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Sudan’s Crisis: The Power Struggle Between Rival Factions

Sameera Pillai


Source: UNHCR

Ever since the North African country of Sudan gained independence in 1956, its history has been punctuated by military coups and volatile party politics. This year, the chaos-stricken country is witnessing unrest because of the ongoing rivalry between two groups: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and quasi-military group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).


The two groups have been engaged in intense clashes since April this year. Over the past month, the violent confrontations have led to around 700 dead and 5000 people wounded.


The conflict is underpinned by the tension between the military commander of SAF, General, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan – who is Sudan’s de facto leader – and the Sovereign Council of the RSF, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo – better known as Hemedti.


Events leading up to Sudan’s 2023 crisis


The two leaders – al-Burhan of SAF and Hemedti of RSF – who are now at odds, were allied in 2019. They joined forces to stage a coup that ousted Sudan’s former leader, Omar al-Bashir.


Following this 2019 military coup, a Transitional Period Agreement was signed by several parties, with the intention of transitioning to civilian rule, rather than autocratic. Among the signatories were the Transitional Military Council (TMC), for which Hemedti was Deputy Head, and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).


While the TMC represented the ruling military groups at the time, the FFC represented a coalition of opposition groups and political parties. It was hoped that the Transitional Period Agreement would lead Sudan to a civil, democratic order.


However, the military coup of October 2021 effectively thwarted the country’s attempts to transition to a democratic government. General Abdel-Fatter al-Burhan of the Sudanese Army had seized power and ordered the arrest of then-Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. To justify this rebellion, General al-Burhan argued that internal conflicts between military and civilian groups were threatening the country’s stability.


The current crisis


One of the predominant factors behind the most recent power clash is the disagreement over the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries becoming integrated into the Sudanese army – the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In mid-April, tensions between the two generals escalated as calls for the disbandment of the RSF and its integration into the army grew louder.


General al-Burhan argues for the integration of the RSF to be completed within a two-year timeframe, whereas Hemedti insists on extending the process over a period of ten years. This has significantly delayed the signing of a deal to restore Sudan’s democratic transition.


This is a power struggle between two individuals who are determined to hold onto their positions of authority. It can be seen as a manifestation of their fear that a transition to an elected government would lead to their removal from power. The main reason for the clash is the disagreement over who would lead the consolidated military.


As negotiations for this have failed, both sides rushed to assert control over critical areas of Sudan, such as the presidential palace and Khartoum airport. This also included both groups deploying troops and tanks into the capital city.


Since the coup of 2021 – in addition to the integration of RSF into armed forces, civilians have also expressed the need for the military to give up control over lucrative assets in agriculture, trade, and various industries. These holdings serve as a critical source of authority for the army, which has frequently delegated military operations to regional militias.


How does the conflict pose a threat to security both regionally and internationally?


Unrest in Sudan poses a risk of spreading over and causing instability in neighbouring countries; the movement of Sudanese refugees across borders threatens to cause an extensive humanitarian crisis.


Thousands of Sudanese refugees have crossed borders and entered neighbouring countries like Chad to escape the internal conflict. Fearing further escalation from Sudanese political clashes, Egypt and Chad have closed their borders. Moreover, Sudan also shares borders with countries that have fragile political climates themselves, such as South Sudan and Ethiopia, where civil conflicts and violence are rife.


Due to concerns about impacts to regional peace and security, heads of countries within the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) met to discuss the ongoing conflict in Sudan. (The IGAD is a bloc consisting of eight African countries, including Sudan.)


There are also certain geopolitical aspects to consider in light of Sudan’s unrest. Major international players including the US, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have attempted to exert influence over the resource-rich country. Sudan is a strategic location. It is located at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East, and is bounded by the Red Sea.


Even Russia has shown interest in setting up a military base in Port Sudan, as it looks out to the Red Sea. In fact, Moscow has almost finalised this deal with the military government in Sudan. This has raised fears amid many Western powers, as it would give Russia access to one of the busiest sea routes.


Is there an end in sight?


The international community and the United Nations have urged the warring groups in Sudan to call a ceasefire. The UN stated that a ceasefire could lead to dialogues and peace talks. Inarguably, a de-escalation of the conflict, and increased access to humanitarian support is needed to address the situation.


There are also fears that this instability may lead to a security vacuum, making Sudan and the neighbouring region vulnerable to militant groups. On the whole, international coordination will prove beneficial to contain the shock waves of Sudan’s unrest across the region, which otherwise have potential to bring about greater regional instability.


The role that regional and international stakeholders play will also be crucial. It is imperative for foreign countries to encourage a diplomatic dialogue between al-Burhan and Hemedti, hopefully resulting in an end to the senseless violence that has sparked this widespread humanitarian crisis.


 

Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, geopolitics, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues. She is currently working as a Communications Coordinator at a law firm.

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