Why is there fighting in Sudan? A brief guide

By Miriam Aitken

Since 15th April 2023, Sudan has experienced an unprecedented outbreak of fighting between the army – the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly referred to as “Hemedti”. Historically, conflict in Sudan has been played out on the periphery, such as the Darfur and Kordofan states, while the greater Khartoum area has been largely spared all-out fighting, serving as a refuge for many fleeing violence elsewhere. Now, the urban street-fighting in the capital and cities across the country has caught millions of civilians in the crossfire. The humanitarian impact of the fighting is disastrous, and the scale is staggering. Millions remain trapped in their homes as soldiers and paramilitary fighters battle in the streets and uniformed men have been reported to raid and vandalise homes and businesses. Hospitals have been damaged and ambulances targeted. Health services still functioning are quickly running out of vital supplies including medicine and blood. Food and water are running short and power cuts are trapping people in over forty-degree heat. Foreign embassies have mostly evacuated their staff, as multiple attempts at humanitarian ceasefires have collapsed. Any that have held – however tenuously – are largely seen as efforts to allow foreign governments to evacuate their citizens, rather than serious attempts to establish a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Sudanese population remains to face the violence alone, fleeing across borders from what risks becoming a protracted civil war. 

What is the situation on the ground?

As the fighting enters its fifth week, neither the SAF nor the RSF seem to have the clear upper hand. While the army is deploying air power, the RSF has occupied residential areas, carrying out guerilla-type warfare. The RSF appears to hold much of Khartoum proper, while intense fighting rages in Omdurman and Bahri, Khartoum’s sister cities. Strategic targets in Khartoum, including the presidential palace, army and RSF headquarters, and the bridges between Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri have changed hands multiple times. News from outside of Khartoum is harder to obtain amid internet blackouts and infrastructural collapse, but the insecurity has already triggered violence in the Kordofan and Darfur states as well as Kassala, Gedarif, Blue Nile and Red Sea states. Notably around West Darfur’s state capital al-Geneina, hundreds have been killed in fighting between the RSF and the army but also between the Darfuri tribes and Arab militias who have been part of Darfur’s twenty-year civil war. 

Multiple attempts to negotiate a lasting ceasefire have failed. Several successive humanitarian truces in the first days of the fighting broke down, many within hours of being agreed. A more sustained ceasefire started on 25 April and was extended several times. While the truce offered some respite, and allowed foreign embassies to evacuate their staff, fighting has continued as both sides accuse each other of violating the ceasefire. The United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as foreign governments, including those of the US, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and South Sudan, have attempted to mediate the situation. Notably, South Sudan announced it had brokered a week-long ceasefire starting 4 May; however, it was immediately broken with airstrikes and shooting reported in Khartoum. On 6 May, envoys from the SAF and RSF met in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah for “pre-negotiation” talks under a US-Saudi initiative. However, both parties emphasised that they would only engage in talks on a humanitarian ceasefire, not an end to the war. After almost a week of talks, the RSF and SAF signed a ‘declaration of principles’ on 11th May. Falling short of a ceasefire, the declaration includes commitments to provide safe passage for civilians to leave private houses that have been occupied in the fighting and withdraw from vital infrastructure like water and power plants. US officials have said the declaration of principles will be followed by negotiations to secure a ceasefire but acknowledged that the parties remain “quite far apart”. Burhan and Hemedti’s inflammatory rhetoric has been matched with rampant ceasefire violations since the start of the fighting. Moreover, there is increasing suspicion that both the RSF and SAF leaders have lost full command of their forces, with fighting continuing despite Burhan and Hemedti bowing to international pressure and engaging in talks. What is more, civilian forces have expressed concern at their exclusion from the talks and the worry that any negotiations would focus on a power-sharing agreement between the SAF and RSF rather than the transition to civilian government. In what is increasingly cast as a zero-sum game between the two strongmen, a negotiated end of the conflict at this point in time appears unlikely.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is ever deteriorating. The World Health Organisation’s death count as of 9th May reports over 600 killed and over 5000 injured, though the real numbers are likely to be much higher. At the end of April, the Sudan Doctors Union reported that sixty out of eight-six hospitals in conflict zones have ceased operations. Meanwhile, Sudan’s banking system has shut down, preventing the transfer of financial aid. Humanitarian agencies have been forced to cease operations across many parts of the country. The World Food Programme temporarily suspended operations after three of its staff were killed. Towards the end of April and the beginning of May, the first shipments of aid began to trickle back into the country as some agencies restarted operations. However, this is unlikely to represent more than a small relief in light of the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Sudan where a third of the population had been reliant on humanitarian aid even before the conflict. 

