[Since April 2023, Sudan has been consumed by a devastating civil war that has claimed thousands of lives and dislocated millions. Mouin Rabbani, Editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Mat Nashed, a journalist and political analyst who has been covering Sudan and its conflicts for many years, to get a better understanding of the structural origins of this conflict and the various forces involved.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): How does the ongoing Sudanese civil war reflect the broader context of Sudanese political developments in recent years, particularly efforts by the country’s military leadership to abort an agreed transition to civilian rule after the popular uprising that deposed Omar Bashir in 2019?
Mat Nashed (MN): The civil war is the outcome of long-standing tensions between the two belligerents: the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).
In 2013 President Omar al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan from 1989 until his ouster in 2019, packaged Arab militias, which had spearheaded mass killings on behalf of the government in Darfur, into the RSF. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo – an Arab militia fighter from Darfur who came from humble beginnings – was made the head of this new force. Dagalo was provided with funding, an official rank, and total impunity to kill civilians and seize control over valuable resources throughout Sudan’s peripheries. Gold mines were his most prized possession.
In exchange Dagalo, and by extension the RSF, were tasked with protecting al-Bashir from coup plotters in the military and al-Bashir’s feared intelligence agency.
All three security branches turned against al-Bashir in April 2019 in response to mass protests. After al-Bashir was toppled, the SAF and RSF formed an uneasy alliance against a grassroots pro-democracy movement, with both subsuming al-Bashir’s intelligence officers into their ranks.
Despite this alliance, senior army officers still had fears that the military would eventually become subordinate to the RSF, which was quickly expanding its militia-business enterprise by leasing mercenaries to fight with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and by exporting Sudanese gold worth billions of dollars to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia.
The above notwithstanding, the RSF and SAF needed each other in the short-term in order to consolidate and expand their political power. This meant teaming up to defeat Sudan’s pro-democracy movement.
The RSF and SAF even coordinated an attack on a protest camp on 3 June 2019 in the hopes of crushing the protests and destroying their morale. At least 120 were killed that day, while hundreds more remain missing and unaccounted for. Survivors say that while the RSF spearheaded the killing, the army closed the gates to the Ministry of Defense in order to prevent civilians from seeking refuge from the massacre.
Despite the violent dispersal, which likely qualifies as a crime against humanity under international human rights law -- hundreds of thousands of protesters continued to defy the military junta. Their resilience prompted regional and western leaders to push the SAF and RSF to form a transitional government incorporating a civilian coalition known as the Forces for Freedom and Change – Central Command (FFC-CC).
The FFC-CC was predominantly composed of civil society groups, as well as a number of traditional and newer Sudanese political parties. However, the pro-democracy movement warned that the civil-military partnership embodied in the transitional government would only serve to postpone rather than prevent the removal of civilians from government. Its views were duly vindicated when Dagalo and SAF Commander-in-Chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan orchestrated a coup on 25 October 2021. Their joint power grab took place shortly before the military was supposed to surrender the top post in the transitional government to a civilian.
MR: Can the civil war in Sudan be reduced to an armed power struggle between two rival claimants to political hegemony over the country, or do Burhan and Dagalo represent distinct institutional or political constituencies vying for supremacy?
MN: As previously mentioned, one of the root causes of the war in Sudan is that army officers feared that the SAF would become a secondary force to the RSF. Al-Burhan appeared to come under increasing pressure in this respect from influential deputies, such as Generals Yasser al-Atta and Shams-al-Deen Kabbashi. Both reportedly blamed al-Burhan for Dagalo’s expanding influence.
Meanwhile, al-Burhan was deprived of any civilian constituency following the 2021 coup, prompting him to lean on Islamists from Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) to run the state bureaucracy. Other prominent NCP personalities were released from prison, making Dagalo increasingly uneasy. Indeed, many notable Islamists are rumored to detest Dagalo and blame him for turning against their former boss al-Bashir in 2019.
