What is happening in Sudan? A simple guide

Here is a look at the power struggle and violence that are taking place in the country.

Burhan - Hemedti
The protagonists of the recent flare-up in violence are Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, left, and his rival, the RSF commander, Mohamed Hamdan 'Hemedti' Dagalo [File: AFP]

Fighting has erupted in Khartoum and other cities in Sudan as powerful rival military factions battle for control, increasing the risk of a nationwide civil war.

Here’s a simple guide to the conflict:

Power struggle at the heart of the violence

  • Fighting broke out on April 15 after weeks of tension between the army and the powerful paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
  • Both groups were allies. Together, they seized power in a 2021 coup.
  • But tensions increased over the proposed integration of the RSF into the military.
  • The key question is who is in control and who would be the military’s commander-in-chief during an integration period.
  • According to analysts, this is a power struggle for the control of the country.
  • Most of the fighting is occurring in the capital, Khartoum, but clashes are reported across the country. At least 500 people have been killed and thousands injured in three weeks of fighting.

Map of clashes between SAF and RSF and displacement of people internally and across borders.

Friends who became rivals?

  • The protagonists in the power struggle are army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, his deputy and the RSF leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.
  • In October 2021, al-Burhan and Hemedti orchestrated a coup, upending a fragile transition to civilian rule that had been started after the 2019 removal of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir.
  • Al-Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under the nearly 30-year rule of al-Bashir, took the top job as the de facto ruler of Sudan after the coup.
  • Hemedti, from Darfur’s camel-herding Arab Rizeigat people, assumed responsibility as his number two.
  • As the plan for a new transition developed, Hemedti aligned himself more closely with civilian parties from a coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), that shared power with the military between al-Bashir’s overthrow and the 2021 coup.
  • Diplomats and analysts said this was part of a strategy by Hemedti to transform himself into a statesman and cement his position at the centre of power.
  • Both the FFC and Hemedti, who grew wealthy through gold mining and other ventures, stressed the need to sideline al-Bashir loyalists.

What is the RSF?

  • The RSF was created in 2013 and it evolved from the so-called Janjaweed militias, which are accused of war crimes in the Darfur region.
  • During the Darfur conflict in the 2000s, the government used the group to help the army put down a rebellion.
  • In 2017, a law legitimising the RSF as an independent security force was passed.
  • Though Sudan’s army has superior resources, including air power and an estimated 300,000 soldiers, the RSF had grown in recent years into a well-equipped force of some 100,000, deployed around the country and, since the fighting began, embedded in neighbourhoods across the capital.

What’s at stake in Sudan?

  • The popular uprising in 2021 raised hopes that Sudan and its population of 46 million could emerge from decades of “autocracy”, internal conflict and economic isolation under al-Bashir.
  • The current fighting, centred on one of Africa’s largest urban areas, could not only destroy those hopes but destabilise a volatile region bordering the Sahel, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.
  • It could also play into competition for influence in the region between Russia and the United States and between regional powers who have courted different actors in Sudan.
A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment in Khartoum North, Sudan, May 1, 2023.
A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment, during clashes between the Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum [File: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

What’s the role of international actors?

  • Western powers, including the US, had swung behind a transition towards democratic elections following al-Bashir’s overthrow. They suspended financial support following the coup, then backed the plan for the new transition and a civilian government.
  • Energy-rich powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also sought to shape events in Sudan, seeing the transition away from al-Bashir’s rule as a way to roll back his influence and bolster stability in the region.
  • Gulf states have pursued investments in sectors, including agriculture, where Sudan holds vast potential, and ports on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.
  • Russia has been seeking to build a naval base on the Red Sea, while several UAE companies have been signing up to invest.
  • Al-Burhan and Hemedti developed close ties with Saudi Arabia after sending troops to participate in the Saudi-led operation in Yemen. Hemedti has struck up relations with other foreign powers, including the UAE and Russia.
  • Egypt has deep ties to al-Burhan and the army and recently promoted a parallel track of political negotiations through parties with stronger links to the army and to al-Bashir’s former government.

An uncertain future

  • International parties have called for humanitarian ceasefires and a return to dialogue, but there have been few signs of compromise from the warring factions. Sudanese citizens, meanwhile, have flooded out of the capital area.
  • The army has branded the RSF a rebel force and demanded its dissolution, while Hemedti has called al-Burhan a criminal and blamed him for visiting destruction on the country.
  • The growing humanitarian crisis is leading to mass displacement within Sudan that could increasingly spill over borders. Already, tens of thousands have fled to neighbouring states, including Egypt, Chad and South Sudan.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies