After almost five months of bitter fighting in Sudan, the question today is not if the country is hurtling toward an all-out civil war but if anything can be done to stop it. Last month, the UN said that the two warring factions were plunging the country into civil war, as more than 3 million civilians have been displaced and another million have sought refuge in neighboring countries. The death toll is in the thousands and there are corroborated reports that both sides have been involved in atrocities. At the same time, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has been accused of carrying out massacres on ethnic grounds in the Darfur province.
Earlier this week, the Sudanese army was blamed for a drone attack at a busy market in south Khartoum, which killed more than 40 people and injured at least 50. The military denied responsibility.
Since mid-April, when fighting broke out between the Sudanese army under Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the RSF, commanded by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, neither side has been able to extend complete control over the capital, Khartoum, the second-largest city, Omdurman, and the adjacent suburbs. Such power would have ended the fighting, although the RSF has managed to subdue most of Darfur in a series of bloody operations targeting civilians.
When the fighting broke out, it was thought that the superior Sudanese army would be able to expel RSF fighters from strategic locations in Khartoum and Omdurman within days. That turned out to be a superficial belief. For some reason, the military has failed to take over Khartoum airport or dislodge the RSF from the presidential palace. Despite the closure of Sudan’s airspace, it is believed that the RSF can get outside help and replenish its munitions, although the army has air superiority.
For some reason, the military has failed to take over Khartoum airport or dislodge the RSF from the presidential palace
Since gaining independence in 1956, Sudan, which was then the largest and most ethnically and religiously diverse country in Africa, has seen a number of civil wars. The first was between 1955 and 1972, the second lasted from 1983 until 2005, and then there was the Darfur War from 2003 to 2020. There was also the independence of South Sudan in 2011, followed by the conflict in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile between 2011 and 2020, and most recently the Sudanese Revolution of 2018-19 that toppled long-time dictator Omar Bashir.
But the current war of the generals is different. It is between two men who were once reluctant allies in the Transitional Sovereignty Council. When the time arrived for both to relinquish power, the split happened.
An attempt to restore civilian rule and guide the country to a state of multiparty democracy was foiled by Al-Burhan. As a new deal was being negotiated between the junta and the civilian powers, personal ambitions — especially by Dagalo, who did not want to lose control over his private militia — stood in the way. When the time came to implement the historic transitional deal, Dagalo broke ranks.
That is not to say that Al-Burhan also does not carry blame. He short-circuited a civilian government that was working to fulfill its obligations under a transitional deal. Having said that, as head of the Sudanese army, he has some legitimate credentials, especially if the unity of Sudan is at stake.
The international community is also to blame. It dealt with both parties on an equal footing as the crisis unfolded. Dagalo’s resume is flawed at best. Under his command, the RSF’s predecessor, the Janjaweed Arab militia, was accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing operations, including mass killings, rapes and other atrocities, against Darfur’s African communities under Bashir’s orders. Nearly 400,000 people were killed and the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Bashir. Today, the ICC is investigating possible war crimes in Darfur once more.
The longer the war continues, the more civilians will suffer, as the country’s poor infrastructure collapses and ethnic tensions rise
Dagalo has also been associated with suspicious links to gold smuggling and other illegal activities that would have ended if the civilians had taken over.
Now, Al-Burhan is seeking to solidify his legitimacy. He recently visited Egypt, South Sudan, Qatar and Eritrea to present himself as the best option for Sudan’s future. He seemed optimistic that the army would win the day. He last week issued a proclamation disbanding the RSF; a symbolic move at best.
He is also doubtful of attempts by the African Union to mediate a compromise. An AU official recently met with an RSF representative and the Sudanese government denounced that meeting.
With no decisive military victory in sight, Sudan faces several existential challenges. Secessionist groups that had laid down their arms under the Juba Agreement in 2020 are now threatening to resume the fight for independence. That would tear the country apart and ignite minor wars throughout the southern provinces. Additionally, the longer the war continues, the more civilians will suffer, as the country’s poor infrastructure collapses and ethnic tensions rise.
Sudan could become a forgotten crisis as attention switches to the military putsches in Niger and Gabon in West Africa, among others. The continent faces multiple geopolitical challenges, including the Nile water crisis between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, the devastating earthquake in Morocco, the Russian incursion into former French and European colonies, and China’s growing economic role in Africa.
The trouble in Sudan should worry all, but especially one country in particular: Egypt. Sudan is Egypt’s Nile source and, without influence over who runs Khartoum, Cairo will find itself in a difficult position. The conflict with Addis Ababa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s fourth filling has compromised Egypt’s national security. Without a stable Sudan, Egypt will suffer.
Choosing between the two warring generals should not be a problem. Unfortunately, Sudan has seen more military rule by a strongman than democratic governance since its independence. Al-Burhan has promised a return to civilian government once the rebellion is crushed. He should be given the benefit of the doubt.