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Sudan is at risk of unravelling from decades of injustice

The civil war raging in Khartoum is a culmination of the violence to which the Sudanese state has subjected its citizens over many years
Smoke rises from burning aircraft inside Khartoum Airport during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum on 17 April, 2023 (Reuters)
Smoke rises from burning aircraft inside Khartoum Airport during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum on 17 April, 2023 (Reuters)

On 13 April, I happened to send a family member based in the UK a short WhatsApp video of a representative of the armed forces addressing the Sudanese people, warning that the security situation in the country was extremely fragile. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had rallied their troops around Khartoum and other cities, without any deliberations with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). 

A spokesperson for the SAF said the army held the constitutional and legal rights to protect the security of Sudan against such encroachments, while trying to avoid armed conflict. All the while, the spokesperson maintained the army’s commitment to ensuring that a final political agreement - to be signed in April, in an effort to establish full civilian rule - would be respected. 

My 24-year-old relative asked me: “What is the public reaction to this speech?” I explained that things had felt tense the previous day, but today was quiet: “To be honest, people are busy with Ramadan.” He responded: “We are definitely not headed in a good direction.” I agreed.

That day, we left the conversation not realising how chillingly true these sentiments would become within just one day. 

On the morning of 15 April, I came across a TikTok video in which RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, spoke about how he had a grave problem with those who sought to impede democracy, and how he would only tolerate civilian democratic governance in Sudan, since this was the only pathway that would permit the country’s elevation among the global community of nations.

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He said that gold was being smuggled out of Sudan, and that while he had managed to control the borders, he was inconvenienced by not retaining control of the Khartoum airport.

The next morning, in a group chat on WhatsApp with friends, I expressed how I found this video perplexing - and how, in my opinion, Hemeti seemed to be accusing the army. I based this judgment on the fact that he said Sudan would not get any support from the Emirates or the European Union if it failed to move towards the establishment of full civilian governance.

I sensed that this was a couched threat, since although he said at the end of the speech that he did not have any problems with the army, he did note some grievances against those who would “cling to power”.

Shock and terror

Minutes later, a friend on the WhatsApp group announced that shooting had erupted near Sahafa Sports City, a district south of Khartoum. The city’s descent into violence was rapid after that, with Al Jazeera coverage showing armed altercations in Merowe in northern Sudan, along with military aircraft targeting zones occupied by RSF leaders.

Hemeti’s speech and his tone were harbingers of what was to transpire shortly thereafter as Khartoum became the battleground for a fully fledged war. Shock, terror and the gratuitous death of innocent people loomed over what had started off as a normal day in the capital city. 

Yet, this does not represent a state of exception; rather, the all-out war raging in Khartoum is a manifestation of the numerous ills of Sudan, now appearing in the most fearful manner. 

The deadly violence in Khartoum brings to mind the words of Hannah Arendt about the “banality of evil”, in relation to how the city’s population had been sheltered from the ravages of war that had befallen their fellow citizens in different parts of the country, and were thus desensitised; even when past events have made headlines, they were not part of everyday life for many residents of Khartoum.

The civil war raging in Khartoum lies on a continuum of violence to which the Sudanese state has subjected its citizens over the long term

For decades, Sudan has been prey to multiple forms of violence directed by governments towards diverse population groups. It has seen one of the longest civil wars on record (1955-1972 and 1983-2005), which eventually culminated in the split of its southern region in 2011; a civil war in Darfur since 2003; war in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile region in 2011; and armed strife and ethnic altercations in eastern Sudan between Nuba and Beni-Amer groups since 2019, coupled with uneasy political alignments within that region during 2021, in the aftermath of the 2018 Sudanese revolution. 

At present, violence is no longer an abstraction for many Sudanese, since it has penetrated the heart of the nation, embodied in its capital city. This war is telling a resounding truth, which is just now finally being heard: Sudan is a nation that is unravelling under the weight of accumulated injustices, inequalities and unaddressed grievances of parts of its population, which have informed its history as a post-colonial nation state. The civil war raging in Khartoum lies on a continuum of violence to which the Sudanese state (in diverse forms) has subjected its citizens over the long term. 