Amidst the lack of basic necessities, the collapse of services, and the exodus of foreign diplomats and aid workers, the civilian population has been left on its own. Many of the same youth groups and neighbourhood committees involved in the 2019 Revolution and the resistance movement against the 2021 coup have stepped up to provide life-saving assistance to millions. Grassroots networks have sprung up, using Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp to coordinate the distribution of food, medicine, and fuel, and share information on safe evacuation routes. Medics have mobilized to provide emergency health services as hospitals have been destroyed or forced to shut down. Diaspora networks, who had also played an important mobilizing role during the protest movement, have sprung into action, coordinating fundraisers, providing remote healthcare advice and coordinating relief efforts on the ground.

What triggered the fighting? 

The fighting broke out after days of escalating tensions between the SAF and RSF. On 12 April, the RSF deployed forces in the northern city of Merowe, a traditional army stronghold. The SAF issued an ultimatum for the RSF to back down but despite emergency mediation efforts, fighting broke out on 15 April. It is unclear who fired the first shot but both sides had been manoeuvering troops for days, clearly preparing for battle. 

The fighting comes in the context of negotiations around Sudan’s political transition process following the deposition of the authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and the military coup in 2021 that derailed the subsequent handover of power to the civilians. In the winter of 2018 and spring of 2019, an unprecedented popular protest movement challenged the rule of Omar al-Bashir who had been in power for thirty years. Led by young people, women, professional organisations and grassroots neighbourhood committees, the revolution was the largest and most sustained social movement in Sudan’s modern history. After months of protest, the security forces – including the army and the RSF –  turned against Bashir and ousted the dictator on 11th April. The military quickly took over, forming the Transitional Military Council. Meanwhile, the civilian opposition mounted pressure on the security forces to step down. The turning point came on 3rd June 2019, when the security forces – reportedly with heavy RSF involvement – killed up to 120 protestors during a sit-in in Khartoum. The massacre gave the civilian opposition new drive and sparked international outrage, forcing the security forces to bow to domestic and international pressure. By August 2019, the security forces formed a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council with the main civilian block at the time, the Forces for Freedom and Change, and adopted a roadmap towards establishing civilian rule.

However, the transition period under civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok proved contentious. The international community was slow to lift sanctions on Sudan which would have gone some way to mitigate the crippling economic crisis in the country. Many Sudanese have blamed delay in the US revoking Sudan’s status as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and the West’s failure to provide Hamdok’s government with financial assistance for undermining the transition process from the start. Public discontent and divisions within the civilian block served the security forces. As the deadline for the military to hand over power to the civilians neared, the security forces, under the leadership of Burhan and Hemedti, staged a coup on 25th October 2021, dissolved the Sovereign Council and detained Prime Minister Hamdok. The coup was widely condemned by Sudan’s international partners, including the US, the European Union, the AU and the UN, while even the military’s allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were reluctant to support this violent takeover of power. The coup put a break on international promises for financial assistance and debt-relief negotiations, making the already bad economic situation in the country worse. It also faced strong, immediate, and sustained opposition by civilians, with youth groups at the forefront. Since October 2021, civilians, led by the neighbourhood Resistance Committees, have been staging near-weekly protests, demanding an end to military rule. The protests were violently repressed, with security forces killing over 120 people since October 2021, but failing to quell the mass demonstrations. The UN, AU, and IGAD, under a joint initiative known as the Tripartite Mechanism, attempted to mediate the situation alongside negotiations facilitated by the US, UK, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. 

Neither process made any substantive progress until the military and a major civilian opposition block, the Forces for Freedom and Change-Central Command (FFC-CC) signed a deal, known as the Framework Agreement, on 5th December 2022. While the Resistance Committees and various other civilian groups rejected the Framework Agreement and any negotiations with the military, the process was supported by much of the international community, the UN-AU-IGAD Tripartite Mechanism and was signed by over fifty political and civil groups. The Framework Agreement provided a roadmap for the return to a civilian-led government as well as a set of negotiations around five key issues: transitional justice, the status of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (an agreement signed in 2020 between Sudan’s transitional government and various armed and political groups to address Sudan’s internal armed conflicts), security and development needs in eastern Sudan, the ongoing dismantling of the Bashir regime, and security sector reform. This last point proved particularly contentious as it included negotiations around the integration of the Rapid Support Forces into the Sudanese Armed Forces. Burhan and Hemedti disagreed over the timeline for integration and the leadership structure of the integrated forces. The question of security sector reform further brought to light existing tensions between the two leaders whose power-struggle post-coup had become increasingly apparent. 

Who are Burhan and Hemedti?

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces and Chairman of Sudan’s transitional ruling council. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” is his deputy in the Sovereign Council and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces. The two men command the two most powerful and competing elements of Sudan’s security apparatus. While they were allied in their deposition of Bashir and the coup against the incoming civilian government, their different backgrounds and diverging ambitions have also made them bitter rivals.

