Wed Jun 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

One Year of the Cataclysmic Civil War in Sudan


For one year Sudan has been engulfed in conflict. There are approximately 15,000 dead, with widespread plundering and rape, combined with displacement and famine. Human rights organizations and journalists describe horrific scenes of people caught between two equally brutal military forces. What was visited upon the Darfur region 20 years ago is now widespread.

Two generals—Abdel al-Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohammad Hamdan Dalgalo (known as Hemedti, or “little Mohammad”), who leads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—are engaged in an all -out war to decide the dominant force in the country. The former allies previously staged a coup d’etat in 2021, with Burhan taking over as head of state, reneging on promises made to transition to civilian rule. This counterrevolutionary maneuver followed only two years after they had deposed long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in a response aimed in part at defusing a popular uprising. After a promising revolutionary moment, Sudan has arrived at a nightmarish counter-revolutionary landscape of repression, genocide, and famine.

As a result of the war, Sudan has the most displaced persons in the world. There are 24 million in need of humanitarian aid, and over 17 million face acute hunger. The country has the largest child displacement in the world. The International Organization for Migration puts the total figure at 10.7 million displaced, and over 9 million internally. Both parties to the conflict are responsible for the catastrophic conditions.

Attacks on the civilian population are common. Human Rights Watch has “documented SAF’s indiscriminate bombings, targeting of activists, and widespread abuses by RSF, including pillage and rape connected to occupation of residential areas. Both SAF and RSF have actively been hampering aid delivery, with the SAF hindering access to aid workers and supplies or point-blank denying access and RSF repeatedly looting humanitarian supplies.”

The RSF has its origins in the militia known as the Janjaweed, which is an Arab-supremacist militia notorious for its genocide in the Darfur region—targeting non-Arab ethnic groups such as the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa. In the early 2000s Omar al-Bashir was responding to an uprising led by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in the south. The government recruited militias, incentivized them, and exploited ethnic tensions in a military effort in which the Sudanese Army together with the militias attacked civilians. Sudan’s army and the Janjaweed were determined to be guilty of genocide.

Human Rights Watch’s report states, “Government forces oversaw and directly participated in massacres, summary executions of civilians including women and children, burning of towns, villages and forcible depopulation of wide swaths of land long inhabited by the Fur, Mazalit and Zaghawa.”

Hemedti worked his way up the ranks from fighter to a commander in the Janjaweed. He became one of the wealthiest men in Sudan, with control of gold mines and a family-owned conglomerate. Bashir came to rely on Hemedti as a counterweight to the regular army who he feared. Bashir made the Janjaweed part of the National Intelligence and Security Services and the group was renamed the Rapid Support Force. The change in status was not appreciated by SAF officers. Later, in 2019, Hemedti collaborated with General al-Burhan to overthrow Bashir.

In 2021, al-Burhan and Hemedti engaged in another coup, taking state power into the hands of the military, with al-Burhan as head of state. He, unlike Hemedti, is a career military man rising in the ranks of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Al-Burhan restored the Islamist members of the old regime after the 2021 coup ‘d’etat.

The present conflict, which began in April 2023, erupted in part out of failed negotiations to incorporate the RSF into the regular army. There are reports that RSF was mobilizing months before the conflict began. Yet the war is more than a conflict between military commanders. Control of resources, competition, and alliances between regional and imperialist powers are also factors.

The 2018-2019 revolution

We arrive at this moment in Sudan as a result of the masses not taking power after initiating the revolutionary uprising against the Bashir dictatorship. At the time, Sudanese society was provoked by the revocation of subsidies for wheat and fuel at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, with predictable consequences. Economic demands morphed into political demands.

As it turned out, the dictator was toppled in a coup d’état by the opportunist generals, who pledged to cede power to a civilian government after a two-year transitional period. Instead, the generals staged another coup and continued its repression against the Sudanese revolutionaries.

The dictator, the military, international financial institutions, and regional and imperialist powers all played a role in Sudan. Economic hardship experienced by the masses brought them into the street to challenge their conditions in late 2018. The ruling class had no answer; after all, it was the regime who had administered the International Monetary Fund’s “medicine.” The IMF’s conditions dictated liberalization of the economy, especially as applied to the country’s agricultural sector. An Oxfam report states: “Rapid liberalization was a key cause in rising poverty and food insecurity in Africa.” Under these measures there was a devaluation of the Sudan’s currency, which made trade goods more expensive.

Over the years, the IMF had repeatedly dealt harshly with Sudan, cutting off loans for even the slightest non-compliance withits conditions. In the 1970s and 1980s these conditions resulted in so-called IMF riots. Scholars studying IMF programs over the past 40 years found a correlation between these measures and coups.

