“The events that have taken place in Sudan since 2019 prove that democracy and security cannot be thought of separately: they both must be worked on together as part of one process,”
Earlier this month, in April 2023, political parties, armed forces, and civil society in Sudan were preparing to sign a new political agreement and form a new government. Now, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are at war. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) interviewed Khartoum-based nonresident fellow Hamid Khalafallah to examine what factors led to today’s conflict, the current security and humanitarian situation on the ground in Sudan, and the role regional and international powers are playing.
TIMEP: How did the situation in Sudan deteriorate into armed conflict? What led to an open military confrontation between the two generals?
Hamid Khalafallah: The SAF and the RSF were supposed to be part of an agreement that was set to be reached between military actors and 40 other parties, including civilian groups, political parties, and civil society, that had signed the Political Framework Agreement. They were due to sign the final political agreement in April which would establish, or restore, Sudan’s democratic transition. On April 15, a few days before signing the agreement, Sudan witnessed the war erupting between the SAF and the RSF. So it is obviously very clear that this political agreement that was about to be signed and was being discussed has contributed to accelerating the tension and the falling out between both armed forces. The friction between both armed forces, and more specifically between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—the Chief Commander of the SAF—and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”—the Commander of the RSF—predates the political framework agreement, and goes back to 2019, when they started their partnership and began working together after toppling former president Omar al-Bashir.
The partnership between the SAF and the RSF was just very convenient: it was useful for them to join their interests against the civilians so that they could both gain more ground and protect their economic interests, while also protecting themselves from being prosecuted over the atrocities they committed through the years. It made sense for them to work together, and they continued to do that throughout Sudan’s transition. They orchestrated the coup together, arguably with a larger role for SAF than the RSF, but then ever since the coup, we have started seeing the two leaders’ differences growing. This increased the last few months with tensions between the generals rising, until violence eventually erupted.
The post-Bashir transition made sense for the two generals to ignore their differences and focus on what united them, or what common interests they had, until their falling out. Obviously this falling out could have been less severe had external actors not interfered and added fuel to the fire. The Islamists, associated with the Bashir regime, did everything they could to capitalize on the friction between the SAF and the RSF. They wanted this to happen because the violence and chaos would give them an opportunity to resurface and come back to power. And we saw statements from Islamist leaders just a few days before the fighting started, claiming that chaos would dominate Khartoum and Sudan and they would come back to be the saviors. They expedited the situation between both generals, in the hopes of it turning into a full blown war.
TIMEP: After 10 days of fighting, what is the situation in Khartoum? Where is the fighting taking place?
HK: The situation in Khartoum at the moment is nothing short of catastrophic. It is a very difficult and tense security situation; fighting is happening everywhere, even in residential areas, so citizens are not safe from stray bullets, shelling, or heavy artillery, even in their own houses. Even if they are not physically harmed, the horrifying noise and sounds of these heavy machinery and gun fights definitely reaches the entire population. Many families have been spending most of their days lying on the floor or beneath their beds to protect themselves from the sounds, but also from bombing and gunfight.
Fighting started in very centralized areas where crucial and critical government institutions are located, like the Presidential Palace, the military headquarters, and the army command building, but it has spread out to other neighborhoods. These key locations are already situated in the middle of residential neighborhoods so they are putting the population at risk.
THERE IS ALSO A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS UNFOLDING BECAUSE OF THE CONTINUOUS ELECTRICITY AND WATER OUTAGES, INTERNET CUTS, AND FOOD SUPPLIES ARE RUNNING OUT ACROSS THE COUNTRY WITH VERY FEW STORES REMAINED OPEN.
In addition to that, there is also a humanitarian crisis unfolding because of the continuous electricity and water outages, internet cuts, and food supplies are running out across the country with very few stores remained open. But the biggest crisis in terms of the humanitarian situation is that of medical care and healthcare. It has been reported that over 70 percent of the hospitals in Khartoum and neighboring areas are now out of service, either because they were bombed or attacked by the fighting entities, or because there are no medical staff to operate these facilities. Some doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are not able to reach hospitals to provide services because of the security situation, and those who are in those facilities are exhausted. They’re also running out of supplies. Even when there are a few hospitals or healthcare centers that remain open, citizens are unable to reach the facilities out of safety. It’s very dangerous to just go on the streets and drive and try to get to a hospital. So the situation is difficult.
TIMEP: What’s happening outside of Khartoum? How are other regions affected by the conflict?
HK: There are fights and violent clashes ongoing outside of Khartoum as well, but unfortunately, most of the media’s attention is on the capital. This conflict between the SAF and RSF has, in so many ways, started outside of Khartoum, specifically in the town of Merowe, in the north, where the RSF initially deployed their troops near the SAF’s military base. The area already had quite some tension brewing in it. The first bullet marking the beginning of the conflict was shot in Khartoum, and then the conflict moved to Merowe. Apart from some minor fighting in a few other cities, there are major violent clashes within the Darfur region, as the RSF originates from that area. They have strong tribal connections there, which made it easy for them to mobilize and recruit people and fighters. So by design, the conflict was bound to reach the area.
Some other states have witnessed very violent clashes which have greatly affected citizens, but they have not been well covered by the media. I suspect that the fighting will continue in Darfur even if a truce or ceasefire is declared in Khartoum, because Darfur is a much more fragile situation where conflict would be difficult to control.
