The current conflict in Khartoum has pitted two military forces against each other. As these two forces fight it out ordinary people have been left trapped in the middle with vanishing hope of a democratic government being restored, writes Samuel Bakalo.

In the past few weeks, many of us have watched on in horror at the ongoing urban war at the heart of Sudan’s capital Khartoum. The battle for Sudan’s capital is currently raging between two major military forces, the Sudan Regular Army and the paramilitary forces also known as Rapid Support Force (RSF). The root causes behind this war include regional and tribal grievances over the political and economic marginalisation of Arab elites and non-Arabs.

Sudan is a vast country, the 3rd largest in Africa, with a population of nearly 50 million made up of different ethnic groups. Situated roughly at the centre of the country, at the junction of the Blue and White Nile rivers, Khartoum is Sudan’s largest urban area and the centre of commerce and politics. It is a cosmopolitan city, although Islam and Arabic language dominate the political economy of the city.

To understand the current conflict, it’s important to understand what happened in Darfur. The war in Darfur was fought between rebel groups and the central government which was led by the recently deposed ruler President Al-Bashir.  The conflict had a tribal dimension as the Darfur rebel groups were mainly composed of the regionally predominant non-Arab tribes such as Fur and Zaghawa.

To counteract the rebel groups’ advances, the Al-Bashir regime formed and armed a local militia known as the Janjaweed. Along with the regime, the Janjaweed are accused of being responsible for the killing and displacement of millions of people which is widely referred to as the Darfur genocide.

The leader of the Janjaweed, which has rebranded as the RSF, was General Dagalo, locally known as Hemdeti, who is now fighting in Khartoum against Sudan Regular Army.

From supporters to rebels

Instead of addressing the root causes of the Darfur conflict and finding a political solution, President Bashir propped up the RSF. He did so to counter fears of a coup d’état by the regular army. He allowed the RSF to form a base at the heart of Khartoum, with no proper agreement about terms of engagement or integration with the state’s security forces.

This was a recipe for disaster, not least for President Bashir himself, who was overthrown in a joint action by the same military groups, after mass demonstrations by the public. He left two competing and fully armed military forces operating in the backyard of millions of innocent Khartoum dwellers.  This sowed the seeds for the current turmoil in Khartoum.

Al-Bashir took power from the democratically elected civil government through a coup d’état but with barely any violence. When he was deposed in 2019 by the Sudanese Arab-spring-type revolution, it was messy. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the current violence and the destruction in the short space of time, are unprecedented in Khartoum.

The two military groups hijacked the gains of the people’s revolution, which toppled President Bashir and led to the formation of the Transitional Civilian Government to pave the way for democracy and good governance. The transitional government was tasked, amongst other things, with integrating competing armed forces into one national army. Unfortunately, two of those military forces undermined and overthrew the transitional government and are now fighting for control of Khartoum.

The people of Khartoum tried their best through demonstrations and strikes to push for democracy but to no avail. And yet, in Khartoum, there was a mix of frustration and hope. Frustration because of the stalled demands for democratic political reforms. And hope that their wishes and aspiration for democratic and fair governance will be eventually realised.

Support and no support from the outside

There have been mistakes and errors of judgement by regional and international power players. The reluctance of any timely action to stop the military leaders to go into full-scale war has led to significant losses of life. Compared to the ordinary citizen, many will have had better intelligence and greater leverage to stop the war in the first place and to now bring it to a swifter conclusion. Unfortunately, this has not happened. Prolonged instability in Sudan could potentially lead to the disintegration of the country, which would inevitably bring wider negative implications to the neighbouring countries as well as to faraway stakeholders. Given Sudan’s strategic geopolitical position and its water and mineral resources, all stakeholders ought to make meaningful and coordinated fast actions to stop the war and bring the country to the path of recovery.

Despite being a relatively poor country, Sudanese society has been welcoming and hosting millions of refugees from neighbouring countries for decades. During the Eritrean independence war with Ethiopia, millions of displaced Eritrean refugees and others safely entered and settled in Sudan. Millions of refugees from other neighbouring counties have made Sudan home. This is commendable. Unfortunately, the reverse is happening now. Because of the unprecedented urban conflict, Khartoum’s residents are now forced to flee from their homes to neighbouring countries or to relocate internally. Sadly, innocent people and the public are paying a heavy price for the failures of power-mongering military leaders.

Photo credit: Juri Knauth used with permission CC BY-SA 2.0