Jordi Bernal is a research intern and Media and Knowledge Production Assistant at Security in Context. He holds a BA in International Relations from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and he is a candidate of the IntM. in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies at the University of Glasgow.
This brief analytical article outlines the historical context and the immediate drivers of the ongoing armed conflict in Sudan. It also acquaints readers with the factions, their leaders and their foreign supporters, as well as the humanitarian impact and the demands of civil society and grassroots movements.
In the current armed conflict in Sudan, civilian leaders, military officers and international actors are confronted with a false dilemma of supporting either one faction or the other. Amid this fighting, the people of Sudan have seen their aspirations for progressive and democratic change quashed by yet another power struggle between two men: one in charge of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the other overseeing the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
The last several years have witnessed a series of popular mobilizations against Sudan’s ruling elite. Its former President Omar Al Bashir was ousted as a result of an overwhelmingly non-violent mobilization in 2019. At that time, under domestic and international pressure, the military leadership agreed to a transition that would eventually lead to joint civilian-military rule. The leaders of the civilian movement accepted this as a compromise, viewing it as a potentially necessary step towards a sustainable democratic transition. The Transitional Military Council installed after Al Bashir’s downfall expressed its commitment to a transition to civilian rule and the eventual incorporation of all armed forces into a civilian government.
The first hurdle for the current conflict was disagreement over the integration of the paramilitary RSF into the government’s Armed Forces. In an interview with Security in Context’s Hamid Khalafallah, Nonresident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, argued that the popular resistance movement “changed the rules of the game, and that upset many of the old powers.” The current conflict between the RSF and TMC also sends a clear message to the democratic movement about where the power lies, and to the popular movement that “you will not have a future in Sudan.”
One of the two main actors in the conflict is General Abdelfattah Al Burhan, head of the Armed Forces and chair of the Transitional Military Council, who came to power after the 2019 uprising and is de facto head of state and government. Although the SAF are double the size of the Rapid Support Forces, and possess airforce and navy, the RSF are more experienced with urban warfare. General Hamedti, leader of the RSF, is the deputy chair of the Transitional Military Council. This paramilitary force has its origins in the Janjaweed militia, which was accused of genocide in the Western region of Darfur during a civil war under Al Bashir. The RSF also has strong ties to the Sudanese economy, overseeing many gold mines in the region.
This latter factor, together with the strategic location of the country, especially Port Sudan for naval bases, increases the stakes and thus the role of foreign actors in the conflict including Russia, Egypt, Israel, and the UAE as they support different sides of the conflict for geo-political reasons.
Looking deeper into the historical context of the conflict, the divide-and-rule policies of Al Bashir are key to understanding the intensity of the clashes. To avoid potential coups in a militarized country, Al Bashir fragmented the security apparatus into competing centers of power; thus he put the RSF outside the umbrella of the Armed Forces. This life vest resulted in a country with two autonomous and powerful military factions. And yet the number of factions could increase if the conflict prolongs and sparks resentment among elites seeking more power through violence, and inciting the now-passive armed militias in the periphery to join.
The harshest impact of the military confrontation is on the Sudanese population. According to Hamid Khalafallah, armed clashes in Khartoum have had severe consequences on a centralized country like Sudan, where most services, namely healthcare, are based in the capital city. According to the humanitarian affairs office of the UN the conflict has left the capital with 61 percent of health facilities closed and around 50,000 children in acute malnutrition. There are at least 528 people killed, 4,599 injured, 334,000 internally displaced and 120,000 refugees who have fled Sudan, in addition to the 3.7 million already displaced before the recent conflict. Those who stay face food, water, fuel, electricity, and internet shortages. As transport prices to flee skyrocket, many civilians are trapped between volatile frontlines.
In this situation, most of the civil society demands the immediate end of the war, the opening of humanitarian assistance flows, and the return to the political transition process. The major umbrella organization of Sudanese trade unions, for instance, calls on people to stay at home, without supporting any of the parties, to whom they accuse of treason and manipulation of the promised transition. The call to stop the war is widely shared among civic organizations, who are willing to preserve solidarity and a united front against the armed factions. Within it, the “No to Women’s Oppression Initiative” demands the international community to bring the “criminals” to justice, in order to focus on the true problems of Sudan: “poverty, hunger and disease.”
The democratic transition and the transfer of power to civilian control were the means to advance economic development along with political and civil rights. These were among the declared objectives of the Forces for Freedom and Change, the strongest platform of pro-democracy organizations. To this end, on the 27th of April, the Civil Front to Stop the War and Restore Democracy – a common platform of resistance committees, social movements, militant organizations, trade unions, political parties and relevant figures – was established to confront both generals. There is hope that both the Sudanese civilian resistance and the leverage of international organizations and regional powers could stop this escalating violent conflict. The fear then, would be that if the war was stopped, the struggle for democracy will be set aside to focus on peace, but prioritizing security over democracy does not work, and the people of Sudan know it.