Sudan’s two warring factions remain locked in a deadly power struggle after more than six months of fighting. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced 5.6 million, 80 percent of whom are internally displaced and hundreds of thousands of whom have fled to unstable areas in Chad, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. The UN has pleaded for more support amid dire humanitarian conditions and a cholera outbreak. Meanwhile, many largely uncoordinated mediation efforts have failed to produce results, and other states have taken sides in the war. The SPLM-N rebel group also joined the fighting, breaking a ceasefire in southwestern Sudan, and the conflict risks destabilizing the fragile peace in neighboring states.
In April 2023, fighting between rival armed factions broke out in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, raising fears of a return to full-scale civil war. The conflict is primarily a power struggle between the leaders of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The two groups, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, respectively, are battling one another for control of the state and its resources. As the conflict deepens, humanitarian conditions are declining, and the promise of a long-awaited democratic transition diminishes.
For the first half of the twentieth century, Sudan was a joint protectorate of Egypt and the United Kingdom. Known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the arrangement granted the British primary political and military power. Egypt and the United Kingdom signed a treaty relinquishing sovereignty to the independent Republic of Sudan in 1956. The new republic immediately faced major challenges: it spanned nearly one million square miles and was situated directly between some of Africa’s most violent states and regions. Even more concerning was the stark internal divide between the country’s wealthier northern region, which was majority Arab and Muslim, and its less-developed southern region, where most people were Christian or animist. This divide was at the center of two civil wars, the second of which would see the country split into two states in 2011. The second Sudanese civil war of 1983 to 2005 was brutal; famine and atrocity crimes were well-documented throughout the conflict, which ultimately killed an estimated two million people. In July 2011, Sudan’s southern territory seceded and formed a new state: the Republic of South Sudan.
In addition to internal conflict, Sudan’s post-colonial period was also marked by the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Bashir seized power in a 1989 coup following his service in the Egyptian military during condominium rule and later served as an SAF officer. As president, Bashir oversaw most of the civil war, the secession of South Sudan, and the conflict in Darfur. The Darfur war broke out in 2003 and would later be condemned as a genocide against non-Arab populations such as the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit peoples in western Sudan by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the U.S. State Department. Bashir’s regime was oppressive: he imposed a restrictive interpretation of sharia, employed private militias to fight his battles and morality police to enforce his decrees; and persecuted Christianity, Sunni apostasy, Shiism, and other minority religious activity. The regime survived until 2019; Omar al-Bashir was president of Sudan for thirty years. By the final decade of his presidency, Bashir was facing increasing popular protests calling for democracy, access to basic services, and a new system of governance. The revolution culminated in an April 2019 coup, which was carried out jointly by the SAF—under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—and the RSF, a militia led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo.
The RSF is the most powerful paramilitary group to come out of the Bashir era. The RSF was created from the Janjaweed militia, an Arab-majority armed group funded by Bashir to repress southern Sudanese rebels and, most notably, to fight in the Darfur War. The group carried out brutal attacks across the Darfur region and is responsible for mass displacement, sexual violence, kidnapping, and other crimes. The first two years of the conflict in Darfur claimed over two hundred thousand lives, and over one hundred thousand more have died since 2005. The loosely coordinated Janjaweed was formally organized under the banner of the RSF in 2013 with Bashir’s support and has since been employed as a border guard force, a source of mercenaries for the Saudi coalition in the Yemeni war, and a hired security force to repress popular uprisings. RSF leader Hemedti became one of Sudan’s wealthiest men by seizing control of gold mines, with the Bashir government’s blessing, during the RSF’s campaigns. Prior to 2019, Bashir hired the RSF to protect him from coups and attempts on his life. Despite this, the RSF ultimately participated in the 2019 coup to oust Bashir and worked alongside the SAF to establish a transitional government and a new constitution in its aftermath. Burhan led the Transitional Sovereignty Council with Hemedti as his deputy. The council also included other military leaders and several civilians.
Among the civilian members, the council members chose Abdalla Hamdok, an economist and development expert with experience at various multilateral organizations, to be prime minister. He spent his brief time in office attempting to mitigate Sudan’s extreme economic turmoil and project stability to the outside world but was arrested and removed from office in October 2021. The SAF and RSF orchestrated the coup against Hamdok and suspended the constitution. In response, international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund paused badly needed debt and other relief to Sudan, and mass demonstrations demanding a return to civilian control intensified in Khartoum. Hamdok was briefly reinstated as prime minister in November 2021 once he agreed to concede certain governing powers to Burhan, Hemedti, and the rest of the security sector. Hamdok finally resigned in January 2022 when it became clear that Sudan’s protestors were not satisfied with the terms of his reinstatement and that he could not control the violent actions of the security forces, who had repeatedly beaten and killed protestors. Since Hamdok’s resignation, Sudan has had no effective civilian leadership; Burhan operates as de facto head of state. By early 2022, Burhan and Hemedti were left at the helm of the government, with the power to direct its democratic transition.
