- Interview by
- Shireen Akram-Boshar
On April 15, 2023, conflict between two military factions in Sudan broke out into armed warfare that has continued to ravage the capital city of Khartoum in particular. The outbreak in fighting follows months of rising tensions between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — a paramilitary group known for its atrocities, including in Khartoum in summer 2019 — and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), both of which have worked to quell the ongoing Sudanese revolution.
Begun in December 2018, the Sudanese Revolution overthrew thirty-year dictator Omar al-Bashir in early 2019. Since then, the movement has been adamant in its demand for full civilian rule and the complete overthrow of the military apparatus. However, the RSF’s massacre of civilians in 2019 brought the initial stage of the revolution to an end and brought about a process of counterrevolutionary negotiations that led to a joint military-civilian government. This opened space for the coup of October 2021, in which the military retook control of the state, and led ultimately to this current outbreak of warfare between the RSF and the SAF. Nonetheless, Sudan’s revolutionary forces still exist, and they remain committed to their demands. Radicalized, they now exist largely in the form of neighborhood resistance committees.
To learn more about the situation on the ground and prospects for the revolutionary forces in Sudan, Shireen Akram-Boshar spoke to Raga Makawi. Now based in the UK, Raga Makawi is a Sudanese editor and researcher. She was in Khartoum when the latest outbreak of violence began, and eventually managed to leave for Cairo.
The fighting between the RSF and the Sudanese military has been going on for nearly a month, and shows no sign of stopping. We have heard reports of over forty hospitals attacked and civilians unable to leave their homes in Khartoum and neighboring Omdurman. What is the situation like on the ground? What areas are most affected, and how are people coping?
The situation is very dire. Fighting is widespread through the city and concentrated within neighborhoods where the RSF have set up its bases over the past four years. Moreover, as the two armed groups continue to battle in the middle of residential areas, people sheltering in place are cut off from either leaving or accessing lifesaving food and health items. There is no safe passage, and all attempts at brokering a short-term ceasefire have not held. There isn’t enough information on where the fighting areas are or how the street warfare is developing and in which direction; all we know is that it is widespread and has developed to engulf the entire city, flaring in some areas and dying in others before picking up again. On day two of the fighting, the military deployed its air force and since then it has been bombing the city indiscriminately. This act of hostility was met on the side of the RSF with rocket launchers, all in the middle of densely populated residential areas.
As the fighting moves from one part of the city to the other, both groups capture and lose areas at great loss of human life. Areas captured are being cordoned off and manned with heavily armed checkpoints, making it difficult for people to venture toward safety or leave the city. Furthermore, the dynamics of fighting are in themselves fluid. As both the RSF and SAF continue to redeploy their troops from the country’s peripheries and resupply their weapons stock, areas that were once relatively calm or captured are the focus of renewed fighting.
Omdurman and South Khartoum, relatively safer and quieter earlier in the week, are now experiencing more militarized presence and fighting as opposing troops regroup and re-strategize to attack each other. Lack of information and the failure of both generals to consider international laws of engagement have spelled catastrophe for the population of Khartoum. At the time of writing these words, the war strategies employed by both parties mean that the general public is being used as a human shield while being held hostage. Safe passages out of Khartoum available earlier in the week are closing up.
The fighting in the city has also damaged Sudan’s already-skeleton infrastructure. Decades of state-directed austerity and the unrest it produced helped refuel conflict, redirecting much-needed funding from development to paying political favors to bolster the government’s longevity.
Just a few days after the fighting broke out, a Doctors Union spokesperson reported that fifty-five of seventy-eight hospitals in Sudan are now out of service. This spells catastrophe not just for the already high and increasing number of casualties, but also for the communities in adjacent satellite cities that are recipients of Khartoum residents pushing south to seek refuge.
Access to cash is another problem. Historically, sanctions meant that Sudanese people had limited access to global financial networks and had to rely instead on parallel monetary systems, further entrenching the hold of the black market on pricing and access. Today this problem is compounded: as local banking systems go off the grid, people cannot access their money locally, nor do they have avenues to receive financial aid from family and friends abroad. The rudimentary electronic banking system that was created in the past decade and expanded during the short tenure of the civilian transitional government, unreliable as it is, has locked most people out of their traditional financial support system. All this has managed to strengthen and expand the space for black-market trading, with fuel, food items, and bus tickets tripling in cost.
In the midst of this crisis, the civic groups that emerged from the revolution after 2018 are activating their communal networks of humanitarian response. The resistance committees have, through their coordination bodies, published a joint political statement, reiterating their antiwar stance, refusing to legitimize either party. They have also created platforms and apps to help the public coordinate access to services from medicine to food rations all the way to the dissemination of accurate information on safe passages and lifesaving referral pathways.