Yet, Khartoum has not been spared political agitation in the course of its history as a city. It has been the site of significant revolutions: the Mahdiya uprising against Turkish-Egyptian rule, symbolised by the fall of Khartoum in 1885; the nationalist revolution of the White Flag League in 1924; the revolution of 1964 that established a short-lived democracy curtailed by the military regime of Jaafar Nimeiry in 1969; and the April uprising that brought his regime to its knees in 1985. Also, one must not forget the urban alteractions that briefly shook Khartoum in the wake of the John Garang's death in 2005 shortly after he was appointed vice president of Sudan.

The city also survived the non-violent military coup of 1958 (with the advent of the Abboud military regime) and a more violent one by Hashem al-Atta in 1971, which faced ruthless and brief repression by the Nimeiry regime.

Revolutionary wrath

The latest revolution that found its way into Khartoum on 25 December 2018, after being initiated on 13 December in Damazine, and on 19 December in Atbara, seemed to represent, for the first time, diverse Sudanese groups coming together and chanting in unison for lofty human values. Notions of liberty, peace and justice transcended the narrow political manoeuvring of elite factions seeking power and wealth to the detriment of ordinary Sudanese people. 

This revolution specifically directed its “peaceful” determination at an authoritarian, military-supported Islamist regime that had overturned democratic rule in 1989 and governed Sudan for a period of 30 years with an iron fist, and through the instrumentalisation of religion for the benefit of loyalists.

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The genesis of the Islamist state is the most nefarious entity at the root of the fragmentation and disarray currently facing Sudan. Instead of the country’s vast cultural diversity becoming a source of prosperity and wealth, it has become the locus of a power struggle and quests for wealth, which serve the interests of disparate groups that bear no allegiance to the nation. These groups exhibit no interest in cultivating a common sense of being Sudanese, and instead impose a limited range of social references, deemed the only viable ones for how to be Sudanese.

This was exemplified by the regime's Civilizational Project of 1991, which has been countered by resistance and the heavy price of Sudanese bloodshed.

While the December 2018 revolution was unfolding in Khartoum, a national consciousness was being forged. Sudanese people were finding a common language to express their refusal to accept further fragmentation. The story of South Sudan and its independence - albeit justified and accepted broadly as an inevitability - was considered by many Sudanese as a heart-wrenching loss of an essential part of the nation. This loss provided a clarion call, highlighting that all Sudanese people were subject to the excessive oppression of the state. 

A geographical space was created in proximity to the army’s headquarters when popular demonstrations culminated there on 6 April 2019. Masses of people congregated within this vicinity, and the sheer physical presence of bodies ensured that the SAF would have to retract its support for former President Omar al-Bashir. This show of solidarity with the aspirations of the people created a temporary fusion between citizens and the army in their common goal of toppling an oppressive regime.

Sinister presence

From 11 April to 3 June 2019, this space was a place of dialogue, a carnival of polyphony - voices all speaking diverse, yet still Sudanese, languages. During this time, nobody could have anticipated how this space would become the site of a massacre. 

Yet, a sinister, unseen institutional presence lurked in the shadows. It was embodied in the alliance between the SAF and the RSF. Since 2013, the Sudanese army had formalised the status of the RSF, transforming it into a paramilitary structure with some degree of autonomy, even though it was still theoretically subordinate to the army. Thus, a militia baptised as the Janjaweed - which had wrought havoc and destruction across Darfur at the service of the state - was legitimised and given an official title.

The leader of the RSF, Hemeti, had already manifested his aspirations to power. He had ousted his kinsman, Musa Hilal, from the summit of the Janjaweed militias, and had curried favour with Bashir. His ambition was characterised by ruthless pragmatism, rather than sincerity or loyalty to any cause. 

Once he realised that Bashir had lost the will of the people, he aligned himself with the revolution. Hemeti thus positioned himself on the side of who he then deemed to be the victors. The SAF supported the revolutionaries less wholeheartedly when they were clamouring for full civilian rule, a demand echoed in the primary chant that burst out into the open air of the sit-in space.

RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo attends a rally in Abraq, Sudan, in June 2019 (AFP)
RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo attends a rally in Abraq, Sudan, in June 2019 (AFP)

On 3 June 2019, at the crack of dawn, the city of Khartoum awoke to the smell of blood. The idyllic sit-in space had been brutally dispersed on the last day of Ramadan. These attacks were orchestrated by the joint forces of the SAF and RSF. 

