Urgent action needed to preempt Sudan’s descent into civil war

Sudan Policy and Transparency Tracker condemns the violence that has broken out between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan today. Heavy fighting has been reported in Khartoum since this morning using heavy artillery, tanks and air assets. Fighting has also been reported in Merowe, El Obeid, and El Fasher. Although the situation is chaotic and both sides are blaming one another, it seems that the RSF is trying to neutralize SAF air assets – which it sees as the greatest threat to its forces. Civilians are hunkering down, and the number of casualties is increasing by the hour, according to the Sudan Doctors Committee, as the two forces fight in highly populated areas.

We should remain clear eyed about the reasons for this fighting. The SAF and the RSF are vying for supremacy in a new Sudanese political dispensation. Each side is seeking to preserve and expand the kleptocratic networks of privilege and power that they built up under the Bashir regime and during the subsequent transition. As STPT pointed out in its most recent policy brief, A Political Process Besieged, even before a final agreement on the transition to civilian rule could be concluded, it was besieged by numerous dynamics, including the tensions between the SAF and RSF. Although integration of armed forces and exertion of civilian control over them is a critical element of democracy, it also threatens both actors by seeking to integrate two sets of networks into one.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the armed parties also share interests in limiting civilian authority. Loyalists of the former regime have been in hyperdrive, adding fuel to the fire through a coordinated outreach campaign, including both social media messaging and direct public addresses that called on the SAF to crush the RSF and walk away from the political process for fear that this would block their return to power and empower prodemocracy actors. Care should be taken to prevent the military parties from using this violence to extract concessions that block a reformist civilian authority and systematic security sector reform.

No one should be fooled that either party is interested in democracy; both are seeking to preserve and expand their own power. The RSF leader Hemeti’s recent public support for restoring democratic transition and civilian rule is only lip service – he is just seeking a winnable cause around which to mobilize his forces and gain support among the population. By the same token, Burhan’s calls on the public to defend the army are self-serving. Although the interests of the majority of Sudanese are in promoting democracy, there are real risks that the fight between armed groups will trigger widespread inter-communal clashes in different regions where the parties have used ethnic mobilization to advance their claims to power but have limited control over local actors and conditions.  

In the face of the real prospects of their country’s descent into civil war, Sudanese will assume their responsibilities by intensifying their popular protests, rejecting a return to military rule, and civil society groups at home and among the dynamic diaspora communities should denounce the attempted return of the Bashir stalwarts to power through the barrel of the gun.

The international community, for its part, should take urgent action to call for an end to the fighting in the short term. An emergency session of the UN Security Council should be convened as soon as possible to address these issues, with a particular focus on protection of civilians. In the longer term, the international community can address some of the weaknesses in their engagement to date. This would include fostering greater cohesion is needed among the key international and regional actors with influence in Sudan: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Key actors should learn from this to ensure that sustained attention is paid to key issues – combatting the corruption and kleptocratic networks that incentivize this fighting and implementing broader security sector reform to bring both forces under civilian control.

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