As fighting escalates, the country’s social movements are calling for an immediate ceasefire
Sara Abbas and Andreas Bohne, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung | 24 April 2023
A little over one week ago, on 15 April, a conflict between Sudanese military chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo escalated in Sudan’s governing council, derailing an internationally backed plan for a transition to civilian democracy. Since then, armed fighting has spread across large swathes of the country. Four years after the overthrow of Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir by a mass movement and 18 months after a military coup, the country appears to be on the verge of a civil war.
With news from inside the country still hard to come by, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Andreas Bohne sat down with Sudanese activist Sara Abbas to ask how the current conflict began, what actors are involved, and what is left of the revolutionary movement that overthrew al-Bashir in 2019.
What is the situation on the ground in Khartoum right now? Are you in touch with people there?
Yes, I’ve been in touch with family, friends, and comrades since the fighting broke out a little over one week ago, but some areas have lost power since.
The situation is very bad right now. Khartoum is heavily affected but there has also been deadly fighting in other parts of the country, especially Geneina, Al-Fashir, and Nyala in Darfur in the west of the country, El-Obeid in Kordofan, and in Merowe in the north. There are heavy casualties in Khartoum as well as Darfur and other areas — roughly 420 had been killed and 7,300 injured by 21 April. The number of dead and injured soldiers, whether from the military or the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is unknown.
The fighting is causing a lot of damage because it is occurring in densely populated urban areas. Guns and armoured tanks, RPGs, and even fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles have been used by the warring parties. A lot of infrastructure has been damaged, including airports. Hospitals, power plants, and other infrastructure has also been damaged.
Hospitals have mostly run out of medical supplies, which were already low, and since many were targeted directly or forcibly evacuated, a large number have been forced to close their doors and evacuate patients in a haphazard way. Power was cut in many neighbourhoods, but of more concern is the water supply as well as food stocks, which are absent or dangerously low in many areas where the clashes are occurring.
At first, people were advised by the local resistance committees and civil society organizations to shelter at home or in any safe place closest to them. People evacuated some areas because staying became unsustainable — my father and three of my aunts’ families in Khartoum, for example, were forced to leave their homes and shelter with family in other parts of the city. Many families don’t know where a loved one is because that person was on the road on when the fighting broke out and never reached home.
Some of the mobile networks have stopped functioning, and the internet has become limited to only a few providers. There are also many reports of soldiers, especially RSF soldiers, entering the homes of people and looting.
In the last days, as it became clear that the situation is deteriorating, many have fled to other areas or north towards Egypt, hoping to cross the border. Chad closed its borders early on, so thousands of Darfurians are stuck. In the last two days, Western countries have for the most part evacuated their embassy staff, if not all their citizens. Some other countries have done the same.
International media depicts the conflict as being between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). What are the latter, and whom do they represent in Sudanese society?
These are the two main parties to the conflict, but nuance is missing from most media accounts. The sections of the Sudanese military behind this violence are what is known in Sudan as “al-Bashir’s Security Committee” — top generals who were part of Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship and assumed power when he was ousted by the popular revolt in April 2019.
This group is led by Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, who controls the military and its vast economic empire. These are the same men who shared the Sovereignty Council with civilians during the power-sharing period from August 2019 until October 2021, until the generals and their now-enemy, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), carried out a coup d’état that ended the arrangement. The military has been waging a campaign of terror to consolidate power ever since.
Behind the military’s Security Committee are remnants of al-Bashir’s Islamist Movement, which operate what we call “shadow brigades”. They are not formal bodies, but rather work in secret based on loyalties and the patronage of certain individuals. The former regime wants to re-establish itself via counter-revolutionary methods, and the best way to do so is what they have been doing since the revolution began: fomenting conflict and stoking ethnic tensions.
The revolutionary project in Sudan is one of the most significant movements for change in the world today.
The RSF is a militia, or rather militias, under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”. They were formed by al-Bashir from the remnants of the “Arab” militias recruited from pastoralist communities in Darfur, known as the Janjaweed. The Janjaweed were a key tool of the regime in committing genocide in Darfur.