Burhan rose through the ranks of the military during the conflict in Darfur in the early 2000s. He became chief of staff of the SAF in 2018 and by April 2019, when Bashir was deposed, he was Sudan’s third most senior general. A relatively unknown figure, he was made head of the Transitional Military Council and de facto head of state as a compromise candidate who was seen as unlikely to ruffle too many feathers. 

Unlike Burhan who, like most of Sudan’s political elite, comes from the country’s centre, Hemedti came from a humble camel-trading background, with little formal education. Hemedti rose to prominence during the Darfur war as part of the feared Arab tribal Janjaweed militia that was responsible for many of the atrocities against the state’s non-Arab population. As part of Bashir’s reshuffling of the security apparatus, the Janjaweed were formalized into the Rapid Support Forces under Hemedti’s command. Moreover, Hemedti holds significant economic power, having amassed resources from Sudan’s cross-border smuggling and gaining control over the majority of Sudan’s gold exports.

The men were initially partners, working together to overthrow the civilian transition process in October 2021. However, tensions between the two leaders had become increasingly apparent in the aftermath of the coup. As the negotiations around the transition to civilian rule developed, Hemedti began projecting himself as more closely aligned with the civilian coalition and criticizing the army’s leaders. However, the two strongmen’s rivalry has deeper roots, notably in the structure of Sudan’s security sector under Omar al-Bashir. Bashir, who himself came to power in a coup in 1989, attempted to “coup-proof” his regime by factionalising and playing off different branches of the security apparatus against each other. Suspicious of his generals, Bashir undermined the Sudanese Armed Forces and increasingly funded paramilitary organisations, such as the RSF, which came under direct control of the Presidency, forming a kind of presidential guard. Under Hemedti’s leadership, it became one of the most powerful security actors in Sudan, while the Sudanese Armed Forces were systematically hollowed out. 

What are the risks?

The conflict in Sudan is pushing a fragile domestic situation following the 2021 coup to the brink. While the fighting has so far been mostly limited to a confrontation between the RSF and SAF, it risks drawing in other armed actors. There have already been reports of the Central Reserve Police deploying in Khartoum. The conflict also risks reigniting intercommunal tensions, with the security vacuum created by the confrontation of the RSF and SAF triggering armed clashes between Arab and non-Arab tribes in West Darfur that have killed over 200 people. 

Regionally, the Horn of Africa is also vulnerable to wars, insecurity, and climate-change driven drought that has left millions facing food insecurity. The violence and instability risks spilling over into Sudan’s vulnerable neighbours, especially Chad, South Sudan, and Libya. The fighting has already triggered a large-scale displacement crisis. Tens of thousands have crossed the borders into Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Central African Republic, in addition to as many internally displaced. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said it is bracing for over 800,000 refugees potentially fleeing into neighbouring countries. Moreover, the World Food Programme has warned that the skyrocketing food prices in Sudan and neighbouring Chad and South Sudan could trigger a large-scale humanitarian crisis in the region. 

Furthermore, as the conflict becomes protracted, it risks drawing in external powers. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, have important relations with both Burhan and Hemedti. For the two Gulf states, the Red Sea has been a focus point for the strategic control of maritime routes and trade. Moreover, while Bashir’s Islamist regime had long maintained close ties to Iran and Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups, Saudi Arabia and the UAE strengthened their support for and influence over Sudan’s generals once they had deposed him. Both Burhan and Hemedti have important personal links to the two Gulf powers which paid for the separate deployment of the SAF and RSF under the leadership of Burhan and Hemedti respectively in the two forces’ intervention in the conflict in Yemen from 2015. On the other hand, Egypt has historically been an important actor in modern Sudanese affairs, dating back to its control over the country in the Egyptian-British condominium. Cairo has reportedly given military support to the Sudanese Armed Forces as a strong national army mirroring its own and fiercely opposing Hemedti and his paramilitary organization. Egypt’s leadership believes backing Burhan best serves its interests, such as negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam upstream on the Nile. However, Egypt’s ally, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, is a staunch supporter of Hemedti whose RSF intervened in Libya on Haftar’s behalf in 2019. Sources have reported that Haftar has delivered weapons to the RSF, which Haftar has denied. Moreover, the conflict risks drawing in armed groups from across Sudan’s frontiers, notably Chad, where Hemedti has links to tribal groups that span across the international border. While there has been no meaningful outside intervention yet, the risk increases as the conflict continues.

While a variety of international actors have stakes in Sudan, nobody wants to see state failure in the country. However, the longer the conflict runs its course, the greater the risk that outside powers will exploit the situation for their own benefit. Meanwhile, millions of Sudanese remain caught in an increasing humanitarian catastrophe. To prevent both the conflict’s escalation and internationalization, and to mitigate the humanitarian fallout of the fighting, a quick end to the conflict is imperative.