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Sudan’s Spiraling Crisis, Explained

How two generals pushed Sudan to war.

Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, is a war zone. “Things get worse every day and day,” said Mohamed Fath Alrahman, a doctor and general manager of Al-Nada Hospital in Khartoum.

Artillery shelling and airstrikes are the norm. The streets are not safe. There are food shortages. The health care system is collapsing. About 16 percent of hospitals in Khartoum are still functioning, according to the World Health Organization.

Al-Nada Hospital, a maternity hospital which is operated by the Sudanese American Physicians Association (SAPA), still has water and electricity and supplies, for now. It is a risk, though, for patients to leave home and seek care. Alrahman recalled a conversation with the husband of a pregnant woman, who told the doctor that, as he rushed his wife to the hospital to deliver their baby, his car was shot up.

“It is really, really a living hell,” Alrahman said.

Two men, and their respective militaries, are responsible for that living hell in Khartoum, and elsewhere in Sudan. Fighting erupted on April 15 between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti.

The competing militaries are partially a legacy of the former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who fractured the country’s security apparatus as a “coup-proofing” strategy to prevent any one faction from getting strong enough to depose him. That failed — after mass protests, the military ousted al-Bashir in 2019 — but the competing centers of power persisted.

Al-Burhan and Hemedti shared power with civilian leaders in Sudan’s transitional government, which was supposed to create a pathway to a democratic Sudan. But in 2021, the generals teamed up to oust the civilian leaders. The two shared a shaky partnership in government since, though they were recently negotiating a deal to transition back to civilian rule. Yet those negotiations, endorsed by the international community, failed to address the underlying tensions, or deal with the thorny question of how to integrate the RSF into the Sudanese Armed Forces, threatening the positions of both men.

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Instead of ceding control, they went to war.

The weeks-long power struggle is now pushing Sudan toward humanitarian catastrophe and civil war. It has upended Sudan’s democratic transition, although many Sudanese activists and observers say that transition was flawed from the start. This outcome — of two military leaders dragging the country to the brink — was foreseen, yet largely ignored, by the international community.

Alrahman said he sees the priority now as ending this conflict, whatever it takes to get these two generals to negotiate. “If this continues for another month, there will be no more Sudan,” he said. At that point, it will not even matter which strongman prevails.

“We don’t care because they rule over just ashes,” Alrahman said. “They don’t have anything to rule, if this war continues like this.”

(The short version of) how Sudan got to this point

In 2019, the military ousted longtime Sudanese dictator al-Bashir following popular mass protests. It was a remarkable moment in the country’s history. Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 through a coup of his own, and presided over an oppressive regime for 30 years. He was charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for his role overseeing the genocide in Darfur in the 2000s. The regime’s ties to international terror groups (Osama bin Laden famously found sanctuary there) marked Sudan as a state sponsor of terror.

The military took over after al-Bashir’s removal, but protesters continued to demand democracy. After months of negotiations — which included a brutal crackdown in June 2019 against demonstrators, perpetrated largely by the RSF — civilian and military leaders signed a power-sharing deal that would transition Sudan to full civilian rule, with a new constitution and elections.

Al-Burhan was the military leader of the transitional government’s Sovereign Council, serving as Sudan’s de facto head of state. Hemedti served as deputy on the council. The civilian coalition was led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

This was always an uneasy setup, one that would ultimately require military leaders like al-Burhan and Hemedti to willingly hand over power to civilians. In the process, they would jeopardize their vested financial interests and potentially expose themselves to be held accountable for corruption and human rights abuses, including for the June 2019 massacre and for their past roles in Darfur. (Neither have been charged with crimes, but both are tied to the former regime’s human rights abuses in Darfur. Al-Burhan was the regional commander for the Sudanese military in Darfur, and Hemedti led the Janjaweed militia accused of mass atrocities in Darfur; the RSF is successor to those militias.)

Who’s who in Sudan’s conflict and recent history?