Growing suspicious of his own military, al-Bashir nominally made the RSF a component of the military and gave it a base in Khartoum in 2017. From that point on, the RSF became not just a counterinsurgency paramilitary group but also a tool for suppressing protests in the capital and other cities beyond the “war zones”. The militia grew tremendously and diversified, seizing control of lucrative gold mines and gaining the patronage of regional powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Russia. They have also fought for Khalifa Haftar in Libya and are the “border guards” along the western and northwestern borders — a result of the European Unions’ migration agenda.
Given that both sides in the current conflict come from the military, where do the divisions lie?
When al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019 and his security committee took over, Dagalo, the RSF leader, joined it as a deputy. The Western-backed August 2019 constitutional document that ushered in the power-sharing deal further entrenched the RSF by legitimizing the paramilitary group and establishing it as a parallel force to the military.
Many in the military have long been uneasy with the growing power of the RSF, but competition is not just about status or political power — it’s as much about economics. Both the military and the RSF own a massive chunk of the economy: hospitals, real estate, land, gold mines, construction companies, even entire industries. They collaborated, albeit uneasily but effectively, for many years, and split the cake between them and al-Bashir’s cronies. Now, as the cake shrinks due to the total collapse of the Sudanese economy under military rule, and as pressure grows for civilian control of the state, each is seeking to eliminate the other, with the Sudanese people caught in the crossfire.
Burhan and Dagalo have failed to consolidate power or form a government since their coup in 2021. The economic crisis has reached unprecedented levels, and government coffers are empty. Despite the arrests and suppression, the revolutionary movement led by the resistance committees, unions, and other civic bodies has not been extinguished. It continues to organize and makes it impossible for the Burhans and Dagalos to return Sudan to “business as usual”.
What, then, led to this sudden escalation?
For months now, the RSF and military have been forced to engage in talks with the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), with whom they signed the power-sharing deal in 2019. The talks are organized by the United Nations Department of Political Affairs and led by the UN’s representative in Sudan, Volker Perthes. He is backed by various other entities, including the “Troika” composed of the US, Norway, and the UK, who have been players in the Sudanese political scene since the so-called “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” in 2005 that eventually led to the independence of South Sudan.
The talks are held behind closed doors with elite political actors, both civilian and military. Communication with the Sudanese people outside of those circles has consisted of recycling arguments for the failed 2019 power-sharing deal and attempting to market the idea that the military and militias would give up power willingly. The resistance committees — the leading revolutionary force in the country — have for the most part completely rejected not just the deal, but any negotiation.
Deadline after deadline for signing the deal has been missed in recent months, and most recently, there were growing signs of divisions between the military and the RSF concerning security arrangements. These centre around the question of integrating the RSF into the military and the corresponding timeframe.
I was in Khartoum until earlier this month, and there were already signs of increased militarization in the city. RSF vehicles were starting to amass at certain locations, and the military ramped up its own apparatus in response. According to civil society sources in Khartoum, this has been happening since the signing of the framework agreement in January. The situation came to a head on 15 April — the RSF claims that the military attacked its forces near Merowe Airport in the north of the country and elsewhere in a coordinated campaign. Soon thereafter, the military declared the RSF an enemy of the state.
Some Western commentators claim that the RSF’s attack was instigated, or at least supported by the Kremlin. Do these claims have any truth to them?
At least so far, they haven’t been substantiated. I think it’s too early and probably exaggerated to say that Russia instigated this. That said, there are multiple powers with interests in Sudan, including Russia. The RSF is close to the Kremlin — Russia has been a beneficiary of gold smuggling out of Sudan via the RSF for some time, which the Kremlin used to build up reserves for its war with Ukraine in order to offset the effect of sanctions. In fact, Dagalo visited Putin in Moscow the week Russia invaded Ukraine.
There has been civil war in Sudan for decades, just in regions far from the capital.
