Making sense of Sudan’s unrest

For democracy to succeed in Sudan, the process towards civilian rule must itself be democratized, rather than largely driven by top-down efforts.

December Revolution Khartoum, 2019. Image credit Manula Amin via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.

Fighting that began in Sudan between the military government, headed by the Sudanese president General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group led by the country’s vice president, Lt General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as Hemeti), has continued for a third day. Both al-Burhan and Hemeti were responsible for the October 2021 coup that derailed Sudan’s transition to civilian rule after Omar al-Bashir was ousted in 2019 following 30 years of dictatorial rule. Now, the two are locked in a devastating power struggle that threatens to plunge the country into outright civil war.

So far, 97 civilians have reportedly been killed. Former prime minister Abdallah Hamdok—the face of the transitional process and who was deposed by al-Burhan and Hemeti in 2021—has made a desperate appeal for the standoff to end. “The bullet, when it escapes from the weapon, will not differentiate between the aggressor and the non-aggressor, and the victims are the Sudanese,” Hamdok said in a speech circulated on social media.

At the heart of the dispute is the so-called Framework Agreement, a set of accords agreed to by civilian political forces and armed forces in December last year that aims to pave a roadmap to democracy, with elections scheduled for 2023. An outstanding point, however, remains the question of how to integrate the Rapid Support Forces into the Sudanese military, an issue that was meant to be resolved by January of this year (civilian forces are demanding oversight of the military and the handover of military economic assets that has been a source of power).

It is easy to frame this confrontation simply as a contest for power by two self-interested parties. That is partly true. But, much as the international community is calling for violence to end, overlooked is the role it has played in creating the conditions for violence. As Mat Nashed reported in Al Jazeera:

Security sector reform was the most vital and challenging issue to sort out in order to rein in the security forces. But the process was rushed and ad hoc, with the international community hoping to wrap it up in merely days or weeks in order to celebrate the signing of a new agreement, according to four diplomats that were not authorized to comment.

Of course, the solution requires rapid resolution at the very least for the bloodshed to end. But the framework in which this is being proposed—that is, of outside actors exerting diplomatic pressure either through regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, or traditional powers like the US, Russia, and China, and multilateral organizations like the UN or African Union—would only entrench the cycle of elite brokerage that vests decision-making agency on the powerful rather than the Sudanese people themselves. Since the 2019 revolution, the international community has been slow to throw its weight behind Sudan’s pro-democracy movement. For democracy to succeed in Sudan, the process itself must be democratized, rather than driven by top-down efforts.

Below are some resources to help make sense of the situation beyond mainstream reporting. It’s a mix of analysis published over the last couple of years on Africa Is A Country, useful Twitter threads, as well as a non-exhaustive list of accounts of researchers and journalists—mostly Sudanese and on the ground—to follow online.

For more, and for a bird’s eye view of our coverage of Sudan since the revolutionary process initiated in 2019, have a look through our archive.

On the origins of today’s unrest (from the revolution in 2019 to counter-revolution in 2021, to now)

Read Alden Young, a political and economic historian, writing in the aftermath of the revolution in 2019 about how, beyond regime change managed by the military, there’s a deeper economic crisis in Sudan that often gets overlooked. Also in 2019, Adrian Joseph, a development economics student, wrote about how “democratization requires a process of consolidation whereby various actors must be made to conform to newly established democratic rules and norms.” A year later, Bayan Abubakr, a Sudanese Ph.D. student, echoes this by describing “Revolution, however, is a process, not an event.” In 2021, Amar Jamal, a writer, and translator who was part of Africa Is A Country’s inaugural class of fellows, wrote a powerful essay on surviving the Khartoum massacre and trying to make sense of what remains from Sudan’s revolution. Then, in December 2021, Muzan Alneel, who runs a think tank on people-centered development, argued that the best support that the Sudanese can get from international allies is for them to reject and fight their own government’s efforts to force a government of killers on the Sudanese again.

On the origins and rise of the Rapid Support Forces

People to follow on Twitter for informative and timely updates

  • Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst and managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners.
  • Ahmed Gouja, a videographer and human rights monitor based in Nyala, Sudan.
  • Nisrin Elamin, assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.
  • Mohamed Mostafa Jameh, a Sudanese writer and journalist.
  • Investigative journalist Mat Nashed.
  • Raga Makawi, Sudanese democracy activist and principal editor at African Arguments.
  • Khartoum-based Sudanese-American journalist, Isma’il Kushkush.
  • Researcher at Human Rights Watch, West Africa division, Mohammed Osman.
  • Program officer for Constitution-Building in Sudan Program Office in Khartoum at the International IDEA, Hamid Khalafallah.
  • Muzan Alneel, non-resident rellow of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and writer and public speaker.
  • Hala al-Karib, Sudanese activist for women’s rights in the Horn of Africa and regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa.
  • Independent researcher, consultant, and development practitioner who has worked in Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and the UK, Nada Wanni.

Further Reading