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HomeInternationalUnderstanding the Sudan War: Causes, Conflict, and Consequences

Understanding the Sudan War: Causes, Conflict, and Consequences

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By: Grarang Kuot

On Saturday, 15th April, 2023, fighting erupted in the Sudanese capital Khartoum between the Sudanese national army, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary, militia group which has been operating in Darfur, a region in Western Sudan.

The Republic of Sudan lies in the Northern part of the African continent, bordering Egypt in the North, Libya in the North-West, Chad in the West, Saudi Arabia in the North-East (across the Red Sea), Eritrea and Ethiopia in the East and the Republic of South Sudan in the South.

Sudan is what remained after then Southern Sudan, now the Republic of South Sudan broke out in 2011 after a long and agonizing civil war between the then Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLA) then led by Dr. John Garang De Mabior and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), then led by then President Omar Al-Bashir ended in a referendum in Southern Sudan, in which the people of Southern Sudan overwhelmingly voted to secede from Sudan and become an independent sovereign country, the Republic of South Sudan.

As already mention, the parties to the current Sudanese conflict are the Sudanese Army, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), led by the army commander and Head of the ruling Sudan Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and a paramilitary militia group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by the deputy head of the Sudan Sovereign Council, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti.

In around 2000s, pro-democracy rebellions erupted in the Sudanese Western region of Darfur against the then long and excruciating dictatorship of then President Omar Al-Bashir. To quell these rebellions, President Al-Bashir supported the “Janjaweed”, then a militia group operating in Darfur. The ostensible rationale for this support was that, the “Janjaweed” would support the national army in dealing with the rebellions. The actions of the combined forces of the “Janjaweed” and the SAF orchestrated what the International Criminal Court (ICC) calls War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity for which some of the top military commanders in Sudan, including Al-Bashir were indicted by the ICC prosecutors.

The “Janjaweed” evolved over time into what is now called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF is now headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti, who, as already mentioned serves as the deputy head of the ruling Sudan Sovereign Council. The force was deployed in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

From around 2015, the RSF, alongside the SAF started sending troops to fight alongside the Saudis and the Emiratis in Yemen. This move created a lasting friendship between general Hamdan, the Saudis and the Emiratis.

In 2017, a law was passed in Sudan legitimizing the RSF as an independent security force. This move was vehemently opposed by the Sudanese Army; the SAF who rightly pointed out that it would result into conflict within the armed forces of Sudan. The existence of these two independent military forces in a single country is partly responsible for the intensity and a likely longevity of the Sudanese crisis (I shall get back to this point later).

In 2019, the RSF and the SAF joined a civilian led coup to oust President Omar Al-Bashir from power after ruling Sudan since 1989. After the coup and ousting of Al-Bashir, the two generals; Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti, “Little Mohammed” and Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan entered a power sharing agreement in which General Hamdan became the deputy Head of the ruling Sudan Sovereign Council while General Fattah Al-Burhan became head of the Council. The Sudan Sovereign Council is a council of eleven members chosen from the major political factions in Sudan which was constituted after the coup which ousted Al-Bashir by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to oversee a transition of Sudan from the military to a civilian led democratic government. The same agreement also added a prominent economist named Abdalla Hamdok as the Prime Minister of Sudan. In 2019, the RSF orchestrated yet another coup which halted a transition into a civilian led democratic government.

In around 2000s, pro-democracy rebellions erupted in the Sudanese Western region of Darfur against the then long and excruciating dictatorship of then President Omar Al-Bashir. To quell these rebellions, President Al-Bashir supported the “Janjaweed”, then a militia group operating in Darfur. The ostensible rationale for this support was that, the “Janjaweed” would support the national army in dealing with the rebellions. The actions of the combined forces of the “Janjaweed” and the SAF orchestrated what the International Criminal Court (ICC) calls War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity for which some of the top military commanders in Sudan, including Al-Bashir were indicted by the ICC prosecutors.

