Photo by Yussuf Yassir on Unsplash

How Sudan’s Civil War Has Fractured A Civilisation

Sudan faces a great issue today with the RSF (Rapid Support Forces) and army battling for power over the country, but in the midst of this, I’d like to put into context the land of Sudan and its history, covering its ancient history, transformation under Islam, occupation under Ottomans and Britain and the Omar Al-Bashir periods. Once that has been established, I’d like to analyse in brief how IR views this conflict and what needs to happen to have peace.

Who Are the Sudanese People? – The Ancient History of Nubia and Formation of Sudan

Sudan, like its neighbour Egypt, is along the river Nile, it is in the Northeast part of Africa and is home to one of the oldest civilisations in history known as the Nubians or Kingdoms of Kush (the three kingdoms being Kerma, Napata and Meroe) in Africa. A fun fact you can show off to your friends is that Egypt doesn’t have the greatest number of pyramids despite this popular belief, but rather it is Sudan with more than two hundred pyramids, twice the amount that Egypt has. They also had tombstones and palaces that were like those of Egypt. Sudan and Egypt share a vast history going back to the ancient Egyptian and Nubian interactions. Even today, Nubia’s heritage is present predominantly in the south of Egypt, in Aswan or Kom Umbo but of course in major cities like Cairo as well as stretching into Sudan territory of Khartoum. 

Johanna Granville writes in The Nubians (2008) that ‘relations for Egypt with the Nubians are either one of conquering them or revering them as a foe’. Although it didn’t start this way initially, they were trading partners with Nubia sending gold to Egypt in return for grain and other foods. For this reason, many believe the term Nubia came from the ancient Egyptian term ‘Nub’ which means gold. Anyhow, Egypt would be the first to occupy Nubia, in response to raids on El-Kab from Kerma in 1400 BCE. In 747 BCE upon the collapse of the Ramesis dynasty, Napata would then conquer Egypt to rule as Pharos. This was till Assyria broke up the Nubian empire and further down the line Mero would also deal with the wars against the Romans. Eventually, the empire would be no more from around 330 A.D., but the reason is unknown. 

The next major shift in their history would come when Islam began to spread to the region between the 7th and 9th centuries. It was here where Nubia would get its present-day name Sudan from the phrase Bilad Al-Sudan (‘land of the blacks’) from Muslim emissaries and traders. The great majority of them adopted Islam in 1523 and even changed the official language to Arabic. The population today is largely made up of integration/intermarriage between Arabs and the local Nubians at the time of Arab migration forming Sudan. Equally though, there was a portion of Nubian society that did not intermarry, there also remained a Christian population and the south kept the Nubian language as their first language.

An Egyptian invasion of Sudan under Ottoman-led ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1820, and then the years of British occupation from the early 1900s led to the exploitation of Sudan. Muhammad’s rule weakened the South of Sudan by taking 40,000 as slaves. An already bad position was made worse by deepening the seeds for future conflicts when the British endorsed the North of Sudan with more Arab areas modernising them, whereas the South was left marginalised, and power was scattered. This would have deep underlying consequences and division. 

Chaos under Omar Al-Bashir- Sudan in the 21st Century

 Most people today will know Sudan as being in a constant state of instability over the numerous decades, having dealt with a crisis in identity between Arab and African (engulfed by British rule and divide tactics mentioned above) now which spilt over into a civil war in Darfur, and the eventual split between Sudan and South Sudan as nations. 

Omar Al-Bashir leader of Sudan from 1993-2019, was largely responsible for a lot of this chaos, with the ICCuplifting evidence of genocide, including; murder, rape and other bodily and mental harm which was carried out mostly by a group called the Janjaweed. This was done in response to ‘Darfurian liberation groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement revolting against the marginalisation of the south, as most of the wealth of the country was stored in the North or largely Arab regions causing Bashir to unleash the Janjaweed militia’ (Madibbo, 2012, pp.304-305). Reeves writes in his 2006 journal article labelled ‘Death in Darfur: Total mortality from violence, malnutrition, and disease’ that by the end of the conflict the UN estimated around 200-300,000 had been killed in the conflict and a further 2.7 million people displaced. Bashir’s government disputed the number claiming the death count was closer to 10,000, but regardless a huge amount of damage had been done to the fabric of society in Sudan. It is believed that overall, between the course of the second civil war in Sudan that lasted from 1983-2005 roughly 2 million people died.

