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Sudan's New War Leaves Little Hope for a Democratic Future

Updated: May 7

Snap Shot Article

Khartoum - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Residents of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, are running out of food, water and medicine. Since the agreement to transition to a civilian government broke down on April 15, the Sudanese army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has been in open combat with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary with roots in genocidal Janjaweed militias. With both sides claiming to have the upper hand, and considering the seemingly escalating nature of the violence, many pundits agree the prospect of an effective ceasefire is low. Already, hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands more wounded, yet the greatest casualty in the conflict may be Sudan’s hope for a peaceful transition to a democratic government.

Until 2019, Sudan was ruled by Omar al-Bashir, a ruthless dictator who cloaked his rule in the language of Islam all the while plundering Sudan’s wealth for his own gain. The kleptocratic Arab elite who has ruled Sudan relatively consistently since independence had benefited greatly from his rule, utilising Sudan’s vast and plentiful mineral wealth. However, in 2019, a popular revolution overthrew al-Bashir from power, and huge demonstrations erupted across the country demanding democracy and a return to civilian rule.

General Burhan and the military acted quickly in response, crushing the demonstrations, massacring peaceful protesters, and initiating a coup, seizing control of the state and setting up a transitional government with the stated aim of allowing a peaceful transition to civilian rule. The RSF, who was deployed alongside the army in crushing the demonstrations, and its leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, otherwise known as Hemedti, also gained considerable influence. Occupying gold mines in the western Darfur region he has also garnered great wealth, which he uses to fund his forces.

Omar al-Bashir was paranoid about his underlings; in many ways, considering Sudan’s past, this was a wise assessment. Ruling through ‘divide and conquer’, Bashir relied on many factions to act as counterweights to other forces. Fearful of the army, its power, and its intelligence services, Bashir founded the RSF to balance the army’s power, possessing its own command and funding streams. Its leader, Hemedti has made no efforts to hide his desire to rule someday.

Sudan’s history with democracy is scarce. The military has rarely been used as a force to protect the people or preserve the peace. Both the Sudanese military and the predecessors to the RSF have roots in genocide dating back to the 2000s. Sudan has seen 16 coup attempts since independence in 1956, with 4 happening since 2011 when South Sudan seceded from its larger neighbour. Both of Sudan’s short-lived experiments in democracy were ended when the army felt its influence was being threatened.

Keeping with tradition, efforts to transition went to civilian rule have not progressed far. A second coup in 2021 and the deepening rivalry between the two factions have stymied any efforts to democratise the country. Despite claiming to desire a transition to civilian rule there is no evidence either side truly intended to hand over power. Any transition deal would have folded the RSF into the army, threatening Hemedti’s political and economic power. Meanwhile, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has shown contempt for civilian democratisers, and an open willingness to “remove” those who oppose the army’s supremacy. It serves as no surprise that Bashir’s old supporters, the kleptocratic Islamic elite, have flocked to his side. Both men stood to lose from any transition agreement.

In the days leading up to the first shots, neither side had been on speaking terms. A deal due to be signed in early April likely prompted the fighting. The RSF had demanded 800 senior military officers be removed in order to help the RSF integrate, which Hemedti claimed would take a decade. Burhan had wanted the integration to take 2 years at the most. The latest round of demands by the RSF may have been too much for him.

The fighting, coming closer to a full-scale civil war by the day, signals the final capsizing of the inspirational movement that uprooted a ruthless dictator in 2019. It is clear neither side is cooperating at the diplomatic table, nor has any interest in pursuing any other goal other than their own narrow self-interests. Hemedti has claimed al-Burhan will be captured or “die like a dog”. Meanwhile, General Burhan has vowed to crush the RSF and has little interest other than protecting the army’s sprawling and lucrative business empire, which has seen him, and his comrades grow incredibly wealthy.

Robert M. Hutchins once claimed that democracy dies slowly and quietly; that no one can hear it scream. But while Khartoum erupts in open warfare, gunfire peppers the streets, jets fly overhead, and bombs rupture residential blocks, one must ponder if this is what the death of democracy sounds like. Death indeed. There are certainly the bodies to prove it.


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