What’s Going On Special: Everything we know so far about the conflict in Sudan

Pro-democracy agitations and in-fighting between two powerful, power-crazed men.

In the last three weeks, citizens and residents of Sudan have been living under heightened fear for their lives. On April 15, fighting between the Sudanese Army and the para-military group, Rapid Support Forces (RSF), rapidly spread across the country. It’s the latest bout of conflict in a country that has had to withstand several armed conflicts for many decades. As with previous times, this ongoing conflict is tied to pro-democracy agitations and, as with many similar situations in Africa, in-fighting between two powerful, power-crazed men.

Back in 1989, Omar al-Bashir came to power as a Brigadier General through a coup d’état, ousting a democratically elected government for negotiating with rebels in the southern part of the countries. Not too long after usurping power, al-Bashir scrapped the office of Prime Minister, in order to ensure sole executive authority. The following decades barely stemmed the tumult Sudan was already in, with the South Sudan conflict escalating prior to its eventual independence, allegations of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region, elections riddled with malpractices that kept al-Bashir in power, and more prominent ills.

By 2010, the International Criminal Court had issued two arrest warrants for al-Bashir on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In December 2018, widespread protests seeking the removal of the long-term dictators rocked the East African country, forming the foundation of the Sudanese Revolution. After three decades in power, al-Bashir was finally ousted in a coup that was led by General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. Like al-Bashir at the time of his own coup, both coup leaders this time around were also high ranking members of the military.

Prior to becoming president through the coup, Burhan was serving as the Inspector General of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Co-conspirator and eventual vice president, Dagalo was the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a para-military group founded by al-Bashir to support armed efforts by Sudan’s allies and also as a failsafe against any coup attempts from the SAF. During a stint serving together as part of the allied forces fighting insurgent Houthi rebels in Yemen, Burhan and Dagalo became pals, with their friendship culminating in a united front between the SAF and RSF to oust al-Bashir.

Months after the April 2019 coup, Burhan set up the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), a coalition of civil political groups and members of the military junta, to serve as the interim federal government in Sudan. In its constitutional charter, the TSC was meant to last 3 years and 3 months, then handover to a democratically elected government. Of the 39 months the TSC was expected to last, it was agreed that the military junta would pilot the affairs of the TSC for 21 months, then members of the civil political groups would be in charge for the final 18 months.

The announcement of the TSC sparked joy across Sudan, with many believing the country was on a firm track to not just democracy, but the sort of political stability that should fuel social and economic growth. However, as has been witnessed when the military is in power in an African country, democratic plans can be easily turned upside down. In October 2021, just a month before the military’s TSC leadership tenure would be over, Burhan led another coup to oust the civil political groups. Politicians were arrested, journalists were detained, and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was kidnapped and held at an undisclosed location.

A month later, Hamdok was reinstated after signing a deal that would see the military remain a significant part of the TSC’s leadership responsibility. For many Sudanese citizens, it was an incensing double cross on the part of Burhan and members of his military junta, with large scale protests ensuing immediately after the coup. During the protests, soldiers assaulted protesters and Burhan was quick to institute a state of emergency, which wasn’t lifted till about a year later.

Amidst this political crisscrossing, cracks had begun to emerge in the relationship between Burhan and his vice president, Dagalo. It’s been reported that part of the basis for the rift was due to Burhan appointing former cabinet members who worked with former dictator al-Bashir, into government offices. On a personal level, bringing in the politicians that he helped in ousting, betraying al-Bashir in the process, was something of a threat to Dagalo’s staying power and even potential ascendance into the highest seat of power.

On a wider scale, there’s also the fact that Dagalo is from the Darfur region. During the reign of al-Bashir, many of the indigenous tribes in Darfur were heavily persecuted for bigoted, ethnic and religious reasons. There were also reports that many viewed the state-sanctioned violence in the region as a way for the political elite, based in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum, to keep any political will from Darfur under great suppression. With this history in mind, Dagalo’s ascent to the office of vice president, even though helped by a coup, is quite the rare achievement for someone hailing from Darfur.

With the tension between him and Burhan, Dagalo is leaning on his power as the leader of the RSF, as well the support of rebel groups from the Darfur region he’s interfaced with over the years. Previously known as a straight-edged military leader, Dagalo has spent the last few years adjusting to the role of a politician, wearing less camo uniform and more relatable, traditional outfits. It’s in this rebrand that he’s claimed that the RSF is fighting to restore the people’s will for a democratic government, but many Sudanese citizens don’t believe.

This escalation of the fight between the Sudan Armed Foces and the Rapid Support Forces is a culmination of the tensions between Burhan and Dagalo, with the TSC and the Sudanese people’s quest for self-determination through democratic means serving as the fatal backdrop. Since the armed conflict burst out in the densely populated city of Khartoum, most civilians are trapped in their homes, while governments and international bodies have been evacuating expatriates and missions personnel. While most of the attention of the conflict’s effects and casualties have been focused on Khartoum, there have also been deadly clashes and fatal attacks in Darfur that have left many civilians dead.

Currently, it is unclear if, when or how peace and reconciliation talks will happen, but there have been several ceasefire agreements already, perhaps a sign that this conflict—hopefully—might not last for longer. Last Monday, both sides agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire to enable foreign countries evacuate their citizens, but the RSF alleges that the SAF continued its armed attacks, even carrying out airstrikes against supposed RSF hideouts in Khartoum, which led to an unconfirmed number of civilian casualties. Earlier this week, both sides reportedly agreed to a 7-day ceasefire from May 4, to enable mediation from emissaries from nearby countries, but it remains to be seen if there won’t be any violation during that period.

One important part of this situation that should not be glossed over, though, is that Burhan has repeatedly stated that he and his military junta will only hand over the reins of leadership to a democratically elected government that will also involve the military in its official duties. Like the popular African saying goes: When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that always suffers.

Even though the citizens and residents of Sudan are meant to be the most important consideration in the country’s affair, they’ve been reduced to casualties and their collective will is being used as the basis for a needless war between two powerful, power-crazed men.


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