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Sudan fighting likely to destabilise region reeling from conflicts in Ethiopia, South Sudan

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File picture: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah – People march to the presidential palace, protesting against military rule following last month’s coup in Khartoum, Sudan December 19, 2021.

By Dr Sizo Nkala

Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum has been engulfed in a deadly military battle between the government forces led by the military ruler Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo since the early hours of April 15.

At the time of writing hundreds of people had been killed while thousands were injured plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis worsened by the destruction of critical infrastructure including the health and water systems.

Burhan is the leader of ruling council which was established in 2021 after conducting a military coup. The leader of the RSF, Dagalo, was his deputy in the Council. Dagalo and Burhan led the 2019 coup that ousted Sudan’s long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019 after prolonged civilian protests over a deteriorating economic situation.

However, Dagalo’s RSF was accused of having killed almost 120 anti-al Bashir protesters. Bashir’s departure paved way for the establishment of the Sovereign Council which was a coalition between the civilian Forces of Freedom and Change on the one hand and the Transitional Military Council on the other.

The Sovereign Council was meant to rule for three years during which it was tasked with preparing the country for transition into civilian rule. Burhan and Dagalo collaborated to remove the government of the Prime Minister Abdellah Hamdok from power in 2021 in yet another military coup.

The 2021 coup led to the establishment of the Ruling Council with Burhan as the head and Dagalo as his deputy. The new authority promised elections leading to civilian rule in July 2023. Burhan’s government has faced consistent civilian protests since its establishment with civilian organisations demanding an end to military rule and restoration of civilian rule.

These demands have been backed by international actors such as the AUa and the UN. The military responded to these protests with deadly force killing over about 114 pro-democracy activists. This was a sign that the military leaders were not prepared to relinquish power and make way for democracy as they had promised.

The latest breakdown of gunfight between rival military factions comes just two months before the elections deadline of July 2023. The fighting is widely seen as a power struggle between General Dagalo and his RSF and General Burhan and the Sudanese army.

There were unresolved issues concerning the incorporation of the RSF into the Sudanese army and how power was going to be shared in the new-look military. The RSF is a paramilitary comprising 70 000 well-trained and well-equipped veterans with a controversial history. It was formed by former leader al-Bashir as a notorious militia known as Janjaweed to suppress separatist forces in the western region of Darfur.

Dagalo rose through the ranks to become the de facto leader of the outfit. Janjaweed is accused of leading a genocide that killed between 100 000 and 400 000 people and displaced millions of people. Burhan also led a battalion that was deployed to the Darfur region. Janjaweed was transformed into a Border Intelligence Unit in 2007 before being converted to the RSF as a paramilitary structure in 2013 under the leadership of Dagalo and the command of al-Bashir. As such, the Sudanese military and RSF have been implicated in human rights abuses in the country. Civil society organisations have consistently called for investigations to be commenced and the culprits be brought to justice.

Moreover, the military is in control of vast agricultural lands and lucrative gold mines across the country which provides it with a vital economic base. Civilian leaders have long called for these assets to be transferred to the people of Sudan to no avail. The military’s reluctance to relinquish power is seen as a way of evading justice for past crimes against humanity and to protect its economic base.

The latest episode of fighting almost rules out the restoration of civilian rule in Sudan whose people have never known democracy since the country gained independence from Britain in 1956. The country has experienced six military takeovers in 1958, 1969, 1985, 1989, 2019 and 2021. Hence, the military has always been the arbiter of Sudanese politics and it doesn’t seem that this will change any time soon. In a country where the government has survived through suppressing dissenting voices, civil society has not had the opportunity to build proper structures to challenge for power.

It is not clear when the ongoing gunfight will end. Both sides are claiming to be fighting for the Sudanese people and promising to being each other’s leaders to justice for the crimes they allegedly committed against the people. The AU and the UN called for an immediate ceasefire pending the resolution of the issues in question. While a 24- hour ceasefire was agreed by the warring parties on April 18, fighting continued. The fighting in Sudan is likely to further destabilise the region which is already reeling from the violent conflicts in Ethiopia and South Sudan. It also makes a mockery of the AU’s pledge to silence the guns in Africa by 2020. It is high time that the AU adopts a tougher stance on military regimes in the continent. The continental body’s handling of military takeovers in the recent past has not been an effective deterrent.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies