The photo was taken by Yasuyoshi Chiba in 2019 and won world press photo of the year, it incorporates the passion and national unity the nation had for democracy and a better future, and shows people of all different ages and ethnicities around Sudan.
Blessed with a highly dynamic geographic location, astounding agricultural potential, the highest livestock population on the planet, a deep and rich cultural heritage, and endowed the longest river on the planet. Despite this, Sudan continues to be a nation that does not live up to its potential. Sudan was nicknamed ‘the Global food basket of the world’ in the Arab League Conference due to its vast agricultural resources, yet 36.1% of its population falls below the poverty line. In addition to this, Sudan is now seeming to enter the dark tunnel of war, where the nation’s armed forces – the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have been in direct conflict with the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This piece seeks to provide the reader with an informative account of the recently erupted war, encompassing an explanation of the events leading up to the conflict and an analysis of its repercussions on national, regional, and global levels.
In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the factors contributing to this conflict, it is essential to revisit a period nearly four years ago, particularly December 2019. Sudan was entering its third decade under the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir and his corruption-associated regime, simultaneously, the nation was gradually sinking from an economic point of view. Unemployment rates peaked at a staggering 19.6%, nearly four times the global average, however, it was the shortages in basic needs and key services such as bread, fuel, water, and electricity that compelled the Sudanese people to take to the streets and call for a regime change. Protests intensified, and while they maintained a peaceful theme, citizens were greeted by security forces with tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition. This uprising was unforeseen, something the nation had never witnessed, a sense of nationalistic unity that had seemed decamped since Independence.
Five months later, and specifically on the 6th of April 2019 the Sudanese professional’s association (the group organizing protest dates) called for a protest march toward the Armed Forces’ HQ in Khartoum, to call on their armed forces to force Al-Bashir out of his seat. Historically, the Sudanese Armed Forces have maintained political relevancy throughout modern history, with 5 out of 11 heads of state acting as former military officials. Several days later and the protest had now transitioned into the largest sit-in protest in East Africa, Sudan in all its ethnic and cultural diversity has now unified to make their voices heard; Al-Bashir must fall.
This was by far the most difficult anti-regime campaign Bashir and his party had faced, their place in government was now in serious threat, considering his army had refused to disperse protesters. However, given the Sudanese political history of military coups, Bashir had set himself a plan B. This came in the form of General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo aka “Hemeti”. Hemeti had been appointed leader of the Janjaweed in 2003, a group substantially assembled to carry out the dirty work of Bashir’s government in the region of Darfur in exchange for financial benefits. Some of these actions included Ethnic cleansing, sexual torture, racial division, and non-Arab eradication. While carrying out these exploitations, the number of Janjaweed forces rapidly increased, rising to a staggering seven thousand soldiers in 2013. This is where Bashir saw an opportunity that could not be missed. Al Bashir decided to officialize the Janjaweed, establishing it as the “Rapid Support Forces” and inaugurated it as the fourth official state security force. The RSF was in that time the SECOND most powerful armed force, trailing only the Sudanese Armed Forces. While Al-Bashir claimed the establishment of RSF was carried out to protect borders and cut on illegal immigration, Bashir strategically placed Hemeti as his plan B. Assuming history repeated itself and the Armed forces decided to topple his regime, Bashir could call Hemeti’s forces towards Khartoum, and given all that Bashir had done for Hemeti, his loyalty would be unwavering. A critical force for Al-Bashir, which on paper, essentially guaranteed his seat till his death. In 2019, RSF personnel had risen to forty thousand soldiers, trained to kill and carry out all forms of torture without any form of moral ground.
Despite all, rumors spread that the Sudanese Armed Forces have decided that Al-Bashir would be removed from power and be placed under house arrest. In response, Al-Bashir instantly triggered his plan and called on Hemeti and his forces to make their way to the capital. And indeed, forty thousand soldiers arrived in Khartoum within the space of six hours, waiting for their higher-up’s order to begin fire toward the Army Headquarters Sit-in. It is critical for me to mention that the Armed Forces had no intelligence of the RSF’s arrival per Bashir’s Orders. However, Hemeti betrayed Bashir’s orders, by backing the Armed forces’ decision to oust him of power and place him under temporary house arrest, essentially positioning him as the critical cornerstone of the Sudanese revolution. Hemeti’s insurgency was unforeseen, and his rebellious concept later proved to be a theme, geared towards the establishment of a deep state, to serve the rapid support forces kingdom.