Interestingly Maddibo showed in a 2012 study labelled ‘Conflict and the conceptions of identities in Sudan’ that not all regular people shared the views held by ruling elites on a policy of division, this is because the range of responses is so diverse in identity. Some considered themselves Arab, African, or both, or a unique Sudanese identity. Some believed in cohabitation, and some didn’t. Abd Al-Rahim (2006) stated that Sudan is both simultaneously African and Arab and that this is a view held by many of the population in the face of the events of the civil war. This is the hope that we must cling to.

Following this there were calls for Bashir to be tried by the ICC, this was relatively ignored however as he won elections in 2010 and 2015 and was freely travelling around making diplomatic trips to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. It wasn’t until 2018 when public demonstrations were calling for Bashir’s government to step down, and the following year the army stepped in and deposed the once thought to be untouchable leader of Sudan. With this, the army led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan promised to hand over Bashir to the ICC, restoring optimism for where the country was heading.

The Army Vs The RSF

Optimism wouldn’t last long as Sudan has found itself in a dire position once more, with another civil war that has plagued the nation since April of 2023, between the army of Abdel Fattah (who was army chief to Omar Al-Bashir) and the RSF (Rapid Support Force) led by Mohammad Hamdan Daglo known as ‘Mehedti’. This didn’t come out of nowhere, as the RSF can be traced back to the Darfur genocides. The RSF directly came from a rebrand of the Janjaweed military group in 2013, they would be accepted as a legitimate force by the Bashir government in 2013. In 2019 alongside the army, the RSF would take charge of the country in a ‘transitional period’. This transitional phase had a council set up as a joint military-civilian initiative that would rule for the next three years, with Abdel Fattah being the head councillor and Mehedti in the vice position.  Eventually, the people would take over in a democratically run country supposedly but in 2019 when the RSF killed 120 protestors this would seem unlikely.

Where the dispute would come between the army and the RSF was that Abdel Fattah wanted the RSF to integrate into the army in two years, whereas Mehedti wanted this to happen in ten years. There ensued a power struggle between the two as tensions rose and eventually fighting broke out in April of 2023.

How IR explains the conflict and who Is to blame?

Integrating the RSF into the government would prove to be a costly mistake firstly for Bashir legitimising them and then on the army’s part allowing a militia access to power. History has proven this time and time again, Machiavelli, a prominent Florentine chancellor who wrote ‘The Prince’ argued that militias were unreliable, in his exact words:

“The Mercenary and auxiliary armies are useless and dangerous. A prince who holds a state that is founded on the strength of mercenary armies will never be firm or secure, since such armies are divided, ambitious, without discipline and fickle.”

Examples of mercenary betrayals in wars that could be given are The Battle Of Talas in 758, where the Karluks were hired by the Tang dynasty of China who ended up siding with the Abbasid or when in Botsworld Field in 1485, Baron Stanley’s mercenaries switched from Richard III’s side to Henry VII in The War Of The Roses. 

The message is clear that mercenaries or militias are not to be trusted, they uprooted Bashir the moment an opportunity came and are again at the centre of tensions in the country. Most prominent scholar on this topic Alex De Waal said in 2019 “This is the revolution no one wanted” not because Bashir was popular, but rather that it wasn’t the pro-democracy elements that were elevated in society but rather the rise of the mercenaries. 

Today we are seeing the RSF commit horrendous atrocities as they did under Al-Bashir against the people of Darfur and mostly non-Arabs. On November 2nd the militia group seized a camp for displaced people and killed around 1,300 people in the span of three days. This is why the context of the civil war is so important and the Janjaweed/RSF involvement presents a danger to the people and its history. If the army wanted to depose Bashir and start a new direction for the country, they should have left the RSF behind.

The feeling amongst civilians is that Abdel Fattah has handled the threat of the militia group poorly. Most recently, the army withdrew from Wad Madani in December, a city where many from Khartoum fled to at the beginning of the conflict, to abandon its people and not defend them against RSF terror is egregious in itself and won’t be forgiven nor forgotten by the people of Sudan. Not only this but the army has been cracking down on pro-democracy protestors. There is also fear in the army for Arab soldiers that they are accused of secretly supporting the RSF and 10 soldiers were executed for this reason.  

