Sudan: What is happening and what can be done?

Sudan: What is happening and what can be done?
Plumes emerge from northern Khartoum, areas with reportedly the fiercest fighting.

On the 15th April, fighting broke out between two militarised factions in Sudan. On the one side, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the other, Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Mohammed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo. The dispute arose as the SAF accused the RSF of ‘unauthorised movements’ across the country and their ignoring of demands to stand down on the one hand. On the other, the RSF cities violations of internationally brokered ceasefires and the use of airstrikes to weaken their military prowess. To the rest of the world, this conflict seems to have sprung from two rival groups vying for hegemony in the Sudan, but to the Sudanese, it traces back to their nations battle scarred past. 


So far, up to 16 000 civilians have fled to Egypt and 20 000 into Chad to escape the disastrous violence, particularly in Khartoum and the Darfur region. With no sign of slowing down as “they [Hemedti and al-Burhan] both think they will win”, dialogue between the two warring parties is looking, at present, unlikely. With 60% of hospitals closed, the situation is increasingly looking like it will deteriorate into a humanitarian crisis. Sudan’s health ministry reported Tuesday (2nd May 2023) that 550 people have died and 4,926 have been injured. 


This report shall look to explain the complex history of this recent composition of violence in the Sudan, the dangers that it poses to re-igniting deeper and wider conflicts, and the possible routes to a peaceful resolution suggested by impACT International. 


Conflict in Sudan


Military and militia conflict has long been a characteristic of modern Sudanese history. In early 2003, two armed groups waged war in Darfur against the Government of Sudan (after a long history of state violence and tribal warring). Named the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), these two groups looked to remove government presence in the region. After frequent attacks on towns, government facilities and also civilians in the region, Darfur was dropped into a security vacuum where disputes between the over 80 different tribes and myriad ethnicities became increasingly violent. Largely divisions can be seen over ethnic boundaries, typically Arab and non-Arab (various African ethnicities).  


By 2004, the Sudanese government and SLA/JEM had agreed to a 45-day ceasefire but isolated pockets of groups continued to fight. By 2007, the conflict had left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and more than 2 million injured. The then-President, now escaped prisoner, Omar al-Bashir mobilised ‘Janjaweed’ (who were primarily Arab) militias to fight on behalf of the government in Darfur. A collection of many different armed groups the, Janjaweed militias, at the behest of al-Bashir carried out a brutal counter-insurgency. Incidents of ethnic cleansing, rape, and ‘population clearance’ became synonymous globally with the Janjaweed and the governments complicity in these crimes was largely recognised. In 2004 Human Rights Watch compiled a report illustrating the involvement of the government in orchestrating crimes against humanity. By 2008, the International Criminal Court declared that al-Bashir bore criminal responsibility for the crimes in Darfur and the next year was issued an arrest warrant. 


With al-Bashir, using military might and various totalitarian techniques, maintained his grip on power in 2011, yet huge internal pressures forced the government to issue a referendum on the secession of the south. A devastating victory on the side of secession, with 98% of votes, meant South Sudan became an independent state separating the source of oil in the south from the refining and pipeline infrastructure in the north. In May 2011, Bashir ordered the invasion of the regions primary town, Abyei, on the grounds of ‘southern aggression’ (with little to no evidence) and declared the Abyei to be northern land. Likely looking to recover valuable oil producing regions, small skirmishes continue on this border as areas are contested. Similarly in Darfur, rebel activity continues to haunt civilians in the region. Following a reconstruction of the Janjaweed militias in response to rebel activity, the RSF was officially formed in 2013 by amalgamating these groups into one. From this point on, the group grew in size, reach and established itself as one of the primary militias protecting al-Bashir. Estimates from Human Rights Watch indicated that in February 2014, the group was 5,000 to 6,000 strong. But two years later, 40,000 members had been sent to participate in the Yemeni Civil War. In 2019, as the government collapsed, 10,000 fighters returned and Reuters estimates in 2023 that the figure is around 100,000, equal to that of the Sudanese Army.


By 2014, over half a million civilians had escaped the persistent violence in Darfur to Ethiopia, Chad and Egypt and between 1.5 and 1.8 million were displaced internally. This created economic, social and political chaos in Sudan. With vast camps housing displaced civilians and hospitals unable to deal with the consecutive crises, the population continued to suffer. Increasingly dissatisfied with their government, public discontent with the ruling National Congress Party and al-Bashir rose and in June 2012, weeklong protests ensued. This discontent and suffering was maintained until, seven years later, among a wave of great public anger from myriad sources, al-Bashir was ousted by a military coup headed by the Army and supported by the RSF. 


