Home Opinion OP-ED: Understanding the current civil war in Sudan

OP-ED: Understanding the current civil war in Sudan

Civil War is nothing new in Sudan. Since the mid-1950s, the country has enjoyed less than 20 years of peace and that hasn’t been consecutive. But the current civil war in Sudan is qualitatively different from past insurgencies.

In the past, civil wars were largely fought in the peripheral regions of the country, far from the core. The current conflict seems to be largely urban warfare. Secondly, the conflict is not between “Arabs” and “Africans,” as was usually the case, but between two “Arab” belligerents.

The conflict which broke out on April 15 in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities is between two militaries: the Sudan Armed Force (SAF) led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, who is also the head of the country’s current Sovereign Council, and the Rapid Support Force (RSF) led by Lt. Gen. Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, popularly known as “Hemedti.”

The Rapid Support Force

The origins of the RSF are traceable to the notorious militia known as the Janjawid, which the government used as part of its counterinsurgency strategies against the rebellion in Darfur in 2003. In 2013, the Janjawid was formally constituted into a regular, autonomous force.

The RSF was deployed in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile, where they fought alongside troops of the SAF against growing insurgencies in those regions. Large numbers of the RSF units also saw military action in Yemen beginning in 2015, when Sudan sent contingents of troops to join the Saudis and Emiratis against the ongoing rebellion in that country.

The Transitional Government, 2019-2021

In December 2019, the regime Islamist dictator Omar Bashir collapsed after weeks of demonstrations and civil disobedience in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities. The main organization behind that historical change was a coalition of civilian forces known as the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), and the government that took over was a civilian-military coalition, whose authority was based on a guiding document prepared by the FFC prior to the fall of Bashir.

The FFC document had envisioned a four-year transitional period, during which civilians and the military would share power, but with civilians mostly in charge. What eventually emerged after negotiations was a civilian-led cabinet, and a military-led Sovereign Council (a Sudanese-style collective head of state); however, a civilian would assume the chairmanship of the Sovereign Council after two years (Dec. 2021). This arrangement meant that the military would effectively be phased out of politics, and that at the end of the transitional period Sudan would be a democracy under civilian rule.

Accordingly, the commander of the SAF became chairman of the Sovereign Council, and the commander of RSF became deputy chairman. On the cabinet side, renowned Sudanese economist Dr. Abdallah Hamdok became prime minister.

The Military Takeover

But in October 2021, just two months before the chairmanship of the Sovereign Council was to be turned over to civilians, Lt. Gen. Burhan overthrew the transitional government. This provoked mass street action by the FFC, which effectively crippled the government. After lengthy negotiations, punctuated by strikes and demonstrations, Gen. Burhan gave in, so it seemed, and an all-civilian government was to assume power on April 11, 2023.

Why the Current Civil War

So, what sparked the civil war? The causes are complex and difficult to disentangle.

The first reason would seem to be the reluctance of the military to give up power. The Sudanese military, one of the most professional in Sub-Saharan Africa, has ruled the country for most of the years since independence in 1956.

The second reason is probably the fear of being held accountable for crimes committed during their rule, including crimes against humanity. Civilian leaders have reminded the military about this all along. Many of the egregious crimes are attributed to the RSF.


The third possible reason is the military leaders’ ideological leaning. Most of them are Islamists, for Islamists dominated the higher echelons of the army during the 30-year rule of Omar Bashir, himself a committed Islamist. They indicated this in 2021, after overthrowing Hamdok, by releasing from prison a number of senior Islamists and restoring them to their positions in the government and the army. On the other hand, the FFC and other leading civilian groups have expressed commitment to a secular state.

Policy differences also seem to be an issue. Because of the apparent lawlessness of the RSF, their integration into the SAF has been an insistent demand of the civilians. The SAF also supports that demand because the existence of RSF as a parallel military force could be destabilizing.

Even so, the RSF seems determined to maintain its autonomy. First, as a paramilitary outfit which has not undergone the standard, rigorous military training required of SAF, the RSF fears that integration might affect its members negatively. Second, they would lose their relative freedom and the perks and advantages they have been used to. Third, the RSF is alleged to be involved in gold-mining in Darfur. Integration into the SAF would deny them this lucrative but illegal business.

Finally, the RSF is also alleged to be in collusion with external forces, including Libyan warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar and possibly even the Wagner Group operating in the Central African Republic. If these allegations are true, they have important implications for Sudan and the region.

Regardless of the underlying causes, unless a long-term solution is soon worked out, the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis the civil war produces will be immense.

Dr. Hino is an associate professor of history at Wingate University and a native of Sudan. He can be reached at ahino@wingate.edu.

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