The conflict in Sudan, which began in April, has already claimed over 700 lives, caused over 5,000 injuries, displaced nearly a million people, and compelled over 200,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. As there are no signs of a ceasefire, the country’s 45 million people, already experiencing severe food insecurity, are likely to suffer a grave humanitarian crisis due to displacement, economic hardships, and constant fear of being caught in the crossfire of the country’s armed forces fighting for power and wealth.
The destruction is not just at home; the regions of the Sahel in the west and the Horn of Africa in the southeast are vulnerable to the effects of this war and face the threat of refugees, economic privation, and the prospect of a regional conflagration.
Popular anger was ignited in Sudan in late 2018 following a government decision to triple the price of goods when the country was experiencing inflation of 70 per cent and an acute shortage of foreign currency. When the then President Omar al-Bashir, in power for over 30 years, refused to step down, the opposition groups formed a coalition in December 2018 and launched fierce demonstrations against the government. The security forces responded with harsh measures in which many people were killed. On April 11, 2019, the country’s armed forces declared that the President had been overthrown. The army then ran the country through a Transitional Military Council.
As agitations continued, the army declared a state of emergency and attacked demonstrators, killing over a hundred of them. The protests ended with two agreements in July and August 2019 between the army and the “Forces for Freedom and Change” (FCC), an alliance of the groups organising the public protests. Under these agreements, a joint military-civilian “Sovereignty Council” was created; it would be initially headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army chief, and Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian Prime Minister, would succeed him in November 2021.
However, on October 25, 2021, General al-Burhan overthrew the Sovereignty Council and detained the Prime Minister and his ministerial colleagues. Al-Burhan claimed that it was a “course correction” to weed out elements that were hostile to the army. The people responded with protests, in which another hundred or so were killed.
In November 2021, al-Burhan announced a new Sovereignty Council headed by himself and named as his deputy General Mohammed Hamadan Dagalo, head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia group. The generals were anxious to retain power to avoid an investigation into the killings of the pro-democracy agitators and the commercial assets controlled by the armed forces and the RSF.
Al-Burhan comes from a traditional military background and was closely associated with Omar al-Bashir’s regime. He saw action in the conflicts in Darfur and South Sudan and rapidly ascended the promotion ladder, becoming a lieutenant general in 2019.
Dagalo, popularly known as Hemedti, has a different background. A native of the Darfur province, Dagalo was drafted by al-Bashir to become part of the “Janjaweed”militants, an Arab fighting force which, from 2003, carried out lethal attacks on Africans in the breakaway province. The Janjaweed are believed to have caused the deaths of several hundred thousand non-Arab civilians and the displacement of about two million people. These militia were consolidated into the Rapid Support Forces in 2013 to combat rebel groups in the Darfur region as well as in the states of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Dagalo was named the head of the RSF, with his brother as the deputy head.
Starting with about 5,000 fighters in 2014, the RSF’s present strength is estimated at 100,000. The RSF was accused of the killing of numerous pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019. Foreign Policy magazine commentator Jerome Tubiana, writing in May 2019, presciently described the RSF under Dagalo as a “monster it [the Bashir regime] cannot control and who represents a security threat not only for Sudan but also for its neighbours”.
In 2021, with the two generals now in charge, Sudan’s brief hopes for a democratic order abruptly ended. However, the people’s torment was not over.
The military coup ended debt relief and development assistance from foreign sources, which led to a serious economic crisis—inflation crossed 200 per cent, the currency depreciated, and water and electricity supplies deteriorated. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned of a food crisis affecting a third of Sudan’s population.
Two different opposition groups
The opposition to the generals also consolidated itself. It consisted of two groups, both of which sought an end to military rule, but differed on tactics. “Resistance Committees”, located in different parts of the country, rejected all accommodation with the military leaders and insisted on three “No’s”: no negotiation, no compromise, no partnership. The other group, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FCC) adopted a pragmatic approach and accepted the need to work with the armed forces and gradually move towards civilian rule and democracy.
