– The current fighting in Sudan marks the failure of supposed processes for transition to democratic rule. The international community needs to learn the lessons of this catastrophe and work with civil society.
On one side is the army, headed by Sudan’s current leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. On the other are the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti. Both sides blame the other and say they will refuse to negotiate.
The two worked together in the October 2021 coup that overthrew a transitional government, put in place in August 2019 after long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted following a popular uprising. They were never committed to democracy. Military forces initially tried to suppress democracy protests with lethal violence. The grimmest day came on 3 June 2019, when the RSF ended a sit-in with indiscriminate gunfire, killing over 100 people. There has been no accountability for violence.
The October 2021 military coup, which brought mass protests and civil disobedience, was followed by a short-lived and palpably insincere attempt at a civilian-military power-sharing deal that only lasted from November 2021 to January 2022. Protests, and military violence against them, continued. December 2022 saw the signing of a deal between the military and some civilian groups.
This deal was supposed to kickstart a two-year transition to democracy. Some pro-democracy groups and political parties rejected the plan, but the international community urged all sides to get behind it.
The army was already seeking to backtrack on its commitments before the fighting began. Now those who doubted the sincerity of the two forces’ intentions and willingness to hand over power have been proved right.
Civilians in the firing line
Relations between the two military leaders had become increasingly strained, and fighting finally broke out on 15 April. Attempts at a humanitarian ceasefire have so far come to nothing.
Civilians are in the firing line. There’s much confusion on the ground, making it hard to get accurate numbers of casualties, but currently over 300 civilians are reported killed, with thousands injured.
Khartoum’s major sites of contestation, such as the airport and military bases, nestle side by side with civilian housing, leaving vulnerable people to neighborhoods. People are stuck in their homes and at workplaces with limited supplies of food, water and electricity have been cut off. Some have had their homes seized by RSF soldiers. Thousands have fled.
Many hospitals have been forced to evacuate or are running out of vital supplies, and there are reports of attacks on health facilities. There are also reports that UN staff and other aid workers are being targeted and offices of humanitarian organizations have been looted.
A battle for power
The origins of the current crisis lie in al-Bashir’s deployment of paramilitary forces, the Janjaweed, to brutally crush a rebellion in Darfur in 2003. The violence was such that al-Bashir remains subject to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant on charges of genocide , crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In recognition of its brutal effectiveness, al-Bashir formally reorganized the Janjaweed into the RSF. It suited him to have two powers he could play off against each other, although ultimately they worked together to oust him. The tensions that have been built since partly reflect a clash of cultures between the two leaders and Hemedti’s evident ambition for the top job.
But mostly it’s a competition for political and economic supremacy. The army has always been the power behind the presidency, and it’s said to control major companies, having taken over many businesses once owned by al-Bashir and his inner circle.
Hemedti has his own sources of wealth, including illegal gold mining – something that connects him with Russia, with mercenary forces from the shadowy Wagner Group reportedly guarding goldmines in return for gold exports to Russia. Now Wagner is allegedly supplying the RSF with missiles.
Hemedti had positioned himself as supportive of transitional processes, a ruse that enabled him to dispute the army’s power. Al-Burhan was always a compromised figure, supposedly leading Sudan through transition while also defending the army’s extensive interests. Proposals to integrate the two forces appear to have been the final straw, threatening to erode Hemedti’s power base, making this an existential struggle.
Democratic states that backed the transition plan wanted to believe in it and basically hoped for the best.
Self-interest has never been far away from the calculations of outside forces either. In recent years, EU funding indirectly found its way to the RSF for its border control role, helping prevent people making their way to Europe; the EU’s preoccupation with controlling migration trumped democracy and human rights concerns.
The Egyptian government, an influential player in Sudan, is meanwhile squarely behind al-Burhan: it wants its domestic model of repressive government applied by a military strongman in its southern neighbor. Russia strongly backs Hemedti, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might have no strong preference between the two as long as the outcome isn’t democracy.
What all the approaches taken have in common is that they’re largely top-down, investing faith in leaders while failing to address the tensions that led to violence. Now the limitations of that approach should be evident.
Sudan’s democracy movement has been consistently ignored. But people don’t want their futures to come down to a dismal choice of two warlords. This conflict must put an end to any notion that either military head can be expected to lead a transition to democracy.
Democratic states need to hold a stronger line on demanding not only that the conflict ends but that a genuine, civilian-led transition follows. With this must come accountability for violence.
From now on, the outside world must listen to and be guided by the voices of Sudanese civil society – in restoring peace, and in bringing about democracy.
Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.
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