During the coup, military forces turned on civilians and the Sudanese army supposedly directed the RSF to quell any dissent in the capital. Pro-democracy demonstrators had swept across the streets of Khartoum and the nation. In June 2019, at a sit-in at the capital, the RSF killed more than 100 people among other instances of murder and violence. 


Re-ignition of conflict in Darfur


The rebellion in Darfur largely consisted of three main communities of non-Arab ethnicity; Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa. Arab communities, such as the Rizeigat tribe were mobilised to counter non-Arab militias.The result of this was increasing bloodshed on all sides, and tit-for-tat inter tribal attacks that drew out the conflict and killed many. 


After the outbreak of violence in April, local police in Darfur (who are largely non-Arab) have called on locals to defend themselves from militias. With desperation on both sides, reports of increasing  violence are concerning. At IDP camps and government shelters there are reports of groups burning down facilities. Friction between Arab and non-Arab tribes, who are in a region of limited water and useable land resources, often increases when violence resurges. In particular, as reported in al Jazeera, conflict between the Rizeigat and Massalit is at boiling point. Particular tribal disputes are re-ignited. As reported by Al Jazeera, the storied conflict between the Rizeigat and Massalit tribes, is currently at breaking point. 4 years ago, in 2019, it was reported that the murder of a Rizeigat man caused an outbreak of violence. The tribe, looking for revenge and spearheaded by an unnamed RSF commander, attacked an IDP camp housing Massalit and massacred 168. 


With the RSF holding significant operational histories in Darfur, and the increasing violence, which saw serious bouts of violence increase in 2021, the situation is precarious. The World Food Programme estimates that around 65% of Western region of Darfur is food insecure and Human Rights Watch suggest that the government and armed forces have not adequately tried to solve these problems. The refugee statistics in Chad illustrate that residents of the region feel deeply insecure about their position. The majority of the 20,000 people that have entered Chad come from the towns of Nyanja and El Geneina, the latter being the capital of West Darfur. Infrastructural stability is also looking perilous as even humanitarian missions are being targeted by armed groups. The MSF supported hospital was looted and now is largely unusable. UNITAMS Special Representative, Volker Perthes, has also indicated that UN staff would be removed and evacuated to neighbouring countries. As the region also approaches the rainy season, the worsening of the situation beyond mere violence and structural disintegration for civilians looks increasingly likely.


The situation in Khartoum


In Khartoum, where the violence is most concentrated, there are a number of unfolding situations that require attention. Most worrying, is the use of Thermobaric bombs, supposedly built in Serbia in 2020 and supplied by the UAE. A type of bomb that uses oxygen in the immediate area to generate immense high-temperature explosions, they are being used in areas of large civilian presence, is a major concern (a weapon that has been, on numerous occasions, attempted to be prohibited). Reports illustrate that these weapons have been utilised by the RSF. Whilst Hemedti’s men occupy residential neighbourhoods in the capital, the SAF have deployed jets and drones to aerially bombard their opponents, a tactic that is highly likely to increase civilian casualties.


Jail breaks have also become a worrying component. According to Reuters, at least eight jails have been attacked causing mass escapes, including five in Khartoum and two in Darfur. The most notable escapee being former President al-Bashir from Kobe prison, this was reported by an insider at the NCP, Ahmed Haroun. The latter, also wanted by the ICC has urged the Sudanese to back the army and alongside al-Bashir, there are increasing worries that they may be able to mobilise militias not yet associated with the warring sides and worse the situation. Now able to personally direct many of his allies that are still active in the country, protestors and outspoken pro-democracy critics could be the subject of targeting by al-Bashir and his allies as chaos expands.


Despite the calls and an established ceasefire, gun fire and explosions are heard around Khartoum. Black clouds loom over the capital, particularly around Omdurman around Northern Khartoum, where the fiercest battles are reported. With just 16% of the health facilities reported functioning by the World Health Organisation and around 50,000 acutely malnourished children in the area, civilian deaths (particularly already suffering children) are likely to skyrocket.


The possibility of an internal solution


As reported, there is danger of a prolonged conflict as, alongside similar personnel figures, both sides are convinced of their ability to succeed in defeating the other. At the end of April, the UN expressed doubts about the possibilities of a peaceful negotiated resolution. Highlighting the internal nature of these disputes, both groups directly cite the actions of the other for their mobilisation. 


