The history of conflict in Sudan can be broken down into three main categories: religious disagreements, ethnic tensions, and competition for resources (Sawant, 1998). A continuing conflict in the western region of Darfur has resulted in the displacement of two million people and has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people.
In the country’s recent history, two civil wars fought between the central government and the southern regions, taking the lives of 1.5 million people (BBC. 17 April 2023). Since the country’s independence in 1956, the Sudan has been subject to more than fifteen military coups. Additionally, the Sudan has been ruled by the military for the vast majority of the republic’s existence, with only brief periods of democratic civilian parliamentary rule (Biajo, 22 October 2022).
Sudan has been plagued by civil wars and political instability since its independence in 1956. The Darfur conflict should be viewed as part of a larger, ongoing series of Sudanese crises, with one conflict spilling over into another. The first and most well-known of these conflicts was the North-South conflict, which ended in 2005 with the signing of a peace treaty (after two rounds of fighting, 1955-1972 and 1983-2005). Regional conflicts also erupted in the Nuba Mountains, the Upper Blue Nile, and the Beja region in the country’s east.
For the understanding of civil conflict, some fundamentals is required to be taken into account. The Republic of the Sudan is located in northeast Africa, sharing borders with the Central African Republic to the Southwest, Chad to the West, Egypt to the North, Eritrea to the Northeast, Ethiopia to the southeast, Libya to the northwest, South Sudan to the south, and the Red Sea to the West. Sudan is having a total land area of 1,886,068 km2, with the population of 47.8 million on as of 22 April, 2023 (Sudan Population 2023). It is estimated that Arabs make up roughly 70% of the total population. They speak the Arabic language that is primarily used in Sudan and is dominated by Muslims. Beja, Fur, Nubians, Armenians, and Copts are some of the other indigenous peoples of Sudan. Apart from Arabs, several other Non-Arabs groups which are distinct ethnically, linguistically, and culturally such as Beja (over 2 million), Fur (over 1 million), and Nuba (approximately 1 million) are among them.
The Sudanese conflicts are the result of deep-seated regional, political, and economic inequalities which have persisted throughout Sudan’s colonial and post-colonial histories. The political, economic, and cultural hegemony of a small group of the Arabic-speaking Sudanese elites who have held power and systematically marginalised non-Arab and non-Muslim groups in the country’s periphery exemplifies these inequalities. Environmental degradation and resource competition can be viewed as primary causes of communal conflict as well. Pastoralists and farmers clashed in the 1980s over scarce resources and during the colonial and post-colonial times, these fights have been remained very part and parcel of the Sudanese society. The ongoing bloodshed is also a result of Sudan’s ruling elites’ long history of ethnic marginalisation and manipulation.
Politics is one of the important rationale for the ongoing conflict. The central and northern Arabic-speaking elites ruled post-colonial governments. These Arabic elites had also sought a national identity based on Arabism and Islam. The Non-Arab and non-Muslim groups in the marginalised South, Nuba Mountains, and Red Sea region resisted these policies. In the 1950s and 1960s, regional and ethnic rebel movements had emerged, especially in the South Sudan, where a civil war raged for decades. In the mid-1960s, the Darfur Development Front advocated for economic development and greater autonomy in Darfur, but it was a small movement. The Darfurians’ relationship with Khartoum was shaped by their common sense of deprivation. Darfur has also been affected by neighbouring conflicts, particularly in Chad and Libya. Chad is home to Darfur ethnic groups like the Zaghawa, Masalit, and Mahiriyya, making cross-border conflicts easier. Libya’s involvement in the 1980s Chadian civil wars affected Darfur’s porous and ethnically mixed border. Libya supported the various Chadian factions in Darfur who pillaged local farmers and cattle-herders and poured large amounts of arms into the region.
The call for “New Sudan” made by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) would be its most significant political legacy. This slogan promotes a secular, plural, and unified Sudan without religious, ethnic, linguistic, gender, or regional distinctions. Whereas on the other hand, the Arabic-speaking northern Sudanese elites were worrying about these dynamics. The National Islamic Front (NIF) advocated for an Islamic state in Sudan and beyond and championed Arabicism and Islamism as the Sudanese identity. (Ahmad Sikainga, 2009; Douglas H. Johnson, 2016). In this way, several political, social, ethnic and cultural reasons responsible for the ongoing conflict.
Ongoing Crisis 2023
In 2003, various rebel groups rose up against the government of Sudan, accusing it of neglecting the Darfur region and favouring the Arab groups. This was the beginning of the conflict in Darfur. The government’s response was to arm Arab militias, also known as the Janjaweed, who launched a vicious campaign of violence against the non-Arabic civilians. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been forced to flee their homes as a direct result of the conflict. The rebels in the regions of Blue Nile and South Kordofan have who waged war against the government, charging it with neglecting its responsibilities and discriminating against its citizens. This sustained conflict, ultimately resulted into the South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011, which led to an increase in the level of instability throughout the country.
The conflict in Sudan has been characterised by widespread violations of human rights, including mass killings, rape, and forced displacements. The government has been accused of using chemical weapons against the civilians. Several efforts have been made to find out a resolution, which has resulted in the signing of a number of different peace agreements over the course of the conflict. Despite this, implementation has been slow, and violent incidents have not been stopped. The long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was finally removed from power in 2019 as a result of widespread protests that broke out in 2019. Since then, a transitional government has been governing the country, but the situation is still precarious due to the ongoing violence and the struggling economy.
