What Is Driving Violent Unrest in Sudan?

Deadly clashes between two armed factions, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), broke out in Khartoum and throughout Sudan on April 15. Three days into the conflict, at least 180 civilians have been killed and hundreds have been injured in the crossfire. Extensive fighting has been reported in Khartoum, as gunfights spill into streets in the capital and shelling hits the city. Hospitals are being targeted and many are sheltering in place without electricity. An estimated 15.8 million in Sudan, around one-third of the population, required humanitarian assistance before the outbreak of conflict, and this number is likely to grow as clashes continue. This Critical Questions offers insight into the causes of the conflict, the key factions and actors, and the role of the international community in mediating the conflict.

Q1: What has triggered the violent clashes in Sudan?

A1: The violence was precipitated by a set of tense negotiations happening between the SAF and RSF over the past few weeks around reforming the country’s security sector. Under the terms of the political framework agreement that would have seen the military hand over power to civilian leaders, the SAF and RSF were negotiating the terms under which those forces would be merged into a single, national army. This created mounting tensions because hardline factions within the military are resistant to incorporating what they see as a less professional security service into their professional army. On the opposite side, RSF commanders bristled at the prospect of being made subordinate to army officers and being stripped of their ranks and salaries, which were not in line with the army’s standards.

Q2: Who are the generals behind the two security services?

A2: The Sudan Armed Forces is led by General Mohammad Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces is led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known popularly as Hemedti. The SAF is Sudan’s national army and has a long history at the center of Sudanese politics and remains the country’s most dominant institution. They have been trained by Egypt’s military and see themselves as the constitutional protectors of the country. The RSF is the successor force to the Janjaweed Arab militia forces that former dictator Omar al-Bashir organized to carry out his scorched-earth policies in Darfur in the early 2000s. In recognition of those efforts, Bashir made the RSF a formal part of the country’s security services and used them as a military counterweight to the army in an effort to “coup-proof” his regime. Since its creation, the RSF and Hemedti have grown wealthy offering the force as a mercenary army to Gulf states in Yemen and Libya. Hemedti has also taken over control of gold mining areas in Darfur, allowing him to build up a war chest and recruit substantial new forces, making the RSF a fairly evenly matched rival to the national army.

Q3: What does the fighting mean for existing and new humanitarian needs? 

A3: One-third of Sudan’s 45 million people are already dependent on international assistance and food aid. With the international airport and most major roads closed because of the fighting, the likelihood that vast portions of the country will soon run short of vital supplies is increasing. However, unlike previous conflicts in Sudan which took place in largely rural areas along Sudan’s vast periphery, the majority of the fighting now is taking place in urban centers, including the capital, Khartoum. For these urban residents, who do not have a history of being caught in military operations, there are far fewer coping mechanisms than people in rural areas have access to. As the fighting continues in the cities and as more civilian infrastructure like hospitals, water pumping stations, and power stations are destroyed, the more residents in both urban and rural areas will continue to be put under strain.

Q4: How will the clashes impact Sudan's broader democratic transition?

A4: It is regrettably fair to say that Sudan’s democratic transition is on indefinite hold. Interestingly, civilian politicians who are supposed to be negotiating with military leaders over the terms of the transition have been silenced. The political agreement that was supposed to pave the way for a return to civilian rule has been largely rendered moot and the idea of salvaging the prospect of a civilian transition seems a distant prospect unless and until security reform could be completed.

Q5: How can the international community, from the African Union to the United States, mediate between the RSF and the army?

A5: There is very little indication that the warring parties are presently open to outside mediation. Washington’s top priority seems to be in ensuring that neighboring states and regional actors do not take sides in this conflict and decide to get involved. That could quickly see this spiral into an even costlier regional conflict. The African Union Peace and Security Council met this weekend and expressed alarm and offered to send Chairperson Moussa Faki to Sudan to negotiate a ceasefire. Similarly, Kenyan president William Ruto has announced that he would lead a delegation of heads of state from neighboring Djibouti and South Sudan to Khartoum this week to press for peace, but it is not clear that they will even be able to land because of damage to Khartoum’s airport. Washington has perhaps the most leverage, and along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, seems to be working through backchannels to press the parties to pause fighting to allow for humanitarian access and evacuate civilians who are caught in the crossfire of urban fighting.

Cameron Hudson is a non-resident senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.