- The quest for a civilian rule
Following Al-Bashir’s ousting from power, the Sudanese people consistently called for a civilian-led transitional government that accurately represented their moral, religious, and cultural values. In addition, Sudan was in critical need of a government formulated on academic qualifications, and diplomatic competence. Given the Sudanese diplomatic and economic crisis, it is imperative this transitional government undertakes the role of a permanent government. By implementing serious long-term development plans across all sectors, rebuilding diplomatic relationships with the West, tackling unemployment, and re-investing in education, health, and transport.
Throughout several months, political dialogue between the Armed Forces (including RSF), and Forces of Freedom and Change (FOFAC) ‘revolution representative’ took place in Khartoum. Many obstacles stood ahead of the transitional establishment, but Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abi Ahmed played middleman, eventually bringing both parties to an agreement. On the 17th of August 2019, a deal between SAF/RSF and FOFAC for a co-joint civilian/military transitional government. This method of government was novel in the Arab world and Africa, a one of its kind. Nonetheless, the spirit of hope was re-ignited into the Sudanese people, and after 30 years of social, and cultural annihilation, Sudanese nation seemed to see signs of bloom.
While Sudanese still struggled in the day-to-day life, struggling to acquire primary necessities such as bread and fuel, Sudanese trust in the civilian leaders kept their own hearts beating. Sudanese knew there would be a brighter tomorrow, and for that reason, kept patient. Slowly but steadily, Sudan’s diplomatic crisis had begun to wane. Sudanese-then PM Abdalla Hamdok had worked to reintegrate Sudan within the global community and achieved eradicating Sudan from the US state sponsor of terrorism list, enabling it access to financial aid and loans. In addition, Hamdok spearheaded Sudan’s Paris Conference; inaugurated to attract foreign investment in Sudan, help eliminate its 40 billion US dollar debt, and sign a major trade deal between Sudan and the European Union (EU). While these were considerable steps undertaken by Hamdok’s cabinet, unfortunately, the 30 years of Al-Bashir’s economic failure meant his people would still have to endure the after-effects of his decisions and suffer from inadequate healthcare, education, and other services. And while Sudan was attempting to lift her head above the water, Covid-19 hit the nation. Putting an already distressed healthcare system under unimaginable pressure and placing one of the weakest economies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region on its knees. This placed Sudan under more economic distress and increased pressure on the civilian government.
The government that represented the people, the government based on qualifications and competency, was now failing just as the previous one was. This caused the Sudanese people to question themselves, and a considerable portion turned their backs on Hamdok, labeling him as unfit for his seat. It is remarkable on how critical unity was in the success of this revolution, and with unity shaken, the military officials saw a chance to exploit and regain their lost share of State control. And so, they did, on October 25th, 2022, Al-Burhan and General Hemeti effectively carried out a coup of their own, placing Hamdok under house arrest, and removing all civilian ministers from power.
- Uprising for Democracy
Although Hamdok’s popularity took a downfall in recent months due to the economic recession, the Sudanese people were adamant that a civilian transitional government was crucial in achieving a democratic nation representative of the Sudanese people. Protests took place all around the nation, sending a clear message to Burhan and his then right-hand man Hemeti; we will not accept this coup, and the re-induction of the civilian cabinet must happen today before tomorrow. Much similar to the 2019 protests against Al-Bashir, protesters were greeted with tear gas and live ammunition, and reports even stated that sexual torture took place.
In response to the building pressure on the military transitional council, Al-Burhan and Hemeti offered Hamdok to sign a new deal, placing him as prime minister of the military transitional council, and eliminating FOFAC from the political picture. In an attempt to put a stop to the bloodshed and return to political stability, Hamdok agreed and signed the deal on the 21st of November 2022. “Sudanese bloodshed is precious, let us stop it and direct youth toward development,” Hamdok said. Despite Hamdok’s reinstatement into power, protests continued, and the Sudanese people were not giving in to this new government. Many labelled Hamdok as a traitor, for signing a deal with the same men who gave orders to kill and torture protesters. As the famous character Harvey Dent aforesaid, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”, from being the face of the Sudanese revolution, Hamdok had now truly labeled himself the Villain among his people. Disapproval rates for the PM steadily inclined, and by January 2022, Hamdok took the decision to resign. Since the Prime Minister resigned, the transitional has failed to appoint a new prime minister. Sudan has endured more economic decline than ever before, and the time to elect a permanent democratic government has now approached. Seeing the economic and governmental failure of the military transitional council, Hemeti and Burhan both agreed on the importance of general elections and the transition to a civilian government, bearing in mind this was completely contrary to their actions. In the need to achieve the trust of the international community and the Sudanese people, a binding agreement to hold democratic elections was now deemed necessary.
