On April 15th this year, the relationship between the Sudanese government and the parliamentary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) finally snapped, and the tension transformed into an explosion of bloodshed. Since then, media coverage of the struggling state has been surprisingly low for a conflict that has displaced over 5.4 million people. To better understand the fighting in Sudan today, we must look more deeply at the context – why did the war begin, what’s the situation like now, and which potential solutions could help?
Why did war break out?
There have been many attempts to pinpoint the root of the friction in modern day Sudan, a country that has experienced huge waves of political turmoil since gaining independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. Since this, there have been 35 coup attempts, 6 of which being successful, with one of the most important in explaining today’s conflict being in 2019 against Omar al-Bashir.
Bashir had come to power through a 1989 military coup, in which he supported the Janjaweed (a group of fighters and raiders) to rebel against the government at the time. The Janjaweed formalised into the RSF, of which Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) became the leader.
In the 2019 coup, the army and the RSF collaborated to topple al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime, leading to a precarious power sharing deal being put in place with the civilian Prime Minister Hamdok placed in charge. This didn’t last – in October 2021, there was another military coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who became de facto head of state. In November, Hamdok was reinstated, but trouble continued and in early 2022, diplomats in Khartoum were warning of a potential outbreak of violence. From then, the power struggle between al-Burhan (army commander and de facto head of state) and his deputy Dagalo (head of the RSF) grew worse, and on April 15th fighting between the two groups erupted on the streets of Khartoum.
Some argue that energy and food supplies have also been key motivators behind the conflict. Steven Vass, a Columbia professor, suggested that the global supply shocks caused to the energy market by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict contributed to unrest, particularly as fertiliser prices increased by 400% in a short space of time, drastically heightening Sudanese food insecurity. This may have led to the RSF and Sudanese armed forces competing to control ‘remaining lucrative niches’ such as the import/export market for essential goods, exacerbating the hostilities.
What’s the situation now?
It’s clear that Sudan is at present in the clutch of a humanitarian crisis; on Wednesday morning, the BBC reported that Western Sudan was experiencing ethnic cleansing, and Nasa heat recognition technology showed evidence that at least 68 villages in Darfur had been set on fire since the conflict erupted. In terms of responses from the international community, the UN has reported that 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the World Food Programme has warned of a looming hunger crisis, with 90% of families arriving in South Sudan from the conflict saying they are going days without eating This is also an issue for Sudanese refugees who have fled to Chad, with at least 42 already having died due to lack of nutrition.
At present, al-Burhan has stated he’s willing to cooperate with the International Criminal court to hold the guilty accountable, but little has happened. The United Nations Human Rights council has also voted to set up an independent fact finding mission to investigate abuses in Sudan, which hopes to find some perpetrators of the violence accountable. Overall, however, IGOs are being widely criticised by the media for not taking enough action to prevent further deaths in the conflict.
Some fear the conflict could become a proxy war, particularly since in June the UAE were found to be secretly supplying the RSF with arms. Russia and Saudi Arabia are also vying for influence in the region, with the Saudis seeing it as an opportunity to push back against local Islamist influence. Egypt also have some sway – they have strong military links to Sudan’s armed forces, but are facing a dilemma as the RSF are most likely backed by the UAE, which are a major financial supporter of Egypt. President Sisi announced Egypt wouldn’t take a stance, but many believe they have been covertly working with the Sudanese army.
Looking to solutions
The Quad (formed of the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), the UN and the African Union have sponsored mediation in Sudan, but at present there still seems to be little end in sight for the Sudanese conflict. However, a potential pathway to hope is emerging – earlier this week, South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir stated he would host peace talks for Sudanese representatives, which could offer a route out through diplomacy.
Another solution could lie in creating more severe consequences for those financially benefiting from Sudanese suffering. An article in Time magazine proposed that Europe and the US take a more active role in ending the conflict by using financial pressure and anti-money laundering techniques to target ‘officials, enablers and entities benefiting from mayhem’. Using targeted sanctions to limit the financial benefits to conflict on the RSF and SAF along with establishing a more effective global anti money-laundering strategy could disincentivize the struggle for state control (as this is a key financial motivation), leading to a swift reduction in violence levels.