Omar al-Bashir: Former Sudanese dictator who was ousted by the military in 2019, following mass protests in 2018 and 2019. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), including on charges of genocide and war crimes.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan: Al-Burhan leads Sudan’s conventional military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). He has served as Sudan’s de facto head of state since 2019. He is one of the two generals currently waging war.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as “Hemedti”: Hemedti leads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group that has a long record of alleged human rights abuses. Hemedti is the other general currently fighting for power in Sudan.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok: Hamdok served as Sudan’s prime minister, the civilian leader of the country’s transitional government. Al-Burhan and Hemedti ousted him in a coup in 2021. He struck a deal to come back weeks later, but resigned in January 2022.

None of that was exactly an enticement for military leaders to give up power. Which is largely why, in October 2021, al-Burhan and Hemedti teamed up and staged a coup against the transitional government, dissolving the power-sharing arrangement, and detaining the prime minister, Hamdok. Mass protests broke out.

In November 2021, military leaders negotiated a deal that reinstalled Hamdok as the head of a “technocratic government,” until future elections could be held. Military leaders acquiesced to the agreement mostly to quell the resistance on the streets and to appease the international community, especially since the coup risked international funding and debt relief, a lifeline in Sudan’s economic crisis.

But Sudan couldn’t exactly pick up where it left off in its democratic transition, especially since the underlying factors that prompted the military takeover in October 2021 had not gone away. Sudan’s fierce pro-democracy movement — led by local “resistance committees” — understood this. Many groups rejected the deal, protesting and demanding a civilian-led transition, free of the military’s influence.

In January 2022, Hamdok resigned, a recognition of the failure of that November deal. The military stayed in charge. Protests continued, as did the crackdowns; about 100 protesters were killed in the year since the coup.

In December 2022, civilian leaders and the military tried to negotiate another deal to revive the transition, where the generals would once again agree to hand over power to a civilian coalition. The pact offered a glimmer of hope, especially in the eyes of the international community, including the United States, European Union, and others who backed the deal.

But the deal also generated a lot of criticism. It wasn’t seen as inclusive enough. It also lacked clear mechanisms on how to ensure the transition and guarantee the implementation of the toughest reforms, including security sector reform, or ensuring Sudan had only one army, which meant integrating Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces with the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Which is also why many grassroots pro-democracy groups, like those resistance committees, didn’t back it. “We are just repeating the same cycle,” said Ahmed Ismat, a spokesperson for the Khartoum southern resistance committees in the wake of the December pact, according to Al Jazeera.

By now, it’s clear Sudan’s pro-democracy groups were, again, proven right. “Everybody accepted this kind of toxic relationship, if I may say, because they just wanted to have the country not to go through this situation,” said Maha Tambal, a Sudan analyst and researcher, of the transitional arrangement. “And now this situation just happens. This is the worst-case scenario, it just comes to be real.”

The “existential” power struggle everyone should have seen coming

The problem with Sudan’s transitional framework wasn’t just that it required al-Burhan and Hemedti to give up political and economic power; it also required one of them to potentially cede influence to the other.

This is wrapped up in what’s called security sector reform, which sounds dry but pretty much everyone — inside and outside the country — understood was an essential requirement for Sudan to become a democracy. It would entail disentangling military institutions from control of the economy — bad for both al-Burhan and Hemedti. It would also require professionalizing the military, which meant absorbing competing security forces into the SAF. Most obviously, this meant integrating Hemedti’s RSF into the SAF.

This is a legacy of the al-Bashir days, when the former leader tried to fragment Sudan’s security apparatus as a “coup-proofing” strategy. It didn’t end up working out for him, but the idea was to play the different security forces off each other, so one never gets too much power, and it creates a kind of rivalry, so they won’t try to coordinate together and take you out.