Many of us have looked to Sudan with optimism, hope, and inspiration since the 2018 uprising began and quickly overthrew Omar al-Bashir. The revolution seemed to go much farther and accomplish much more than other revolutions in the region and beyond. Even after the SAF’s coup in October 2021, resistance committees continued their work and began to consolidate their efforts, refusing negotiation and compromise. But now, we are entering a situation that seems like long-term war. How did we get to this point?
The revolutionary movement in Sudan has not dissipated. If anything, the refusal of the pro-democracy grassroots movement to acknowledge or legitimize the political process since the [October 2021] coup reflects a thorough understanding of the long-term consequences of another partnership between armed factions pushing for power under the guise of civilian transition. The dynamic slogans that the revolution adopted in response to the botched political agreement — “No Legitimacy, No Brokerage, No Negotiations” — seems to have captured the essence of, and refuted, the liberal peace governance model that had come to shape post-conflict/crisis settings. Brokered from the outside and influenced to a large degree by regional interests and geopolitics, these unstable deals favor capital interests over any real transition to democracy.
The resistance committees’ approach to the takeover of Sudan’s political landscape by multiple warring factions enabled by external intervention has been to boycott the political process. They aim to put pressure on politicians, members of the pro-democracy movement including the Freedom and Change coalition, who up until the coup were the de facto legitimate representatives of the masses in the political process.
The latest rounds of negotiations since the 2021 coup have represented nothing more than a futile attempt by international brokers to reproduce the same failed process while further entrenching the hold of armed actors over the state by whitewashing their ceaseless atrocities. To this, the resistance committees responded by mobilizing to formulate their own political project. A tedious and drawn-out countrywide political process produced the Charters, a consolidated manifesto that provides both the road map and guiding principles for an alternative polity, one that is more just and democratic. Herein lies the hope of rebuilding a new Sudan. If there is any saving grace in the current moment in Sudan, it should be the lessons of international intervention under conditions of multiple and fractured sovereignty and a weakened state.
What are the political roots of the conflict between the RSF, led by General “Hemeti’” Degalo, and the SAF, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan? What is driving this turn to fighting at this current moment?
At the core of the conflict is both generals’ dispute over power and becoming the next ruler of Sudan. Burhan runs on a platform of state sovereignty and the historic role of the military in politics and national affairs. Hemeti, on the other hand, has devised himself a popular outfit, exploiting none other than the rhetoric of the revolution. Hemeti has attempted, though with limited success, to recast himself as a reformer, drain-the-swamp kind of people’s man, ironically with the help of the international community and the lucrative funds of his regional backers, primarily the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Behind the political facade lies a more sinister politics, one of illicit financial flows and a war economy where both institutions, the military and the RSF, have laundered and reinvested their capital through the state for the purposes of legitimizing themselves in the long run. In this power struggle, Burhan is most likely to emerge successful. His legitimacy is drawn from the state. This puts Hemeti at a disadvantage, despite the backing he is getting from multiple regional and international players, who are all jockeying for their interests in a complex and multifaceted geopolitical game.
Nonetheless, Burhan is still at risk of an internal coup. Despite the interest-driven internal conflict within the army, the state and its institutions are expected to remain more or less intact, for the purposes of interacting with the international community.
Hemeti, as warlord-cum-statesman, has less legitimacy. The latest round of political negotiations that produced the December  framework agreement to restore civilians into a joint government was meant to provide him with a civilian-backed political constituency, a leverage that would have been insurmountable even in the face of Burhan’s military-backed leverage. Both of them, however, have at different times leveled accusations of atrocities committed against the public in an attempt to exploit the transitional justice card, one that remains essential to the public and international community. In this case too, Burhan, as a representative of a state institution subject to possible reform, is more than likely to either pin the blame for atrocities on the RSF or merely lose his position should the day of reckoning arrive.
Since the start of the 2018 revolution, the demand for civilian rule has remained strong, along with opposition to compromise with the military. What is the impact of the current war on the revolutionary movement in the coming weeks and months?
As the humanitarian situation worsens, it is left for the resistance committees to step in and coordinate relief assistance to the scores of stranded people en route to exit and others who have opted to stay. This refocus of priorities and the reorganization that comes with it will only strengthen the revolutionary movement through the recentering of people’s needs, which historically was never the remit of political discourse. This is no easy feat. Even before the latest outbreak of warfare, the policies espoused by the political class and backed by the international community over the past three years had further entrenched the dire socioeconomic situation.
The disentanglement of the previous government’s institutions — which the transitional government started in 2020 but abandoned abruptly under the pressure of political deals — had done away with whatever little safety mechanisms were available for the public. The anti-corruption committee, assigned with the impossible task of undoing the Islamist empowerment policies, left Sudan’s poor with fewer safeguarding measures than they inherited from the previous government. Each of these legacies — as well as the added burden of displacement and the war economy that has left a scarcity of provisions and inflated prices of commodities — means that resistance committees need to consider, unlike standard humanitarian aid, both the cause and the effect of the conditions at hand.