Intense clashes between Sudan’s military and the country’s main paramilitary force have killed hundreds of people and sent thousands fleeing for safety, as a burgeoning civil war threatens to destabilize the wider region.
Kevin Mofokeng unpacks this gruesome crisis.
Sudan is facing a severe crisis, with the army led by General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commanded by Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo engaged in violent confrontations across cities and towns.
Millions of civilians are trapped in the crossfire, with basic necessities dwindling fast, and the death toll is likely much higher than official reports suggest.
The unfolding crisis in Sudan has deep roots that can be traced back to the final years of the 30-year rule of former President Omar al-Bashir, and to prevent the situation from escalating, Sudanese, African, Gulf Arab, Western, and other stakeholders must band together and call for an immediate ceasefire.
The situation in Sudan is a nightmare come true.
Across cities and towns, including the capital Khartoum, the Sudanese army led by General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commanded by Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo are engaging in violent confrontations.
Millions of civilians are trapped in the crossfire, with basic necessities dwindling fast.
The battle could easily escalate into a prolonged war, which could spread unrest beyond Sudan’s borders.
To prevent this, Sudanese, African, Gulf Arab, Western, and other stakeholders, some of whom have close ties with Burhan and Hemedti, must band together and call for an immediate ceasefire.
The hostilities began on April 15, following a series of escalating armed maneuvers by the rival factions.
For several days, tensions were high, culminating in the army’s demand that the RSF dissolve, with its members integrated into regular military ranks.
It is unclear who fired the first shot, but both sides had already prepared for combat. Clashes broke out first in Khartoum, rapidly spreading to major towns in all directions.
Since then, the tide has shifted back and forth, with both sides making conflicting claims about controlling critical institutions.
One thing is evident, though, the human toll has been devastating.
According to the World Health Organisation, over 290 civilians have died, with countless others stuck in their homes without electricity or water under scorching 40-degree Celsius heat.
Hospitals have depleted their supplies, and aid organizations have halted their operations. Rampant looting has led to a severe food shortage.
The death toll is likely much higher than official reports suggest.
The unfolding crisis in Sudan has deep roots that can be traced back to the final years of the disastrous 30-year rule of former President Omar al-Bashir.
Bashir, who was distrustful of the army, fragmented the security forces into competing centers of power to prevent anyone from unseating him.
The paramilitary RSF, which started as a brutal counter-insurgency militia in Darfur, grew into a powerful praetorian guard for Bashir.
Hemedti, the RSF leader, rose from humble beginnings in Darfur to become an agile and canny operator, expanding into gold mining and mercenary activity while building a political base at home and forging ties abroad.
After the popular uprising that ousted Bashir in 2019, the army and RSF collaborated to seize power.
The protests, which were a millions-strong movement, toppled Bashir in a matter of months but then struggled to sweep away his generals.
Hemedti became Burhan’s number two, first in a Transitional Military Council and then as deputy chair of a Sovereign Council, after the generals agreed to a power-sharing deal with the country’s civilian opposition.
The Burhan-Hemedti partnership was always precarious, as Crisis Group warned it would be, and it grew even more unstable as military rule persisted.
Hemedti’s power and ambitions grew along with his paramilitary force, which expanded across the country.
The rivalry between the two leaders showed even more signs of strain after they deposed the civilian government in an October 2021 coup.
The coup backfired, doing little to assert military authority, and Hemedti started to distance himself from Burhan, whom he saw as increasingly linked to Bashir-era Islamists.
The economy, whose woes were a major cause of the 2019 uprising, continued to languish, exacerbating social unrest as Sudanese continued to press for the restoration of civilian government.
Hemedti tried to align himself with the public’s demands, even presenting himself as an unlikely reformer, by cultivating an unofficial partnership with members of Khartoum’s civilian elite who were negotiating in fits and starts with the military to bring their demands to fruition.
In the ongoing power struggle between Sudan’s military leaders, General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, tensions continue to rise.
Hemedti, the deputy chair of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, has been actively courting civilian elites and exploiting their distrust of the army, viewed as a redoubt of Bashir sympathizers including Islamists.
The December 2022 framework agreement, which promised to restore civilian rule, only accentuated the rivalry between the two military leaders.
Burhan reluctantly signed the deal under heavy external pressure, while Hemedti championed it for clauses he saw as giving him autonomy from Burhan and the army.
However, the deal only deepened the distrust between the two military overlords.
Tensions escalated in February and early March as the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) competed to recruit new members across Sudan and particularly in Darfur, Hemedti’s stronghold.
Rumors that the army was re-establishing a border guard historically tied to Hemedti’s long-time rival, Musa Hilal, intensified the animosity between the regular army and its paramilitary foe.
Burhan’s proposal to dissolve the Sovereign Council and form a new military council also heightened friction as it implied that Burhan could strip Hemedti of his formal political position as deputy chair.
After an alarming military build-up in the capital, Burhan and Hemedti reached a deal to de-escalate the situation on 11 March.