During this period, the US and Saudi Arabia worked behind the scenes to obtain compromise arrangements between the army and sections of the opposition. These efforts culminated in the “Framework Political Agreement” of December 5, 2022. It called for a new governing authority that would be civilian and democratic, without involving the armed forces. It also placed al-Burhan and Dagalo on par with each other under a civilian president, thus providing a significant boost to the militia leader.
The agreement called for the merger of the RSF with the army; al-Burhan proposed that it should be completed in two years, while Dagalo favoured a 10-year period. Finally, the agreement called on the armed forces and the RSF to withdraw from all commercial activity: the army then controlled over 200 enterprises, while Dagalo controlled the country’s gold mines.
Within a few weeks of the pact’s signing, commentators began to note its shortcomings. No observer believed that Dagalo would merge his forces with the national army or give up control over the gold mines. Sudanese commentator Kholood Khair said that, following the agreement, her country would “take a step further away from civilian rule and closer to potential civil war”. Democracy activist Amal Hamdan recalled Dagalo’s role in “overseeing torture, extrajudicial killings, and mass rapes in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states”, and, with heavy irony, suggested that Dagalo could stand for president as a civilian.
Khartoum becomes a battleground
The pessimists were proved correct. The April 11 deadline to begin implementing the transition to civilian rule was not met. On April 15, the RSF launched surprise attacks on army bases across the country. Khartoum was a major battleground, with attacks on civilians and even diplomats across the capital. The army also attacked RSF militants at the airport—several aircraft were destroyed and airport buildings were set on fire. The UN described the violence as a “trail of criminality”. Observers were particularly harsh on the RSF whose fighters were seen as “undisciplined rabble” inside Khartoum, more interested in ransacking and looting homes than in fighting.
Clashes also took place in the provinces of Darfur, North Kordofan, and Blue Nile. The conflict has been particularly fierce in Darfur, which seems to be witnessing a repeat of the Arab versus African bloodletting of two decades ago that left 300,000 dead. North Kordofan’s capital El Obeid is on the Khartoum-Darfur route and has an airstrip that has enabled al-Burhan to use the air force against the RSF.
The US and Saudi Arabia mounted a major diplomatic effort for a truce: representatives of the warring sides met in Jeddah and, after prolonged discussions, announced on May 11 a framework agreement to protect civilians and allow the flow of humanitarian aid into the country. A US official said, “This is not a ceasefire” but added that it could be the “first step” in ending the fighting.
The war has already caused a humanitarian crisis: by early May, 42,000 Sudanese refugees had reached Egypt, 30,000 were in Chad, 27,000 had escaped to South Sudan, nearly 10,000 had sought refuge in Ethiopia, and another 6,000 were in the Central African Republic. These numbers have been rising by the day.
On May 20, following peace talks in Jeddah brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia, Sudan’s two fighting factions announced a ceasefire that would take effect from May 22. However, since then, there are reports of continued fighting in the country.
- With no signs of a suspension of hostilities in Sudan, the entire regions of the Sahel in the west and the Horn of Africa in the east are vulnerable to the effects of the war.
- In 2023, civil war broke out and by early May, 42,000 Sudanese refugees had reached Egypt, 30,000 were in Chad, 27,000 had escaped to South Sudan, nearly 10,000 had sought refuge in Ethiopia, and another 6,000 were in the Central African Republic.
- US negotiators had failed to read the situation accurately when they finalised a Framework Political Agreement in December 2022 that called for the merger of the army and the RSF, without recognising the animosity that divided the two leaders.
Influence of external players
As the horrors of Sudan’s civil conflict unfold, there is increasing focus on the external players who have brought the country to this sorry state.
Sudan borders seven countries—Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea—and has an 850-km coastline on the Red Sea. The Blue and White Nile rivers merge in Sudan, providing the country with access to 60 per cent of the Nile River Basin. This is crucial for the well-being of Sudan and also of Egypt, 90 per cent of whose 110 million people depend on the Nile for fresh water.
Sudan is also an integral part of the dynamics of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. The core countries in the Horn are Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti; Sudan and South Sudan are also included within the Horn as the political and economic interests of these countries flow beyond their borders.
