21 Apr 2023

#e 2023 no. 337


The Sudanese conflict has been escalating for several years, with power struggles between various factions of the military and opposition groups. The most recent bout of fighting is a mustard tree grown out of seeds planted in April 2019, when a military coup ousted al-Bashir and replaced him with a “transitional” military government that promised elections but failed to deliver. We are now heading into the seventh day of violence, and my simplistic forecast would be that fighting will last at least another week, and probably longer.

The current iteration of violence found its seed in the final years of al-Bashir’s 30-year rule. During that time, a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Force (RSF) grew from struggles around Darfur (where it was accused of human rights violations, atrocities and even genocide) into a personal force for Bashir. Its leader, Hemedti, was politically astute and grew the force into an instrument of power. After Bashir was ousted in 2019, Hemedti became second to General Burhan (head of the Sudanese Armed Forces).

The struggles of Sudan have been complicated by the ongoing economic crisis, marked by high inflation and unemployment, which has led to widespread poverty and dissatisfaction, as well as the well known ethnic and regional divisions. To make matters worse, outside players have competed for influence in the country. The various military factions have enriched themselves by control over Sudan’s resources and exports to those outside players. And finally, the Covid-19 pandemic and social media have both played a part in catalyzing and organizing protests and opposition movements.

The partnership between the SAF and the RSF was an extremely shaky one, as both men were ambitious and the rift between them constantly widened. Attempts to share power have failed, and in the early part of this year, both sides were recruiting new members for their armies. A final attempt at negotiations to form a new government in April failed on the issue of how quickly the RSF should be implemented into the overall armed forces.

Both the SAF and the RSF have control of things like gold mines, and have enriched themselves through illegal exports (and, in the case of RSF, through mercenary contracts). The SAF wanted to integrate the RSF very quickly, while the RSF wanted years of autonomy. Their choice to fight seems to have little to do with democratic principles and everything to do with power and control (and, perhaps, survival).

Who might win is unpredictable. The actual numbers are secret, but the SAF is estimated to have around 100,000 regular soldiers and 100,000 in reserve, while the RSF is thought have fewer troops (30 to 50,000?) but to be more highly skilled (the RSF fought in Darfur, and also as mercenaries in other countries). Both factions are supported by outside players (Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, Libya, and even hints of the Wagner group’s invovelment), making each side believe they can win. Neither side seems willing to talk or seek mediation. Neither is interested in power-sharing. Both have used violence to suppress opposition and seem unconcerned about civilian casualties. Both have broken proposed cease-fires within hours or even minutes. It does seem as, if one stops fighting, the other will continue mercilessly. And if one is close to losing, there is even a threat of further violence: I’ve seen tweets that suggest the RSF has threatened to “burn Khartoum to the ground” if their leader were killed in the warfare. This is not a recipe for peaceful negotiation. Rather, it is a cocktail certain to bring suffering and death to many.

The group that wins will likely have stronger political influence as well as wider control over the riches of Sudan’s resources, so both sides have strong incentives to continue fighting, and no civilian government to stop them. Where this will end up is anyone’s guess right now. I would be very surprised if a sudden peace deal were reached, although I suppose that’s not out of the realm of possibility. I think the strongest probability is a grinding war lasting weeks or even months. A less probable alternative would be a sudden, successful SAF strike on the RSF’s leadership that fractures the latter. But I’d settle in for the long haul, and be thinking about how to help people on the ground and refugees who have fled to nearby countries.