Sudan is Heading towards an all-out Civil War
Samir Bhattacharya, Senior Research Associate, VIF

In the early hours of 15th April, fighting broke out in Khartoum and other parts of Sudan, engulfing the capital in conflict and escalating the risk of an all-out civil war. The reason behind this violence is an apparent power struggle between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Commander of Sudan's National Army and General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, Commander of the paramilitary group Rapid Support Force (RSF).

The crisis started on 13th April when RSF forces rolled through the Merowe town, located 210 kilometres north of the capital, and surrounded the airport, where Sudanese and Egyptian armies both keep their military planes.[1] There have been numerous reports of heavy gunfire in Darfur and close to the El Obeid airbase in North Kordofan. [2] So far, at least 270 civilians have died, and 2,600 have been injured.[3] This includes three UN employees who died during fighting between the two armies in El-Fasher.[4]

RSF and Mohamed Hamdan "Hemedti" Dagolo

Around 2003, Bashir recruited Janjaweed, a conglomeration of Arab tribal militias mostly drawn from camel-trading tribes to fight non-Arab people who began revolting against his rule.[5] In 2013, Bashir formed RSF under Hemedti's leadership, combining elements of the Janjaweed and National Intelligence and Security Services. Bashir kept the Janjaweed as a semi-organised paramilitary group in order to counterbalance the national army and the intelligence service. He even established aseparate command structure and funds for RSF. He also gave their leaders military ranks.

Today, RSF is a transnational mercenary group that has taken control of a state. It is a hybrid of ethnic militia and corporate enterprise. Tens of thousands of its combat-tested veterans are under the command of General Hemedti who has enormous wealth obtained from the export of gold from illegal mines. In essence, a military-political entrepreneur, Hemedti's paramilitary business empire crosses international boundaries. He currently has more available funds than any other politician.

Genesis of the War

The genesis of the current power struggle dates back to the years before the 2019 uprising that toppled Bashir. During that time, he built powerful security forces that he purposefully pitted against one another. Burhan's regular military forces and the RSF worked together to remove Bashir in 2019.[6] After Bashir was overthrown, civilians and the military agreed to form a transitional government headed by Abdalla Hamdok, a civilian Prime Minister.[7] However, in October 2021 Burhan's armed forces overthrew the interim administration, arrested Hamdok and seized power. [8] Hamdok was reinstated a month later after signing a controversial deal with the coup leaders.[9] Meanwhile, the deal triggered widespread pro-democracy protests and led to the resignation of Hamdok and making way for the Sovereign Council.[10] Since then, Burhan, the leader of the Council, has been Sudan's de facto President.

The recent violence directly results from disagreements about integrating RSF paramilitaries into the Sudanese army and who should oversee the process. Following the protracted period of political stalemate since the October 2021 coup d'état, a political framework agreement was signed on 5th December 2022.[11] However, immediately after the signing, several thousand people demonstrated against the agreement about a mile away from the signing ceremony. [12] Prima facie, this accord has successfully resolved the political impasse that followed the coup but failed to win over the general public.

The leaders repeatedly fought over the terms of the deal, which was initially supposed to be finalised by 1st April to have a new civilian administration in place by 11th April.[13] A crucial requirement of Sudan's transition agreement was the merger between the national army and RSF. General Burhan wanted this restructuring to happen within two years in order to neutralise his adversary and ensure the dominance of Sudanese army. However, Hemedti wanted it to happen over ten years, considering the internal reform required within the army.[14]

In the last few months, tension has been rising, as witnessed in conflicting public pronouncements, a significant military presence in Khartoum, and parallel international travel by Sudanese army and RSF commanders. Most recently, the RSF began deploying personnel across the nation and in Khartoum without the army's explicit consent.[15] They also stationed troops close to the town of Merowe in northern Sudan, which the national army stated was illegal.[16] However, RSF says its presence in Northern Sudan and elsewhere is intended to achieve security and stability and fight human trafficking and illegal migration.[17]