The nature of this internal power struggle throws up limited options for external actors to command power to reduce conflict. Secretary General Antionio Guterres suggests that he is in “constant contact” with military leaders involved and recent reports from Reuters indicate that there may be some room for negotiation.



However, a few days later the UN envoy suggested that warring sides are already looking more open to negotiations. Perthes has indicated that sides have nominated representatives for talks and even locations for such negotiations but no timeline has been set. This does seem as though it is a progression as there was absolutely no discussion of a possible conversation between parties last week. 



Wider instability


A discussion that has received little publicity is the possibility of wider instability that threatens the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. In these regions, a lack of security presence and government aid has meant banditry is on the rise. Perhaps more alarmingly, terror groups have swooped in to fill the security vacuum, in some cases preying on the situation and in others, positioning themselves as regional authorities. 


With the split of Boko Haram into JAS (Jama'atu Ahlis Sunnah lid-Da'awati wal-Jihad) and ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) and later death of former Boko Haram and JAS leader Shekau in 2021, ISWAP has increased its power across the Lake Chad Basin. The group has deployed a ‘hearts and minds’ approach. Inculcating local support by protecting livelihoods of the regions population, by punishing bandits and creating at least some semblance of security that the state was unable to provide, ISWAP controls vast swathes of territory, particularly on the Western border of Chad and Nigeria. Their attacks are frequently directed at both government and civilian groups.


With huge amounts of refugees looking for safety in their western neighbours, the arrival of Sudanese refugees may destabilise a nation rocked by terror groups. With excessive use of force, torture and arbitrary arrests by security forces after the seizure of power by Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, there is widespread discontent in Chad. Worse, Déby declared food emergency in June last year due to the economic impact of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has indicated that acute food insecurity has increased by nearly 70% with 2.1 million requiring assistance. As, already 20,000 Sudanese people have crossed into Chad to escape the escalation of violence, concerns mount regarding the further destabilisation of Chad and the possible treatment of refugees as conditions for residents remains dire, 


impACT recommendations


Echoing the recent statement from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, impACT suggests that all stakeholders and nations in adequate positions to apply diplomatic pressure to warring parties mobilise in order to prevent deaths and support a peaceful agreement in Sudan. As a blanket policy impACT recommends that all nations in these diplomatic positions follow 4 clear policies: 


  1. Prepare resources and allocate funds for increased humanitarian needs. In a nation with pre-existing socio-economic conditions that are conducive to the suffering of civilians, nations must recognise that this conflict is likely to worsen already largely unimaginable suffering. Food insecurity and poverty are rampant across the nation, but acute in areas such as Darfur. Therefore, must be targeted for concentrated humanitarian aid.
  2. Support human rights monitoring and documentation of refugees and deaths. With a long documented history of human rights abuses across the nation and the continued existence of militias and armed groups (both the SAF and RSF) that are responsible for historic abuses it is likely that history will repeat itself. The escape of al-Bashir also signifies the possible dangers of retaliatory violence against pro-democracy advocates that stood at the centre of the wave of public discontent that led to his ousting in 2019. 
  3. Arms embargoes. Because internal disputes largely characterises the conflict, increasing the capabilities of warring parties to continue fighting is unquestionably likely to increase bloodshed and prolong fighting and therefore is vital to create an arms embargo. 
  4. Each diplomatic stakeholder should appoint a Special Envoy. All nations active in the dispute, whether financially or politically, should appoint a Special Envoy to Sudan. The position should be well resourced with a wide breadth of possible policy options available.


The UK and the EU 


There are a number of policy options for both the United Kingdom and the EU. Whilst some will deal with the problem retroactively, impACT also looks to highlight inefficiencies and issues with current policy that could prevent further descent into violence in Sudan and the surrounding regions. Though it is important to consider there are few internal organisations able to receive aid, the UN and other international institutions, such as Medicine Sans Frontier, are active and able to receive equipment to ease the impact on civilians despite infrastructural damage.