Negotiations throughout 2022 over the future of Sudanese governance culminated in a December 2022 deal laying the groundwork for a two-year transition to civilian leadership and national elections. In addition to the contested time frame, many citizens rejected the plan for allowing the security sector to retain some state powers post-transition and for excluding the specific demands of the leaders of popular protests and other opposition groups to hold Burhan, Hemedti, and other security sector figures accountable. Unrest broke out again and persisted from December into the spring, leading to more violent crackdowns on protestors. As the transitional government, still led by Burhan, began to negotiate the implementation of the plan, major sticking points began to emerge. Foremost was the role of Hemedti and the RSF; the agreement elevated Hemedti to Burhan’s equal, making him no longer the general’s deputy. The deal also called for the eventual integration of the RSF into Sudan’s legitimate armed forces and placed both the SAF and the RSF under civilian leadership. One of the deal’s weaknesses was that it did not specify a deadline for the RSF’s integration into the SAF (Burhan insisted upon a two-year process, while Hemedti proposed a ten-year timeline). The two leaders missed an early 2023 deadline to determine conditions for the agreement’s implementation, indicating tension over the RSF’s role, its relationship with the SAF, and the future of both forces as subordinates of an elected government.
As the months passed, the power struggle between Burhan’s SAF and Hemedti’s RSF continued to stall the country’s transition efforts. By early April, SAF troops lined the streets of Khartoum, and RSF soldiers were deployed throughout Sudan. On April 15, a series of explosions shook Khartoum, along with heavy gunfire. SAF and RSF leadership both accused the other of firing first. The involvement of the Wagner Group and foreign military influence, notably from the United Arab Emirates, risk deepening the rivalry at the core of Sudan’s crisis.
Amid pressure from foreign governments and rights groups the SAF and RSF agreed to resume U.S.- and Saudi-led negotiations in late October. However, neither side agreed to cease violence while talks are ongoing. Previous negotiations have failed as the warring factions have not upheld any attempted ceasefire agreements. In early May, negotiations fell apart after the SAF abandoned the talks brokered by the United States and Saudi Arabia. This followed Burhan’s declaration that UN envoy to Sudan Volker Perthes would no longer be tolerated in the country, a stark sign of the belligerents’ refusal to cooperate with international efforts for peace. In June, the Joe Biden administration took measures to promote accountability for those involved in the conflict. The United States implemented visa restrictions on SAF and RSF leadership as well as those affiliated with the former Bashir regime, sanctioned RSF-affiliated mining companies and companies supporting the SAF’s operations and upgraded the business advisory for Sudan.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Khartoum persists and incidents of violence across the country are on the rise, including in Darfur. The assassination of Khamis Abbakar, the governor of the province of West Darfur, on June 15 marked an escalation; Abbaker had recently accused the RSF of renewed genocidal attacks against minorities and was agitating for international intervention to protect civilians in Darfur when he was killed (likely by RSF militants). At least sixty-eight villages have been set on fire by militias in Darfur since fighting erupted in mid-April. In early November, RSF forces and allied militias killed more than 800 people in a multi-day rampage in Ardamata, a town in western Darfur. This recent attack reflects a new surge of ethnically driven killings targeting the Masalit in West Darfur. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) Filippo Grandi warned that current violence is emblematic of the U.S.-recognized genocide in Darfur that killed an estimated 300,000 people between 2003 and 2005. The conflict has also spread to the east. In September, the Sudanese army and a tribal militia clashed in Port Sudan, where the United Nations established its logistics center.
Foreign governments, humanitarian groups, and international organizations continue to call for a cessation of abuses against civilians and humanitarian access. Conditions in the country were already poor before April 2023 and have worsened since. Over six hundred people died in the first month of fighting, attacks have destroyed hospitals and other vital infrastructure, and the violence has generated over four million internally displaced people. In August, the United Nations stated that the conflict in Sudan is “spiraling out of control” as refugees from the country exceed one million and the health system continues to collapse, raising fears of disease outbreaks. The displacement crisis is especially concerning given the instability of the surrounding region: Sudan borders other volatile countries such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, and South Sudan. Although current talks between the SAF and RSF have not yielded any results in establishing a ceasefire, the Saudi Press Agency reported that both sides reaffirmed past agreements to improve humanitarian access.