War in Sudan: Civilian forces at the heart of any solution
A merciless war is raging in Sudan, the third largest country in Africa. The civilians who bear the brunt of that violence neither take part nor sides in the power struggle between two ruthless military leaders. To prevent the conflict from escalating into a full-blown civil war, Clingendael experts Anette Hoffmann and Guido Lanfranchi urge Western governments to turn the balance of power on its head: disrupting the networks and corporate structure that finance the generals, while empowering the civil society structures that drive Sudan’s strong pro-democracy movement.
On 15 April 2023, heavy clashes erupted in Khartoum between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Fighting between the two armies quickly spread to other cities across Sudan. Although tensions had already been brewing for months and a violent confrontation was expected by many, no one was prepared for the heavy artillery the capital’s residents woke up to that morning.
A few weeks later, with airstrikes and street battles persisting, urban infrastructure collapsing and basic supplies running out, an already dire humanitarian situation is doomed to rapidly deteriorate. Reportedly, at least 528 persons have been killed and thousands injured – though real figures are widely thought to be much higher.1
As foreign governments proceed with evacuating their citizens, millions of Sudanese risk being left in the lurch, struggling to survive a gruesome war that is not theirs. They are desperate to relocate to safer locations in and outside of the country. Meanwhile, fears of a civil war are rising, as civilians in the Darfur region have started to arm themselves in response to attacks by militias linked to the RSF.2
How did we get here, and what is required to prevent these clashes from escalating into a civil war?
Burhan versus Hemedti: From partners in crime to arch enemies
The leaders of the two warring parties have more in common than suggested by the brutal war they are waging against each other. The commander-in-chief of the SAF, general Abdelfattah al-Burhan, and the leader of the paramilitary RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti), both rose to prominence as loyal henchmen of Sudan’s former dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Burhan and Hemedti worked hand in hand in Darfur in the 2000s, as Bashir’s government committed a genocide, killing 300,000 civilians and displacing millions.3 Both also sent mercenaries to fight under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war, for which they were generously rewarded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.4 Moreover, the two generals control a vast share of the country’s economy through an intricate web of local and foreign companies.5
The generals’ shared greed for might and money and desire for impunity for their crimes led them into an uneasy marriage. In April 2019, following months of peaceful protests that put pressure on the government, the SAF and RSF joined forces to overthrow their master Bashir in a bid to maintain their hold on power. Then, in October 2021, just before the military-civilian transitional government was scheduled to hand over power to civilians, the two military chiefs orchestrated a coup to evade accountability and civilian oversight over their business dealings.
While the scale, brutality and timing of the fighting in the capital was unexpected, a violent confrontation between the two had been predicted by many
Despite their evident opposition to a democratic transition, the generals used their power to secure a prominent role in the political process aimed at bringing Sudan back on the path towards democracy. This process – joined by many of Sudan’s political parties and obstinately supported by the international community – effectively legitimised and emboldened the coup plotters. The only punishment meted by the international community for committing a coup, killing peaceful protestors and repeatedly breaking promises to hand over power was the freezing of international financial assistance.6
At the same time, the political process marginalised civilian forces who rejected engaging in negotiations with military actors they considered illegitimate. The most representative and consequential actors among Sudan’s civilian movements are the resistance committees. As the driving force behind the peaceful uprising that toppled Bashir four years ago, these neighbourhood-based organisations continued to take to the streets to protest against the military-dominated political process.
Once they had marginalised their opponents in Sudan and appeased their international partners, Burhan and Hemedti intensified their struggle for supremacy by turning against each other.7 While the scale, brutality and timing of the fighting in the capital was unexpected, a violent confrontation between the two had been predicted by many.8 In addition to the underlying tensions between the militant groups that had been building up for years, blatant war preparations had taken place in the months leading up to the clashes, such as the mobilisation of new recruits,9 establishment of new militias,10 movement of troops, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric.
Bottom-up humanitarian response
The legitimisation of the generals at the expense of pro-democracy civilian actors has not led to the stability hoped for by Sudan’s international partners, including its neighbours, Arab Gulf countries, Western governments, as well as the United Nations. Rather, it has plunged the country into conflict. To prevent the conflict from escalating, it is necessary to turn this balance of power on its head: disempowering the generals, while empowering Sudan’s strong, diverse pro-democracy movement.
Local peace initiatives have emerged throughout the country and proven more effective than internationally brokered ceasefires
Amidst the daunting challenges facing Sudan, the country’s civil society actors – led, once again, by the resistance committees – have mobilised to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance. Despite the deadly peril, they use their networks to rescue the most vulnerable persons trapped in fighting zones and coordinate the delivery of essential supplies and first aid. They also collect and share crucial information about safe passages and monitor the quickly evolving security situation and ceasefire violations by both armies.11
In addition to their bottom-up humanitarian response, civil society actors are playing a key role in advocating for peace in Sudan. Resistance committees were the first to urge civilians to reject the war, avoid any warmongering along ethnic lines and stick to non-violence resistance.12 Demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest against the war despite the risks to their lives.13 Furthermore, local peace initiatives have emerged throughout the country and proven more effective than internationally brokered ceasefires.14
This remarkable effort in the midst of conflict is a continuation of the Sudanese people’s peaceful fight for freedom, peace and justice, which has been ongoing for the past four years. However, grassroots civilian leaders have been excluded from a political process that has prioritised security actors and political party leaders. To transition Sudan away from war and towards peace and democracy, this trend must be reversed.
