Sudan's war morphs into low-intensity conflict but ethnic divisions deepen

With major fighting now infrequent, faultlines are widening in religiously and ethnically diverse nation

Sudanese youths attend military training in a show of support for the armed forces in Gedaref, eastern Sudan. AFP
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More than 10 months after it began, Sudan's war has morphed into a low-intensity conflict but with the warring sides seemingly adamant to shun mediation attempts and fight on.

Analysts, however, say the relative lull in fighting is not stopping the war between the army and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces from deepening ethnic divisions in the vast Afro-Arab nation that could take years, maybe decades, to heal after the guns fall silent.

“The racist and tribalist narrative is used in this war as a military and political tool,” said prominent Sudanese analyst Osman Al Mirghani.

“The RSF employs narratives about marginalisation and the grip on power by Arabised northern Sudanese, omitting the fact that its own nucleus is Arab ….”

Conflict with ethnic or religious undertones is not new to Sudan.

Since independence in 1956, it has suffered decades of bloody and ruinous civil strife in which the government in the Muslim and Arabised north fought with non-Arab or non-Muslim rebels, seeking what they viewed as a fair share of national resources or an end to discrimination.

Some of these conflicts formally ended, while others became dormant, but the root causes were never adequately dealt with.

The latest bout of civil strife in Sudan began last April when simmering tensions between the army and the RSF over details of the nation's democratic transition boiled over into violence.

The fighting, mostly taking place in the capital Khartoum, has to date displaced nearly eight million people and given rise to a major humanitarian crisis. There are no precise numbers for the dead or injured. One figure often cited for the death toll is 10,000, but the actual number is believed to be considerably higher.

A series of ceasefires mediated by the US and Saudi Arabia in the early days of the war did not endure. Similarly, attempts by regional groupings and Sudan's neighbours to end the war have come to nothing.

Significantly, both the army and the RSF have so far failed to gain a definite edge on the battlefield, although the paramilitary has been in near total control of Khartoum and made major inroads south and west of the capital. The army, for its part, has in recent days regained control of areas in Khartoum's twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri.

“There will be no peace until the mutiny is defeated,” army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan said defiantly last week.

“The war must end before there can be a political process,” he added, alluding to a recent bid by politicians to arrange a meeting between him and his one-time ally, RSF commander Gen Mohamed Dagalo, to resolve their differences.

Gen Al Burhan and Gen Dagalo jointly staged a coup in October 2021 that is widely viewed to have caused the war to break out 18 months later. The coup overthrew a civilian-led government, upending Sudan's democratic transition and plunging the country into its worst political and economic crisis to date, two years after dictator Omar Al Bashir and his regime were toppled in a popular uprising.

Al Bashir ruled Sudan for 29 years in which the country suffered international isolation, a string of economic crises, the brutal suppression of dissent, all the while seeking elusive military victories over rebellions in the west and south of the country.

To this day, the years of Al Bashir rule cast a shadow over life in Sudan.

The coup, which drew punitive measures from the West, led to a security vacuum in Sudan's outlying regions, giving rise to the resurrection of latent ethnic and tribal fissures.

The coup and subsequently the army-RSF war have given Al Bashir loyalists the chance to return to the public stage, using their economic might to regain relevance and leverage.

Compensating for its shortage of manpower, the army has recruited thousands of suspected fighters from militias linked to the toppled regime to fight the RSF.

The enlistment of the Islamists gifted the RSF a narrative rooted in the notion that it was fighting remnants of the hated Al Bashir regime to restore the nation's democratic transition.

The RSF also claims it is fighting to break the monopoly on political power by the Arabised north of Sudan and to empower the country's marginalised regions, such as Darfur and Kordofan in the West.

The RSF's forerunner is a notorious militia called the Janjaweed, which joined Al Bashir's government in fighting ethnic African rebels in Darfur, its own birthplace, in the 2000s. Both the Janjaweed and government forces are accused of war crimes in Darfur.

Now, the RSF is facing accusations that, together with its allies, it has killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in Darfur who belong to an ethnic African community, the Masalit, since the war against the army began.

In Khartoum, it faces accusations of sexual assault, commandeering private homes, looting and arbitrary detention and torture.

The army is using Sudan's ethnic mosaic to its own advantage.

Its drive to recruit able-bodied men to fight the RSF is restricted to areas where Arabised Sudanese are the dominant demographic, such as northern Sudan and areas to the south of the capital, not outlying regions where non-Arab communities form a large segment of the population.

“The army plays the same cards as those of the RSF,” said Mr Al Mirghany. “The conflict is essentially political and not societal but the warring parties use ethnic faultlines to the detriment of the people.”

The army's drive to recruit civilians significantly accelerated after the RSF captured Wad Medani, a city south of Khartoum that sits in Al Jazeera region, the breadbasket of Sudan whose produce is vital to feeding the country and to the nation's exports.

The fall of the city led to a mass exodus of residents who either fled the country or sought refuge elsewhere in Sudan. It also sent shock waves across regions north and south of the capital, as well eastern regions, with many taking up arms in anticipation of an RSF attack.

However, Sami Saeed, a Sudanese analyst with a prominent European-based think tank, said arming civilians in those areas or the emergence of local militias may have been unjustified.

“The army has total control and retains large bases in those areas,” he said. “The roads to these regions are exposed, making any forces' movement towards them an easy target. Frequent reports of RSF movements in those directions have turned out to be false alarms.”

Mr Saeed said fear of RSF incursions has led to many cases of innocent civilians who were fleeing the RSF, including entire families, being detained by vigilante groups and sometimes tortured.

A new UN report has framed the involvement of both sides in combat practices that could amount to war crimes.

The report said the army and RSF have used inaccurate weapons with "wide area effects", such as missiles fired from fighter jets, drones and anti-aircraft guns and artillery shells in densely populated areas. The report also accused the RSF of using human shields and claimed both sides had recruited child soldiers.

“For nearly a year now, accounts coming out of Sudan have been of death, suffering and despair, as the senseless conflict and human rights violations and abuses have persisted with no end in sight,” UN human rights chief Volker Turk said in a statement after the release of the report.

“Some of these violations would amount to war crimes.” he said.

Last month, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan told the UN Security Council there was evidence that Rome Statute crimes – which include genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – are being committed in Sudan.

Updated: February 29, 2024, 5:25 AM