Maastricht Journal of Politics & Economics
A New War in Sudan? Global Stakes and Outlook
By Eva Koch
On 15 April, fighting erupted in Sudan’s capital city Khartoum and other regions of the country, causing a mass evacuation of foreigners and the closing of embassies. The brutal conflict started when two military forces, the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese army, clashed. Both sides were once in alliance when overthrowing the former government. The battle for control over the country’s strategic locations has left damages, hundreds of deaths, and a shortage of basic necessities such as food, water, and medicine.
Sudan’s Fragile Democracy
Since the outbreak of violence in mid-April, almost 500 people have been killed and over 4000 have been injured in the Sudanese capital which has become a warzone with missile strikes and tanks throughout the city.
The roots of this conflict lay in the Arab Spring when Arab states asked for more democracy by overthrowing dictators. While some countries were successful in doing so, the result was not what they had hoped for.
For instance, Egypt’s old regime re-established itself only to become even more oppressive concerning human rights and freedom of speech while other countries such as Syria are still in an ongoing civil war.
Sudan succeeded to oust its dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 after almost 30 years in power, raising hopes for democracy. The former dictator was the world’s first leader to be indicated on suspicion of genocide.
The ouster was led by General Abdel Fattah Burhan, head of the Sudanese army, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who are at the heart of the current violent developments.
Dagalo, widely known as ‘Hemedti’, leads the paramilitary RSF that was initially composed of fighters from the Janjaweed, a militia accused of committing atrocities during the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s.
After 2019, the country was ruled by an alliance between the military and civilian groups, the transitional sovereignty council, with Burhan as the leader and Dagalo as his Deputy on the council.
The alliance between both groups has always been uneasy as there have been long-running disagreements over how the country should be run. After the military coup in 2021, when armed forces led by Burhan overthrew the joint military-civilian government, the rivalry between both Generals intensified.
The current outburst is the first clash since the formed alliance in 2019. The oust of al-Bashir created a power vacuum for the current forces which has since sparked tensions and extinguished the prospects for democracy in the country.
The coup in 2021 left the military in charge and caused a year of protests and sometimes violent standoffs. To bring this to an end, the parties signed a framework deal in December of 2022.
The deal included a two-year civilian-led transition towards elections and thus sparked hopes for democracy. Both generals agreed that civilians should control politics and guide foreign policy while the military would only be represented on a security and defence council.
However, the outline deal left several sensitive issues unresolved for a final agreement which was originally supposed to be signed on 1 April, the fourth anniversary of the overthrow of the former dictator.
Due to failed talks, in which the army wanted to transition in two years while the RSF said it would take ten years, the signing of the agreement was delayed. Members of the RSF were soon after deployed around the country which the army saw as a threat thus resulting in tension between both forces.
On 15 April, fire was opened with airstrikes and gun battles in order to gain control of key sites such as military bases, with each side blaming the other for starting the violence and being the first to shoot.
The Strategic Importance of Sudan
Aside from the concerns over civilians in Sudan, there are also additional motivations for other nations to be involved in the conflict. Many countries see Sudan as a strategically located and resource-rich nation which is causing concerns for some and opportunities for others.
After the coup, Western powers that initially backed up the deal of a transition towards elections and a civilian government imposed sanctions on Sudan and withheld financial support. These countries have since closed their embassies and are evacuating their stranded nationals.
For neighbouring countries, the conflict in Sudan sets off a greater fear: one of instability. Egypt and Sudan have pushed to regulate the operations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which could now be disrupted.
In addition, countries like Libya are a transit route for refugees heading to Europe and others such as Chad are worried that the crisis might spill across borders.
The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have sparked interest in shaping events in Sudan for quite some time and are now seeing the transition from al-Bashir as an opportunity for Islamic influence in the country.
Besides, Russia has ties and involvement in the country. Both sides of the conflict are believed to be backed up by Russian training and weaponry. An investigation has found evidence of a deal between the two countries which grants Russia access to gold mines in Sudan in exchange for military and political support.
The deal generates profits which soften the consequences of sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia since the Ukraine War. Additionally, Russia has been planning a naval base to gain access to the Red Sea. In 2020, both sides agreed on plans for a Russian naval base at Port Sudan which were later paused by the Sudanese transitional government.
Therefore, the outcome of the current violent conflict in Sudan will have an impact on these interests which will likely cause the Russian government to take the matter into their own hands and shape the outcome. Wagner, the Russian paramilitary group, could call its security capabilities into action and help with further military support.
An Outlook on the Future
International parties have urged all forces to ceasefire and reopen talks about the agreement with little to no success. The UN Security Council is holding its first meeting on Monday and has so far established three key priorities – sustaining ceasefire, return to political negotiations, and lastly the relief of human suffering.
Additionally, envoys from both sides of the conflict were sent to Jeddah for a US-Saudi initiative to negotiate an end to the war. However, both sides have said they are only willing to discuss the humanitarian crisis, not an end to the war.
Currently, the future of Sudan and its people is uncertain. It is unclear how the fight will succeed and when it will end as both sides claim control over key sites of the country such as important military bases. The conflict may result in continuous fighting until one side eventually achieves victory or will lead to a new civil war in the country.
Both parties have strong armed forces. The Sudanese national army is more than twice as large as the RSF, which, on the contrary, is better equipped and trained, especially by the Wagner Group.
This raises concerns about a long-ongoing conflict that will drag Sudan into an even bigger economic crisis that will ultimately result in large-scale humanitarian needs. Globally this could lead to more refugee flows.
Sources: BBC, TheGuardian, CNN, NBC, Reuters, Independent
Written by Eva Koch