003. The violence was such that al-Bashir, currently in prison while in trial over the coup that brought him to power, remains subject to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In recognition of its brutal effectiveness, al-Bashir formally organised the Janjaweed, turning it into the RSF in 2013. It suited him at the time to have two forces he could deploy in different roles and play off against each other, although ultimately they worked together to oust him. The tensions that have built since partly reflect a clash of cultures between the two leaders, who come from very different backgrounds, and Hemedti’s evident personal ambition for the top job.
But mostly it’s a competition for political and economic supremacy, which neither force wants to concede to the other. The army has always been the power behind the presidency, and its economic tentacles are far-reaching. It’s said to control major companies and to have taken over many businesses once owned by al-Bashir and his inner circle.
Hemedti has his own sources of wealth. He’s accused of getting rich through illegal gold mining – something that connects him with Russia, with mercenary forces from the shadowy Wagner Group reportedly guarding goldmines in return for gold exports to Russia to help fund its war on Ukraine. Now Wagner is allegedly supplying the RSF with missiles.
Hemedti had positioned himself as supportive of transitional processes, but that seems to have been a ruse that enabled him to dispute the army’s power. Al-Burhan was always a compromised figure, supposedly leading Sudan through transition while also defending the army’s extensive interests. Proposals to integrate the two forces appear to have been the final straw, threatening to erode Hemedti’s power base, making this an existential struggle. It’s now clear the transition plan never stood a chance.
Democratic states that backed the transition plan wanted to believe in it and basically hoped for the best; they didn’t have a plan B.
Self-interest has never been far away from the calculations of outside forces either. In recent years, EU funding indirectly found its way to the RSF for its border control role, helping prevent people leaving Sudan to try to make their way to Europe; the EU’s preoccupation with controlling migration trumped democracy and human rights concerns.
The Egyptian government, an influential player in Sudan, is meanwhile squarely behind al-Burhan: it wants its domestic model of repressive government by a military strongman applied in its southern neighbour. Russia strongly backs Hemedti, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE might have no strong preference between the two as long as the outcome isn’t democracy.
What all the approaches taken by outside states and organisations have in common is that they’re largely top-down, investing faith in leaders while failing to address the tensions that led to violence. As the two leaders squabble for power, the limitations of that approach should be evident.
Sudan’s democracy movement has been consistently ignored, and these are the consequences. People don’t want their futures to come down to a dismal choice between two self-interested warlords. This conflict must put an end to any notion that either military head can be expected to lead a transition to democracy.
Democratic states need to hold a stronger line on demanding not only that the conflict ends but that a genuine, civilian-led transition follows. With this must come accountability for violence – both the violence unleashed on civilians during the current conflict and all the violence meted out against demands for democracy in the previous years.
From now on, the outside world must listen to and be guided by Sudanese civil society voices – not just in restoring peace, but in bringing about democracy.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The two sides in the conflict must immediately declare a long-term ceasefire and commit to negotiations.
Both sides must guarantee full access for humanitarian agencies and commit to respecting the rights of civilians, humanitarian workers, civil society and United Nations staff.
The international community must commit to working with Sudanese civil society to develop and support a robust plan to transition to democratic rule.
Cover photo by Ebrahim Hamid/AFP via Getty Images