These countries are of unique strategic importance as they straddle the Red Sea (though Ethiopia is separated from the sea by a narrow sliver of Eritrean territory). This 2,000-km waterway, with an average width of 280 km, connects the economies of Asia with those of Europe and North Africa, and then, across the Atlantic, with North and South America. The Red Sea waterway is at the heart of global trade—19,000 ships cross it annually, transporting 12 per cent of global trade and over 6.5 million barrels of crude oil, distillates and other hydrocarbon products.
The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea are now also at the centre of regional and global competition. First, following the Arab Spring uprisings in Yemen, Saudi Arabia had concerns about Iranian influence in the country with which it shares a 1,400-km border. These were based on Iran’s sectarian affiliation with the dissident group, the Houthis, and its military support to the group. Linked with this were Saudi fears relating to Iran’s naval activity in the Red Sea and its quest for bases in the Horn. From March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched air and land attacks in Yemen, bringing the Saudi-Iran divide to the Red Sea region.
The other competition has emerged from Saudi-UAE estrangement from Qatar and Türkiye from 2017. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Türkiye have not only deployed naval forces in the Red Sea but have also sought to control ports and islands on both sides of the sea.
Besides the reverberations of Gulf competition in the Red Sea littoral, the major global powers—the US, France, the UK, Japan, and China—have also made the Horn a zone for strategic competition by deploying their navies in the western Indian Ocean and the Red Sea and supporting their naval vessels through bases in the Horn and the Gulf.
As a result of these regional and big power rivalries, the Horn, the Red Sea, and the Gulf littoral now constitute an integrated security landscape marked by domestic upheavals, cross-border conflicts and interventions by regional and extra-regional states, with political rivalries being aggravated by periodic lethal domestic and transnational upheavals.
The ongoing conflict in Sudan is the result of these rivalries and will also, over time, adversely affect regional stability.
Rivalries between nation groups
Ideological rivalries that emerged in West Asia in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings from 2011 placed Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in opposition to Qatar and Türkiye that espoused political Islam and backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the UAE worked with the armed forces in Egypt to bring down the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. They then initiated a political, economic, and diplomatic blockade of Qatar in 2017. Qatar was supported by Türkiye, which sent a military detachment to the country to prevent a coup against the Qatari emir.
These rivalries were reflected in Sudan. The regime of Omar al-Bashir, with its Islamist inclinations, was close to Qatar and Türkiye. However, as Sudan lost 75 per cent of its oil reserves after the secession of South Sudan in 2013, it reached out to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for financial assistance. It also deployed troops in Yemen in support of the Saudi-led coalition. In return, Sudan obtained funding to subsidise basic commodities, direct deposits into its treasury, and payments of its soldiers’ salaries. By 2018, the UAE had injected about $7 billion into the Sudanese economy.
However, al-Bashir lost credibility with his Saudi and Emirati patrons as he refused to cut ties with Qatar; they feared that he had retained his Islamist affiliations. Hence, in the face of the popular uprisings against him in 2018-19, he received no Gulf support and was overthrown in the military coup led by al-Burhan and Dagalo. Since then, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in association with Egypt led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have emerged as the most influential external players in Sudan’s domestic politics. They backed the generals in foiling the transition to civilian rule and supported their stay in power despite the strong democracy movement. According to reports, the two GCC members provided $200 million a month in cash and commodity subsidies in the second half of 2019.
As Saudi Arabia became less active, the UAE came to play the principal role in Sudanese affairs. It enriched Dagalo by facilitating the transfer of revenues from his gold sales to banks in the UAE. This was done through Meroe Gold, a subsidiary of Russia’s Wagner Group, which is based in Sudan. The UAE also promoted ties between Dagalo and the Wagner Group in Libya as well as with Khalifa Haftar, head of the UAE-supported Libyan National Army.
Egypt has chosen a side
Since 2022, Egypt supports al-Burhan in the rivalry between him and Dagalo, seeing the regular army as the main source of stability in Arab states. Observers point out that al-Burhan has been backing Egypt against Ethiopia on the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Egypt fears will reduce water flow to the country. There are reports that Egyptian aircraft have bombed RSF positions in the ongoing conflict and that the Egyptian armed forces are providing the army with intelligence and ground support.
