Omar Khan is a MSci Physics student at UCL with an interest in international relations.
“Death could come at any moment,” a teacher in Khartoum tells a journalist over the phone. At the time of the call, reported this month, he, his wife, and their three children had not eaten for two days and were trapped in the Kalakla suburb of Sudan’s war-torn capital. The city, one of the continent’s most populous, has been pummelled by air strikes and artillery over the last seven months and has been dubbed “Africa’s Aleppo”. Of the 7.1 million people displaced since the start of the war, over three million are from Khartoum. According to the UN, more than 6,000 civilians have been killed in the crossfire, though other estimates put the total death toll at 10,000. One UNHCR official said the war had turned “homes into cemeteries”.
On 16 November 2023, the leaders of former Darfuri rebel groups sat at a busy press conference in the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. They formally renounced their neutrality in the ongoing war in Sudan fought between the army and a powerful paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Among the ex-rebels were Arko “Minni” Minawi of the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and Jibril Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) who declared their support for the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), their erstwhile enemy, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. They asserted that the RSF, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, has attacked civilians and threatens Sudan’s unity.
Outside of Khartoum, most of the fighting during the war has been in the large Darfur region in western Sudan. Just weeks before the press conference, Nyala and Zalingei, the state capitals of South and Central Darfur respectively, fell to the RSF. Four days after the press conference, El-Daein, the capital of East Darfur was taken by the RSF giving the paramilitaries control over four out of five Darfuri states. El-Fasher in North Darfur is the SAF’s last stronghold and, at the time of writing, is currently seeing a build-up of RSF fighters outside the city. Witnesses from El-Daein reported that they saw a similar build-up before the RSF took over their city without much SAF resistance. But many agree that El-Fasher would not fall so easily and could be a significant and deadly flashpoint.
Darfur has seen horrendous violence since the war started including thousands of people brutally killed at El-Geneina in West Darfur which the RSF took over the summer amid hostilities between local Arab militias (linked to the RSF) and local Masalit fighters. Much of the violence was directed at the Masalit community, with witnesses reporting racial slurs and sexual violence, leading to fears of ethnic cleansing. In Ardamata, an El-Geneina suburb, 1,300 people (mainly Masalit) were massacred by the RSF and allied Arab militias at the start of November. Additional fears that Sudan could split in two also motivated the JEM and SLM to side with the SAF this month, roughly twenty years after they took up arms against the Sudanese state in response to decades of marginalisation of Darfur’s black African communities. In reference to that conflict, at the press conference Minawi said: “We see that the same crimes that were committed two decades ago are repeating themselves again.”
Sudan’s civil war broke out on 15 April 2023, one-and-a-half years after al-Burhan and Hemedti seized power together in a coup and precisely four years after the ousting of infamous dictator Omar al-Bashir. In the 1980s, divisions between Darfuri communities intensified. Home to both Arabs and non-Arab peoples like the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit, Darfur’s marginalisation by Sudan’s economic centre along the Nile long predated the country’s independence from Britain in 1956. But by the time al-Bashir seized power in 1989, a famine had caused an influx of Chadian Arabs into Darfur and led to the forming of Arab militias, allegedly with the support of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. During al-Bashir’s regime, the African (non-Arab) communities in Darfur felt like the victims of an exclusionary and discriminatory government. Rebel groups formed (e.g. SLM, JEM) and fought back in 2003. Al-Bashir, who was already at war with insurgents in what would become South Sudan, opposed the rebellion with brutal aggression and unleashed the Janjaweed militia (made up of Arab tribal fighters mainly from Darfur with a brigade led by Hemedti). The Janjaweed-led crackdown saw genocidal violence in Darfur which, by 2005, contributed to 300,000 deaths.
In 2013, al-Bashir reorganised the Janjaweed into the RSF under Hemedti to act as a counterbalance against the army. The RSF became an independent unit and developed its own income streams by taking advantage of Sudan’s sudden shift from an oil-based to a gold-based economy after South Sudanese independence in 2011. When the country’s economic woes deteriorated sharply in 2018-19, mass protest movements led by civilian groups like the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) ultimately pushed al-Bashir out of power in April 2019 although it was technically al-Burhan and Hemedti who ousted him. The pair took control but the FFC and the Sudanese Professionals Association led the protests demanding democracy. Eventually, after months of bloody confrontations, the FFC and military established a shared Sovereignty Council led by al-Burhan and UN economist/civilian leader Abdalla Hamdok. They agreed that in November 2021, al-Burhan would hand over power to a civilian – in October 2021, al-Burhan and Hemedti seized full power in a coup. About a year later, the uneasy allies signed a framework outlining the country’s possible return to democracy but part of the framework involved integrating the RSF into the army. Since al-Bashir’s ousting, the SAF and RSF jostled to fill the power vacuum and the two sides struggled to agree on how to consolidate their 2021 power grab. The intense rivalry that has been at least a decade in the making exploded on 15 April this year and the Sudanese people are now paying the price.
