By Ida di Stasio
Instability has always characterized Sudan’s history, with numerous coups, military juntas, repressions, and even genocides. In April, the country became a battlefield again, as the two former allies – Burhan and Hemedti – are at war against each other. The conflict has sent the country into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, which can easily turn into a major refugee crisis for the neighboring countries.
To have a better understanding of what is currently happening in Sudan, we must take a step back and look at its post-independence history. Out of 486 attempted or failed coups worldwide since 1950, Africa accounts for 214 of them. Out of these 214 coups, 17 were carried out in Sudan.
Ever since its independence in 1956, Sudan’s history has been indeed characterized by hawkish leaders, greedy for resources, especially oil – even if this resource has been lost with the South Sudan secession, as oil fields were concentrated mostly in that region – and by ethnolinguistic fragmentation. These factors, together with weak institutions, a typical legacy of a colonial past, and widespread poverty, created fertile soil for unrest and instability.
The situation of the country seemed to take a positive turn in 2018. Indeed, that year Sudan experienced anti-austerity protests that quickly became pro-democracy uprisings against the rule of Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The dictator, who, unsurprisingly, took power with a coup, had reigned over the country for 30 years. It is under his very rule that the first genocide of the 21st century has been committed: the Darfur genocide. Because of this, he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for allegations of war crimes and genocide.
After months, and violence by the police forces on the protesters, Bashir was finally arrested in April 2019 and ousted from power by the military leadership – made up by the paramilitary group RSF (Rapid Support Forces), led by Hemedti, and the regular military forces under Burhan – that jointly formed the Transitional Military Council. For the Sudanese people, this was far from enough: they didn’t want another regime made up by corrupt and violent elites, they kept fighting for democracy. This was especially because the two new leaders had an infamous past, as they both started to gain power in the military during al-Bashir regime, especially during the Darfur genocide.
Strikes and civil disobedience campaigns continued until a deal was reached. The civilian and the military agreed on the formation of a power-sharing entity: the Sovereign Council, with Gen Burhan as head of State, and Hemedti as his deputy. The Sovereign Council was supposed to be a transitory body – with a term of 3 years – to then proceed to democratic election. This alliance was shaky, and the precarious stability didn’t last long.
In 2021, another military coup shook the country and deposed the Council. The two figures leading the coup weren’t new entries of the country’s military and political scene: they were again Gen Burhan, and Hemedti.
The two men, with their respective military forces, have overthrown two governments in less than three years, in the hope of gaining more and more power. Soon enough, they realized that they could not coexist, and a power struggle didn’t wait to come. Burhan wanted the paramilitary group RSF to be quickly absorbed in the national official army. The reasons behind this go beyond the homogeneous control of the military, according to several civilians, one of the greatest motives is of economic nature. The RSF militia owns important holdings in agriculture, mining, trade and other industries, with Hemedti himself controlling one of the most lucrative gold mines of the country.
The tensions exploded on April 15th, 2023, in Khartum, with the RSF soldiers taking over the capital’s international airport and the presidential palace. Since that day, the streets of Khartum have been covered in blood, and the conflict has soon escalated in other parts of the country, especially in Darfur.
The country is now experiencing a full-blown humanitarian crisis, with civilians and humanitarian operators being targeted. Hospitals and infrastructures have been attacked, threatening the delivery of healthcare and humanitarian service. It is more than likely that these estimates have increased since then. Moreover, over 190 people have gone missing since the conflict started, as stated by the Missing Initiative, an organization born in 2019 after the RSF abuses on pro-democracy strikes’ participants.
Despite the lengthy negotiations assisted by Saudi Arabia and the US, many of the humanitarian cease-fires haven’t been respected. Nevertheless, in moments of lessened fighting, both Sudanese and foreign people have managed to flee the war zones. More than 700.000 Sudanese citizens are internally displaced, and almost 200.000 have entered bordering countries, like Chad and Egypt.
The UN reports that around 75% of the Sudanese population needs humanitarian assistance, and their grievances must not be ignored and forgotten. Besides doing everything possible to stop and prevent further direct violence, it is capital that structural violence is brought to an end. There is an extreme need for measures, such as evidence collection of war crimes, to hold the authors of such atrocities accountable. This will finally make the Sudanese people get the long-desired justice they deserve.