Named “the framework agreement”, the deal integrated all political forces in the nation, including the RSF, SAF, FOFAC, political parties, trade body unions, and armed movements involved in the Juba Peace Agreement. Reiterating the importance of inclusivity in the upcoming elections and ensuring the representation of all Sudanese citizens. This agreement ensured the end of the transitional period in 2023, as well as ensured democratic elections to take place within the same year. However, a major clause incorporated into the deal was the collaboration of the RSF with the SAF, effectively uniting the forces under one leadership with the aim of establishing a united national force. It is critical to mention the RSF had now reached 120 thousand soldiers, all within just 4 years. While the clause highlighted the importance of the association, it stated the fusing period was to be discussed between both parties, while reiterating the importance of uniting the leadership as soon as possible. It is critical for me to emphasize that previously, the RSF was under the umbrella of the chief leader of the armed forces (according to Article 5 of the Sudanese constitution). With that in mind, however, General Abdel Famah al-Burhan issued a decision a few months prior to the framework agreement, ordering the removal of article five of the constitution, enabling the RSF to be free from any form of SAF guidelines. This meant Hemeti and his forces reported directly to the head of state and were established as a fourth official security force alongside the Police, National Intelligence Security Services (NISS), and SAF. Negotiations commenced between both parties regarding the fusion, and while the SAF suggested a 2-year period, the RSF suggested a 20-year period. Dialog between both parties reached an agreement on a 10-year period to allow the RSF to fuse with the SAF, however, disagreement escalated on the leadership fusion. Hemeti and his piers believed the fusion period should incorporate all ranks of the force, while SAF representatives firmly believed the fusion of RSF leadership into the SAF was crucial and to be carried out immediately.
This was a massive threat to Hemeti and his forces, as he was not accepting of anymore form of power delegation, and secretly was in chase of the power seat. Negotiations took place for several months, and Hemeti kept finding himself under major pressure to give up power, something he did not want at all for himself or his forces. Eventually, in an attempt to break free from the shackles of the framework agreement clause, Hemeti and his forces had taken the decision to rebel against his right-hand leader, the man that granted his forces such power. Here we can see a clear theme with Hemeti and his forces, he will turn against his leader for the sake of power. Although reports disagree, on the 28th of Ramadan (April 7th), as per order, the RSF attacked a primary SAF base in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. This hit the SAF by surprise, and within the span of two days, the RSF had complete control over strategic locations in the capital. Some of these locations included Khartoum international airport, the republican place, and the Sudanese Ministry Cabinet. Although on paper, the SAF was by far stronger, the RSF had hit them by surprise, even attacking the Army HQ while attempting to assassinate Al-Burhan.
Since then, an ongoing conflict has been underway in the nation’s capital, and nations had begun to evacuate their diplomats and citizens in fear of their safety. Life in Sudan has now come to a standstill, and many are now not sure when their lives are able to return to normalization. Hemeti’s forces have made it incredibly difficult for SAF to attack their bases, as their strategies revolve around taking bases in civilians’ homes, as well as hospitals and schools. In addition, sources claim the RSF is being directly supported by the Wagner group of Russia, this means unlimited sources of ammunition could eventually declare the RSF victorious. The conflict has now been ongoing for three months, and though the Sudanese armed forces with its 100-year history are expected to wipe out this militia group, reality says otherwise, and the 30-year skeletal destruction of this organization has now proven its inability to protect the Sudanese people from regional, or international threats. The rebellious nature of Hemeti proves to be a great threat to national security, political stability, and Sudanese democracy, while the inadequacy of Al-Burhan’s leadership showcased the lack of political and military competence. The path to a prosperous Sudan today seems bumpier than ever, and the seed of uncertainty remains deeply planted in Sudanese soil.
About the author:
Mr. Ahmed Yasir Mustafa is a junior political research fellow of MEPEI and a Politics and international relations student at Royal Holloway University of London. Ahmed specialities in political research lye in middle eastern and North African politics, where he posses a profound knowledge of the political and diplomatic structure within the region.