In Sudan, the national army and RSF, both have extensive patronage and ethnic networks. The Sudanese state and economy are particularly well-entrenched by the Islamists surrounding General Burhan. These Islamists were alarmed by disagreements over Hemedti's promotion as Burhan's equal inside the army. Currently, both generals are fighting for their positions of authority while saying they are doing so to thwart another coup.[18] Additionally, each side is charging the other with firing first. The national army claimed that Hemedti's soldiers had started a rebellion against the government, resulting in this violence.[19] In response, the RSF stated that it retaliated in response to a military attack at one of its bases in South Khartoum.[20] On 17th April, the Sudanese foreign ministry declared the RSF a rebel entity and ordered its dissolution.[21]

Sudan's Democratic Transition Gets Delayed, Again

A power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians was negotiated after Bashir was overthrown in order to facilitate the transition to a democratic government. The transition process was halted when a coup against the transitional administration occurred in October 2021. After the coup, the army regained power. However, it is not smooth sailing as another round of international isolation is lurking in the shadows. The army is also facing constant weekly protests by civilians and worsening economic conditions.
The accord between civilians, the military, and paramilitaries intended to relaunch the democratic transition in Sudan appears to be frozen once more. It will likely remain so for an indefinite period. And the rivalry between the nation's two most powerful leaders, not the struggle between civilians and the military, is the cause of the delay in the democratic transition.

External Actors

The participation of several external actors, each with its own political agenda and interests, is another leading cause of the current crisis. Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have all participated in obstructing the transition to civilian authority, albeit for different reasons. While opposing a strong, democratic, civilian-led administration in Khartoum that is unlikely to be in line with their vested interests, all of these parties have contributed to the ongoing crisis by using various strategies and backing different people within Sudan.

Sudan's geographic position makes the country a prize for multiple countries. Sudan is located at the intersection of the Red Sea, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. Sudan's strategic location and agricultural resources have attracted regional power struggles, hampering the smooth transition to a civilian-led government. It isn't easy for any country to manage security when it shares its border with multiple countries. And Sudan shares its border with seven countries: Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Egypt.[22] For a nation without adequate resources and a perennially weak central government, Sudan's security situation has always been a big concern.

Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are the three most powerful Red Sea nations in terms of their economies and military strength. The US, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and other countries are also vying for their share of the Sudanese pie. Several of Sudan's neighbours, notably South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, and Eritrea, have also experienced political unrest and conflict, and thus all have a stake in Sudan's peace and stability.

For Energy-rich United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the change in Sudan offers a chance to counteract regional Islamist influence.[23] They have sought investments in industries including agriculture, where Sudan has enormous potential, and ports along the Red Sea coast of Sudan.[24] They are also part of the "Quad," which includes the US, Britain, and the UN. Earlier, the Quad ledthe mediation process in Sudan.

Egypt's primary concern vis-à-vis Sudan is the safety of its water resources. Since the Nile runs through Sudan, Egypt needs to maintain good relations with Sudan to counter Ethiopian dominance. In order to establish geopolitical supremacy and address the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) dispute with Ethiopia, Egypt is attempting to influence Sudan.[25] Most recently, Al-Fashaga, the disputed farmland on their border, and other issues have affected Sudan's relations with Ethiopia. Egypt seeks to have a Sudanese Authority in power that is hostile to Ethiopia.

Israel is another critical external actor concerning Sudan. The Abraham Accords between Israel and other Arab nations in 2020 included Sudan. However, the coup in 2021 resulted in a suspension of American assistance and a jolt to the normalisation of relations between Israel and Sudan. Hemedti and Burhan both expressed their interest in normalising relations with Israel.[26]Israel is now worried that this conflict will impede the establishment of a civilian government and disturb the peace agreement process with Sudan. Israel is leveraging its connections with both generals and urging both parties to stop fighting at the earliest.[27]

Turkey's interests in Sudan and the greater Red Sea region hinge on trade and security. Turkey will be on both sides of the Suez Canal thanks to its new Suakin Island facility in Sudan, which is still under construction. This will lessen its reliance on Egypt. Another reason Turkey is keen to rebuild Suakin is for its historical value. Suakin is a historically Ottoman Red Sea port used for commercial and naval purposes. [28]

Russia is another major player in Sudan, involved through Wagner, a private military company. The Wagner Group's primary goal is to protect mineral resources, especially gold mining resources, and smuggle gold to Russia via the United Arab Emirates. [29] Under a 25-year leasing agreement, Russia is also eager to construct a naval base in Port Sudan that would host around 300 Russian troops. [30] Military authorities in Sudan, particularly, Hemedti, have publicly backed Russia's bid for a port there.[31] He went to Moscow in early 2022, just a day after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[32] It appears Hemedti is receiving covert backing from Russia in this conflict.

