By Dr. Georges T. Labaki


The armed conflict in Sudan is entering its third month. The more the conflict becomes protracted, the more difficult solutions become at both the military and political levels, and the more the country risks complete disintegration. The current violent armed conflict is a sign of the failure of the democratization process that led to a transitory partial power transfer to civilians while the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Force maintained their role in the political process. After this failure, the subsequent fighting now threatens the stability of Sudan. 

The rivalry over power between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Force started with the growing role of Hemedti which began in the Darfur war, and the support of Omar Bashir who bestowed legality on the RSF militia and raised it to the authority of a regular military force. After sending his troops to Yemen, the rise of Hemedti increased through international exposure. In addition, Hemedti put his hand on huge gold mines in collaboration with the Wagner group, while high-ranking army officers resented Hemedti’s unimpeded rise. Hemedti’s rise and his political ambitions from a regional role to a national one also drew the ire of the long-term established Khartoum elite, which considered Hemedti as a threat to their long-time political and economic dominance. After their 2021 coup dissolved the civilian government, the alliance between Hemedti and Burhan came to an end, as the Sudanese people rejected the military takeover. With international political and financial pressure increasing, Hemedti saw an opportunity to achieve political advantage. He began publicly distancing himself from Burhan, while Burhan looked to Bashir’s Islamist allies for support who wanted to use force to settle their quarrel with Hemedti whom they accused of betraying Omar Bashir. 

The spread of violence

On April 15, fighting broke out in the capital of Khartoum and gradually spread to the different regions of the country, especially in the Darfur province which was previously the theater of a genocide that killed 300,000 people. There have been reports of massacres that led to the deaths and displacement of thousands of people, and serious concern that, if the conflict extends, the massacres may continue. New fronts are unfolding all over the country in cities such as Al Abiad, Nialla the Capital of South Darfur, Kadougli al-Hilu, Al-Fashir, in South Kordofan, and other areas outside the capital. 

The support of regional and international powers on both sides complicates the conflict and creates a de facto equilibrium between the two warrior factions at the political and military levels without one of them forcing a decisive victory. On one hand, the commander of the Rapid Support Force has established strong relationships with Russia through the Wagner group, the United Arab Emirates, and the Libyan Leader General Haftar, and is receiving outside political and military support. On the other hand, Egypt tends to support Al Burhan and the Sudanese Army. The United States has maintained contact with both sides and is concerned about a cease-fire and the resumption of the democratization process. Finally, Saudi Arabia is trying to be a power broker in the conflict alongside the United States. 

The armed conflict is slowly spreading to the different parts of this huge country where there is a real fear of the resurgence of tribal fighting, ethnic cleansing, and violence. The continuous fighting risks spreading to neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Chad, Libya, and the Central African Republic which are already made fragile by decades of internal instability. Moreover, the conflict in Sudan could lead to the displacement of millions of refugees into those countries where tribal affiliations extend across the boundaries.

Conflict outcome

What are the potential outcomes of the conflict? Is the return to the democratization process possible? Can democratization create stability in Sudan? The response depends on the outcome of the military confrontation that is currently taking place and the role of the different regional and international belligerents. In light of the military capabilities of the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Force and the support they are getting from outside actors, it is difficult to have one side prevail decisively. On the one hand, the Rapid Support Force is more robust, better trained and equipped, and more compact as it is composed of recruits from the same tribes or families. Additionally the RSF controls most of the capital, and has secured major military barracks filled with military hardware. On the other hand, the army is built on a fragile equilibrium between different tribal, regional, and racial groups that may collapse easily in a country that is difficult to govern because of its ethnic composition and geographical configuration. The army enjoys air superiority but lacks a significant infantry, and, throughout its history has mostly relied on militias to undertake its internal wars. 

This cycle of fighting may disintegrate the country by weakening the central government to the benefit of the SAF, the RSP, and local militias. Thus, the RSF could most probably prevail in large parts of the capital Khartoum, and much of western Sudan, and the army may dominate most of the north and east, while armed groups, tribal leaders and warlords seize and widen their zones of control in Darfur, Kordofan, and southern Sudan. In addition, the huge economic losses in a country highly impoverished by decades of embargos and internal violent conflicts increase its instability. Finding a rapid cease-fire, the cessation of hostilities under international control, the return to fair power distribution, and the effective implementation of federalism are the hurdles to a return to stability. An efficient federal system in Sudan allows larger participation in decision-making processes, impedes the abuse of power by bringing constitutional power to regions, and thus increases participation in the political system, rather than undermining it. Such a system may increase the level of political participation and lead to more accountability and responsive government, while enhancing the downward accountability of government officials, thereby leading to a deepening of democracy.

Both fighting sides – the SAF and the RSF – are trying to achieve maximum gains on the field before a potential cease-fire. Yet, at the moment there is no realistic alternative to their fighting. The US and Saudi Arabia’s efforts at mediation that came to an end cannot yield results if not followed by a mechanism to control the cease-fire; while other countries’ attempts at mediation have ended in a similar stalemate: the United Arab Emirates backs the RSF and Egypt supports the SAF. 

Since its independence 76 years ago, Sudan’s elite have been unable to build a democratic, modern country despite its huge agricultural and mineral resources. Instead, the Sudanese elite managed to assert their power in Khartoum through the use of militias and tribal troops to curb any revolt or quest for political and economic rights. They are now paying the price of their support for such groups, one of them being the RSF that has only recently been integrated into the official security apparatus. Any settlement or solution to the conflict will be based on the acceptance of diversity, democratization, and effective implementation of federalism. Yet, such an objective is not attainable without the strong support of the international community.

Dr. Georges Labaki is the Chairman of the Board of the National School of Administration ENA in Lebanon. Professor Labakiwas the Director of the Division of Affairs and Diplomacy at Notre Dame University from 1992 till 1994, as well as the Chairman of the Department of Management of International Affairs and Diplomacy from 1992 till 1994. Professor Labaki worked as a consultant in France, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and Niger. Upon the recommendation of the French Minister Alain Juppé the French President François Mitterand awarded the Medallion of the “Ordre National du Mérite”, which is one of the highest academic distinctions in France created by General Charles de Gaulle.

Article or Event Link
Jun 29, 2023
Public Policy


Public Policy

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