Resolving Sudan’s crisis means removing those fighting

Ahmed Soliman talks to Yusuf Hassan about what needs to happen to resolve Sudan’s latest conflict, and how to move its transition to civilian government forwards.

Interview Published 21 April 2023 4 minute READ

Yusuf Hassan

Former Parliamentary, Media and Outreach Officer, Africa Programme

How was this latest conflict triggered?

This battle is about power projection between Sudan’s two most powerful military forces, the SAF (Sudan Armed Forces) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and paramilitary RSF (Rapid Support Forces) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.

The clashes in Khartoum and across the country are in part the result of autocratic leaders who oversee vast armies and control much of the state’s economy, and who have been emboldened by becoming key stakeholders in the political process.

The two generals have co-existed in partnership for more than three years due to their mutual interest in maintaining power and slowing Sudan’s transition to civilian government, but tensions between the SAF and RSF have risen steadily in recent months.

Ahead of this outbreak of fighting there were increasingly confrontational statements by both sides against each other and they were moving forces to prepare for a conflict. But both have continued to frame themselves as reformists and protectors of Sudan and its transition to civilian rule.

The main obstacle between Burhan and Hemedti concerns security sector reform and the integration of the RSF into the regular army, which was laid out in the framework agreement of December 2022 between the military actors and the civilian coalition.

Hemedti wanted that integration process spread out over a decade so as to maintain his own influence and counterbalance the SAF, but the army’s general staff called for it to take only two years.

The main obstacle between Burhan and Hemedti concerns security sector reform and the integration of the RSF into the regular army

There have also been disagreements over the command-and-control structure during the planned integration with Hemedti wanting the RSF to report to civilian leadership rather than be under Burhan’s SAF.

Crucially, a unified and professional force under a new civilian authority was not acceptable to Islamist elements within the army as it would have likely further dented their position and elevated the position of Hemedti and the RSF even further.

Although most of the focus is on the two generals, not enough attention is being paid to the disruptive role played by elements of the former Bashir regime in the ‘deep state’ and from certain armed groups on Sudan’s historically marginalized peripheries.

Islamist old regime elements have been successful in their efforts to derail the political agreement and undermine the civilian transition as they ultimately seek to regain control of the country through the vehicle of a SAF victory.

What is the current situation on the ground?

The conflict between the two sides has spread rapidly throughout the country – from Darfur in the west to the Gedaref in the east – and is incorporating the capital Khartoum, neighbouring Omdurman, and several other major cities.

Much of the fighting is in urban areas with the army and RSF striking to control each other’s facilities and camps, many of which are close to residential zones. Days of airstrikes by SAF on RSF-controlled areas have escalated the conflict and civilian casualties are steadily rising with critical infrastructure being destroyed.

Both the SAF and the RSF are calling for citizens to side with them, so there is no ‘neutral position’ for civilians even though most do not support either side

Khartoum is the epicentre of the fighting, a departure from previous conflicts in Sudan which have chiefly been prosecuted in the country’s historically marginalized regions. The RSF is embedding itself in neighbourhoods and taking over civilian houses there, using them as cover from SAF. There is little discipline from soldiers and reports are growing of looting and violence against people already under siege.

Civilians have been living under near constant bombardment, without electricity and with dwindling water and food. Even without a ceasefire many have risked the heavy fighting to try and escape the city or attempt to move to areas of relative safety. Both the SAF and the RSF are calling for citizens to side with them, so there is no ‘neutral position’ for civilians even though most do not support either side.

In Darfur there has been little accountability for decades of atrocities committed by various armed forces and 2023 is the 20th anniversary of the start of the war there. This is Hemedti’s stronghold and reports filtering through are of particularly heavy fighting and casualties in El-Fashir, Nyala, and Zalingei, among other places.

Even if Hemedti was removed, there is no guarantee RSF forces and commanders – especially in Darfur – would stop fighting. One scenario is that this war could evolve into a renewed subnational conflict – with RSF retreating to its heartlands where it can regroup, mobilize and resupply.

What are the fault lines of the conflict?