Last but not least, the ongoing conflict in Sudan brings to light the United States waning influence in the area. [33] The United States is trying to exert more pressure on Sudan's warring factions to accept a ceasefire through their diplomatic partners. The Biden Administration appears to be operating under the false assumption that organisations of military leaders and mercenaries, who are currently setting the nation on fire to protect their own interests, will in some way respond to the financial incentives of development and debt relief even though they have never in the past responded to incentives.

The international quartet, which consists of the United States, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, has failed to settle the conflict between al-Burhan and Hemedti during the previous few weeks, underscoring Washington's helplessness. And it also says a lot about Washington's limited alternatives, as it depends on regional actors to end the current crisis, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It seems Russia is again winning the race for influence in Africa over the United States.

Al-Burhan received his training at an Egyptian military college and undertook several joint military exercises.[34] Clearly, General Burhan has the support of neighbouring Egypt. However, Hemedti is close with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Hemedti is also close with Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea. [35] Russia appears to be behind Hemedti. In the end, it wouldn't matter who won as long as the military administration retained power. As the EU encourages RSF to police the border, the EU also seems to support Hemedti.[36]

Tough Future Ahead

Despite the strategic significance of Sudan and the Biden administration's rhetoric regarding its support for democracy overseas, Washington seemed more interested in the implementation of the Abraham Accords rather than fostering a genuine democratic transition in the nation. The Biden administration must reassess and radically reform its strategy for mediating Sudanese peace. The involvement of regional powers is also necessary for a breakthrough in Sudan, as witnessed during the peace agreement in Ethiopia, negotiated by the African Union. The United States needs to cooperate with allies who share its values as well as Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-nation regional grouping of which Sudan is a member, will send Kenyan President William Ruto, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Djibouti's President Omar Guelleh to broker an immediate ceasefire.[37]

This is a personal power struggle between the two opposing factions that are battling it out for control of Sudan and its priceless resources. While Burhan ordered the dissolution of the RSF, calling it a "rebellious group", Hemedti called Burhan "a radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air".[38]Despite the promises of transition towards a civilian government, it appears that neither Burhan nor Hemedti intends to relinquish power and continues to create obstacles in the path of Sudan's transition to civilian democracy.

Despite being rich in arable land and abundant natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, gold, silver, chromite, manganese, gypsum, mica, zinc, iron, lead, uranium, copper, kaolin, cobalt, granite, nickel, tin, and aluminium, Sudan is heavily indebted and poor. [39] Its GDPis continuously shrinking, and per capita income is dropping. Meanwhile, inflation is soaring with almost a quarter of Sudanese struggling for sustenance while millions live in refugee camps. The recent clash between two competing factions doesn't augur well for the country's stability. It would surely hamper Sudan's democratic transition. One of Africa's largest and most strategically significant countries is in danger of falling into anarchy.

Endnotes :

[1] “Sudanese army warns against military escalation after RSF deployment in Merowe” Sudan Tribune. April 13, 2023.

[2]Pavan Kulkarni “As Army and Rapid Support Forces battle it out, Sudanese left calls for restoring the revolution”. April 15, 2023.

[3]LingamguntaNirmitha Rao “Death toll mounts to 270, over 2,600 injured in Sudan clashes.” April 19, 2023.

[4] “Three WFP employees killed in Sudan as military rivals fight for power”. Al Arabiya News. April 16,2023.

[5] “Who is ‘Hemedti’, general behind Sudan’s feared RSF force?. Al Jazeera. April 16, 2023.

[6]James Copnall. “Sudan crisis: Burhan and Hemedti - the two generals at the heart of the conflict. April 18, 2023.

[7]John Goodman, GumaKundaKomey “Opinion: Sudan needs attention and action now”. Devex. August 31, 2022.