The “Janjaweed” evolved over time into what is now called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF is now headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti, who, as already mentioned serves as the deputy head of the ruling Sudan Sovereign Council. The force was deployed in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

From around 2015, the RSF, alongside the SAF started sending troops to fight alongside the Saudis and the Emiratis in Yemen. This move created a lasting friendship between general Hamdan, the Saudis and the Emiratis.

In 2017, a law was passed in Sudan legitimizing the RSF as an independent security force. This move was vehemently opposed by the Sudanese Army; the SAF who rightly pointed out that it would result into conflict within the armed forces of Sudan. The existence of these two independent military forces in a single country is partly responsible for the intensity and a likely longevity of the Sudanese crisis (I shall get back to this point later).

In 2019, the RSF and the SAF joined a civilian led coup to oust President Omar Al-Bashir from power after ruling Sudan since 1989. After the coup and ousting of Al-Bashir, the two generals; Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti, “Little Mohammed” and Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan entered a power sharing agreement in which General Hamdan became the deputy Head of the ruling Sudan Sovereign Council while General Fattah Al-Burhan became head of the Council. The Sudan Sovereign Council is a council of eleven members chosen from the major political factions in Sudan which was constituted after the coup which ousted Al-Bashir by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to oversee a transition of Sudan from the military to a civilian led democratic government. The same agreement also added a prominent economist named Abdalla Hamdok as the Prime Minister of Sudan. In 2019, the RSF orchestrated yet another coup which halted a transition into a civilian led democratic government.

On Wednesday 12th April, 2023, the RSF started deploying forces in a small town of Merow, North of Khartoum and strategic for its large airport, central location and access to a downstream electric dam along River Nile.

On Thursday 13th April, 2023, RSF sent forces into the capital city, Khartoum and other areas across the country. And on Saturday 15th, April, 2023, fighting erupted from the capital between the two rival armed forces.

As already mentioned, Al-Burhan and Dagalo both fought alongside Saudi and Emiratis in Yemen which joint support created friendship with the two Gulf nations. The friendship with those Gulf nations seems to have accrued a long lasting allyship between General Dagalo and the Gulf’s hence leading to what appears to be a support from them for Dagalo and his RSF.

On the other hand, the Sudanese army has had a long standing allyship with Egypt and as a result, support for General Al-Burhan and the SAF appears to come from the Arab Republic of Egypt.

While these are clear, support for either side from the rest of the “ever-war-supporting-world” of Russia, US and EU cannot be ruled out.

The other most important factor in this conflict is the personalities of the two generals and the precarious situation in which Sudan as a country found itself since the 2019 coup.

Sudan in flames// courtesy photo

General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo is a war harden, hardcore military fighter who was born into a poverty and war impoverished family in Darfur in the 1980s. He dropped out of school in grade three and made a living selling camels. He later joined the “Janjaweed” as a fighter during the Darfur conflicts and ascended in rank to become the leader of the group. Through the RSF, Dagalo’s business interest has prospered overtime and his formerly impoverished family has acquired and expanded holdings in gold mining, livestock and infrastructure across the country.

On the other hand, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan is a long serving officer of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) who joined early enough. He has also ascended in rank, including being once posted to Darfur as a regional commander. Before the 2019 coup, he had attended further military training abroad and returned to the current status quo.

The fighting is therefore between two former allies who know each other extremely well and have a lot of personal interest at stake in the war. This is a factor which might have a huge role in the war.

Secondly, Sudan was under a brutal and an agonizing dictatorship for over 30 years. It is also a country that has never had a democratic government since independence in 1956. The result of these is a fragile political atmosphere characterised with mistrust, corruption, rivalry and absolute lack of democratic structure of governance. Power and leadership is generally seen as a life or death opportunity for personal enrichment and anyone who feels their power and enfranchisement is under threat will fight tooth and nail to protect their interest and life. This might be the case between the two generals and if it is, the war in Sudan is more complex and simple calls for ceasefire and PR statements of condemnation can never prove substantive in ending the war.

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