Civil war in Sudan rages on

Five years ago, the Sudanese people overthrew a dictator, but stopped short of a working-class revolution. Now warring military factions wreak murder, gender violence, genocide and famine in one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises.

April 7, 2024. A damaged army tank in the city of Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum. PHOTO: El Tayeb Siddig / Reuters
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April 15 marked one year into Sudan’s civil war, with yet more people killed, forced from their homes, or facing acute starvation.

Two military factions detonated the violence: the Sudanese armed forces led by Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) headed by Mohammed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo. But the roots reach farther back than a rivalry between two generals.

Three decades of dictatorship

In 1989, Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan. He remained head of state using violence, corruption, and religious repression. Bashir’s tactics led to the 2003–2005 genocidal brutality in Darfur, largely the work of Janjaweed, the Arab nomad militia that became Hemedti’s RSF.

Mass fury at deteriorating living conditions grew. Popular rebellion against the regime erupted among broad sectors of society, especially women. In April 2019, Bashir’s generals were forced to arrest him. This military coup was designed to head off a revolution.

Once in power, both the Sudan army and the RSF viciously suppressed protest. A huge sit-in of pro-democracy campaigners, radicals, women’s groups and labor activists was met with murder, rape and mass arrests. Within months of Bashir’s ouster, a tenuous pact between civilian and military forces was negotiated. The goal was a “western-style” (aka capitalist) democracy.

Alongside the new transitional government, the power of both the armed forces and the RSF grew. Each developed control over major sectors of the economy, including majority ownership of the two largest banks. They particularly cultivated Sudan’s export businesses. Burhan and the armed forces dominated in camels and sheep trade to Saudi Arabia, while Hemedti and the RSF controlled the gold that found its way to the United Arab Emirates.

Even as the two military forces held common cause against the rebellious people and the emerging civilian government, they increasingly became rivals.

Factions unite to beat back revolution

In the fall of 2021, it was clear that the generals would no longer tolerate even the modest gains in civil liberties and women’s rights that had been won. Rumors of an impending coup spread. Two million people engaged in massive civil disobedience in the capital city of Khartoum.

The alliance of the Sudan army and the RSF held as each arrested and seized power from the civilian officials. New rounds of brutal repression began, though the demands for a secular, egalitarian state were never completely buried.

A year ago, the brittle partnership exploded. These two powerful counter-revolutionary forces declared war on one another. Khartoum is bitterly contested, with near daily armed clashes and bombings. Roughly 70% of the population has left, while the poorest have nowhere to go. Many activists now pour their efforts into basic survival, organizing communal kitchens and medical stations.

The Sudan army controls most of the Nile River, Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and southeast Sudan. RSF strongholds are in the western and southern areas of Darfur and Kordofan. Both sides commit atrocities. Once again, the worst horrors are in Darfur. The RSF has burned entire villages of Black subsistence farmers, murdering men and raping and enslaving women and girls, especially targeting people of the Masalit tribe.

It is impossible to know how many people have been killed, injured, raped or disappeared. What is clear is that Sudan’s mammoth humanitarian crisis is receiving almost no international attention. The lean season is just starting, and famine looms for Sudan and neighboring states hosting refugees. To date, the U.N. reports no more than 4% of the estimated needed aid has been committed.

Even worse, the flames of the civil war are being fed by international forces with various irons in Sudanese fires. The Sudan army is dropping bombs from drones sent by Egypt and Iran. Saudi Arabia has tried to position itself as an arbiter for peace, but favors the army as its prime agricultural trading partner. The RSF has the open support of the United Arab Emirates, which contends with Saudi Arabia for power in the Arab world. The RSF has a long relationship with the mercenary Wagner Group, though Russia is also trying to court the Sudan army as it aspires to a naval base on the Red Sea. Knowledgeable observers say the war would be over, save for foreign money and arms.

Help turn the tide

The U.N. recently published that 25 million Sudanese face imminent death without international aid. In order to prevent massive deaths from famine and epidemics, urgent humanitarian support must be provided and extended also to the refugee camps in Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Solidarity activists should also demand hands off by the nations giving funding and weapons to the military combatants. Stop arming both brutal sides and give the Sudanese working class the opportunity to re-ignite their revolution. In the words of their popular chant: “We are revolutionaries. We are free. We will complete the journey!”

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The human costs of the conflict

3 million women and girls risk gender-based violence.

10.5 million  residents have been forced to flee their homes.

19 million children have not been able to attend school.

28 million face starvation without life-saving aid.

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