The Sudanese economy was also severely impacted by the secession of South Sudan, thus losing most of its oil reserves. The loss accounted for 95% of the government’s exports. Economic growth declined, inflation doubled, and fuel prices increased.

In late 2018, the lifting of wheat subsidies, leading to price hikes on bread, sparked mass protests, especially among the youth. Whereas Khartoum had been central to the past revolutions of 1964 and 1985, the rising that began in 2018 was rooted in the popular masses in the city of Atbara, north of the capital.

A decade of organizing preceded the revolution. Young Sudanese had been discouraged from political participation by the ruling party, in some cases with physical violence. This political alienation led to their forming their own organizations, many of which had begun as mutual aid groups and then became more political in character after years of resistance and repression.

Organizations such as Grifna (“We’re fed up”) and Sudan Change Now emerged, with one message—“overthrow the regime!” These organizations gained experience which prepared them for their revolutionary role. “Lessons drawn from the organization of voluntary charity work and previous resistance and repression under the NCP [National Congress Party, the ruling Islamist party] became instrumental for the success of the uprising of 2019, and forming underground organizations through neighborhood committees and use of social media were key.

The neighborhood committees were invaluable. They were situated in communities around Khartoum and were instrumental in bringing the masses into the street from the beginning of the revolution until the fall of the dictator Omar Al-Bashir and beyond.

The committees produced the Revolutionary Charter for the Establishment of People’s Power, “a road map for the rebuilding of the government from the bottom up, starting from local councils all the way up to a national legislative body that would select and oversee the executive.” In the capital of Khartoum the demands were for “free health care, education, public safety, the army’s return to the barracks and the dissolution of the RSF.”

Sudan’s broad mass mobilization progressed from a struggle for subsistence to one that worked for a radical political transformation. A cross-section of the Sudanese population participated—intellectuals, workers (including trade unions), women’s groups, community organizations, and radical youth. They circulated a “Declaration of Freedom and Change.” The Sudanese Professional Association, representing 17 trade unions, was prominent in the capital. Mass action proved its efficacy in forcing a political crisis. Sections of the armed forces were confronted with distinct choices—obedience to commands, refusing orders to attack civilian demonstrators, or joining the uprising.

Bashir was removed from office in April 2019, but unfortunately, the popular movement and workers’ organizations neglected to strive to take power on their own terms. The new regime, under the Transitional Military Council headed by General Awad Ibn Auf, closed the borders and airspace under “a state of emergency.” Ibn Auf dissolved the National Assembly, suspended the constitution, and declared a three-month state of emergency, while also promising fair elections in two years.

The coup d’etat angered the movement, and that anger shifted from the deposed dictator to the military regime. A wave of protests got underway to demand civilian rule. In June 2019, the “Khartoum Massacre,” perpetrated by the RSF and other security forces, killed over 100 people who had taking part in a sit-in. Despite the repression, the regime was forced eventually to negotiate with organizations that had united in a coalition called Forces for Freedom and Change. The coalition included the Sudanese Professional Association, the resistance committees, and a number of oppositional political parties that included the National Congress Party and the Communist Party.

Out of the negotiations came the Transitional Sovereign Council, a joint military and civilian government. Despite its slightly more democratic face, the new regime, with Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister, implemented neo-liberal policies—including a devaluation of the currency and ending fuel subsidies—which ignited more protests. Further blows to the economy were COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Before that war’s outbreak, Sudan had imported 85% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. These events affected global supply-chains and increased prices.

In October 2020, the transitional government signed the Juba Peace Agreement with many of Sudan’s warring factions. This was an attempt to deal with the internecine wars that have plagued Sudan since independence. Many of these conflicts came from the fact that concentration of wealth and power of the state lay in Khartoum, while the periphery—especially the south—continued to be relegated to poverty and a lack of resources.

Since 2011, several armed groups had been represented in the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, which had opposed the government based in Khartoum. A provision in the agreement regarding power-sharing integrated leaders of the armed groups into government positions, and forced them into the Sudanese security forces.

Prominent armed groups, such as the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army / Movement-North in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (known as the Two Areas region) and the Sudanese Liberation Army / Movement based in Darfur (supported by the ethnic Fur), were not party to the agreement due to their distrust of the military regime and opposition to its continued dominance of the state.