Region of strategic importance
The UAE, on the other hand, supports Dagalo. In the early stages of the present conflict, after his forces captured 200 Egyptian military personnel at Meroe airport in north Sudan, the UAE facilitated their release and return to Cairo.
The UAE sees Sudan as part of the network of ports and islands that it seeks to control in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa to enhance its strategic and commercial interests across the western Indian Ocean. Accordingly, in December 2022, the UAE and Sudan signed an agreement for two UAE companies to construct a new port, Abu Amama port, on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. The UAE’s partner in the Libyan conflict, the Wagner Group is reported to have offered weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, to Dagalo. Interestingly, UAE companies are managing Dagalo’s social media to improve his national image and portray him as a moderate and a patriot in Sudan and in selected western capitals.
While Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been playing lead roles in Sudan before and after the ongoing conflict, the US has largely been on the sidelines. The main criticism of US diplomacy has been that, despite the rhetoric of the Biden administration about promoting democracy, American diplomats’ initiatives have backed the generals’ roles in national politics at the expense of the democracy movement.
Justin Lynch wrote in Foreign Policy that, after the fall of Omar al-Bashir, “hope for democracy was lost in Sudan” when the US pushed for a joint military-civilian transitional constitution that provided for the military to run the country for the first 21 months. The US failed to see that the generals had no interest in subordinating themselves to civilian rule.
US negotiators again failed to read the situation accurately when they finalised the Framework Political Agreement, not recognising the conflicting interests and deep animosity that divided the army and the RSF and their leaders.
Finally, US officials failed to anticipate that the generals’ rivalry would so quickly lead to a vicious conflict that would make the capital a war zone, put millions of citizens at risk, and expose thousands of American and other foreign officials and civilians to crossfire from air attacks, mortar attacks, and street fighting.
In retrospect, it would appear that the US had a very limited agenda in Sudan—to promote “normalisation” between the country and Israel. For this, it needed the generals to be in power rather than members of the democracy movement. Both Sudan and the region are paying a very heavy price for this short-sighted approach.
Evenly divided armed forces
With the two forces evenly placed in terms of manpower and firepower, and the generals getting the sense that this is an existential conflict for them, there are no prospects of a ceasefire in the near future. Sudan will most probably resemble Syria and Yemen in terms of experiencing a prolonged conflict, extraordinary death, destruction and displacement, heavy flow of weaponry, and continuous interference of foreign powers in national affairs. Again, in line with the Syrian and Yemeni precedents, there will be no clear outcome on the battlefield.
National unity will be difficult to maintain: even if the army pushes the RSF out of Khartoum, the latter will consolidate itself in its home areas of Darfur and even link up with its ethnic brethren across the border in Chad, as also with Haftar’s forces in Libya. Recalling the earlier civil conflicts in South Sudan and Darfur, the simple army versus RSF binary could splinter over time and conflicts between tribes, clans, and faiths could emerge. This will give rise to warlords controlling small pieces of territory, which will become hubs for trafficking of drugs, small arms, and human beings.
The breakdown of the state will also encourage the proliferation of extremist elements, as was the case with Somalia; this precedent also affirms that they will play a destructive role in their own country as well as across the region and will not be easily exterminated.
Sudan’s neighbourhood will be crippled economically by the influx of thousands of refugees. This will soon have political implications in the region that is already defined by authoritarian rule, fragile state order, weak economies, and periodic civil and transborder conflicts, which could bring in regional players and even big powers. Widespread instability will define the Horn and the Red Sea region.
This lethal breakdown of state order in Africa’s third largest country is the result of the ambitions of two generals, each of whom is backed by foreign interests seeking an advantage for themselves in this cauldron of greed and animosity. Neither the domestic nor external players have any regard for Sudan’s nascent democratic movement that had hoped to replace the country’s authoritarian order with civilian control over governance.
The movement now lies betrayed and defeated in the dustbin of failed expectations, while the dance of death continues without hindrance.
Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune; his recent book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published in April 2022.