How negotiations led to Sudan’s emerging civil war

8 May 2023
Matt Laidlaw

A violent conflict has broken out between two rival armed forces in Sudan. This confrontation has been in the making since 2019, when millions of Sudanese overthrew their dictator in a popular revolution, yet the military established itself as the new ruler shortly after. The emerging civil war is a clash of two sections of the ruling class vying for supreme power. If Omar al-Bashir, the ousted former dictator, was Frankenstein, this would be a showdown between his heir and Frankenstein’s monster.

In just a few short weeks of fighting, more than 500 civilians have been killed and thousands injured. Khartoum, the capital, is at the centre of the conflict. Air strikes and raids on civilian homes have left bodies lying in the streets for days and forced 60,000 residents to flee the city, turning whole neighbourhoods into ghost towns. Port Sudan, in the country’s east, has become a de facto displacement camp as thousands converge there in hope of escaping to Saudi Arabia. An existing displacement camp at el-Gineina in the long-embattled Darfur region has been attacked and almost razed.

The two forces tearing up the country are the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”, and General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan of the official Sudanese armed forces.

The conflict is the product of a breakdown in negotiations over how the RSF would be integrated into the armed forces once what’s described as a “transition to democracy” takes place (the army has been in power since 2021). The negotiations were facilitated by major global powers, including the United Kingdom, United States, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, as well as the United Nations, European Union and African Union. Burhan was unhappy with their proposal for an extended grace period for the RSF before integration and turned to Egypt, which proposed a rival agreement that gave the RSF only two years to integrate. While the mediation teams were hopeful that a final agreement would be signed in mid-April, followed by an official handover to civilian power, this was never going to happen.

The RSF is estimated to be 100,000 strong. It grew out of the Janjaweed, a blood-soaked militia that gained favour with Bashar’s regime for carrying out horrific genocide in Darfur. Hemedti’s empire extends beyond the RSF—he and his family have amassed a fortune through Al Gunade, a trading company with extensive reach into gold mining and construction. These exploits financed the RSF’s expansion into Africa’s largest private military force, which Hemedti has in turn hired out as foreign mercenary fighters. He is a monster created by Sudan’s rulers, the Gulf States and the West (his forces helped the EU stop migrants fleeing from the Sahel).

Burhan was a high-ranking military official under Bashir, who groomed him for power. He sat at the head of the Transitional Military Council—the body that ruled in coalition with civilians from 2019 to 2021—and became the official head of state in October 2021, when he launched a coup with Hemedti’s support. He is an ally of the Islamist ruling class, which he has kept in power by handing them bureaucratic positions and securing their control of the finance industry.
This crisis can be traced back to the betrayals that followed the Sudanese revolution of 2018-19. In 2019, Bashir was ousted after 30 years of rule by a popular uprising that culminated in a weeks-long sit-in outside the military command in Khartoum, demanding democracy.

The civilian opposition forces, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella group of more than a dozen white-collar and professional unions, ultimately quelled the revolutionary potential of Sudanese workers. In June 2019, the military carried out a massacre against the ongoing sit-in, provoking a march of millions and calls for a general strike. This was called off at the last minute by the SPA after they signed a power-sharing agreement between civilians and the military in July. The movement was wound up, providing breathing room for the military and cutting off the revolution at its height.

Then, in October 2021, the military launched a coup to snatch power for themselves alone. Sudanese activists were ready to fight; they knew that the military had no real interest in democracy and had been planning this moment for some time. Resistance hit the streets within hours, and a nationwide strike shut down every major industry. Millions marched across Sudan. This time, neighbourhood resistance committees led the movement on the ground. The committees are geographically based, democratic organisations composed largely of youth, and have organised basic service provision and the bulk of the resistance since 2019. British Marxist Anne Alexander estimates that around 5,000 committees now exist across Sudan.

The resistance committees faced severe repression and were unable to stop the coup, but the military also struggled to crush the resistance completely. Instead, there was a stalemate between the streets and the military, and the resumption of doomed negotiations.

Sudan has tragically gone from the revolutionary optimism and determination of 2019 to now being strangled by two warlords. Much of the blame for this rests on the shoulders of the elite civilian forces and international actors: the SPA, the broad civilian coalition Forces for Freedom and Change and the United Nations, European and African mediators. They have sought compromise through negotiations with the most brutal wing of the old regime, the armed forces, while the revolution demanded true democracy, justice for Darfur and wealth returned to the people.

The first round of negotiations produced the failed civilian-military partnership of 2019-21, and the most recent round intended to make the military step down from dictatorial power by proposing another civilian-military power-sharing arrangement. What the people of Sudan have received is not democracy, but a brutal conflict that risks descending into total civil war.

When a deal was signed in December 2022, the resistance committees protested for true civilian rule and described the settlement as merely “ink on paper”. Raga Makawi, author of Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy, described the agreement as one “which checks off the most popular points in the international community’s agenda but with no roadmap to implementation”. The military had an interest in signing off on a new internationally sponsored agreement so they could regain the international aid and investment that was largely cut off after the coup. The international negotiators primarily sought stability in the country, which borders Egypt and is a vital player in maintaining trade through the Suez Canal, rather than realising the demands of the Sudanese people. If negotiations carried out at the height of the revolution did not bring about democracy in Sudan, why would they now?

Military dictators do not willingly relinquish power, let alone two who command large armies and control swathes of industry. The negotiations are a strategy counterposed to the revolutionary overthrow of the regime, to enable elite diplomats, politicians and the military heads to determine the outcome of the crisis by sidelining the revolution. Ironically, the only reason the military was prepared to negotiate at all was because of their fear of the revolution on the ground.

The revolution has only ever gotten its power from two sources: the power of the streets, with marches and sit-ins of millions, and, most importantly, the power of the Sudanese workers to cripple an already ailing economy. It was not a lack of revolutionary desire from the people in 2019 that halted the path to democracy, but the compromise with the military pushed by the SPA.

The resistance committees have been the only consistent force opposing the military; they embody all the militancy, heroism and selflessness of the Sudanese revolution. Their main slogan is: “No negotiation, no legitimacy, no agreement with the Military Council”. The have argued for the military to go “back to the barracks” and for the RSF to be dissolved.

They have continued to organise since 2021. In October 2022, after months of debate, the committees signed the “Revolutionary Charter for People’s Power”, a thorough outline of the kind of democratic society the revolution demands.

And now, amidst the war on the streets, the committees have again swung into action. They are helping to coordinate staffing in hospitals and maintenance of downed water and power infrastructure so that basic services can keep functioning. They also provide updates about the location of the fighting, honouring those slain and organising safe passages of escape, all while publishing statements with political demands and arguments not to support either side in the war.

Despite the current horrors across Sudan, the Sudanese masses continue to display their undying solidarity and strength. Videos have emerged on social media of the reception those fleeing have received in regional towns like Dongola, a northern city on the route to Egypt, where locals flooded the streets, offering food and water to those passing through.

The military refuse to accept that Sudan will be ruled by the masses, but their efforts to quell the revolution time and again have been thwarted by an indomitable spirit. As these warlords continue to choke life in Sudan, the revolution finds a way to keep alive what small flames it can for the next battles.

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