As tensions increased after the coup, the international community attempted to restore a civilian-military partnership despite popular calls for full civilian rule. The West’s approach effectively bestowed total impunity on the SAF and RSF as they committed grave human rights abuses against protesters, including torture, the disappearing of activists, and the use of live ammunition to disperse demonstrations.
Western diplomats privately accused the pro-democracy movement of not being pragmatic. This on account of its slogan, “No Negotiation, No Partnership, No Legitimacy”, which accurately sums up the movement’s position towards the junta that was killing its members on the streets of Khartoum.
The Western attempt to restore a civilian-military partnership also gave Dagalo the opportunity to reposition himself as a supporter of “democracy”. He claimed that he regretted participating in the coup, and then went on to forge another marriage of convenience with mainstream political parties in the FFC-CC. The FFC-CC and the RSF were both wary of the SAF and the return of NCP loyalists. But like the military and the NCP, the RSF and FFC-CC had little support among the pro-democracy popular movement.
MR: The war has spread from the Khartoum-Omdurman region to most of the country, and West Darfur in particular. What are the dynamics propelling this conflict?
MN: Khartoum remains the main strategic battleground in the country. The force that wins and controls Khartoum – and its government institutions and facilities – believes it will have a greater claim to international legitimacy. However, neither the RSF nor SAF are likely to succeed in this task.
At the moment, the RSF controls most of the city thanks to its ruthless strategy of embedding itself into civilian homes, markets, water stations, and hospitals. It has also detained thousands of young men, kidnapped doctors and young girls, employed rape as a weapon of war, cut off water and electricity to entire neighborhoods, and looted homes, banks and markets. For most of the civilian population, these abuses have destroyed the RSF’s political credibility and claims to legitimacy.
The SAF, for its part, has also killed scores of people – possibly hundreds – through indiscriminate shelling. It has also detained hundreds of anti-war activists, as well as activists who have attempted to provide essential services to civilians as part of a broader SAF strategy to capture and control aid.
For now, the SAF remains embattled on the outskirts of Khartoum and still controls Sudan’s eastern and northern regions, including Port Sudan which operates as an administrative capital. But its failure to recapture Khartoum – which was quite predictable since the RSF is more experienced in combat – has hurt the army’s credibility in the eyes of its narrow constituency.
In Darfur, the RSF and allied Arab militias are in control of most of the province. The SAF has retreated fully from West Darfur and is hardly visible in Central Darfur. In these regions, residents and human rights monitors are being discriminately and indiscriminately targeted. In North and South Darfur, the RSF and SAF are locked in an indiscriminate war, with the latter responsible for the massacre of 25 people in August after shelling a market.
West Darfur is where the largest humanitarian emergency is unfolding, according to Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations (UN). All have evidence that the RSF and its allied Arab militias have committed probable war crimes, crimes against humanity and – perhaps – systematic killing that may amount to genocide.
As in Khartoum, in Darfur the SAF has been neither able nor willing to protect civilian life and property.
MR: What has happened to Sudan’s civilian and other revolutionary forces, such as the resistance committees, since the civil war erupted? Who are their main representatives, what have they been advocating, and what if any role are they playing?
MN: With no hierarchy or traditional leaders, the resistance committees originally garnered legitimacy by protesting the junta, providing provisions to vulnerable members of their communities, and practicing democratic principles at the local level. An example of the latter is that most committees typically adopted political positions on the basis of a super-majority of votes among their members. They would then instruct their representatives or spokespeople to communicate these positions to other committees through a coordinating mechanism. Representatives also informed the public of their positions through their various social media. Such representatives were never tasked to unilaterally renegotiate their committee’s position.
Since the war the resistance committees have primarily assumed a humanitarian role due to the failure of the international aid response to meet Sudan’s massive needs. An estimated twenty-five million people – more than half of Sudan’s population – are in desperate need of relief due to a humanitarian crisis made worse by the fighting.
