Andrea Chamorro González
Analyst at Fundación Alternativas / Specialist in Africa and the Middle East
ince 15 April, intense fighting has been taking place in Sudan between the army, led by the president, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by the vice-president. This conflict has highlighted the weakness of the balance of power in Sudan. Since 2022, the Sudanese government has been composed of military officers from different factions, competing for power in an increasingly uncertain transition.
Towards civil war?
In analysing the conflict, it is essential to determine the interests, capabilities and characteristics of the actors involved. The government side consists of the Sudanese Regular Army, whose leader is Abel Fattah al-Burhan. On the other side is the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group whose leader is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemetti. This group was involved in the subjugation of the Darfur region and has been a major repressive force during both the Omar al-Bashir era and the transition.
Since the fall of the dictator al-Bashir, power struggles have been a constant, both between civilians and the military (ending with the resignation of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok in 2022) and among the military itself. Despite these tensions, transitional agreements have been reached. On the other hand, the RSF had enjoyed freedom of action, and the new agreement for the Sudanese transition stipulates that this paramilitary group must be integrated into the Regular Army; if so, they would lose their power, which they radically oppose.
Both the Regular Army and the RSF are well equipped and of considerable size, considering the troops of the surrounding countries. The Sudanese Regular Army is estimated at 205,000 troops, while the RSF has around 100,000 soldiers. At the same time, both are considerably well armed, as the Military Industry Corporation, the Sudanese state defence corporation, was established in 1993. This means that both sides are not dependent on the outside world for armaments: if they were, the conflict could be shorter because international arms markets are geared towards the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Natural resources are often the fuel that fuels conflicts, as wars are enormously costly. During the 1990s in Africa, many warring sides came to the negotiating table. This was undoubtedly a good thing, but it should not be overlooked that it occurred in the context of the end of the Cold War. However, groups that possessed their own resources and were not overly dependent on the major powers were able to continue the struggle. Sudan has many valuable natural resources: gold, uranium, gas. As is the case in many African countries, the profits from the exploitation of these resources remain with the country’s elites.
The data provided hint at an important issue: both sides are endowed with considerable resources, both economic and military. This may mean that the fighting can drag on for some time, before a crucial attrition of both sides is reached. Despite this possession of resources, it is clear that neither side expected a conflict of such a long duration. Truces have been recorded, and both sides have justified them with the need to create humanitarian corridors for the population, but practice leads us to suspect that this justification is not real. There have been numerous reports that fighting has continued, and it is necessary to bear in mind that armistices are a very effective pretext for reorganisation and resupply. There was a recent ceasefire, between 4 and 11 May, which was extended for a further 72 hours. However, by the following day there had been reports that the pause in hostilities was broken.
The ceasefire has been closely linked to the humanitarian situation in Sudan. The country was already in a difficult social situation, due to drought and food shortages resulting from the war in Ukraine. According to the UN, almost a third of the country’s population was already in need of humanitarian aid before the conflicts. The UN has reported that around 25 million people are in need of protection and humanitarian assistance in the country, and has appealed for $2.7 billion, the largest amount of humanitarian aid ever requested for the country.
The fighting has only aggravated the situation. In the capital, infrastructure and civilian buildings have been bombed, resulting in numerous deaths and shortages. The Sudan Doctors’ Union has reported that 70% of the country’s hospitals are not functioning, and in the capital 61 of the 86 primary health care centres are inoperative, while the rest are partially functioning. One of the most affected sectors of the population has been children: the UN estimates that the fighting has interrupted the care of some 50,000 children. Due to this critical situation, 220,000 people have been forced to flee and have taken refuge in other countries that also have a very delicate situation. Internal displacement within the country is even higher, with almost 700,000 people.
Some NGOs, such as Save the Children, have suspended their activities in the country due to the danger to their staff; however, they are trying to reactivate aid to avoid a catastrophe at the population level. Since the beginning of the conflict, airspace has been closed to all but humanitarian aid. However, external assistance is encountering major problems. The first issue is that aid is arriving slowly, the first plane having arrived on 30 April. At the same time, looting of food supplies is taking place, as denounced by the UN.
However, the drastic worsening of the humanitarian situation will not be one of the reasons why an agreement can be reached in Sudan.
After the first clashes, international reactions were swift. Embassies evacuated their staff; at the same time, others, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States, sought to mediate a ceasefire. One issue that has been striking is that the different powers have not been involved in supporting one side or the other. There are many reasons for this behaviour, but it is important to note that the intervention of any foreign country, in either direction, can cause the conflict to escalate rapidly.
What can be expected?
So far, the trend has been towards stalemate, as neither side has been able to gain the upper hand, due to the fact that both sides have very evenly matched forces. At the same time, actors in the international system have opted for containment rather than engagement. As the saying goes, “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”, the population is the first victim of the devastating effects of the conflict, and its prolongation will only worsen the situation.
© Fundación Alternativas / All rights reserved