The North African country of Sudan has long been a powder keg, and tensions have now sparked bitter conflict between warring factions of the Sudanese military. What caused this violence, and how can it be stopped?
What is happening in Sudan?
Armed conflict has begun between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The latter is a paramilitary organization that emerged out of the Janjaweed militia group during the war in Darfur in the early 2000s, The Washington Post reports. Fighting began after the RSF attempted to seize control of the Sudanese government in an ongoing coup d'etat.
A significant portion of the violence has been concentrated in Sudan's capital city, Khartoum, where "Sudan's army launched airstrikes on a rival paramilitary force's base near the capital in an effort to reassert control over the chaotic country," The Guardian reports. Additional fighting has been seen in the aforementioned Darfur region and the eastern area of Kassala, The Guardian adds. More than 500 people, including 400 civilians, have died, according to the Sudan Doctors' Syndicate.
The RSF is led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, "one of the richest and most powerful men in Sudan," as described by Al Jazeera. Dagalo helped grow the RSF out of the Janjaweed in 2013. Since then, the RSF has "committed a wide range of horrific abuses," Human Rights Watch reports, adding that their "violations of international humanitarian law amount to war crimes."
On the other side of the conflict is the head of the Sudanese Army, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is "essentially Sudan's leader," CNN says.
The two men were once allies but have since appeared on opposite sides of the conflict after the RSF broke from the military in recent years. Both Dagalo and al-Burhan blamed one another for the war. While Dagalo told Sky News Arabia that the RSF had gained control of key sites in Khartoum, including the presidential palace and multiple airports, al-Burhan has asserted that the military is still in control.
Numerous Western nations, including the United States, have evacuated their embassies in Khartoum, and the United Kingdom has also helped lead the evacuation of thousands of civilians from Sudan.
What led to the violence?
It is largely the result of tumultuous happenings within Sudan's government. In 2019, the country finally saw a change after a coup ousted Omar al-Bashir, an autocratic leader who was accused of numerous war crimes during his three decades in power. He was replaced by a new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who attempted to create a democratic, civilian-led government.
However, Hamdok himself was deposed from power during a military coup in 2021. Ironically, that overthrow was led by Dagalo and al-Burhan together, in a coup that was "jointly orchestrated by the two generals who were then allies," NBC News reports. This led to the replacement of Hamdok's civilian government with a system led by al-Burhan and the military.
Since then, though, the RSF and the Sudanese Army have each been grappling for power, with both al-Burhan and Dagalo attempting to angle their forces for an eventual showdown. There was an initial plan in place to help Sudan transition back to a civilian-led government, which would have required both the army and the RSF to agree to stop the power struggle. However, negotiations broke down, and "the army accused the RSF of illegal mobilization in preceding days and the RSF, as it moved on key strategic sites in Khartoum, said the army had tried to seize full power," Reuters notes. Within days, large-scale fighting had broken out.
What's the end game?
The U.S. secretary of state, along with the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries, released statements calling for an end to the violence, the three countries coming together in a rarely-seen show of unity. Additionally, Volker Perthes, the United Nations' special representative in Sudan, asked the Sudanese military and the RSF "for an immediate cessation of fighting to ensure the safety of the Sudanese people and to spare the country from further violence."
The first step in de-escalation would be for mediators to bring both sides to the table. This could be accomplished by a coalition of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and the U.K., "which has sponsored mediation in Sudan along with the U.N. and the African Union," The Guardian reports.
There have been instances of temporary ceasefires being signed, but the violence has reportedly continued despite these truces. Following weeks of carnage, Perthes told The Associated Press that both sides finally agreed to send representatives to begin negotiations, possibly in a neutral site like Saudi Arabia. He stressed, though, that even hosting talks would be difficult given the violence between the factions. Additionally, given that the fighting arose out of "months of rising tensions" that evolved into "an all-out battle for control of one of Africa's biggest countries," The New York Times reports, there may still be a long way to go until peace is achieved.
May 1, 2023: This article has been updated with new developments.