But rather than safeguard the integrity of relief, the global aid response has elected to administer its operations from SAF-controlled Port Sudan. This has predictably led to bureaucratic impediments, visa denials, and the acute diversion of aid by the SAF, as well as by the RSF.
The resistance committees have mobilized the same informal networks they previously used to spearhead nationwide protests to provide vital relief to their people. Committees have opened up makeshift clinics, located and distributed life-saving medications to people suffering from serious illnesses, and coordinated evacuations for besieged civilians. Resistance committees undertake these activities thanks to generous donations from members and activists in the diaspora.
Beyond aid, many resistance committees are documenting rights abuses, such as enforced disappearances, and warning young people not to participate in the fighting.
MR: What is the role of regional and international powers in this conflict?
MN: The United States and Saudi Arabia are convening a series of mediation talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah. So far, the initiative has failed to bring about a sustainable ceasefire between the SAF and RSF. This is because both belligerents still believe that they can militarily wipe out the other, which they can’t.
At the same time, neither Washington nor Riyadh appear to have the urgency to pressure both sides to commit to a ceasefire and begin negotiations to end the war. Their mediation appears to be more about bringing the Americans and Saudis together – two partners with recent tensions of their own – than to mend relations between the RSF and SAF.
The ineffectiveness of the Jeddah talks has prompted a number of regional players, such as Egypt and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) consisting of eight African states, to launch initiatives of their own. IGAD is currently led by Kenyan President William Ruto, who recently said that a genocide is being perpetrated in Darfur. However, Ruto also met with the RSF’s political advisor and spin doctor Yousif Ezat, prompting distrust from the SAF.
As a result, the SAF claims Ruto is not a neutral mediator and has refused to join the IGAD initiative. The army did however support an initiative by Cairo that was backed by both Qatar and Turkey. All three of these countries clearly prefer to see the SAF triumph over the RSF.
The UN Security Council has yet to take any meaningful action about either the crisis in Sudan or the violence unfolding in Darfur. Its inaction is largely due to the position taken by its three African members – Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique – which insist that regional bodies should take the lead in resolving the conflict.
Against this background, Sudanese analysts, journalists, and human rights groups say that the multiple and poorly-coordinated mediation attempts are not working to mitigate the war. They stress that more action is needed from the Security Council in order to deter grave human rights abuses. This could include extending and enforcing an arms embargo on all of Sudan, while also levying sanctions against senior commanders implicated in grave crimes. If a united Security Council would express clear support for a coordinated regional initiative, this would improve its prospects for facilitating an end to the war.
MR: What should be done in the short-term and what is your prognosis for the future?
MN: The future does not look good.
There are reports that Turkey has already supplied, or will supply, the SAF with its Bayraktar TB2 drone, which was used to defeat General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya in 2019. Any move to resupply the SAF by Turkey, Egypt or to a lesser extent Qatar, could prompt the UAE to step up its military support to the RSF. The opposite is also true.
For now, there is not much the international community can do if al-Burhan and Dagalo remain committed to fighting to the death – an outcome that could destroy not only the SAF and RSF, but also Sudan.
If al-Burhan is killed then the army, with its multiple power centers, could fracture. While this scenario is unlikely since all army commanders appear united on the objective of defeating the RSF, it shouldn’t be dismissed. The RSF’s leadership may also face a power struggle if Dagalo somehow dies or is challenged by rival warlords from his Rizeigat tribe.
Either force fracturing – a possibility that increases the longer that fighting goes on – will deliver a major blow to ongoing mediation efforts. It is thus imperative for the Security Council to assume a more active role to deter rights abuses, while supporting regional powers to coordinate their mediation efforts.
Any mediation initiative should include the active participation of civil society groups and work towards creating, expanding, and protecting space for civil politics. Even amid Sudan’s devastating war, popular aspirations for a transition to civilian rule and genuine democracy persist.