Days of violence in Sudan have resulted in the death of at least 180 peoplewith many more injured.
The fighting represents the latest crisis in the North African country, which it is facing countless coups and periods of civil war since independence in 1956.
The conversation asked Christopher Tonsela Sudan specialist and interim director of the University of Washington’s African Studies Program, to explain the reasons behind the violence and what it means for the chances of democracy being restored in Sudan.
What’s going on in Sudan?
It’s all about power struggle between two rival groups: the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group known as the RSFor Rapid Support Forces.
Since one coup in the country in 2021ending a caretaker government that had been in place since the fall of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir two years earlier, Sudan had been ruled by the military, with coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan as the de facto ruler.
The RSF, led by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo – commonly known as Hemedti – has worked with the Sudanese army to keep the army in power.
After Bashir’s ouster, the political transition had to culminate in elections by the end of 2023with Burhan promises a transition to civilian government. But it seems that neither Burhan nor Dagalo intends to relinquish power. In addition, they are engaged in a power struggle that turned violent on April 152023.
Since then, members of the RSF and the Sudanese army have engaged in firefights in the capital Khartoum and elsewhere in the country. For three days, the violence has spiraled.
The recent background to the violence was a disagreement over how RSF paramilitaries must be included in the Sudanese army. Tensions rose after the RSF began deploying members across the country and in Khartoum without the explicit permission of the military.
But in reality, violence has been brewing in Sudan for some time, with concerns about the RSF is trying to control more of the country’s economic assetsespecially the gold mines.
Developments in Sudan over the past few days are not good for the country’s stability or prospects transition to democratic governance.
Who are the two men at the center of the dispute?
Dagalo rose to power within the RSF in the early 2000s when he headed the militia known as Janjaweed – a group responsible for human rights abuses in the Darfur region.
While then Sudanese President Bashir de face of violence against people in Darfur – and later on charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court – the Janjaweed is also held responsible by the ICC for alleged genocide. While they were doing this, Dagalo rose through the ranks.
As head of the RSF, Dagalo has faced charges of overseeing the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy activists, including the massacre of 120 demonstrators in 2019.
Burhan’s actions have similarly seen the military leader heavily criticized by human rights groups. He is the head of the ruling army and has been the country’s de facto head of government for the past two years oversaw a crackdown on pro-democracy activists.
Both men can certainly be interpreted as obstacles to Sudan’s transition to citizen democracy. But this is primarily a personal power struggle.
To use an African proverb, “When the elephants fight, the grass is trampled.”
So this is about power rather than ideology?
I think very much.
We are not talking about two men, or factions, with ideological differences over the future direction of the country. This cannot be framed as a left versus right thing, or about warring political parties. Nor is this a geo-religious conflict – pitting a predominantly Muslim north against a Christian south. And it’s not racial violence in the same way that the Darfur conflict, where the self-proclaimed Arab Janajaweed killed black people.
Some interpret observers what is happening in Sudan – rightly so, in my opinion – as a battle between two men who are doing everything they can not to be pushed out of the corridors of power through a transition to an elected government.
How does the violence fit into Sudan’s troubled past?
One thing that is worrying about the longer dynamic going on in Sudan is that the violence is now part of a history that fits the “failed African nation” trope.
Sudan, as far as I know, has had more coups than any other African country. Since independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, there have been coups in 1958, 1969, 1985, 1989, 2019 and 2021.
The coup of 1989 brought Bashir to power for a period of three decades as a dictator during which the Sudanese people suffered from the typical excesses of autocratic rule – secret police, opposition suppression, corruption.
When Bashir was deposed in 2019was it shocking to many observers – myself included – who assumed that he would die if he were in power, or that his rule would end only by assassination.
But any hope that Bashir’s end would mean democratic rule was short-lived. Two years after his deposition – when elections were to be held – the army decided to take power itself. intervene to prevent civil war.
As striking as the recent violence is now, in many ways what is unfolding is not unusual in the context of Sudanese history.
The military has long been at the center of political transitions in Sudan. And opposition to civilian government has been more or less the norm ever since independence in 1956.
Is there a danger of the violence escalating?
A coalition of civilian groups in the country has called for an immediate end to the violence, as has the American and other international observers. But with both factions dug in, that seems unlikely. Likewise, the prospect of free and fair elections in Sudan seems distant.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy road to a short-term solution, and what makes it more difficult is that you have two powerful men, both with an army at their disposal, fighting each other for power that neither seems ready to give up.
There are fears that the fighting could escalate and destabilize the region, jeopardizing Sudan’s relations with its neighbours. Chad, which borders Sudan to the west, has already done so closed its border with Sudan. Meanwhile a few Egyptian soldiers were captured in North Sudan while violence took place in Khartoum. Ethiopia, Sudan’s neighbor to the east, is still reeling from a two-year war in the Tigray region. And the spread of unrest in Sudan will be a concern for those watching a uneasy peace deal in South Sudan – which one gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and has been been ravaged by ethnic strife ever since.
As such, the stakes of the current unrest may extend beyond the immediate future of Burhan, Dagalo and even the Sudanese nation. The stability of the region could also be jeopardized.