This conflict most similarly resembles that of Yemen in the sense that some of the biggest parties to blame are also international players. A Chatham House report by Renad Mansour and Ahmed Soliman divulges that the UAE backs the RSF due to gold trade with the militia group, whereas their Gulf rival Qatar, also competing for this commodity, backs the SAF. These two are amongst many who have interests in the region with; Turkey and Egypt also supporting the SAF for the trade of livestock and gold being of strategic importance. Iran and Turkey also supply drones to the SAF. Russia also supplied arms pre-war such as aircraft, there are also reports of the Wagner group taking out illegal actions in Sudan. This is down to the extracting process of goldthat goes on. The US has been threatening to put Sudan under sanctions which has been ignored, a large reason why Sudan’s economy had been weakened previously is due to sanctions by the US and this would certainly not help the situation again. US foreign policy has time and time again focused on sanctions to threaten governments but often it leaves societies weakened and impoverished, this stance must be avoided and condemned as it will not help.

There is a risk that if fighting continues Sudan faces the possibility of becoming a failed state if it isn’t already in that realm. While this conflict of war for power may be for the benefit of rule and wealth, it may be useless if they don’t have a country to govern. It seems we are no closer to peace as Abdel Fattah suspended his Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) membership, due to them inviting Mehedti to ceasefire talks alongside the head of the army. 

What needs to happen? – final thoughts

The mess that both sides have left the country in is a disgrace to the people of Sudan, with around; 10-15,000 people being killed, at least 5.4 million being displaced, 1.3 million have fled to neighbouring countries and over half the population (25 million) need urgent aid. Of these 5.4 million, at least 1.9 million children are displaced (recorded in July by UNICEF, the figure is probably higher now) not to mention at least 80% of hospitals in affected areas are closed. The sheer scale of events that has already been caused is leading to the decimation of one of the world’s oldest civilisations which once ruled Egypt and fought off the Romans. Something needs to change; this is a certainty. 

First off, this proxy war needs to stop, and the regional and international powers must force an end to this conflict. By allowing the continuation of bloodshed and displacement of Sudanese people, a bigger refugee problem is being created which is completely horrific and unavoidable. Self-interest in selling weapons for profits and competition with gold prices may make it difficult to end this. However, there must be a responsibility taken to shift the dynamic of this brutal war that has killed at the very least 5,000 innocent civilians if not many more. Are powers content with allowing this tragic loss of life, the mass displacement of people, and the ruination of people’s homes and hospitals? Sudan deserves better from the world, and it has thus far been let down by a large number of countries that have disgracefully normalised these deaths. I can assure you there is nothing normal about the chaos being caused in the North-East of Africa.

The RSF and their ideological beliefs must be disbanded, they have brought about destruction along ethnic lines. In my view, Sudan has an interconnected history and culture between being African and Arab more recently, and for this reason, the radical ideology that has caused division is abhorrent. Ultimately, all Sudanese people are human regardless of being Arab or African and for that reason, the RSF cannot be allowed to have any form of power after this deadly conflict is over due to the disgusting atrocities that they have committed.

The people of Sudan should be given self-determination to be able to prevent the corruption and mismanagement of central governance, for too long the army has plagued the direction of the country. Abdel Fattah has shown himself to be an incompetent leader for allowing a radical group like the RSF to gain power and ignoring the cry of the Sudanese people in Wad Madani. I wouldn’t go as far as saying to disband the army in the same way I believe the RSF should be as this would cause structural deficiencies, but I don’t believe they should have a say in the running of Sudan’s politics. 

To reiterate once more, let us not allow the history of Sudan to be plundered into this deep state of anxiety, sadness can’t be conveyed in a sentence to see and know the stories of children suffering from malnutrition, women being raped and many more having their lives snatched from them. Sudanese people are kind-hearted and selfless people, and that is me speaking from personal experience. Let us return the same compassion for their people as they would willingly show to us by spreading awareness about the devastating impact of this civil war. I hope from the bottom of my heart that the Sudanese people can not only have peace but one day rebuild their society.

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