Russia is also interested in establishing a base on the Red Sea coast in Sudan and has been jockeying with other powers, but has been unsuccessful so far. The Wagner Group is also active in the region, especially along Sudan’s border with the Central African Republic. The Wagner Group and the Russian state are thought to be critical to the RSF’s surveillance technology and its media machinery, particularly its capacity for propaganda, but the military also has its own patrons and propaganda machinery.
What about other states? Are they taking sides in the current conflict?
The Sudanese military is close to its “big brother”, the Egyptian military. Egypt has always seen Sudan as its own backyard with critical economic and strategic interests. The el-Sisi regime is no different. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also patrons: Burhan and Dagalo have long jockeyed for those two countries’ favour, both of which have acted as counter-revolutionary forces since the revolution began in December 2018. Turkey and Israel are also players in one way or another.
The EU did business with al-Bashir on migration and remains heavily invested in “stability” and “border management”, to which Sudan is key as a major source and transit country for migrants. After the October 2021 coup, Dagalo publically addressed the EU, saying it was in its interests to cooperate with the new government. Over the past year, the RSF’s powerful media machine has disseminated multiple videos in several European languages portraying itself as a humanitarian actor on the borders.
The conflict in Libya, in which NATO played a part, the EU’s border policies, and the US-led “War on Terror” in the Sahel have also influenced Sudan — both in terms of the circulation of mercenaries, of which the RSF has both contributed and benefited, and in the circulation of weapons.
How has civil society responded to the violence? What about the neighbourhood committees and left-wing forces that drove the 2019 uprising?
First, I think it’s important to note that the uprising in Sudan has been ongoing since December 2018. Although the movement ebbs and flows, it has never ceased. Therefore, before I answer your question, I need to put it in context.
The revolutionary project in Sudan is one of the most significant movements for change in the world today — it’s not just anti-authoritarian, but anti-colonial at heart. This is because Sudan has been governed since independence by elites from the Nile Basin regions of the country, who prey on other regions and uphold a national hierarchy based on region, class, gender, and ethnicity.
The October 2021 coup only deepened the movement, helping it chart a vision beyond protest politics, as evidenced in the Revolutionary Charter for the People’s Power, which resulted from intense work in communities. All this work — the years building organizational power, the lives of our young people stolen defending the revolution — is threatened by the current war.
Since the violence broke out, the resistance committees and other bodies have been working in their neighbourhoods to help organize mutual aid. On the first day of fighting, the Coordination Bodies of Khartoum Resistance Committees issued a clear statement:
We urge all national civilian and political forces to uphold Sudan’s unity, our people, and our land. We call on them to ring the alarm bell, work to create the largest front for peace and protect the Sudanese revolution from collapse. Citizens and honourable revolutionaries, until this critical stage passes, we ask you not to succumb to the incitement and counter-incitement speeches that have already started to spread from the warring parties. Please preserve the safety of your neighbourhoods and cities, and do not engage in any calls for violence or carrying arms.
There is an ideological, not just physical battle being waged around how to frame this war: as one between two options, the RSF or the military, or rather as one between the militarized state in all its forms and the revolution, whose primary demand from the beginning has been a fully civilian, democratic, people-powered state. The war is not just a fight for power, but an attempt to reproduce the dictatorship by framing the military as a saviour.
The committees have long called for a dual strategy with regard to the militarization of the country — on the one hand the dissolution of the RSF and other militias, and on the other hand fundamental reform of the military by bringing it under civilian control, removing the Islamist al-Bashir elements within it, restructuring it along professional rather than ethnic lines, and eliminating its chokehold on the economy.
One of the biggest problems people face in Khartoum are the terrible propaganda campaigns waged by both parties, which make it hard to know what is actually happening and allows rumours to flourish. The resistance committees, the Doctors Unions, and other civil bodies are working to counter this by supplying information via social media, especially to prevent people attempting to flee through unsafe routes.
Groups of artists and young people in the resistance committees and other civic bodies are also mobilizing and have begun producing cultural and political messages — videos, poems, graffiti, and so on — to chart a “third voice”, one that is not for the RSF or the military, but for the revolution and continuing the work of building grassroots revolutionary structures that can overturn the military’s grasp on power.