The way forward: Empowering civil society actors
As foreign government evacuations come to an end, Sudan’s international partners must shift their attention towards supporting Sudan’s civilians and the structures that have repeatedly proven to represent them best. After years of failed political elite deals and exclusionary and biased mediation efforts,15 it is essential to have civilian forces, such as the resistance committees, at the heart of any solution, both in the short and long term.
The Western interest in a democratic transition does not align with the preferences of Sudan's neighbours, whose governments favour military rule over democracy
In the immediate term, resistance committees and civil society actors should be acknowledged as the most dependable monitors of any ceasefire. Once a ceasefire is enforced and humanitarian corridors implemented, any international assistance should involve the civilian structures that are already functioning and providing essential aid to those in need.
For a cessation of hostilities to be sustainable, the international community should urge Egypt and the UAE – the primary supporters of the SAF and RSF, respectively – to encourage the generals to comply with a genuine ceasefire.16 Additionally, punitive actions such as targeted sanctions should be directed towards the kleptocratic networks that support both armies.17
The idea that empowering military leaders will stabilise the region and ease the fight against irregular migration and terrorism has proven to be a myth
In the longer term, Western countries should keep in mind that while their urge for an immediate termination of hostility in Sudan is widely shared, their interest in a democratic transition does not align with the preferences of Sudan's neighbours, whose governments favour military rule over democracy.
The idea that empowering military leaders will stabilise the region and ease the fight against irregular migration and terrorism has proven to be a myth and should be dismissed. Going forward, resistance committees, not merely political party leaders, must play a leading role in any new round of negotiations for a political solution. While the warring parties will need to participate in these discussions, Burhan and Hemedti should not be part of them. Failing to apply punitive measures on the generals after the massacre of peaceful protestors in 201918 and a military coup in 202119 , Washington and Brussels – and their allies – must put an end to their leniency towards Burhan and Hemedti. Neither of the two should be allowed to play a role in deciding on the country’s fate after having dragged millions of people into war.
In 2019, against overwhelming odds, peaceful protests put an end to thirty years of military dictatorship. The challenge today – nothing less than stopping the current conflict from turning into a civil war – is undoubtedly more daunting. Yet, looking back at the last four years provides plentiful evidence of the actors and incentives that are driving Sudan to the brink of collapse. The consistent rejection of violence and impunity by the resistance committees and civil society at large and their relentless dedication to provide basic services is the only glimmer of hope in preventing Sudan from descending into a full-blown civil war.
- 1Sudan Conflict Situation Report #2, International Medical Corps, 27 April 2023.
- 2Darfur has a long history of clashes between civilians and militias, often coming from different ethnic groups, fighting over access to land. The clashes between the SAF and the RSF are exacerbating these tensions, as local militias close to the RSF feel empowered to attack their rivals, who in turn take up arms themselves. See: Mat Nashed, ‘Shifting alliances in Sudan’s Darfur as new civil war fears rise’, Al Jazeera, 27 April 2023.
- 3‘Men with no Mercy’, Human Rights Watch, 9 September 2015.
- 4Bel Trew, ‘Darfur: How the conflict is fuelled by Yemen's civil war’, The Independent, 22 December 2019.
- 5See, for instance: ‘Breaking the Bank’, C4ADS, 2022; ‘Exposing the RSF's secret financial network’, Global Witness, 9 December 2019; ‘Sudan Struggles to Control Its Parastatals’, The Sentry, May 2021.
- 6Eliza Mackintosh, ‘How the West enabled Sudan’s warring generals’, CNN, 16 April 2023.
- 7 Amgad Farei (a former adviser to the ousted Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok), ‘The ongoing political process, where is it taking Sudan?’, SudanSeen, 3 April 2023.
- 8Mat Nashed, ‘In Sudan, a Deadly Reckoning for Rival Forces’, New Lines Magazine, 17 April 2023.
- 9The United Nations panel of experts on Sudan reports aggressive recruitment campaigns by the RSF, the SAF and Darfur-based armed groups as of summer 2022, in violation of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement.
- 10‘Sudanese denounce Shield Forces ‘predatory recruitment’ as concerns over new militias grow’, Dabanga Radio TV Online, 7 April 2023.
- 11Mat Nashed, ‘Sudan ‘resistance’ activists mobilise as crisis escalates’, Al Jazeera, 22 April 2023.
- 12Only one day after the start of the war, resistance committees released a public statement, in Arabic and English, declaring their impartiality and commitment to peacefully resist the militarisation of the Sudan. A similar statement was issued by political party and civils society leaders.
- 13صور من مدينة #نيالا لوقفة احتجاجية رافضة للحرب وتدعو لإيقافها نهار اليوم 28 أبريل 2023. #لا_للحرب_في_السودان #لا_للحرب , Khalid Selik, Twitter, 28 April 2023.
- 14‘UNITAMS SRSG Mr. Volker Perthes Remarks to the Security Council’, UNITAMS, 25 April 2023.
- 15Kholood Khair, ‘A Plague O’ Both Your Houses: The False Dilemma of Sudan’s Elites’, The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, 7 March 2023.
- 16Hamid Khalafallah, ‘Only Leverage, Not International Pleas, Can End Sudan’s War’, DAWN, 26 April 2023.
- 17'To End War in Sudan, Target the Generals’ War Chests' Just Security, 2 May 2023.
- 18‘“Chaos and Fire” - An Analysis of Sudan’s June 3, 2019 Khartoum Massacre’, Physicians for Human Rights, 5 May 2020.
- 19Anette Hoffmann, ‘Military coup betrays Sudan’s revolution’, The Clingendael Institute, 5 November 2021.