In the meantime, divisions escalated within the Forces of Freedom and Change Coalition, centering on differences in regard to the power-sharing plan with the military. Many of the neighborhood committees argued that participation and support to the government amounted to collaboration with the oppressor, and that the military had no intentions of relinquishing power, while others believed this to be the best option and would allow for the demands of the movement to be reflected in the government. Then in 2021 another coup d’etat was executed by the military.

External powers

Since the outbreak of the current conflict regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, and the African Union have attempted to call on the two sides to negotiate. The U.S. has also tried to organize talks between the two sides. Meanwhile, Hemedti has toured African nations and has been welcomed and feted by Djibouti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa, even though he is responsible for multiple violations of international law, including genocide. The welcome given to Hemedti angered Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, also a perpetrator of war crimes. Al-Burhan refused to meet with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, accusing it of violating Sudanese sovereignty by inviting Hemedti.

Conflicting interests are at work in the region, and Sudan is at a strategic point in the world economy. Before the secession of the South, the country was a major oil producer, but it still controls oil refineries. Increased extraction from the gold mines along the river Nile place Sudan third among African nations in production of the precious metal. Other valuable deposits—uranium, chromite, gypsum, mica, marble, and iron—are also present. Patricia Blaco writes in El Pais: “The [gold] industry gained traction following the secession of South Sudan in 2011 as a way to compensate for two-thirds of oil wells Khartoum lost with the independence of the southern territory.” However, neither Sudan nor South Sudan reap the benefits of this great wealth of resources.

Regional powers, as well as the imperialist countries, have influenced Sudan. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is opposed to civilian rule or democracy, as are the Gulf states. He backed the military in Sudan, which he believed would best serve his interests. When the current conflict broke out, Sisi supported al-Burhan as the more reliable ally; Cairo is also arming the SAF in the conflict.

However, Sudan’s war hampers trade between the two countries. Egypt exports manufactured goods to Sudan, and the latter exports agricultural products to Egypt. This is significant due to the war in Ukraine impacting food supplies in much of the region. Sudan’s war has also escalated migration north into Egypt, a country experiencing its own economic crisis.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates, under the guise of humanitarian assistance, is running covert operations via Chad to provide funding and weapons to the Rapid Support Forces. For years, Emirati resources supplied Arab forces in Darfur with anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, drones and surface to air missiles despite the arms embargo imposed by the UN on the region since 2004. Africa Defense Forum Magazine reports that Libya’s Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar and Russia’s Wagner Group and UAE “all have ties to RSF and Hemedti personally.” The UAE and Hemedti have engaged in “smuggling of gold from Darfur’s Jel Amir mines, which Hemedti controls. Most of that gold ends up in the UAE, where it enters the international market.”

China has invested in infrastructure in Sudan—as it has for the rest of the continent. It was a major importer of Sudanese oil, but this changed with the secession of South Sudan. South Sudan has likewise diminished as a source of petroleum due to instability in that country. China also invested in agriculture and mining. It has remained neutral in the present war, though to protect its interests, it generally prefers stability regardless of who is in charge.

The U.S. under Trump used some debt relief and removal from the state terror list to induce Sudan to recognize Israel as part of its drive for the Abraham Accords. The U.S. also wants stability, while acting to counter China and Russian influence in the region. Meanwhile, Israel sees importance in finalizing agreements with Sudan in order to strengthen its influence in East Africa. Yet the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has ties with Hemedti as well. The competing interests form a tangled web in the region, with some countries trying to put themselves in position to gain regardless of the outcome of the war in Sudan.

At the moment, the RSF has the upper hand and controls of most of the country. Just as its previous incarnation, the Janjaweed, RSF is engaging in massacres of civilians. Both sides plunder the country’s wealth for their own gain. It is likely that at the end, one of the war criminals will dominate Sudan and will be embraced by the governments of many countries as long as they can have access to Sudan’s mineral wealth.

Just as the Arab masses called for the fall of their regimes during the Arab Spring, so did the Sudanese eight years later. But shortcomings of the revolution were evident. Though the neighborhood committees, youth organizations, and trade unions were effective in the short term, the leadership did not follow through, and instead fell into the trap of the counter-revolutionaries, who never intended to relinquish power.

The movement lacked the leadership of a revolutionary party with a solid working-class and socialist program. The Sudanese Communist Party did not accept this role, but rather collaborated with the military regime. The popular organizations in Sudan likewise lacked defense bodies, which are necessary under revolutionary conditions to meet violent repression.

Nevertheless, the Sudanese revolution serves as an example for the people of all nations in the semi-colonial world. The fortunes of Sudan are inextricably linked to the rest of Africa and the Middle East. Sudan’s revolution should be studied by other working-class forces on the continent and in the world, learning from its successes and its mistakes.

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