Violence is not new to Sudan. Military rule has plagued the country since independence, despite the Sudanese people’s peaceful overthrow of military regimes in 1964, 1985, and 2019 and their vow to never allow a dictatorship again. Civil wars engulfed the South, West, and East, as marginalised peripheries demanded a fair share of wealth and power. They resulted in millions of deaths and millions more of displacements. This is the first time war has been brought to the capital (except for the Mahdists takeover from the British in 1884, and the 2008 attack on the city by the Darfuri armed group, the Justice and Equality Movement). This time around, people watched fighting breaking out in Khartoum on TV screens in real time.
What is taking place in the capital city reflects an accumulation of political, social, and economic grievances against the state. Under military or civilian rule, Northern and Central Sudanese elites have always been in charge of the state. To refer to it as a fight between two generals would be oversimplifying things.
Bashir’s equilibrium of power
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in their present condition, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are products of the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for thirty years (1989–2019). They were meant to watch each other and protect his regime. Furthermore, this equilibrium of power was meant to work against the interests of the Sudanese people in terms of justice, democracy, and fair distribution of wealth and power. The fighting in Khartoum that began on 15 April, 2023 was the logical conclusion of having two parallel armies under separate commands.
Under al-Bashir, the SAF was purged of its professional officers and high-ranking generals. The current generals, including al-Burhan, were promoted based on their loyalty to Islamist ideology, and to al-Bashir. Though broadly reflecting the face of the nation, the army’s top brass remains loyal to the Islamist party of the previous regime. Al-Bashir’s regime may have fallen in 2019, but its army and security remained intact.
The RSF is an offshoot of the notorious Janjaweed Militia, formed in 2003 to quell a rebellion in Darfur against the central government. The SAF Air Force razed villages to the ground; the militia attacked the people on the ground. The main force behind the Janjaweed were the Arab pastoralists, who fought with the non-Arab Darfurian farmers for grazing resources — a conflict that perhaps climate change has made more pronounced. Hemedti was one of the leaders of the Janjaweed accused of committing genocide, in which between 200,000 and 450,000 people lost their lives and millions were displaced.
The RSF was established in 2013 as a legal entity and parallel military force under Hemedti. Al-Burhan was one of the military officers who trained the RSF. Later, its soldiers served as border guards, partly paid for by the EU, to dissuade immigrants headed for Europe. This was termed the Khartoum Process.
The current conflict has spilled over into Darfur. In 2015, the RSF sent troops to fight Yemen’s war alongside Saudi and Emirati forces. They made a lot of money from it and gained combat experience. The war in Yemen and the involvement of Russia’s Wagner Group in gold mining, in close collaboration with the RSF, introduced a regional and global dimension.
The war against the people
The biggest losers in the conflict are the Sudanese people. Both the SAF and RSF have blood on their hands. They committed atrocities in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile State. Since December 2018 and after al-Bashir’s fall in April 2019, they have killed many peaceful protesters. They massacred over 120 protesters at a sit-in on 3 June, 2019. They colluded on 25 October, 2021 to depose the military-civilian coalition. Hemedti declared the coup a mistake months later and joined civilians in calling for a handover of power to them, even if his motives were not, let us say, as innocent as he presented them. This put him in direct conflict with the Burhan-led SAF. The release from a high-security prison of Ali Haroun, former leader of al-Bashir’s party, is the clearest signal that the Islamists in al-Burhan’s corner are coming out of the shadows.
If Sudan’s Armed Forces win, probably with the help of the Egyptian Air Force, that may herald a wholesale return of the former regime, vengeance uppermost in their minds. If the RSF, better equipped for urban warfare, better-trained in combat, in control of most of Khartoum and entrenched among the civilian population, wins, Sudan would be at the mercy of a tribal and family-owned militia that controls the gold trade in Darfur and other parts of the country. No one can predict which direction it will take at that point. Hemedti, however, claims to be fighting to install civilian rule.
The hopeful signs amid adversity are the resistance committees, the unsung heroes in Sudan. They are the grass-roots resistance committees that mobilised protesters and provided services to their local communities. After the outbreak of fighting, they formed various committees to let people know where to get water and help the vulnerable and needy. They guided those who wanted to leave the city on safe routes to take. Some have even established temporary health clinics to help those in dire need of treatment.
One can’t compare Sudan to Yemen or Ethiopia. However, when the Prime Minister of Ethiopia started the war in Tigray, he thought it would be over in two weeks. He even celebrated that it was over in three weeks. But the war dragged on for two years.
Mohamed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, sparked the war in Yemen, thinking it would be over in a few weeks, given Riyadh’s military superiority. The war is now entering its eighth year. Whoever started the fighting in Khartoum, the RSF and SAF promised to end it in a few days. It is easy to start wars but difficult to control how and when they end. In Ethiopia, the war ended when both sides realised they couldn’t win militarily. The same is happening in Yemen and may happen in Sudan, too. But the biggest losers are the country, its democratic transition, and its people.