The war in Sudan is a consequence of a derailed transition

Sudan’s transition should have focused on stabilising the economy and convening elections, not dismantling the ancien regime.

Drone footage shows black smoke over Khartoum North on May 1, 2023
Drone footage shows black smoke over Khartoum North on May 1, 2023 [Reuters]

Two hundred days into the war in Sudan, the Sudanese people remain trapped in a conflict not of their own making. More than 9,000 civilians have been killed and 5.6 million forced to flee their homes, while the capital, Khartoum, continues to be ravaged by savage internecine warfare. Meanwhile, the world’s attention is gradually shifting elsewhere.

When the war erupted on April 15, the story circulated by international media outlets was that this is a typical power struggle between two generals who were once allies: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander-in-chief of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Nothing is further from the truth.

Recently, in a statement marking the six months of the war, United Nations Under-Secretary-General Martin Griffiths said this is “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”. He emphasised the horrific reports of rape and sexual violence and asserted that the country has been engulfed in chaos. Yet, he said nothing as to why the war is being fought.

If the media have mischaracterised the reason behind the eruption of the war, high-level statements from the international community, like the one above, have been completely silent about it. Neither have tried to envision Sudan’s path forward.

On April 11, 2019, an uprising triggered by the deteriorating economic situation toppled President Omar al-Bashir, ending his three-decade-long rule. Sudan formerly experienced two uprisings that brought down military regimes – in 1964 and 1985.

Given their experience with past uprisings, in 2019, the Sudanese people widely expected a brief political transition that would address economic issues – with the help of the international community – and prepare the country for multiparty elections within a year or two. However, that was not to be. This time around, two factors that were nonexistent in 1964 and 1985 came into play and proved to be paramount.

First, because of the “Islamist” comportment of al-Bashir’s regime, regional and international players were more focused on “dismantling” it so the elections would not end up bringing Islamists back to power. For this purpose, the international community had to start a project to remake the country.

Dissolving the former ruling NCP and hunting its leaders outside the purview of the law became the main objective of the transition. A commission that was not accountable to the attorney general or subjected to judicial review was formed for this purpose.

The comprehensive overhaul of the country included calls for Sudan to join the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to rush into convening pride parades even before homosexuality is decriminalised, and to normalise relations with Israel by joining the Abraham Accords. These controversial issues were imposed on the schedule of the transition, even though they are the business of an elected parliament.

Second, uninitiated neoliberals – mostly former communists and Baathists – were anointed by the international community as the legitimate heirs of al-Bashir. As soon as they became comfortable in their new positions, they completely forgot about the economic woes of the country and failed to produce any programme for reform. Additionally, they did not want to hold any elections, bearing in mind the narrowness of their support base.

Soon enough, they locked horns for power, each wanting to have a larger piece of the cake in this exceptionally long transition. As a matter of fact, the entire transition was transformed into an exercise in fielding the neoliberals as the newfound political elite of the country.

When the Constitutional Charter of August 2019, which sealed a marriage of convenience between the military component (both SAF and RSF) on one the hand and the neoliberals on the other, frayed in October 2021, the international community pushed another deal down the throat of the two sides. That was the Framework Agreement of December 2022.

Eventually, Hemedti – already beleaguered and fearing international sanctions for launching a bloody crackdown on a sit-in in Khartoum in June 2019 – threw in his lot with the neoliberals in a bid to improve his political fortunes. Allegedly, he was also on a mission “to restore democracy and civilian rule”.

By then, it was clear to diplomats in Khartoum that an eventual showdown between SAF and RSF was inevitable. Yet, nobody was willing to call for ending the faltering transition and convening elections.

Sudan sits at the intersection of the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, and the Sahel. As such, it is very much in the throes of all ills of these regions. In this accursed quarter, if you profess a position tolerating the possible return of Islamists to power, you are grabbing the third rail with both hands.

That is mainly because some groups and countries in this region are very quick to attack anyone who questions whatever they are doing to exclude Islamists. For them, any Islamist is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a likely operative of ISIL (ISIS), al-Shabab or Boko Haram.

In Sudan, in particular, such conversation takes place in the shadow of three decades of government that the West abhorred and always accused of doing something nefarious. This had been the case even though that government went to great lengths to gain Western acceptance, including by agreeing to the secession of South Sudan, adopting the 2005 constitution, and opening unprecedented avenues for women in education, employment, and leadership.

Yet, in this part of the world, it is the past rather than the present that shapes how current events are seen. It is the stereotype and the cliche rather than the reality that matters.

