Nichola Mandil Ukeil
South Sudan journalist,
Instructor, Starford International University, South Sudan
Conflict in Sudan? You may wonder which conflict, which war, which collision of arms and general butchery it is that has most recently caught the international community’s attention. The latest test of wills is a war not a month old and commanded by generals. Commanded by generals, in fact, who have been comrades in “arms and fate” for nearly four years since former Sudanese President Omar El-Bashir was ousted in 2019.
We are talking here of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, who is also the chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council. He is pitted against – fighting against – his one-time first deputy general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known also as “Hemetti,” who directs the paramilitary group Rapid Support Force (RSF).
Therefore, most recent fighting in Sudan, which erupted violently in mid-April, is between two rival forces, the SAF and RSF. Ironically, RSF – declared a rebel group by SAF – was originally formed by the Sudanese Army to fight on its behalf, specifically in the western Sudan region of Darfur, a vast, nearly 500,000 km plateau with a decades-long history of death and displacement.
The fighting started on a Saturday morning when RSF alleged that SAF attacked one of its bases south of the national capital, Khartoum. Since then, the deadly dual between one-time comrades has been a murderous mess of fighting and aerial bombardments by SAF – more heavily armed with warplanes and helicopter gunships – against the growing strength of RSF, which has found military backing from the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
On the first day, many civilians – mainly school children – were caught up in the violence in the downtown area of Khartoum, the epicentre of the armed clashes. In fact, hundreds of school children and teachers were trapped at Comboni College Khartoum, a privately owned Catholic school. They spent the night in the basement of the college without food or water.
This was only the beginning of a series of hostilities and counter hostilities that have rapidly escalated and caused not only death and destruction, but chaos and conflicting reports.
In the first days, Sky News TV Arabic channel reported that all the bridges in the Sudanese capital were closed, and movement was brought to a halt due to the fighting. The channel also showed huge plumes of smoke inside Khartoum International Airport, and war planes were seen in the sky bombing the headquarters of RSF in the Khartoum centre and other strategic locations.
Despite the aerial bombing by the al-Burnham-led army, RSF claimed it took control of Khartoum International Airport, the Presidential Palace, the army headquarters and the national broadcaster, Sudanese Radio and Television Corp. Indeed, the national TV was off air for some hours, in the first week of fighting, but it was not clear whether it was controlled by RSF.
The Rapid Support Force under Hemetti also claimed they took control of an airport in the northern town of Merowe. Although the Sudanese Army acknowledged that some elements of RSF entered Khartoum International Airport and set civilian planes on fire, they refuted that RSF were in control of the airport. SAF described the claims by RSF that it took control of Merowe Airport and Khartoum International Airport as a “psychological war.”
Fighting was also reported in El-Obeid town, the capital of Northern Kordofan state, El-Fashir in northern Darfur, and Nyala in the southern Darfur region in western Sudan. There have been claims and counterclaims by the warring parties. It is often difficult to verify their claims.
One thing cannot be disputed: The most recent conflict in Sudan is taking lives and leaving wounded civilians in its ugly wake. Despite the hopes for a ceasefire – a series of ceasefires have failed to hold – more than 400 are dead, including nearly 300 civilians, and more than 3,700 people have been wounded, according to local and international NGOs. This through just the first two weeks of fighting among the generals. So bad is the devastation, U.S. Agency for International Development head Samantha Power noted on April 24, “Fighting … has claimed hundreds of lives, injured thousands, and yet again dashed the democratic aspirations of Sudanese people,” adding, “Civilians trapped in their homes cannot access desperately needed medicines, and face the prospect of protracted power, water and food shortages.”
Some South Sudanese living in neighborhoods south of Khartoum said power and water supplies had been cut and the market had run short of food supplies. They described their condition as “dire” due to shortages of essential commodities in the market. It shouldn’t be surprising: Food supplies in local markets usually come from Souk Al-Markazi or the central market located south of Khartoum, where heavy fighting between SAF and RSF is still ongoing.
Who are the Rapid Support Forces?
The Rapid Support Forces are Sudanese paramilitary forces formerly operated by the Government of Sudan. RSF was primarily composed of the Janjaweed militias that fought on behalf of the government in Khartoum and were led by ousted President Omar El-Bashir during the war in western Sudan region of Darfur starting in 2003. Over the years of its existence, the group has been responsible for numerous atrocities committed against civilians in Darfur. In 2015, international NGO Human Rights Watch described RSF as “men with no mercy” for attacks they carried out against civilians in Darfur. Since 2013, Hemetti has been the commander of the RSF.
How did we get here?
Sudan has been in turmoil since 2019, when the notorious Sudanese president at the time, Omar El-Bashir, was toppled following months of pro-democracy protests in Khartoum.
After months of negotiations, a score of Sudanese military and civilian political actors signed a framework agreement to establish a civilian-led government. According to the timeline set by the country’s transitional Sovereign Council and the civilian groups, a new civilian-led government was expected to be announced in April of this year.
Although there have been signs of onward motion following the signing of the framework agreement, and people’s hopes were high that Sudan was moving in the right direction to restore democratic civilian government, such dreams were dashed by the failure of the parties to meet the deadline to establish a new government.
Holding back the realization of April’s hoped-for civilian government, one of the contentious issues was how to integrate the 100,000 RSF forces into the new Sudan Armed Forces. According to the framework agreement, the RSF should have been merged with the Sudan Armed Forces to form a new national army.
Analysts said the Army wants the merger to materialize in two years’ time, while the RSF wants it to happen after ten years. This has been the source of disagreement between the SAF and RSF since the revolution in 2019.
Some residents of Khartoum said since the formation of the civilian government failed, they saw what is happening now coming because the recent framework agreement which suggested a transition to civil rule was not welcomed by both sides – who are now fighting – the army and the RSF.
Khartoum residents fear more casualties as SAF and RSF continue fighting
As fighting continues in different towns in Sudan, SAF and RSF continue to claim victory over each other, challenging and clouding the other’s statements. Fighting is not confined to Khartoum. As participants and civilians retreat, the battlefield expands in size and the corresponding chase of those in flight moves to new areas. Residents of the capital city fear there is no end in sight and the reported presence of some 60,000 RSF forces in and around Khartoum and its outskirts does not bode well for a peaceful, easy feeling.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has condemned the violence in Sudan and called for the restoration of order and a return to the path of transition.
The African Union (AU) has announced it will be sending Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat to Sudan to meet the leaders of the warring factions in a bid to defuse the tension. Additionally, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has delegated South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, Kenyan President William Samoei Ruto, and the Dijibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh to travel to Khartoum to mediate between the warring factions.
About the Author
Nichola Mandil Ukeil is an award-winning South Sudanese journalist, who was honored as “Journalist of the Year” in South Sudan (2015-2016) for “Excellent Reporting on the South Sudan Peace Process.” A master’s degree holder in International Relations (MAIR) and Bachelor of Mass Communication and Journalism. Had over 20 years in Journalism. He is also an independent media consultant and trainer, a part-time journalism instructor at the Starford International University.
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