Today, there is a widespread fear that Sudan will suffer a Libya-style division between two rival governments. After he escaped Khartoum in August, it is understood that al-Burhan is setting up a “war government” with its capital at Port Sudan. The coastal city now hosts all government ministries, Western and Gulf diplomatic missions, UN and aid agencies, and senior Sudanese officials. Import and limited export of goods through the seaport gives the SAF a strong economic asset. Additionally, the country’s mining hub in River Nile state and agricultural hubs in the eastern states of Kassala, Gedarif, al-Jazira, White Nile, Blue Nile, and Sennar are all under SAF control. However, as has been the case for many decades in Sudan, while the army has an economic empire that enrichens its generals, the soldiers are paid some $11-$16 per month. The RSF can afford higher wages for their fighters because of the group’s expansive income streams which include Hemedti’s gold mines in Darfur and the fees they earn working as a mercenary unit in countries like Yemen (employed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE). The US has sanctioned individuals and firms linked to both the SAF and RSF, including the Sudanese Islamic Movement – a pro-al-Bashir group that supports the army – and Hemedti’s brother who has become a prominent face on the frontline since the RSF leader’s injury.
The RSF has control over most of Khartoum and its sister cities Omdurman and Bahri. In response to al-Burhan’s alternative capital at Port Sudan, Hemedti has threatened to establish his own capital in Khartoum where his men have the al-Jaili oil refinery, presidential palace, state media buildings and the airport. Some have suggested that El-Geneina could also be the new RSF capital as the group’s supplies come in from Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic which all neighbour Darfur. RSF control over North Kordofan state (which links Darfur to Khartoum) has consolidated these supply lines and makes taking over El-Fasher even more important. Though the SAF, backed by Egypt and now several Darfuri rebel groups, will defend El-Fasher, their position is not guaranteed. Firstly, not all Darfuri rebel groups have aligned with the army. The 2020 Juba agreement was meant to stabilise Darfur by integrating the various rebel groups into the state apparatus. Since the October 2021 coup, however, this arrangement has started to unravel. Five rebel groups, represented by al-Hadi Idriss who was kicked off the Sovereignty Council by al-Burhan in October, defied the rebels at the Port Sudan press conference by doubling-down on neutrality. Though, this is an increasingly difficult stance to maintain amid rumours of deals with the RSF and the deepening polarisation of the country. Secondly, the SAF faces allegations that it left its division at Ardamata without “supplies or munitions”, leading to their withdrawal and a massacre of local people at the start of this month. After the fall of El-Geneina in June, Ardamata was defended by the SAF’s 15th Infantry Division, fighters of the Sudanese Alliance (a Masalit former Darfuri rebel group) and “Colombians” (slang term for young Black Africans (e.g. Masalit) who were without families and had been displaced by previous fighting). Unable to endure the RSF attack on 2 November, SAF soldiers say they were forced to flee and witnesses later described how the locals, including the Colombians, were brutally attacked by the RSF-linked Arab militias. One of these soldiers said: “It’s no big secret that the divisions in Darfur were fighting without help from the central leadership.” Combined with the divisions among the former rebel groups, the SAF’s uncertain operation makes things very hard to predict. Regarding how the war is going to evolve, all eyes should be on El-Fasher in the coming weeks.
Allegations of ethnic cleansing, rape and sexual violence, attacks on civilians and widespread human rights abuses have swept Sudan over the past seven months. The humanitarian situation is dire. When the peace talks between SAF and RSF representatives in Jeddah, organised by Saudi Arabia and the US, ended without success this month, very few observers were surprised. As the UNHCR official said: “Away from the eyes of the world and the news headlines, the conflict in Sudan continues to rage.” As things stand, at the time of writing, neither side appears willing to back down. The fighting is intense and violence against civilians is rampant. At the start of the war in April, one observer commented that al-Burhan and Hemedti had concluded their rivalry had become a “zero-sum game” and, sadly, his further observation seven months ago remains true today: “unfortunately, the Sudanese people must stand on the sidelines as both military leaders fight it out till the bitter end.”