Al-Burhan and Hemedti worked together when it made sense, but tensions were building even as Al-Burhan and Hemedti signaled that they were willing to talk about a civilian transition again. Key negotiations on security sector reform stalled; Al-Burhan wanted two years to integrate the RSF into the SAF; Hemedti wanted a decade. (International negotiators reportedly suggested five.) If you’re Hemedti, what’s your incentive to give up your paramilitary, if the moment you do, al-Burhan reneges on his promise and throws you in jail? And if you’re al-Burhan, why would you want to give Hemedti space to hang around and build up his paramilitary, in case he reneges on his promise, and potentially challenges you?

And no matter the timeline, the military still has to actually honor the deal to turn over power to civilians and risk their own political and economic interests, which they’ve never actually wanted to do.

“There’s no way that both men can exist in one country with two armies,” said Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher. “Something’s got to give.”

This April, it did: the men with the guns, who told the foreign diplomats they were committed to the transition, used them against each other, each claiming he was the real protector of democracy. The Sudanese people are now caught in the middle of a war that many had warned was always possible.

An unfathomable humanitarian crisis, and the risk of a wider war

Even as transition negotiations were ongoing, both the SAF and the RSF looked like they were preparing for war. According to Reuters, as Western diplomats pushed last-ditch talks, neither general showed up for a meeting on April 15. Violence reportedly broke out that morning at the Soba military camp in the south of Khartoum, although it’s not clear which side took the first shot. It matters less now, as the fighting has continued for weeks. Ceasefires have been made, and broken, with the most brutal battles in Khartoum, the capital, and in Darfur.

“This conflict between al-Burhan and Hemedti seems to be existential,” said Ernst Jan “EJ” Hogendoorn, former senior adviser to the US special envoys for Sudan and South Sudan, from 2019 to 2023.

The SAF has the conventional military and airplanes, but the RSF has money and weapons and experienced fighters. (RSF fighters have fought for the Saudi-Emirati coalition in their war in Yemen.) The RSF is particularly ruthless, with a long history of brutalizing civilians and showing complete disregard for human rights. Civilians report that RSF forces are looting across Khartoum, evicting people and commandeering homes.

More than 500 people have been killed, and more than 4,500 injured, though the actual toll is likely much higher. The United Nations says its sources, still being verified, estimate that seven children are killed or wounded every hour. More than 100,000 people have already fled, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that number will rise to 800,000, as the conflict both displaces Sudanese citizens and forces other refugees from neighboring countries to flee elsewhere, or prematurely return home.

This is a country where almost 16 million people — about one-third of the country — relied on some form of humanitarian assistance before this fighting, and it will now face even more severe shortages of food and medical aid. The Port of Sudan is one of the only entry points for aid, but the security situation has prevented access to Khartoum, or other regions, like Darfur, the epicenters of the crisis. Resistance committees, the stalwart of Sudan’s pro-democracy movement, have again become a lifeline, trying to connect people with aid and care, or helping them escape Khartoum and find safe haven elsewhere.

Darfur, still seeking stability after war and genocide in the early 2000s, is a window into how this crisis is spiraling. “The situation in Darfur will be the worst humanitarian crisis of our modern day,” said Niemat Ahmadi, president of the Darfur Women Action Group.

In western Darfur, around El Geneina, violence is escalating. The World Health Organization estimates more than 220 people have been killed since April 15, and reports of ethnic clashes have been increasing by the day, a chilling echo of Darfur’s past.

All of this hints at the potential that this power struggle could erupt into a much wider civil war. Some experts I spoke to already consider Sudan as having reached that point; the question now is how widespread and deep it might be. “I think the question is: is the country going to be in a civil war that’s going to last for decades, or is this country going to be in a civil war that can, hopefully, end in the next couple of weeks or a month or two,” Hogendoorn said. “I think that’s a big distinction. I think if the war lasts for more than a couple of months, I fear that it will go on for a very, very long time.”

This does not mean that Sudanese citizens themselves are necessarily taking up arms for al-Burhan or Hemedti. Instead, the chaos and the catastrophic humanitarian situation will leave people desperate, ignite fractures and tensions that already exist — as seems to be happening in Darfur — and engulf different parts of the country with their own battles, as the central state collapses.

