Year of war has pushed Sudan closer to the abyss

Worse may be yet to come in country mired in death, destruction, displacement and hunger

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A year of war between Sudan’s army and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has pushed the vast Afro-Arab nation closer to the abyss, with more factions joining the conflict and hopes for a political settlement rapidly diminishing.

The conflict is widely viewed as a fight for control between two previously allied generals – army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces commander Gen Mohamed Dagalo.

The first anniversary of the start of the war on April 15 caps 12 months of death, displacement, hunger and alleged war crimes on both sides.

The impact of the war is perhaps most clearly seen in videos posted online of the usually bustling streets of the capital Khartoum, now almost completely deserted against a backdrop of badly damaged buildings and burnt out cars.

To experts and many ordinary Sudanese, the scars caused by the almost wanton brutality of the war may take decades to heal.

And the worst may be yet to come.

“Things are getting worse for everyone,” said Noaman Ishaq, a political activist from Omdurman, a historical city that is part of the larger Khartoum area. He fled to Atbara, north of the capital, eight months after the war broke out.

“I have seen so many people getting killed before my own eyes and I myself was detained three times, twice by the RSF and once by the army. Now that I fled Omdurman, I feel free, but I lost my home.”

Emboldened by a recent spate of battlefield gains in the capital, the army appears determined to end the war militarily, regardless of the political cost or the future stability of the country.

Indirect peace negotiations sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia are expected to resume later this month, but there is not much hope that they can produce a ceasefire, let alone a settlement of the conflict.

Showing its desire to fight on, the army has dramatically stepped up its drive to recruit civilians, organising thousands into brigades of lightly armed volunteers to compensate for its shortage of soldiers.

Videos posted online show induction ceremonies being held in cities and towns across the country and feature fiery motivational speeches denouncing international and regional schemes against Sudan and demonising the RSF as a tool of foreign powers.

Underlining the importance of the volunteers fighting on the army's side, Gen Al Burhan mentioned them in a brief televised address on Tuesday to mark the Eid Al Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan.

“Greetings to the sons of my homeland as they join the ranks of the popular resistance everywhere to defeat the aggression and cleanse the land of Sudan from mercenaries,” he said.

The army has rejected a UN Security Council resolution adopted last month that called for a ceasefire during Ramadan, denying the RSF a chance to reorganise.

Underlining its new appetite for attack after months of faring poorly on the battlefield, it is amassing troops for what could be the war’s biggest and bloodiest battle south of Khartoum.

Some 40,000 troops and volunteers are believed to have been readied to wrest back control of Wad Madani, capital of Al Jazirah state south of the capital, that was captured by the RSF in December.

Videos shared online in recent days show dozens of all-terrain vehicles fitted with machine-guns and loaded with fighters moving on a dirt road towards Wad Madani. The outcome of the anticipated battle over the city, located in the middle of Sudan’s breadbasket, could determine the outcome of the war.

However, victory for the army would come at a price.

“Virtually all rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the army in 2020 now aspire to seize power, although their methods vary,” said Amin Magzoob, a retired army general who is now a political and military analyst.

“Some of them joined the army, others joined the RSF.

“Will all these factions be assimilated into the armed forces when the war ends? Will they surrender their weapons and return to civilian life?

“These militias have become an integral part of today’s political landscape and pose the gravest threat to national security.

The increase in the number of factions has created the impression of a country at war with itself, said political analyst Omar Arbab.

“It’s a war that pits armies against armies,” he said, alluding to the multitude of rebel groups that have recently declared their allegiance to the army or the RSF.

“If you take a moment to think about this war, you’ll find that it’s really one between everyone and everyone else. The army says it’s fighting the Rapid Support Forces because it’s a mutinous militia, but then it goes and forges alliances with other militias.”

Army generals have repeatedly claimed that foreign mercenaries from some of Sudan’s neighbours, such as Chad and the Central African Republic, are fighting alongside the RSF.

Significantly, Islamists who once served as the enforcers of the regime of former leader Omar Al Bashir are joining the army in droves, taking advantage of an opportunity to find a way back to political power.

Sudan’s army has a long track record of enlisting the help of militias in its war effort against rebels. The RSF’s own forerunner, the notorious Janjaweed militia, fought on the government’s side against mostly ethnic African rebels during the civil war in Darfur in the 2000s.

During the 1983-2005 civil war in South Sudan, the army used militias made up of Islamists loyal to Al Bashir to fight southern rebels seeking self-determination for the mostly Christian and animist south that seceded in 2011.

Further complicating the wartime political landscape, Sudan’s army-backed chief prosecutor last week dealt a body blow to the already slim chances for a political settlement.

He issued arrest warrants for 17 prominent politicians who played a role in the popular 2018-2019 uprising that led to Al Bashir’s removal and later partnered with the military in a civilian-led transitional government before it was overthrown in 2021 by Gen Al Burhan and Gen Dagalo.

Now members of a newly formed coalition seeking to end the war, the 17, who include former transitional prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, are charged with incitement against the state and undermining the constitutional system.

If convicted, they could receive the death sentence. However, all of them are at large, mostly living in exile outside Sudan.

The war broke out after months of simmering tension between Gen Al Burhan and Gen Dagalo. The pair were at odds over details of Sudan’s democratic transition, particularly the powers and mandate of the military and paramilitaries such as the RSF.

Mounting tension boiled over into violence last April but no one has since been able to conclusively determine who fired the first shot.

The conflict has wrought a level of devastation and human suffering never seen previously in the many civil wars that have bedevilled Sudan since independence in 1956.

It has displaced about eight million people and killed tens of thousands. About a third of Sudan’s population, or 18 million people, face acute hunger, according to the UN World Food Programme, with the most desperate trapped behind the front lines. They include five million who face starvation, the WFP said.

Both the RSF and the army have been accused of war crimes.

While the army has been singled out for killing hundreds of civilians through its use of air strikes and heavy artillery in urban areas, the RSF is accused of torture, sexual assault, arbitrary detentions and ethnically motivated killings in western Sudan that left thousands dead and forced tens of thousands to flee to neighbouring nations.

“We have lived day by day since this war started. Trying to think beyond the day can only cause despair,” said Sulaima Ishaq, a political activist and women’s rights campaigner who left the Sudanese capital last year with her family and found refuge in the city of Kosti to the south.

“At the end of the day, I prefer the army over the RSF, but I know it’s the army that landed us where we are today.”

Al Shafie Ahmed reported from Kampala, Uganda

Updated: April 14, 2024, 9:51 AM