Hemedti continues to assert that he is supportive of the democratic process and anti-Islamist, and that General Burhan is not. He has branded the RSF as a defender of the revolution and the Sudanese people.

This claim to legitimacy is overstated as Sudanese have not forgotten the atrocities committed by the RSF in Darfur, nor their brutal attacks on the protesters’ sit-in camp in Khartoum in June 2019 which led to the deaths of more than 120 people.

The SAF is also not a cohesive force because Islamist elements from Bashir’s old regime – known as the Kayzan – make up an important element of the army leadership and have steered SAF in the direction of conflict.

But this contestation reveals plainly – if it was ever in doubt – that the two military leaders and the institutions they lead are the main impediment to establishing civilian government in Sudan.

Burhan and Hemedti have both been trying their best since the outset of the revolution to avoid pressure from the streets and civilian political leaders for security sector reform and accountability. This conflict will hugely raise those demands from people across Sudan.

The military leaders have also showed time and time again that they cannot be trusted to be reliable partners in Sudan’s transition to democracy.

In October 2021, SAF staged a military coup against their civilian partners in the transitional government, removing then prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. Now, just as Sudan was on the verge of returning a civilian government through political negotiations, the two military hegemons have gone to war against each other.

Sudan’s international partners have largely failed to hold the military leaders to account for violations during and since the military coup. International and regional mediation efforts have in a sense contributed to this outcome by legitimizing Burhan and Hemedti as political actors.

Neither is seeking to safeguard Sudan’s democratic transition – what they are doing is fighting it out to be Sudan’s next strongman dictator and the successor to Omar-al Bashir.

What is the role of regional and international actors?

Regional and international leaders have been aware of these tensions building, and the political process being a contributing factor to these hostilities. The requisite steps have not been taken to avoid this worst-case-scenario.

Certain regional stakeholders – including Egypt and the Gulf Arab states – have sought to influence the political process in Sudan in often contradictory ways, complicating prospects for de-escalation and resolution.

Egypt has strong military ties with Sudan and is keen to see a similarly styled government to Cairo in charge in Khartoum. More recent Emirati and Saudi Arabian engagement in Sudan has ostensibly supported progress towards a working political process, albeit with a view to legitimizing a military-led or military-aligned government through elections. These regional states have the decisive political and economic clout to change the generals’ calculations, should they wish to use it.

This contestation reveals plainly – if it was ever in doubt – that the two military leaders and the institutions they lead are the main impediment to establishing civilian government in Sudan

Within Sudan’s seven neighbouring states, there are national and subnational interests in who governs the country, with diverging preferences over who wins. Many of these regional alliances are also fluid. It is critical that regional and international actors are prevented from deepening the conflict further.

Coordination with regional actors, and building a unified international coalition is crucial to persuading the generals to abide by a short-term ceasefire which, if achieved, can hopefully be built-on to reach a permanent cessation of hostilities.

What firm action can be taken to avert the current violence?

The entire international and regional community need to act to prevent the conflict worsening. This requires a collective approach and unified diplomatic bloc capable of pressuring the parties to stop fighting – including the US, UK, Norway (Troika), and the European Union (EU), key influential players in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Egypt, and other influential states such as China.

Crucially, international efforts should connect with continental and regional mediation efforts by the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to ensure that efforts are not duplicated or diluted.

Resolving Sudan’s crisis means removing those fighting 2nd part

Sudan’s international partners must press on the need for an immediate ceasefire and access for humanitarian support, followed by political talks to agree to a permanent cessation of hostilities.

If a permanent ceasefire can be achieved, this needs to be followed by a resumption of political talks aimed at establishing a civilian government and putting the democratic transition slowly back on track. Given the escalations of the Generals actions, it is hard to see this scenario playing out in the short to medium term, especially as neither of the two belligerents could be a part of such a process.

To achieve a ceasefire the international community must make use of its leverage over key actors in the conflict. This includes considering the viability of economic levers, particularly pertinent for the UAE and China as Sudan’s largest trading partners, as well as other punitive measures such as targeted sanctions on SAF and RSF individuals and companies should they continue to refuse to heed firm and cohesive international calls for an immediate ceasefire.