Only after the killing and destruction stops can we can begin to address the question of governance and transition.
Various groups, especially resistance committees, are also coordinating with the Sudanese Doctors Union to establish “medical rooms” locally to deal with the injured who are unable to be transported to hospitals and to help guide residents. These bodies as well as regular citizens are also helping get food and medicine to those in critical need. Since it’s very risky to move in many parts of the city, a lot of the coordination is done by disseminating specific requests on social media and sharing the general location and contact of the person in need. But access to the internet is now really threatened.
While these efforts are a testament to the organizational depth and breadth of the revolutionary movement in Sudan and of the Sudanese culture of mutual aid, they are not enough. A ceasefire is urgently needed, as is medical and humanitarian aid, as well as safe routes within and out of the cities.
Do you fear that Sudan could slide into civil war, or could the coup instead trigger a second revolution?
We must be careful to remember that there has been civil war in Sudan for decades, just in regions far from the capital. Forgetting that risks erasing Darfurians and others who have long suffered, and who are entering this new phase of violence extremely vulnerable.
What can be said now, though, is that there is an intensification of the conflict — a breadth and depth to it that has not been seen before. The two main sides are well-armed with many forces. Khartoum, the capital, has never been shelled before or experienced war directly. Because of its size and density, and because so much of Sudan’s infrastructure, including health infrastructure, is there, this is incredibly worrying.
So, yes, there is a massive risk of sliding into the abyss. This would not only have a devastating effect on the population, but also on the revolutionary project. It would cause a ripple effect in the region, as people flee into neighbouring countries. Some refugees in Sudan are already in the country seeking safety from the wars in Tigray, Syria, and elsewhere — they now face displacement once again. Sudan already has one of the highest populations of displaced persons in the world. What happens if the conflict devolves into all-out war?
What would you tell leftists in Europe who want to help? What can we do?
The most urgent actions right now are to call for safe routes for civilians, medical convoys, and humanitarian organizations — for an immediate cease-fire and measures that interrupt the flow of weapons or other material support to either party. We just found out last week, for example, that the Greek government has a contract to sell Predator surveillance equipment to the Sudanese military!
The EU should immediately ensure all its member states and allies are not fuelling the war and close any loopholes. Efforts should include pressuring the members of the ironically named “Friends of Sudan” — a group of states convened by Germany at the height of the revolution in 2019 that includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt — to stay out of the fighting and to pressure the SAF and RSF to stop the war.
It is extremely urgent that the Left unites globally to end the fighting in Sudan and support the revolution along the lines demanded by the movement. All governments and entities with leverage should call for an immediate country-wide ceasefire and unfettered access for humanitarian organizations, both local and international, as well as freedom of movement for civilians. They should call for respect for human rights and international humanitarian law and practice. The Left should resist the discourse that the military represents the “lesser evil” — it should instead amplify the voices of the Sudanese people, who have clearly stated for four years now: “No to the RSF and the military, yes to a civilian, democratic state.”
In my opinion, targeted sanctions against the leadership of the 2021 coup, both RSF and military, are long overdue. Travel bans on those figures are also needed to prevent them from escaping accountability or withdrawing and regrouping elsewhere. Weapons and financial flows to both sides need to be interrupted more vigorously — this means exerting pressure on EU and US allies in the region to stop their interventions in the country. Civil society in Sudan should be supported to collect and preserve evidence of the crimes that have been committed by both sides in the last days. All deals that extend the military’s grasp on power or that give immunity to its leaders, or to the RSF, should also be rejected.
Again, right now, all efforts should focus on the humanitarian side and ending the fighting. I believe that must be the immediate priority, along with removing barriers to the movement of fleeing refugees. Only after the killing and destruction stops can we can begin to address the question of governance and transition.
Sara Abbas is a Berlin-based political scientist active with SudanUprising Germany. The views expressed here are her own.