Hemeti quickly denied his involvement, but in Khartoum, he was promptly deemed the most likely villain, since his previous biography as the leader of the Janjaweed had not been affected by his new attribution and uniform. Unfortunately, the disdain towards Hemeti in Khartoum was largely based on classist and elitist understandings around which groups of people within the Sudanese landscape deserved to govern - as opposed to more valid condemnations of his status as a mercenary and genocidal warlord who wrought destruction in Darfur. 

It was clearly his lack of sophistication and his unfiltered language that made him the target of the brunt of the scorn of segments of Khartoum’s political elite. 

The leader of the SAF, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, would remain under scrutiny by political actors for a longer period of time - but eventually, it became evident that he was powerless in the face of pressure exerted by Islamist factions within the army, in their relentless quest to regain lost power.

Sins of the generals

Concerns guided by realpolitik drove representatives of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) to reach a compromise that would not sign the death warrant of the December 2018 revolution. Eventually, the sins of the two generals were swept under the carpet, and a deal was reached in August 2019, two months after the massacre that had, by this stage, ravaged hopes for full civilian rule. The upcoming transitional government was to be based on an uneasy partnership between the SAF/RSF and civilians.

The period of power-sharing faced multiple hurdles, and two governments were formed between August 2019 and October 2021. During the first government, the civilian segment represented by the FFC was unable to support the government led by Abdalla Hamdok, because diverse parties could not put their divergent political orientations to the side in the interests of respecting the sacrifices that ordinary Sudanese people had made - deaths, injuries, missing persons - to uphold their popular revolution. 

Burhan clearly chose to support the Islamists, while Hemeti ... quickly created alliances with foreign actors

The second government was ushered in after the signing of the Juba peace agreement in October 2020, with key signatories expressing clear affiliations with the defunct Islamist regime. These agitations made it nigh on impossible for the prime minister to execute his plans to rectify the status of an embattled Sudanese economy. 

In this context, the two generals, Burhan and Hemeti, put their differences and separate interests aside, and jointly participated in overthrowing the transitional government on 25 October 2021. Once that goal was achieved, the forced rapprochement between the two men quickly dissolved. Burhan clearly chose to support the Islamists, while Hemeti was less disposed to taking orders from local actors, and quickly created alliances with foreign actors, such as the Russians and the Emiratis, in his zeal for power.

It became clear that Hemeti was becoming increasingly autonomous, and that his tremendous wealth - pillaged from the territory of his native Darfur in the form of gold - was setting him in good stead to make his own political decisions.

Clinging to power

The ultimate catalyst for the shocking war - which actually should not have been surprising, given the steady buildup of events within the Sudanese political scene - was the failure of the SAF and RSF to agree on the terms of a final political agreement, which was presented as a draft to the SAF, RSF and part of the FFC on 26 March 2023. The deal was based on the acceptance of full civilian rule and an admission of the errors of the October 2021 coup.

The realities on the ground would indicate that the militarised parties had no intention of relinquishing power, and that they had not modified their habitual behaviour of disrespecting their pledges to the Sudanese people. 

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At this juncture, the two parties were at odds over how the RSF would be integrated into the SAF, since it was not possible to have multiple independent armies within the state. The SAF held the ambition of merging the RSF into its own forces through proper training over a period of two years, but Hemeti believed that the integration should take place over a longer, 10-year timeframe.

Furthermore, the army exhibited its non-compliance with the terms of the agreement, stipulating its distance from political activities by refusing to attend a scheduled security reform workshop in late March. This was a bad sign, since these conditions were theoretically a crucial component of the agreement.

The irony lies in the fact that these obvious attempts by both parties to maintain power were laced in language conveying how they were both at the service of democracy and the transition to full civilian governance, which they themselves had disrupted a mere year and a half ago. 

Yet, such subterfuge was difficult to maintain, and they were soon unable to keep up the charade of desiring anything other than total power and wealth. Just 15 days after the tense political deliberations, they unleashed the hellfires of war on Sudan. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz holds a PhD in Social Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research focuses on cultural understandings of health and well-being and how the socio-political impinges on constructions of identity and how these elements give life to diverse socio-cultural manifestations in multiple domains of social life.
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