“It may look like they’re being mobilized or connected to to actors that are fighting at the national level, but they’re really pursuing their own their own particular agenda. And this conflict provides a space for a broader array of more localized or regional conflicts,” said Michael Woldemariam, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland.

Ahmadi, in Darfur, put it another way: “When people cannot feed themselves, they have no access to water or medicine, then they don’t have control over their decision,” she said. “These are the fears — credible fears — that we are feeling right now.”

Where does Sudan go from here?

“As long as Sudan has two armies and two generals, there will never be peace,” Reeves said.

This has been an obvious reality to many of the Sudanese activists and observers I spoke to, even if the international community — the US and some of its partners included — backed an flawed agreement that failed to fully address this reality. “These guys have no intention of overseeing a transformation in Sudan to a country with civilian governance, they just don’t,” added Reeves. “And yet we keep pretending these are the only interlocutors; that’s a formula for continuing violence.”

For many of the Sudanese people who helped usher in democracy, having their prophesy fulfilled just means the worst happened. Sudan’s civilian grassroots democratic movement is a diverse coalition, so it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations, but, experts and activists I spoke to say entities like the resistance committees have continued to emphasize the importance of civilian rule — even as they have become the first responders in this conflict.

A big concern among pro-democracy activists is that political elites and international actors will repeat the mistakes of the past, try to force another military-civilian power-sharing deal for the sake of stability, rather than a real commitment to democracy.

“We cannot solve the Sudanese crisis except through dialogue and handing over the government to civilians,” said Enaam Alnour, a human rights defender and founder and director of Women of Change Organization in West Darfur, who told Vox she and her family have been targeted by the RSF and elements tied to it since fighting broke out last month.

An imperative now is to stop the fighting, before it spirals throughout Sudan, or outside of it. How to do that is a much trickier question. Regional actors, like South Sudan, have sought to help broker a pause in the conflict, but with little success. Other regional partners have leverage, specifically Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have deepened their influence in Sudan — though talks in Saudi Arabia this weekend appeared to yield little progress. The UAE has ties to both strongmen, though they’re seen as being an even bigger backer of Hemedti. But the influence of the Gulf States comes with a lot of baggage: the patronage of the Saudis — and especially the Emiratis, who helped make Hemedti rich — empowered and helped entrench both generals.

Another regional player, Egypt, has close ties to Al-Burhan and the SAF. The United States and its partners also have a role, but exactly what is less clear. Washington will likely try to use their influence through the Quad — the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, a cohort formed to work on Sudan issues. The key right now seems to be giving both generals an incentive to stop fighting, and that likely means cutting off access to their guns and sources of funding, much of which traces back to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Some experts I spoke to suggested that the cold reality may be that international actors have to tip the scale for the least bad option — potentially al-Burhan, in charge of the conventional forces — to have a clear victor, then try to force al-Burhan to renegotiate a civilian transition. Others suggested that was a dicey approach and could backfire, especially if the conflict fractures, with many competing groups.

But the risks of a spiraling conflict are also very real, and that adds incredible urgency to figuring out how to stop the fighting. Sudan’s neighbors all have their own political, economic, climate, and humanitarian crises. Hemedti has close ties to an infamous Libyan warlord, and the power vacuum in a place like Darfur risks drawing in fighters from Libya, Chad, and Central African Republic, raising the chances of a cross-border proxy war. Hemedti had recently traveled to Russia, seeking closer ties, and the RSF is reportedly getting backing from the Wagner Group, Russia’s notorious paramilitary. Al-Burhan has tried to strengthen ties with Ethiopia, and Hemedti with Eritrea.

“I don’t think the world is really ready to have huge conflict in East Africa,” Tambal said.

But the longer this goes on, the likelier that this power struggle will become one of the world’s worst catastrophes. “As time goes by, the humanitarian costs, and economic costs, and the infrastructure costs, it’s becoming unbearable,” Alrahman said, from Khartoum.

“Right now, the general population, they are feeling this is too much. No one can handle this. You know, the country will collapse.”

Source: VOA