The recent breakout of violence in Sudan stems from a long history of conflict between multiple stakeholders in the country. These stakeholders have been engaged in a constant confrontation over the control of the country’s wealth, natural resources, and power. During the previous conflicts, some of the major antagonists have included those in the regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Deep-rooted structural inequalities and resulting grievances caused several periods of unrest, such as the Sudanese civil war, from 1983 to 2005, which was one of the longest conflicts in the country’s history. This was accompanied by the 2003 rebellion initiated by non-Arab rebel groups in the face of economic and political marginalisation and uneven resource access. All of these previous conflicts have sowed the seeds for the current state of violence in the country. The then-ruling government cultivated Arab militias to suppress the rebellion. Known as Janjaweed, these militias grew beyond a controllable strength.
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, which has evolved out of the Janjaweed, is at the centre of the recent conflict in Sudan, which broke out in April. The opposing party is the country’s military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). A coalition of these two was previously responsible for the overthrowing of the transitional government established in 2021 after the pro-democracy marches by the Sudanese public. The 2019 demonstrations pushed for a democratic government and demanded the overthrowing of the long-reigning President Omar al-Bashir. Demonstrations were sparked in late 2018 by the escalating economic crisis, in addition to other grievances. The erstwhile instability of the country, sparked by a long history of conflict, human rights abuses, and concomitant international sanctions, exacerbated Sudan’s fragility. The lifting of years-long sanctions in 2017 was unable to afford any stability to the country and instead seems to have precipitated the downward spiral. All of these factors, together, drove the public to push for a democratic government to secure social and economic rights. Yet the brief gains of 2019 were interrupted by a coup, followed by a power-sharing agreement between the SAF General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the RSF as his deputy.
The collaboration was short-lived. Disagreements resulted in the recent conflict, which is based on a fight for power between these two evenly-matched opponents. Despite calls for a cessation of hostilities from several international actors, it seems unlikely that the recent breakout of violence will end anytime soon. The RSF has several political and resource-based interests in maintaining its position. Meanwhile, the Sudanese army – claiming to be the only legitimate military force in the country – has demanded the RSF’s accountability, putting the latter effectively under the former’s control. Their present power parity is not only due to their inherent abilities but also due to strong international support for the two. Thus, the escalation of the local conflict into a proxy war remains a strong possibility. Regional parties such as Egypt and Libya are already involved.
Conflicting actors have engaged in wanton violence, given the absence of international backlash.
Egypt shares similar interests with the Sudanese military in the matter of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This arrangement for sharing the water resources from the Nile affects the entire region, and Egypt requires Sudan’s support to make headway with any favourable negotiations over the issue. In the current conflict, Egypt is already hosting over 50,000 Sudanese and backing the SAF. Meanwhile, Libya has also become an active party in the conflict due to its support for the RSF. The RSF’s strong backing for the Libyan National Army (LNA) has earned it the latter’s support in the recent crisis. (According to estimates, 11,000 Sudanese mercenaries were present in Libya in 2021). While support for the RSF has been denied by the leader of the LNA, General Haftar, other sources have reported military backing in the form of training and equipment. Gold and refined petroleum smuggling also play an important part in these mutual relations. The prolonging of conflict similarly points to the possible involvement of foreign powers, especially considering the similar international backers for both Haftar and Dagalo.
Given a strong possibility of further escalation, a humanitarian crisis in Sudan poses security risks for the entire region, where several neighbours are already suffering from various forms of insecurity. Additionally, significant non-regional actors in Sudan, including the US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Israel, also stand to lose. International stakes will be raised further if the Sudanese conflict evolves into a civil war; terrorist organisations, including Al Qaeda, Al Shabab and ISIS affiliates, can find inroads and consolidate control over the region through a turbulent Sudan. Indeed, international parties can play a vital role in bringing the warring parties to the negotiation table; they have previously played an important part in the peace negotiations in the country. Their involvement is especially important provided that the current outbreak was also due, in part, to the lack of international support during the transition to democracy. Conflicting actors have engaged in wanton violence, given the absence of international backlash.