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Disintegration of the State in Sudan: A Year After the Eruption of War

30 Apr 2024
By Dr Faiza El-Higzi
A child holds up bullets collected from the ground in Rounyn, a village about 15 kilometres from Shangil Tobaya, North Darfur. Source: United Nations Flickr /

Ongoing violence in Sudan is causing a severe humanitarian crisis. The involvement of international actors is exacerbating the escalation.

The streets of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, echoed with the cries of “Madaneyah” — civilian rule — in mid-2019, following the removal of long-standing military dictator Omar Al Bashir. Al Bashir, who had ruled the East African country for three decades from 1989 till 2019, was ousted after a four-month civilian uprising driven by dissatisfaction with his mismanagement of the economy as well as his corruption and oppression. This marked Sudan’s third major civilian uprising in its quest for political change, following the October Revolution in 1964 and the April Intifada in 1985.

After Al Bashir’s removal, the Sovereign Council of Sudan, a coalition comprising military and civilian leaders, took charge in August 2019. President Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti) led the council. Al-Burhan leads the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Hemeti the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which has its roots in the Janjaweed militias, infamous for their human rights abuses in Darfur, west of Sudan. Abdalla Hamdok, an economist with experience in the United Nations, was appointed as the prime minister to oversee democratic reforms and pave the way for a return to civilian rule by 2022.

Despite the aspiration for transition, the journey has been plagued by challenges such as unrest in certain regions, economic hardships, and delays due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have further complicated the transition process. However, political tensions between different factions within the transitional government were the primary hurdle. In October 2021, these tensions resulted in a small military coup and the house arrest of Prime Minister Hamdok, and a subsequent escalation on 15 April 2023 into a persistent armed conflict that has since been expanding.

The Political Conflict

Sudan, a nation with a tumultuous history, has witnessed many episodes of conflict since gaining independence in 1956. However, the recent escalation has been unprecedented. Unlike previous conflicts that often subsided within a week, this one escalated beyond expectations.

On 15 April 2023, tensions between al-Burhan and Hemeti erupted into open armed conflict in Khartoum, Bahri, and Omdurman, eventually spreading to other regions including Gezira, White Nile, West Kordofan, and Darfur. This conflict, significant in scale and duration, has resulted in approximately 6.4 million internally displaced persons and 1.8 million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. The death toll stands at 13,900, with El Geneina in West Darfur bearing a particularly heavy toll.

Two critical factors fuelled the conflict’s expansion. First, the rivalry between al-Burhan and Hemeti for control of Sudan. The potential for integration of the RSF into the military, as part of Sudan’s road map toward civilian rule, threatened Hemeti’s power and his political ambitions for a monopoly on executive authority. Second, various external actors have been implicated, including regional players like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and global actors such as Russia, its Wagner Group, and more recently Ukraine. Their conflicting interests have intersected with Sudan’s internal power dynamics.

Reports indicate that the Egyptian government has provided support to the armed forces. Egypt’s interests lie in curbing Islamist resurgence and influencing negotiations with Ethiopia regarding access to water from the Nile River, which is crucial for Egypt’ water security. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, has historically received military support from both the Al Bashir and al-Burhan administrations in its regional conflicts, in exchange for financial assistance including loans, grants, and investments. Additionally, Saudi Arabia aims to safeguard its strategic interests in the Red Sea region and to maintain influence and stability in the area by limiting hostile access to the area. The UAE shares similar interests with Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea region but has shifted its support towards Hemeti, primarily for gold supply, access to agricultural land, and control over Red Sea access. The UAE has facilitated strong military ties between Hemeti and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, enabling the RSF access to military equipment through the Wagner Group.

The Wagner Group’s arms supply to the paramilitary group RSF is through neighbouring countries like Chad, South Sudan, and Libya. It has enhanced the RSF’s offensive capabilities, contributing to the protraction of the conflict. Moreover, the RSF’s sale of gold to the UAE has ensured financial sustainability for the group and thereby fuelled the conflict. The Wagner Group has also exploited Sudan’s significant natural resources since 2014, utilising entities like Meroe Gold and Al Solag to evade sanctions and export gold to Russia, which has aided Russian activities in Crimea and Ukraine. Russia’s interests in Sudan are also strategic. The Russian government has been negotiating for a naval base in the Red Sea, with reports suggesting their involvement in supporting both parties at different times. Recent reports have indicated that Kyiv has entered the fray, participating in the prolonged conflict in Sudan to impose costs on Russia by supporting the SAF in their fight against the RSF and their Wagner Group allies.

These external actors’ competing interests and support has inadvertently strengthened combat capabilities and perpetuated the crisis.

State Disintegration

A year into the conflict, efforts to negotiate a ceasefire in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have not eased the violence. Battles between the RSF and SAF continue in major cities, with the RSF imposing a regime of terror marked by atrocities like sexual violence, looting, and ethnic killings. The UN has received reports of women and girls sold in slave markets in North Darfur, and the recruitment of boys into the war. The prevalence of such reports raises concerns of potential crimes against humanity.

The dire humanitarian situation in Sudan is exacerbated by economic collapse, soaring inflation, high unemployment rates, a decimated judicial system, and a staggering number of children out of school. 24.8 million people are in need of assistance, including 14 million children, and the country is reeling from one of the largest displacement crises globally.

The situation in Sudan paints a grim picture of disintegrating state institutions, escalating violence, and widespread human suffering — a stark contrast to the initial hopes of political change and civilian governance that marked the early days of the transition.

Dr Faiza El-Higzi is a political scientist and a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.