CRISIS IN SUDAN
UPDATE – EVOLVING CRISIS IN SUDAN As of 19 April 2023
Since armed clashes began on 15 April in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, between the Sudan National Army (SUNA) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the security situation has deteriorated sharply, with violence spreading into eastern Sudan and the western province of Darfur. The already precarious democratic transition in Sudan is now buckling under the latest round of violence.
A 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire due to commence on 18 April failed to take hold. On 19 April, the RSF announced a new 24-hour ceasefire, but it is not clear yet whether the army will agree to commit to a cessation of hostilities.
WHO Director Tedros stated that 300 killed and >2,600 injured as a result of clashes between 15-19 April, although casualties are likely being underreported with limited access to hospitals. There is a significant risk that the violence in Sudan may fuel instability in the wider region. The RSF faction is reportedly backed by the KSA and UAE, while the SUNA has Egypt’s backing. The UAE is reported to have purchased all of Sudan’s gold exports in the first half of 2022, worth $1.3 billion.
All Sudanese airports remain closed to civilian aircraft, with commercial aircraft targeted on the ground in Khartoum in recent days and both sides in possession of surface to air and air to air assets capable of misfire on commercial aircraft. It remains unclear currently whether the Sudanese Army or RSF are in control of Khartoum International Airport.
Sudan’s doctors’ union said 34 hospitals in the capital had either been forced to close or would have to shut soon due to a lack of electricity and water or because they have been damaged by gunfire or artillery. Water supplies have allegedly been cut with reserves in Khartoum reportedly dry as of 19 April 2023.
Who is behind the violence?
The current crisis follows months of deadlock over Sudan’s political process. Sudan has been without a functioning parliament since a popular uprising fuelled the military overthrow of strongman Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in 2019. Another military coup in 2021 overthrew a transitional civilian-military government tasked with shepherding the oil-rich North African country towards a democratic transition. The current cycle of violence was triggered by rivalry between Sudan’s two most powerful generals who once had links to al-Bashir. One is General Abdel Fattah Burhan, the country’s army chief and de facto leader since the 25 October 2021 coup d’état. The other is Burhan’s former ally General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the RSF, a paramilitary force that emerged out of brutal militias implicated in the atrocities during the Darfur conflict.
In December 2022, the armed forces and the RSF signed a preliminary deal with pro-democracy and civilian groups to reaffirm a joint commitment to the democratic transition process. The framework deal put Sudan on a two-year path to national elections. Negotiations were derailed as tensions grew between Burhan and Dagalo, mainly over how the RSF would be integrated into the military.
SUNA consists of 120,000 – 200,000 soldiers, compared with estimates of 30,000 – 100,000 soldiers under the RSF. Reuters report that the SUNA have relied on artillery and airstrikes to target the RSF.
A concerning development is what appears to be a deliberate targeting of diplomatic missions in Khartoum. On 18 April, it was reported that RSF factions fired upon a US diplomatic convoy and that the residence of the European Union Representative in Sudan was assaulted in Khartoum. The Norwegian Ambassador to Sudan and Eritrea said that his residence in Khartoum had been hit by a shell. The head of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) office in Sudan was shot amid fighting in the capital.
Domestic disputes over the constitutional transition process have been exploited by regional powers with strategic and often competing military and economic interests in destabilising Sudan. In recent years Sudan has been drawn into regional rivalries, including the coalition between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.
The lion’s share of interest in Sudan pivots on its prized 750-km long Red Sea coastline, with several international actors vying for a stronger foothold in the region. Russia seeks to expand its influence over Sudan’s strategic Red Sea port, with plans to establish a naval base in exchange for providing more weapons and equipment as outlined in an agreement that was reported in December 2021. Other countries keen to gain a grip over Sudan’s ports include the US, UAE, Qatar, Egypt, China and Turkey.
Sudan’s oil sector has been crippled by years of underinvestment. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 meant that Sudan lost 75 % of its oil reserve fields, most of which traverse their shared border. Sudan and South Sudan collectively hold proved oil reserves of 5 billion barrels, as of January 2022. However, oil production has stagnated in both countries owing mainly to political instability, operational disruptions, and disputes over revenue-sharing. China remains an important trading partner for Sudan, but Sudan’s significance as a major oil producer has waned over the past decade.
The current crisis seems unlikely to be resolved in the immediate or short-term in the country of more than 46 million people. Both sides have reportedly deployed tens of thousands of troops in Khartoum alone, with both generals refusing to negotiate so far. The challenge of conducting evacuations under current pressures means that most foreign missions are opting to lockdown, however, this may change on short notice and require urgent evacuation capabilities. Thousands of civilians have fled Sudan’s capital, and some diplomatic missions, including Japan and Tanzania, are already considering evacuating their citizens.
Sudan, long characterized by economic and political instability, corruption, and government neglect, faces a deeper crisis in the near-term, with hopes for a democratic transition appearing illusory.