Outrage of last years Russian invasion of the Ukraine was continuously expressed by Western media and institutional entities, decrying (validly) the brutal treatment of civilians and defending the sovereignty of the Ukraine. The provision of aid to the Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the invasion was large. In the case of the UK, with invasion beginning on the 24th February of last year, by 1st March, the UK had pledged some £80 million in aid to deal with the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Further, the UK government website suggests that Ukrainians would be welcome to seek asylum. Worryingly, concern regarding the conflict in Sudan has mainly included removing any British personnel and dual citizens from the country, and as time has passed, direction from the government has largely been to discourage travelling to the UK with no mention of financial or humanitarian aid. This hugely contrasts the immediate creation of safe routes for Ukrainians. Suella Braverman, Home Secretary, has rejected safe routes from Sudan which shall only apply to British nationals. It is most important that the UK applies equitable refugee solutions to the Sudan and welcomes a portion of those desperate to escape violence. The Home Secretary must reverse her Euro-centric, racist, position on rejecting Sudanese refugees. 


An interesting thing to note is that during 2021/2022, the UK sold a record amount of small and large arms to Sudan since 2010. A number of licenses to export military equipment were issued, with some £241,000 worth sold. With Sudan being one of the most heavily armed nations in Africa, impACT heavily suggests that the UK government review it’s weapons sales to unstable nations, particularly to those with already high weapons stocks. High concentration of arms in a nation with a multitude of armed militias should be considered unacceptable destinations for weapons sales.


In a similar vein, the EU has provided meagre support packages to the people of Sudan. Again, using the invasion of the Ukraine as example, just four days after initial Russian activity, the Union had pledged 450 million euros for weapons packages and 50 million euros for no-lethal weapons and support. By April, the humanitarian and aid budget had reached 1.5 billion. In a similarly short period of time, the EU has pledged just 400 million euros to the African Union. The EU must do better in it’s effort to protect Sudanese civilians. In it’s policy in Sudan, the EU describes it’s position as “an important role in building bridges” and will address “issues of peace, democracy, human rights … and humanitarian assistance”, yet has only provided meagre aid. In light of the RSF’s history of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, alongside the escape of al-Bashir, the EU must not renege on it’s pledges, particularly with pro-democracy advocates in danger. Despite a similarly meagre approach to humanitarian aid, the EU, unlike the UK has reportedly not sold arms directly to Sudanese forces. 


International Stakeholders 


In a desperate situation, impACT has identified a major financial and political stakeholders active in Sudan as possible alternative solutions to prevent further bloodshed. The most important step to prevent bloodshed is to reduce non-fungible military aid to both sides. As this conflict is largely internal, based on inter-militia and rather personalised disputes between leading men, increasing the military capacities of either side through non-fungible support means that this will increase the perception that each side has the capacity to defeat the other. 


With video of evidence of the RSF capturing Egyptian soldiers deployed in Sudan to aid and support the Army, impACT implores Egypt to prevent further military intervention in the country and withdraw it’s deployed personnel. With Egypt taking in a vast portion of the refugees from Sudan, prolonging the conflict through further intervention will likely increase the portion of refugees escaping to their nation. Whilst the efforts to welcome fleeing civilians is admirable, the prevention of further bloodshed and civilian displacement should be of top priority and therefore, the deployment of soldiers must be halted. Whilst el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, has asserted that these forces are purely present for training purposes, his close political ties with al-Burhan indicates that they are likely for military support. Further, there are rumours of warplanes and pilots sent to assist the Sudanese Army. 


As with Britain, the UAE has done little to prevent bloodshed and much to increase it’s likelihood. Video evidence of Thermobaric bombs being dropped on heavily populated positions will only worsen conditions for civilians and foster retaliatory attitudes across the nation by all those impacted by these attacks. Any further weapons sales from the UAE and business subsidiaries are highly discouraged by impACT. All other nations should also agree to an arms embargo.


The identification of major financial stakeholders in the region are vital to provide a wide breadth of possible policy solutions. China is perhaps the most invested in the region financially. Recently, having reportedly brokered deals between both Saudi Arabia and the Houthis in the Yemen and the Saudi/Iran discussions, they are also operating well as diplomatic middle-men and pose a promising alternative to prevent further fighting. Experts indicate that China “is in a good position to be a mediator in the crisis”, as they have a market share of over 50% in contracted infrastructure works in Sudan and 130 of their companies invest and operate in the nation. South Sudanese oil, which crosses it’s northern borders via pipelines and is processed in Sudan, also accounts for 2% of China’s annual oil consumption. These financial incentives and market positions places China as an ideal candidate to prevent further descent into violence, infrastructural damage and civil disaster. It is important however, for Beijing to respect regional authorities, namely the African Union. Though the Sudan was ejected from the Union in 2019 due to a lack of progress after the coup and the crackdown on pro-democracy positions.


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