Since April 15, fighting in Sudan has killed hundreds of people, triggered a humanitarian catastrophe with thousands fleeing their homes, and forced neighbouring countries to evacuate their citizens for fear of a full-fledged civil war in an already volatile region.
For months, tensions had been developing between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which worked together to destabilise a civilian government in an October 2021 coup.
An internationally supported effort to initiate a fresh transition with civilian parties exacerbated the conflict. A final agreement was to be signed earlier in April, on the fourth anniversary of the popular revolt that deposed long-ruling Islamist tyrant Omar al-Bashir.
The plan required both the army and the RSF to transfer control, and two points became particularly contentious: the schedule for the RSF’s integration into the regular armed forces, and the timing for when the army would be formally placed under civilian oversight.
When fighting erupted, both sides blamed the other for inciting the conflict. The army accused the RSF of illegal mobilisation in the preceding days, while the RSF, as it moved on key strategic points in Khartoum, said the army was plotting to seize full power in a conspiracy with Bashir loyalists.
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the army and leader of Sudan’s ruling council since 2019, and his deputy on the council, RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, are the main players in the power struggle.
As the idea for a new transition evolved, Hemedti became more closely connected with civilian parties from the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition that shared power with the military between Bashir’s fall and the 2021 coup.
Diplomats and observers believed Hemedti was attempting to convert himself into a statesman and consolidate his place at the centre of power. Both the FFC and Hemedti, who became wealthy via gold mining and other activities, emphasised the importance of excluding Islamist-leaning Bashir loyalists and veterans who had recovered a stronghold in the army following the coup.
The Bashir loyalists opposed the deal for a fresh transition, along with those pro-army rebel forces who profited from a 2020 peace accord.
The public revolt generated hopes that Sudan, with its 46 million people, would be able to emerge from decades of authoritarianism, internal turmoil, and economic isolation under Bashir.
The current violence, which is centred on one of Africa’s greatest cities, has the potential to not only ruin such hopes, but also destabilise a volatile region bordered by the Sahel, the Red Sea, and the Horn of Africa.
It might also factor into the fight for influence in the region between Russia and the US, as well as between regional powers courting various parties in Sudan.
Following Bashir’s removal, Western countries, particularly the United States, backed a transition to democratic elections. Following the coup, they suspended financial support, but later supported the proposal for a new transition and civilian government.
Energy-dense abilities Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also attempted to control events in Sudan, seeing the move away from Bashir’s authority as a chance to reduce Islamist influence and strengthen regional stability.
Gulf governments have sought investments in industries such as agriculture, where Sudan has enormous potential, and ports on the Red Sea coast of Sudan.