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Explainer: Why has violence erupted in Sudan?

Explainer: Why has violence erupted in Sudan?
6 min read
17 April, 2023
A brief guide to the warring sides in Sudan's conflict and why they are fighting.
The streets of Khartoum are deserted as the city descends into violence [Omer Erdem/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Sudan woke up to heavy violence between the army - led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan - and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) - headed by Mohamed Hamdan "Hemedti" Daglo - on Saturday.

By Monday, at least 100 civilians had died, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Committee, with the RSF claiming to have taken control of key positions in Khartoum, including the presidential palace and the international airport. The army however denied the claims. 

The background

The current fighting has its roots in the rule of Omar Al-Bashir, who was President of Sudan from 1989 to 2019. He has been accused of committing crimes against humanity and became the first head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegedly directing a campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against civilians in Darfur.

Under Al-Bashir's rule, his generals held huge political and economic power.

Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and Hemedti, the leaders of the army and the RSF respectively, rose through the ranks during the Al-Bashir era and allegedly participated in the atrocities in Darfur. Neither of them, however, has been charged with any crimes. 

Al-Bashir was deposed in a coup d’etat in 2019 following nationwide protests against his rule and was handed over to the ICC for his trial in 2020, although he remains behind bars in Sudan. 

A transitional government controlled by Burhan's military and Hemedti's RSF took over, but protests continued demanding a full transition to civilian rule. In 2019, they were brutally attacked by the RSF militiamen. 

A fragile civilian government was eventually established in August 2019. This however did not last as Burhan and Hemedti orchestrated a coup in October 2021 to derail Sudan's delicate democracy.

The coup sparked renewed protests, where demonstrators faced harsh repression by the military-led government for more than a year. At least 125 people were killed, while dozens of others were badly injured or forcibly disappeared. 

Burhan and Hemedti never really worked together. Their partnership was only a "marriage of convenience", according to independent researcher and policy analyst Hamid Khalafallah. 

Towards the end of last year, political and military leaders came to an agreement committing to restoring civilian rule within two years.

The deal however "look[ed] more like a power-sharing arrangement between civilian and security elites than a genuine attempt to address core issues", wrote Mat Nashed, a journalist and analyst on Sudan, for The New Arab.

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A sticking point was the integration of the RSF into the regular army, which led to rising tensions between Burhan and Hemedti. These appear to have now exploded into an all-out war.

The recent fighting between the army and the RSF was sparked by the proposed timeline for this integration, experts say. 

On Monday, Sudan's army chief Burhan branded the RSF a "rebellious" group and ordered its dissolution, according to the country's foreign minister. 

Hope for the restoration of civilian rule in Sudan has crumbled with the recent violence. 

 Rapid Support Forces (RSF)

The Rapid Support Forces evolved from the so-called 'Janjaweed' Arab tribal militias which spearheaded the suppression of a rebellion in the early 2000s in Darfur. Altogether, around 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, the vast majority civilians. 

The militia and its leaders have been accused by ICC prosecutors of committing genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

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The widely-feared armed group grew over time and was turned into the Rapid Support Forces in 2013. 

The RSF was established by Bashir "in order to coup-proof his regime from senior military officers and his feared intelligence service", wrote Mat Nashed.

Since Bashir's fall, the RSF continued to operate independently and reportedly amassed wealth from building its own relationships with foreign countries - such as the UAE and Russia. 

The militia is led by Hemedti. Coming from a humble background in Darfur, he is said to have caught the eye of Bashir when fighting for the Janjaweed which led to his rise through the ranks to eventually become their commander. 

Following Bashir's ouster in a popular uprising in April 2019, Hemedti became deputy head of the Transitional Military Council.

Under his command, the RSF cracked down hard on continuing protests after Bashir's removal, and his forces reportedly killed more than 100 people at a protest camp outside the ministry of defence soon after the longtime dictator was toppled.

The army

Sudan’s army is headed by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan who also played an active role in the Darfur conflict and became a regional commander in 2008. 

Burhan was promoted to lead the Sudanese army in 2018. Following the popular uprising against Al-Bashir, he positioned himself to take power by toppling the president and establishing himself as the head of the Transitional Military Council. 

Following a brief period of civilian rule, Burhan allied with Hemedti to orchestrate the 2021 coup.

International reactions

Several countries, including the US, Iran, and Egypt have urged the warring sides to end the fighting. The heads of several African states, such as Kenya and Djibouti, are set to travel to Sudan to help reconcile the two sides.

Israel has emerged as an unlikely mediator between the two parties, according to reports, as it maintains ties with both the army and the RSF.

Other nations remain positioned on either side of the conflict. Egypt has relations with the Sudanese army, while Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the UAE reportedly have links to the RSF. 

If attempts at mediation fail, however, Sudan is likely to enter yet another protracted conflict that would make it virtually impossible for the warring parties to return to the table, analysts say.