A new wave of violence hits Sudan

Sudan’s army in power struggle with feared paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces

Protests take place on the streets of Khartoum, Sudan
Protests take place on the streets of Khartoum, Sudan
(Image credit: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of people danced in the streets of Sudan in April 2019, after the Northeast African country’s military removed hated dictator Omar al-Bashir from power following three long decades of rule.

“New era, new nation!” chanted the crowds as word of Bashir’s removal began spreading around the capital of Khartoum.

Yet within two years, the hope that greeted that coup d’état had faded away. In October 2021, as the deadline for handing over power to civilian rulers loomed, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army general who ousted Bashir, staged another coup, “overthrowing the civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and upending the country’s democratic transition”, said Deutsche Welle.

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Now, the country has tipped into violence yet again amid a fresh power struggle, between Sudan’s army, headed by Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the feared paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.

Doctors estimated that around 100 civilians had been killed as of Monday morning, with hundreds more injured, as fighting between the rival factions entered a third day. Both sides claimed victories as battles raged around symbolic sites in the capital including the presidential palace and Khartoum International Airport. According to Reuters, the army “appeared to gain the upper hand” yesterday, blasting RSF bases with air strikes.

The UK and US embassies in Khartoum urged their citizens to stay indoors as the violence escalated.

“We don't have any electricity,” a British-Sudanese doctor visiting relatives in the city told the BBC. “It is hot. We can’t afford to open the windows, the noise is deafening.”

Another eyewitness told the broadcaster that parts of Khartoum were engulfed in flames, adding: “Shooting is still ongoing and people are staying indoors – there is so much panic and fear.”

The violence was triggered by a “disagreement over the integration of the RSF into the military as part of a transition towards civilian rule”, said Reuters. The army and the RSF struck an uneasy truce before joining forces to oust Bashir four years ago, but that deal quickly faltered.

The seeds of the conflict, however, were sown by Bashir, who created the RSF to crush a rebellion in Darfur that started more than 20 years ago. The group swiftly became “associated with widespread atrocities”, said The Guardian. In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch described RSF forces as “men with no mercy”.

The group’s reputation was cemented further when its soldiers killed hundreds of people and raped dozens more after being sent in to disperse a peaceful sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum in 2019.

The ramifications of the current bloodshed stretch well beyond Sudan’s borders. “Major geopolitical dimensions are at play, with Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other powers battling for influence in Sudan,” said The Guardian.

But at the heart of the conflict is a power struggle between two men, said the BBC World Service’s Africa editor Mary Harper. Four years ago, there was “huge optimism” in Sudan; now, thanks to the conflict between Burhan and Hemedti, “the country is going backwards”.

The great tragedy, Harper said, is that the country’s civilians find themselves “caught in the middle, their dreams of a new Sudan shattered”.

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