The current Sudan conflict is going between the two rival groups, the Sudanese Armed Forces, supported by Egypt, whereas on the other hand the rival group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which is being supported by the Libyan National Army and Wagner Group. The RSF is the Sudanese paramilitary forces that were formerly operated by the Government of Sudan. The RSF evolved from the Janjaweed militia and is primarily composed of its former members. Human Rights Watch considers certain activities carried out by the RSF in Darfur to constitute crimes against humanity.
On 15 April, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary RSF have been engaged in fierce battles in the capital city of Khartoum as well as in other strategic areas across the country. It is claimed by some commentators that it is not clear that who had started the fighting, however, the current situation forces the de facto leader of Sudan General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the SAF, into direct confrontation with his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the RSF, who is also known as Hemetti. These two leaders had collaborated on several occasions on common shared concerns prior to the overthrow of the al-Bashir regime in 2019. Subsequent military coup in October 2021 had taken place whereby the removal of the civilian prime minister and cabinet and the constitution suspension had taken place. Question has become critical as who will take command of the newly consolidated military since the SAF, RSF, and civilian political leaders agreed in December on a new framework for a democratic transition?
The stalemate in negotiations between al-Burhan and Hemetti in the weeks preceding the current outbreak of violence aimed at resolving the issues led to a rapid escalation of tensions. Although precise information remains elusive, it is evident that the rival groups are engaged in a struggle for dominance over the establishments of the country. According to reports, a significant portion of the animosities have been concentrated in key sites, including the presidential palace, the military headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces, and Khartoum’s airport.
The nature of this conflict in Sudan is distinct from the previous instances of violence in the country. In the past instances of civil conflict in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan (Nuba Mountains), the Sudanese government and paramilitary factions have engaged in combat with armed opposition movements. Presently, the SAF is engaged in combat with a paramilitary group that was established by the Bashir administration. The RSF, despite being commonly referred to as a “rebel” group, is officially established and recognised by law, permitted, and maintained as a tool of state authority, thereby rendering the circumstances significantly more complicated, given the violence has extended in more regions of Sudan, such as Kassala, Gedaref, and Port Sudan in the East, as well as Darfur in the West.
The RSF has launched an unexpected assault on numerous Sudanese Army installations throughout Sudan, including in the metropolis of Khartoum, on April 15th, 2023 (Sudan Tribune, 15 April 2023). On the same day, the RSF forces purportedly seized control of Khartoum International Airport, Merowe Airport, El Obeid Airport, and a base located in Soba (BBC News, 15 April 2023). A fighting between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Army transpired at the Presidential Palace and the residence of General al-Burhan, resulting in conflicting claims of authority over the aforementioned locations. The closure of all airports in Sudan was announced by the Sudanese army in response to an event. The Sudanese Air Force, carried out airstrikes on RSF locations in Khartoum. Additionally, artillery fires were witnessed in various areas of the city.
Violent confrontations also ensued in Al-Fashir, the principal city of North Darfur state, and Nyala Airport in South Darfur was subjected to artillery fire. At Al-Fashir, there were ongoing heavy fighting involving the use of light and heavy weaponry, as RSF forces endeavoured to seize control of the airport and other structures. The RSF forces have asserted that they have successfully taken control of the airport, as well as the headquarters of the Signal Corps and Medical Corps located in Al-Fashir. Incidents of violence also occurred in Zalingei, located in the central region of Darfur. Consequently (as WHO reported), the number of casualties had taken place given the ongoing fights, wherein the death toll and sustained injuries reached to 413 and 3,551 respectively as on 21 April, (Aljazeera. 21 April 2023). According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, the armed conflict resulted in the loss of life of a minimum of nine children and caused injuries to 50 children. Medical professionals present at the site have cautioned that the reported statistics may not encompass the entirety of the affected population, as certain individuals may have been impeded from accessing medical facilities due to logistical challenges.
A Roadmap for Conflict Resolution
Discrimination, marginalisation, and inequality that all factors that have contributed to the sustainability of the Sudan conflict. There are other multiple ethnic, religious, and political factors which have heightened the Sudan conflict. Because of the conflict’s complexity and multifaceted nature, finding a lasting resolution in Sudan has proven difficult during the last a decades. Therefore, reducing tensions and preventing future conflicts may depend on addressing these underlying causes. Reforms in government and society, as well as in business and finance, could be part of confidence building measures. Therefore, it is crucial to get everyone involved talking to one another one table. The African Union, the United Nations, or other regional organisations could play a mediating role in this process. The parties to a conflict can gain trust for one another and pave the way for a peaceful resolution through diplomacy and dialogues.
There have been multiple peace agreements in Sudan’s history, however, putting them into practise has been proven difficult given the contradictory interests. The international community could help by providing resources to make sure that the agreements are adhered to. This would encourage more negotiations and boost faith in the peace process. Damage/destruction from the conflict in Sudan has been extensive, leaving behind survivors with a legacy of trauma and resentment. A lasting and concerted effort from the government, opposition groups, civil society, and the international community is needed to end the conflict in Sudan.
To conclude, the civil conflict in Sudan has resulted in considerable human sufferings and economic devastations of the country during the last several decades. The establishment of a comprehensive roadmap is imperative in order to effectively tackle the underlying factors that have contributed to the conflict, encompassing political, economic, and social grievances, with the ultimate objective of achieving sustainable peace. The proposed roadmap is wide range of measures, including but not limited to power-sharing agreements, economic reforms, and a concerted effort to redress historical injustices for establishing the lasting peace.
* Dr. Bawa Singh is an Associate Professor, Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India