TIMEP: Sudan’s neighborhood resistance committees have been regularly protesting and organizing for the past several years, since before the October 2021 military coup. What does resistance by pro-democracy groups like the resistance committees look like right now? What do activists need on the ground at the moment?
HK: The resistance movement took a strong hit when this war erupted. Their strengths lay in mobilizing communities, bringing people together, and advocating for specific causes, and it was nearly impossible for them to use any of these popular mobilization activities, or do anything that they had been previously doing. They have been trying to think of different ways through which they could advocate for peace and ending the war. It has been difficult for them to re-strategize as the context dramatically shifted overnight and everything they had been advocating for became irrelevant as the priorities had to change.
This situation has in many ways paralyzed the existing movement, but they have started to adapt and modify their messages to the new context, particularly focusing on peace building and anti-war narratives. What they need at the moment is for different platforms, particularly on the international level, to give them the space to speak and clarify what is going on because the RSF and SAF are both claiming that the current situation is not a struggle over power or personal interests, but a fight for the Sudanese people and for the demands of the revolution. So the resistance committees will need space to argue against these claims and raise awareness about peace building and ending the war immediately.
TIMEP: Many people fled Khartoum to seek safety from the violence, becoming internally displaced in other cities and regions within Sudan. Where are people fleeing to? Can you tell us more about what’s happening to them?
THIS SITUATION HAS IN MANY WAYS PARALYZED THE EXISTING MOVEMENT, BUT THEY HAVE STARTED TO ADAPT AND MODIFY THEIR MESSAGES TO THE NEW CONTEXT, PARTICULARLY FOCUSING ON PEACE BUILDING AND ANTI-WAR NARRATIVES.
HK: Many people, particularly from Khartoum, have been fleeing the city to seek refuge. It has been a very difficult process for families to make the decision of leaving their lives and houses behind. They have been relocating to places like Medeni, which is a 2 hour drive south of Khartoum, or going up north to Shendi and Atbarah or to other cities like Gedaref in Eastern Sudan. Many have gone back to their hometowns outside of Khartoum or to cities where they have family, or to places that have relatively good services. People have also been trying to reach bordering countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, while waiting for things to calm down. In general, this process has been very difficult for people both emotionally and financially. For example, bus ticket prices are increasing by the hour, as many transportation services are capitalizing on people’s desperation to flee. Just a few days ago, people were enjoying the city and now they can only pack a few items quickly to flee and leave everything behind.
TIMEP: There has been a lot of talk about foreign interference and influence by regional and international powers in Sudan. From what is known at the moment, what do you believe has been the role of those countries in the crisis and their role in influencing one general over the other?
HK: I find it very difficult to believe that the SAF and the RSF have been fighting this war without any coordination with foreign actors. It is no secret that both actors have regional and transnational allies, who have been strongly supporting both military entities politically, by ensuring they remain in power, and financially, by providing weapons and other monetary assistance. I truly believe they have played a huge role in the ongoing war; if not by pushing for it to happen, then by allowing it to continue. The SAF and RSF remaining in power in Sudan is good for the interests of these foreign countries.
TIMEP: What role should the international community and international mediation play?
HK: There is a lot for the international community to do going forward, particularly during the mediation process, but also hopefully in Sudan’s democratic transition. In my opinion, the international community needs to start by admitting that the security-over-democracy compromise which they pushed for, through which they ensured that both the military leaders were part of the political equation and part of the government institutions, has contributed to the current situation. The international community pushed for the partnership between civilians and the military and for the power sharing agreement because they believed that it would ensure the country’s security. They pushed very hard for that partnership and we can see today how this did not work out and how it led to a full-on war. Of course, the war is not the international community’s fault entirely, but they did contribute to the situation today. They need to start first by reflecting on that and admitting their mistake.
As the international community engages in the negotiations, they should prioritize the humanitarian crisis as an urgent need and not only focus on the political situation. They missed an opportunity where they could have used the momentary halting of violence in Khartoum during which diplomats and foreign nationals were evacuated. This lull in the fighting proves that both military factions can commit to a ceasefire if they have the will to do it. The international community could have pushed for more; it could have pushed for the safe passage of humanitarian assistance and for access to hospitals, but they missed this opportunity.
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY SHOULD ALSO LEARN FROM THEIR PREVIOUS MISTAKES OF TRUSTING THE GENERALS.
The international community should also learn from their previous mistakes of trusting the generals. Calling on the SAF and the RSF and using only soft language and simple pleas will not work. It is about time for the international community to learn that both military entities openly and shamelessly lie, and have been deceitful since 2019. They should not be trusted during the upcoming political process, if it were to take place, and they must be held accountable for their actions.
The United States has been vocal about imposing sanctions on the military leaders who orchestrated the coup back in 2021. Two years later, both coup leaders are still in power and sanctions were never applied. The international community needs to be more firm in their reactions. They also must place the democratization process back on track to ensure that security is not prioritized once again at the expense of democracy. The events that have taken place in Sudan since 2019 prove that democracy and security cannot be thought of separately: they both must be worked on together as part of one process.
The international community must also listen to the Sudanese people. The Sudanese people have been vocal and warned about the dangers of what has been going on in the past four years, but no one listened or paid attention to what they had to say. The people have repeatedly said that the military is not to be trusted, and yet here we are today. It is time to listen to the Sudanese people and hear what they have to say about what works, and what could be sustainable arrangements for Sudan moving forward.
Hamid Khalafallah is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on inclusive governance and mobilization in Sudan.