Talal Wasif Qavi describes the escalating conflict of Crisis in Sudan
The crisis in Sudan is in global headlines once again and this time the conflict that has erupted is between the country’s army and its rival paramilitary group. The indiscriminate violence has upended plans for a power-sharing arrangement that was set to pave the way for democratic elections and potentially restore billions of dollars of frozen foreign aid. The conflict is almost endemic in Sudan that was under military rule for long and was forced to part away with one of territorial units. General Omar Al-Bashir remained the country’s strong man for more than three decades before he was ousted by his own military in 2019 after a spate of protests that gave way to an uneasy coalition. However, in 2021 the army led by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan toppled the uneasy transitional coalition of civilian and military figures that had run the nation after the popular uprising. Though the ambitious army top brass was firmly in control for some time but then a paramilitary force challenged their hold on power. This armed group known as Rapid Support Forces (RFS) that had helped overthrow Bashir took their campaign against the regular army to much higher level resulting in violence that has caused many casualties.
As is the wont, the proxy options whenever adopted by the military forces of a country, always end up becoming a Frankenstein’s monster and the same has happened with the RSF. The current conflict is the outcome of deep-seated animosity between both the warring factions and the army has branded the RSF a rebel force and demanded its dissolution, while the RSF has declared the head of the army a criminal and blamed him for visiting destruction on the country. The RSF can also draw on support and tribal ties in the western region of Darfur, where it emerged from the militias that fought alongside government forces to crush rebels in a brutal war that escalated after 2003. This outfit originated with the government-supported janjaweed militias that terrorized Sudan’s western region of Darfur during fighting there in the early 2000s and is led by one-time camel trader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Dagalo was a lieutenant of Bashir but changed sides and became deputy of the quasi-presidential Sovereign Council, basically Sudan’s second-in-command.
Though RSF lacks armour and airstrikes but it is a seasoned fighting force that has waged counter-insurgencies for years and played a part in the Saudi Arabia-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is estimated that it has a fighting force of some 70,000 fighters that appear to be prepared to challenge the military. Both the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and Dagalo, who grew wealthy through gold mining and other ventures, stressed the need to sideline Islamist-leaning Bashir loyalists and veterans who had regained a foothold following the coup and have deep roots in the army. Under the army’s proposed power-sharing pact, the RSF — which has its own command structure, wealth and commercial interests — would have been folded into the regular military, losing its independence and this eventuality was acceptable to Dagalo who is very ambitious and wishes to become head of the state.
The current conflict appears to have spread to vast areas of the country but particularly the capital Khartoum is affected with troubles breaking out several other cities including Nyala and el-Fasher in Darfur, as well as in Blue Nile state bordering Ethiopia. Both sides have claimed to control key infrastructure such as the international airport and public broadcaster and by the looks of it neither side is prepared to relent. The United Nations Security Council has urged parties to stop hostilities and the US, Russia and China also pushed for a cease-fire. The two sides agreed to a temporary pause in fighting though shooting continued to be heard in Khartoum. Thousands of residents fled Khartoum as fighting escalated that killed around 200 people as the fighting entered its fifth day as a 24-hour truce collapsed. Deafening explosions rattled buildings and heavy gunfire were heard in Khartoum, as plumes of thick black smoke emanated from buildings around the army headquarters in central Khartoum. RSF fighters atop armoured vehicles and pick-up trucks laden with heavy weapons swarmed the streets, as the army’s fighter jets roared overhead and fired on RSF targets. Civilians huddled in their homes were becoming increasingly desperate, with dwindling food supplies, power outages, and a lack of running water. Thousands of people took matters into their own hands and began leaving their homes in Khartoum, some in cars and others on foot, including women and children. They said the streets were littered with dead bodies, the stench of which filled the air.
The latest violence, during the fasting month of Ramzan, came after more than 120 civilians had already been killed in a crackdown on regular pro-democracy demonstrations over the past 18 months. Both generals have positioned themselves as saviours of Sudan and guardians of democracy in a country that has known only brief democratic interludes. Since the start of fighting, each side has claimed the upper hand and that they have taken control of key sites or made advances on the other’s bases across Sudan but neither side seems to be winning at the moment, and given the intensity of the violence, things could get even worse before the two generals come to the negotiating table. But that would necessitate regional allies exerting pressure, and right now their declarations are not heading in that direction with international actors seemingly biding their time until the situation is clearer.
Conflict could not only destroy those hopes but destabilise a volatile region bordering the Sahel, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. It could also play into competition for influence in the region between Russia and the United States and between regional powers who have courted different actors in Sudan. Western powers including the United States had swung behind a transition towards democratic elections following Bashir’s overthrow. They suspended financial support following the coup then backed the plan for a new transition and a civilian government. Energy-rich countries Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also sought to shape events in Sudan seeing the transition away from Bashir’s rule as a way to roll back Islamist influence and bolster stability in the region. Gulf States have pursued investments in sectors including agriculture, where Sudan holds vast potential, and ports on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.
Russia has been seeking to build a naval base on the Red Sea, while several UAE companies have been signing up to invest with one UAE consortium inking a preliminary deal to build and operate a port and another UAE-based airline agreeing with a Sudanese partner to create a new low-cost carrier based in Khartoum. Burhan and Dagalo both developed close ties to Saudi Arabia after sending troops to participate in the Saudi-led operation in Yemen. Dagalo has struck up relations with other foreign powers including the UAE and Russia. Egypt, itself ruled by military man President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who overthrew his Islamist predecessor, has deep ties to Burhan and the army and recently promoted a parallel track of political negotiations through parties with stronger links to the army and to Bashir’s former government. TW
Talal Wasif Qavi is a barrister