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Sudan crisis explained: Why is there fighting in Sudan?

Sudan crisis explained: Why is there fighting in Sudan?

Days of violence in Sudan have resulted in the deaths of at least 180 people, with many more injured. The fighting represents the latest crisis in the North African nation, which has faced numerous coups and periods of civil strife since gaining independence in 1956.

The recent violence in Sudan has its roots in a disagreement over how RSF paramilitaries should be incorporated into the Sudanese army. Tensions escalated when the RSF began deploying members around the country and in Khartoum without the expressed permission of the army.

This disagreement led to a power struggle between the two factions, which turned violent on April 15, 2023, and has since escalated into gunfights between the RSF and the Sudanese army in various parts of the country.

What is happening in Sudan?

It all revolves around infighting between two rival groups: the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group known as the RSF, or Rapid Support Forces.

Since a 2021 coup in the country, which ended a transitional government established after the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir two years earlier, Sudan has been run by the military, with coup leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan as de facto ruler.

During an interview on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, Europe Editor Tony Connelly and Concern’s Director of International Programmes Carol Morgan discussed the assault of an Irish diplomat and EU ambassador at his home in Khartoum.

The assault occurred against the backdrop of a political transition in Sudan, following the ouster of Bashir. The transition was expected to result in elections by the end of 2023, with promises made by Burhan for a transition to civilian rule.

However, it appears that neither Burhan nor Dagalo have any intention of giving up power, and they are currently locked in a power struggle that has turned violent.

Since April 15, 2023, members of the RSF and Sudanese army have engaged in gunfights in Khartoum and other parts of the country, with the violence escalating rapidly over a three-day period.

The immediate cause of the violence was a disagreement over how RSF paramilitaries should be integrated into the Sudanese army, with tensions boiling over after the RSF deployed members without army permission.

How big are the forces involved?

According to the Military Balance, a compilation by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have an estimated 100,000 troops, while the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have 40,000 fighters. However, some experts claim that the RSF also has 100,000 troops, while the SAF has a numerical advantage.

Despite this, after almost a week of intense fighting, neither side appears to have gained the upper hand. Alex de Waal, an academic who has long focused on Sudan, stated that both forces have a similar size and combat capability.

Is there a danger that the violence will escalate?

A coalition of civilian groups in the country has called for an immediate end to the violence, as have the United States and other international observers. But with both factions entrenched, that seems unlikely. Similarly, the prospect of free and fair elections in Sudan seems distant.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy route to a short-term solution, and what makes it more difficult is that you have two powerful men, both with an army at their disposal, fighting each other for power that neither seems willing to give up.

The concern is that the fighting could escalate and destabilize the region, jeopardizing Sudan’s relations with its neighbours. Chad, which borders Sudan to the west, has already closed its border with Sudan. 

Meanwhile, a pair of Egyptian soldiers were captured in northern Sudan as violence raged in Khartoum. Ethiopia, Sudan’s neighbour to the east, is still reeling from a two-year war in the Tigray region. 

The spread of unrest in Sudan will be a concern for those watching a complicated peace deal in South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and has been beset by ethnic strife ever since.

How does the violence fit Sudan’s troubled past?

The current violence in Sudan is worrying as it fits into a larger pattern of the country being seen as a “failed African nation”.

Sudan has experienced more coups than any other African nation, with coups occurring in 1958, 1969, 1985, 1989, 2019 and 2021 since it gained independence from the UK in 1956.

Bashir’s 1989 coup led to his three-year rule decades as a dictator, marked by the secret police, the repression of the opposition and corruption.

While Bashir’s ouster in 2019 came as a shock to many observers, hopes for a democratic government were short-lived. Two years later, the army seized power, claiming to be avoiding a civil war.

The recent violence is surprising, but not unusual in Sudan’s history, where the military has been at the center of political transitions and resistance to civilian rule has been the norm since independence.

What are the Scenarios

Despite calls from international parties for humanitarian ceasefires and a return to dialogue, there have been few signs of compromise from the warring factions, and the fighting continues.

The army has demanded the dissolution of the RSF, branding them a rebel force, while Hemedti has called Burhan a criminal and blamed him for the country’s destruction.

The Sudanese army has superior resources, including air power and an estimated 300,000 troops. However, the RSF has expanded into a force of at least 100,000 troops that has deployed across Khartoum and its neighboring cities, as well as in other regions. This raises the specter of protracted conflict on top of a long-running economic crisis and existing, large-scale humanitarian needs.

The RSF draws on support and tribal ties in the western region of Darfur, where it emerged from militias that fought alongside government forces to crush rebels in a brutal war that escalated after 2003.

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