Sudan’s Current Crisis and its Deep Roots

The Northeast African country of Sudan has been grappling with complex political, economic, and social crises for years. But over the past two weeks, tensions have reached new highs as two competing leaders engage in a deadly armed conflict. Sudan’s current fighting is primarily a personal struggle between the two leaders, but the lead-up has been ongoing for decades.

The Backstory: Sudan’s Long Crisis

The recent power struggle is pitched between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of Sudan’s military, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – a man also known as Hemedti – who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Both General al-Burhan and Dagalo were major players in a coup in 2021 – the latest in a long history. Sudan has had the highest number of coups of any African nation since its independence in 1956, at six.

The country’s longest-serving ruler was notorious dictator Omar al-Bashir, who oversaw a repressive regime and was eventually indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. This indictment was due to his role in atrocities committed in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Al-Bashir sanctioned violent raids against ethnic Africans in Darfur in the 2000’s, which were carried out by an Arab militia called Janjaweed. Janjaweed is also held responsible for alleged acts of genocide in Darfur by the ICC, and was headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Some estimates say close to 400,000 people have died as a result of violence in Darfur since 2003.

After al-Bashir was deposed in 2019, there were high hopes Sudan might finally enjoy long-awaited democracy. However, General al-Burhan led a military coup just two years later, supported by Dagalo and his RSF – the descendant of Janjaweed. Since the coup, al-Burhan has been Sudan’s de facto ruler, and Dagalo has been his deputy head of the ruling council.

Under Dagalo’s leadership, the RSF has worked to keep al-Burhan’s military in power, overseeing brutal crackdowns on democratic protests, including the massacre of 120 protestors in 2019.

But the two men have also been locked in a power struggle, with tensions brewing over RSF attempts to acquire more of Sudan’s economic assets, and questions about how the RSF should be integrated into the military proper.

The Pot Boils Over: Today’s Violence

This power struggle boiled over into violence two weeks ago, on April the 15th. Since then, fighting has been ongoing on the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and its twin city, Omdurman. Violence has now also spread to other, vulnerable regions, including Darfur.

While the official death toll is said to be 528, with 4,599 wounded, the real figures are likely much higher. Many Sudanese civilians are trapped in their homes due to heavy fighting on the streets, unable to evacuate but without access to food, water, or electricity. Most Western nations have evacuated their diplomats and citizens from Sudan.

Multiple efforts have been made to establish ceasefires, but most have largely failed, including a truce declared to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

While many international aid organisations have been unable to send relief missions due to the heavy fighting, local ‘resistance committees’ have mobilised informal networks to help civilians. The resistance committees are activist groups who have led Sudan’s pro-democracy movement since 2019.

There is also concern about the destabilising consequences the fighting may have on Sudan’s relationships with its neighbours. The majority of these neighbouring countries have faced recent upheavals themselves.

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