When CNN asked the RSF spokesperson on April 26 about their objective, he said the group was “seeking to capture” al-Burhan and bring him to justice for “many treasons acts against the Sudanese people”.

Because RSF was fighting at the beginning of the war for the cause of the neoliberals – namely, to rid the country of the Islamists – international think tanks, the likes of the International Crisis Group (ICG), have not hesitated to wish it well.

In a report released in July 2023, the ICG stated: “The RSF has held the upper hand in Khartoum since the early days of the war, but that advantage is only growing more apparent. Even some army backers suggest the RSF is on the cusp of decisive military victory in the capital, especially if it can soon overrun the compound where army leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and some of his key lieutenants are sheltering. The RSF has besieged the headquarters almost since the conflict began; it has now tightened its grip.”

Calling the SAF’s claim to the title of national army “dubious”, the report went on to assert: “Given internal fissures and the deep hostility toward the RSF, any settlement raises the risk of a split in the army, including the possibility that hardliners team up with Bashir-era Islamists to fight on. An RSF victory would likely leave no place for those Islamists, who might then face a difficult choice among negotiating surrender terms, battling on in a losing cause or seeking safe passage to a third country.”

The sidelining of Islamists in Sudan is clearly a top item on foreign agendas for Sudan.

Apart from failing to see the military progress made by SAF, courtesy of its air superiority, the ICG also did not register the change in RSF’s goals for the war. While RSF needed the neoliberals for the purposes of winning international legitimacy, talk of “restoring civilian rule” figured prominently in its rhetoric.

But as the war scales tipped in favour of SAF, RSF was more in need of a source of fighters to join the war. The neoliberals were of little help in this regard.

As a result, the RSF spokespeople started to claim that their goal is to end “the 1956 state” controlled by riverine communities of central and northern Sudan and to replace it with one controlled by Junaid tribes, the ethnic groups of Arab origin that live in the Kordofan and Darfur regions of Sudan, as well as Chad and Niger.

The involvement of fighters from these tribes, be they Sudanese or non-Sudanese, is now a prominent feature of this war. Of course, this has momentous implications for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sudan and for the peace and security of the region.

As Rosalind Marsden, the former UK ambassador to Sudan and associate fellow at Chatham House, has warned: there is a risk of a “de facto partition, in which Hemedti controls Darfur and much of Khartoum, SAF controls much of the rest of the country, especially the east and the north, and an armed movement led by Abdel Aziz Al Hilu contests South Kordofan and southern Blue Nile. Indeed, in an audio recording released on September 14, Hemedti suggests for the first time that, if Burhan establishes a government in Port Sudan, he will form a government in Khartoum”.

Yet this dimension is not taken seriously enough by the international community. For the United States, for instance, the most urgent concerns in Sudan shifted from the exclusion of Islamists to addressing humanitarian needs, not putting the country’s transition back on track. Being Sudan’s largest contributor of humanitarian aid, the US has expressed its support for a ceasefire and peace negotiations to make delivering aid possible.

Indeed, providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Sudanese people should be the top priority, particularly in the Chadian border town of Adre, where many have fled from neighbouring Darfur. Nonetheless, if the transition is not fixed, the humanitarian crisis will persist for years to come.

Last week, it was announced that SAF and RSF have resumed talks in Jeddah with the hope of agreeing on a ceasefire, and possibly a deal to end the war. With SAF gaining the upper hand on the main battlefield and RSF losing military momentum, it is expected that the latter will sue for peace. This is particularly so because the meandering lines of tribal fighters from Western Sudan to Khartoum started to dwindle.

About two weeks ago, mediators from the African Union and the subregional Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) visited Cairo to consult with politicians on how to start an all-inclusive process to restore the Sudan transition to its path. Perhaps there is a ray of hope after all.

The Sudanese people are hardwired for freedom. A call for elections will resonate with many. Sudan is not new to multiparty elections which were held even during al-Bashir’s regime. In 2010, the polls that were convened at the end of the transition period following the second Sudanese civil war were monitored by the Carter Center and were seen as highly credible.

It is not true that the Sudan war is a fight between two generals. Nor is it a war that was “decades in the making”, as the ICG report would have us believe. To be sure, this is a war that was triggered by a derailed political transition.

The parties who caused that to happen still do not see the need for the country to pivot to the path of its transition. For them, a return to the transition implies the vanquishing of RSF and, even worse, the return of Islamists. If that is the likely outcome, for some, it is better to see the country disintegrate. Yet, many active players are now convinced that there is no viable alternative for this country other than to restore the transition to its path.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.