The conflict in Sudan explained

5 Mins read

At the time of writing, more than 400 people have been killed, with more than 4,000 wounded, according to the World Health Organisation, as fighting continues in Sudan. Several foreign countries have started evacuating their nationals, fearing a civil war will break out.

Since 2019, the East African nation of Sudan has had no legitimate government. On April 15, a military conflict broke out among opposing Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Two Sudan generals are at the helm of the conflict: General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s armed forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, who controls the RSF.

To understand the current crisis in Sudan, it is necessary to put things into context and return to the early stages of the conflict.

In 2019, the army overthrew former president Omar Al-Bachir who presided over a brutal regime for thirty years in Sudan. Following the violent coup perpetrated by Sudanese generals Al-Burhan and Hemeti, the two were appointed president and vice-president of the Transitional Sovereign Council.

Al Burhan and Hemeti had to establish the transition until new elections scheduled for 2022, leading to the creation of a civilian-led government. Tensions emerged between members of the Transitional Sovereign Council due to competing interests, as the economic crisis in the country fuelled the discontent of the Sudanese population.

In 2021, a new coup was launched. The military junta hindered the democratic transition, leading interim Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok to be arrested and jailed. During this period, the rivalry between the two military junta generals increasingly sewed discord, especially over the country’s security and, thus, the integration of the RSF into the regular army.

On April 11, all Sudanese parties should have announced a new prime minister and other civilian government members by signing a final agreement between April 1 and April 6. Nonetheless, the rift opposing Al-Burhan and Hemeti, mainly regarding the RSF, recently led to a new coup by Hemeti himself.

The RSF was formed in 2013 by Al-Bashir, who entrusted the paramilitary unit to Hemeti. The former Sudanese president aimed to protect himself from a political coup by creating a paramilitary unit. Today, this army, made up of 100,000 men, has remained loyal to Hemeti. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan hoped to merge the RSF into the regular army. However, his former right arm Hemeti made sure to slow down the process.

Throughout the years Hemeti, regarded as “the butcher of Darfur” and “devil on horseback”, became more powerful. He collaborated with the Russian Wagner group, a private military group that helped train the RSP army and in 2014, he sent his men to fight against Yemen’s Houthis – a very lucrative operation for him.

According to the United Nations, the former Janjaweed militia leader Hemeti, has killed at least 200,000 people. In 2003, the Sudanese government deployed this militia in Darfur to fight against rebels in the region who opposed the repressive Sudan government.

Later, the Janjaweed brigade was accused of human rights abuses in Darfur, such as ethnic cleansing, torture, and rape — consequently, at least 2.5 million people were forced to be displaced. The mass protests in 2019, triggered by decades of economic hardship and dictatorship, considerably weakened al-Bashir’s power while allowing Al-Burhan and Hemeti to stage a successful coup.

During the 2021 military coup in Sudan, Al-Burhan and Hemeti united to stage a second coup against the transitional government, undermining any hope for the country to head towards democracy. However, the coup surprisingly benefited Hemeti, who was favoured over Al-Burhan, the head of the government, by the Khartoum and foreign elites for his strategic ties with foreign allies, money, and a loyal army.

Sudan: a proxy war?

As fighting continues, the interests of certain foreign countries in Sudan become increasingly evident. Indeed, the conflict is more than two armies fighting each other and thus involves several actors.

In 2014, the EU, alongside African states and the African Union, launched the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative to halt migrants crossing from Libya to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. However, the Khartoum process, which provided money through independent charities and aid agencies for food, health, and sanitation purposes for migrants, and military support to the Sudanese government, was used by Hemeti for his own interests.

Since 2015, an EU trust fund has given Sudan hundreds of millions of euros. In turn, the RSF exercised more rigid control of Africa’s borders. Hemeti’s army took the opportunity to grow stronger and oust Al-Bashir from power.

According to the Editor of Africa Confidential, Patrick Smith, “Hemeti’s take on the Khartoum Process is a powerful one. You’ve got to say that the EU has engaged with him and that its main concern is migration.”

Experts argue that although being involved in crimes against humanity in Darfur, which the UN condemned, the European leaders heavily rely on the current Sudanese military apparatus to stop migration towards Europe while ignoring the dark past of the repressive Sudan militias assigned with border enforcement. Moreover, concerns have been raised about the purpose of the €40 million (£34.6m) Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which may be used to encourage smuggling in the area by the RSF.

The current crisis in the country will likely reinforce Hemeti’s legitimacy and shrink Al-Burhan’s chance to remain head of the government. While Egypt has long regarded Al-Burhan’s Sudan as a close ally, Hemeti’s army seems to be backed by Russia and the Gulf powers, whose army, the RSF, has played a crucial role in the Yemen war.

Sudan’s stability is essential to Egypt’s national security, especially regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The huge hydropower plant on the River Nile has been a source of tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt since its construction in 2011. Al-Sisi deems the Renaissance Dam a national threat as it aims to control the river’s flow, which is vital to life in the country.

Further, the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa is expected to export power from the Dam to neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Djibouti, which caused tensions with Egypt and Sudan. In a statement, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Addis Ababa was “violating its obligations under the 2015 Declaration of Principles Agreement signed by the Ethiopian Prime Minister.”

Russia also plays a key role in the Sudan conflict. The Russian paramilitary company Wagner, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has held close ties with the RSF chief Hemeti by helping train his army in exchange for gold. Indeed, as Sudan holds vast gold reserves, Hemeti reportedly gave Russian merchants protection to buy gold from miners.

According to the New York Times, when Hemeti travelled to Moscow shortly after Ukraine’s invasion regarding Russia’s set up of a navy base in the Red Sea, his plane was transporting gold for Russians. A CNN report found that about $1.9 billion (£1.5bn) worth of Sudanese gold was sent to Russia by Sudan’s junta militia in exchange for Russia’s political and military backing.

Although a 72-hour truce has been announced recently, airstrikes continue to hit Khartoum, leaving millions of people trapped in the capital city with food, water, and fuel shortages. According to locals, RSF militias reportedly have looted markets, hospitals and attacked civilians.

Featured image by Anthony Beck via Pexels CC

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