[8] “Sudan's military takes power in coup, arrests Prime Minister Hamdok. The Hindu. October 25, 2021.

[9]Molly Blackall. “Sudan: Civilians killed as army and paramilitary forces battle for control”. INews.April15, 2023.

[10]Claire Gilbody-Dickerson “Sudan Prime Minister AbdallaHamdok resigns after Khartoum protests and warns of ‘dangerous turning point’. INews. January 3, 2022.

[11]Michael Atit “Sudan's Political Deal Raises Hope of Ending Violence”. VOA. December 6, 2022.

[12]Khalid Abdelaziz and NafisaEltahir. “Sudan generals and parties sign outline deal, protesters cry foul”. Reuters. December 6, 2022.

[13] “Sudan will form new government on April 11: official spokesman. Sudan Tribune. March 19, 2023.

[14] “Sudan's military warns of RSF deployment in Khartoum, other cities” TRT World. April 13, 2023.

[15]Jack Jeffery. “Sudan's military warns of conflict after rival force deploys”. ABC News.April 13, 2023.

[16] “Hemeti ready to meet al-Burhan to ease Sudan tensions: Mediators. Al Jazeera. April 14, 2023.

[17] “Sudan’s RSF denies forces deployment exacerbates armed conflict with military”. Middle East Online. April 13, 2023.

[18]Nima Elbagir, Jessie Yeung, Rob Picheta “Sudan military leader accuses rival of ‘attempted coup’ as vicious fighting grips capital”. CNN. April 17, 2023.

[19] “Amidst clashes, Sudan Army orders dissolution of paramilitary force RSF”. The Week.April 17, 2023.

[20] “RSF accuses army of attacking its forces at Sudanese capital base amid tensions”. Firstpost. April 15, 2023.

[21] “Sudan army declares RSF a rebel group, orders dissolution”. Al Jazeera, April 17, 2023.

[22]Andrew Harding. “Sudan fighting: Why it matters to countries worldwide”. BBC. April 20, 2023.

[23] “Sudan’s Story Goes From Faultlines To Frontlines”. Business World. April 17, 2023.

[24]Ashwin Ahmad. “Sudan Fighting Is About Ambitious Generals And Meddlesome Regional Powers”. Stratnews Global. April 20, 2023.

[25]Osama al-Saeed.“How Will the Conflict in Sudan Impact Egypt's Stance over GERD?”Asharq Al-Awsat. April 16, 2023.

[26] “Sudan, Israel agree to move forward with normalisation of relations”. Africa News. February 3, 2022.

[27] Lazar Berman . “Israel in contact with Sudan’s leaders, trying to help calm fighting, official says”. Times of Israel. April 20, 2023.

[28]Mohammed Amin. “Shadow games on the Red Sea as scramble for Sudan's ports intensifies”. Middle East Eye. February 24, 2023.

[29] “Russia smuggling gold from Sudan to fund war: CNN report”. Arab News.August 1, 2022.

[30]Mike Eckel “Sudan Slips Into Chaos. Russia Lurks In The Background.”.RFERL. April 19, 2023.

[31]Hemedti says Sudan should be open to naval base accord with Russia, or others” Reuters. March 3, 2022.

[32] “Russia ramps up ties with Sudan as Ukraine war rages”Deccan Herald. March 11, 2022.

[33]Alex de Waal. “Sudan is tearing itself apart and Washington lost its capacity to help”.Responsible Statecraft. April 20, 2023.

[34] “Who is al-Burhan, Sudan’s military de facto head of state?” Al Jazeera. April 16, 2023.

[35] “Eritrea: President Isaias met and held talk with General Mohamed HamdanDagalo” Zawya. March 14, 2023.

[36] “Sudan crisis: The ruthless mercenaries who run the country for gold”. BBC. July 20, 2019.

[37]Mariama Diallo “IGAD to Send Three Presidents to Mediate Crisis in Sudan”.VOA. April 17, 2023.

[38] “Fighting rages in Sudan as death toll passes 100”. The Hindu. April 17, 2023.

[39] “Sudan on brink”.The Statesman. April 19, 2023.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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