However, talks about security-sector reform and the formation of a new civilian government soon put the country back in the pressure cooker as the parties missed the early April deadline.
While most of the negotiations pitted the civilian elite against the military as a whole, the wrangling over security arrangements pitted Burhan and Hemedti against each other.
Both sides started to ready themselves for a possible armed confrontation.
They continued to recruit new members and mobilized large numbers of troops in strategic areas, including Khartoum.
On 13 April, a sizable contingent of RSF soldiers redeployed near an air base in the northern town of Meroe, where Egyptian air force personnel were also stationed.
The army publicly accused the RSF of unauthorized movements and gave it an ultimatum to stand down.
Emergency mediation inside and outside Sudan tried to calm the situation, but fighting began anyway two days later.
The ongoing strife between the army and RSF has propelled Sudan towards the civil war they have feared for so long.
Both factions have entrenched themselves in major urban areas, resulting in widespread conflict across the country, with Khartoum and Darfur being the most affected.
While Sudan has seen internal conflicts before, the extent of urban warfare in Khartoum is unprecedented, leaving millions trapped in a rapidly escalating humanitarian catastrophe.
Civilians in the capital are being bombed by the Sudanese air force, with most people huddled in their homes without electricity or water, as temperatures soar to unbearable levels.
Social media is awash with reports of shops and homes being looted for provisions, with the RSF being accused of fanning out into residential areas to overcome their lack of aerial superiority.
Meanwhile, information from other parts of the country is hard to come by, and the situation there may be equally dire.
The unwillingness of both Burhan and Hemedti to back down from the conflict could lead to a much more devastating outcome.
Although some analysts expect the army to triumph in Khartoum, their stronghold, such an outcome is far from certain.
Even if they manage to secure the capital and Hemedti withdraws to Darfur, Sudan may still be plunged into civil war, which could have destabilizing effects on neighboring countries such as Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya, and South Sudan, all of which have already been scarred by conflict to varying degrees.
Moreover, Sudan has numerous armed groups and communal militias, any of which could ally themselves with Burhan or Hemedti, turning a two-sided war into a more complicated free-for-all, especially in peripheral areas.
Since there seems to be no willingness on the part of the primary actors to discuss a peaceful solution, the best way to maintain the possibility of peace is for all other parties, both inside and outside Sudan, to remain steadfast in their rejection of the war.
Sudanese actors, including political parties, resistance committees, armed groups, and tribal leaders, have demonstrated admirable fortitude in denouncing the conflict and calling for a ceasefire.
They should continue to refuse to pick sides, thereby illustrating the isolation of the belligerents and the public’s horror at the escalation into an all-out urban war.
As soon as possible, they should form an official united front, an anti-war alliance that would be even more potent due to the diversity of its constituent parts.
Regional players, including our neighboring countries such as Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Eritrea, must not take sides in this conflict.
Their involvement could lead to a dangerous spillover effect, especially given the involvement of ethnic groups whose lands span borders with Sudan.
Instead, they should encourage dialogue between the parties involved, namely Burhan and Hemedti.
The UN, African Union (AU), and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) must act with urgency to resolve this conflict.
The UN has been working to broker a ceasefire, but further action is needed.
IGAD and the AU should dispatch high-level delegations to mediate between the two sides as soon as it is safe to do so.
These efforts must be closely coordinated to avoid any misunderstandings.
Arab countries with influence over Burhan and Hemedti, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, should insist on a ceasefire and refrain from supporting either side.
Western capitals such as Washington, London, and Brussels should also urge a ceasefire and take a firm stance against indiscriminate air raids, exploitation of civilian infrastructure for warfare, fighting in residential areas, using human shields, and blocking emergency workers from providing life-saving assistance.
It’s clear that a lasting settlement to this conflict will be arduous and involve difficult talks.
The top priority is to ensure the unity of Sudan and the safety of its people.
This means coming to a clear agreement on the thorny issues of handing over power to civilians, as promised, and working out a timeline for integrating the RSF into the national army.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, who both have relationships with the belligerents and supported them when they first took power, must firmly support any initiative that improves the odds of both sides complying.
However, the immediate priorities are achieving a humanitarian ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr and getting aid into the country swiftly.
The army’s bombing of Khartoum neighborhoods and the widespread looting and other atrocities committed by Hemedti’s militias will be ingrained in the memories of Sudanese for years to come.
It appears that neither side is ready to stop, but continued confrontation can only further degrade the political relevance of the two main protagonists, who are already held in contempt by most of the public.
The catastrophic fighting must end so that the Sudanese can begin to pick up the pieces, assess the damage, and determine the path forward.
It is up to the two forces vying for power and anyone with any influence over them to bring an end to the nightmare that millions of Sudanese are living through.
*The writer of this article is Kevin Mofokeng, a Developmental Writer and digital PR strategist based in Gaborone, Botswana. The views expressed by Kevin Mofokeng are not necessarily those of The Bulrushes