From Dictatorship to Conflict

After thirty years of authoritarian rule under Omar al-Bashir, Sudan has evolved from dictatorship and genocide to conflict.

Lara Kajs | 9 May 2023 |

The crisis in Sudan stems from decades of authoritarian rule under Omar al-Bashir. In 2019, a series of demonstrations led to the overthrow of al-Bashir, and a military-civilian transitional government was put in place. The hope of the people of Sudan was to have a voice in government. However, after thirty years of waiting for change, the country has evolved from dictatorship to conflict.

However, in October 2021, the hope of a peaceful transition to civilian rule was upended as Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burham, the leader of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), made an alliance and staged a coup to seize power over the transitional government. Since then, Sudan has experienced vast demonstrations against military rule. There have been violent outbreaks between security forces and demonstrators. And now, a struggle for power between the two military forces has escalated to open non-international conflict.

IHL Violations

Both the SAF and the RSF have a history of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. In 2003, the Sudanese government fought alongside the allied militias known as the “Janjaweed”. The combined forces committed genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and sexual violence, during counterinsurgency operations in Darfur. Hemedti was a central figure throughout the Darfur campaign. He also played a central role in the removal of al-Bashir in 2019.

In 2011, the SAF conducted a campaign of indiscriminate aerial and ground attacks in which the armed forces destroyed civilian property, and deliberately killed and forcibly displaced civilians in Kordofan and Blue Nile.

In 2013, the RSF was created, with recruited members from the Janjaweed. The newly formed forces committed severe abuses in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. The RSF also led a June 2019 attack on protesters in Khartoum, that killed 120 and injured more than 900.

The breakdown of the alliance between Burhan and Hemedti began deteriorating in 2022. The UN reported significant member recruitment in Darfur by both sides. By the end of 2022, tensions rose after the signing of the framework of a new agreement between the Forces of Freedom and Change – the civilian component of the formal transitional government – the military leadership, and other political actors.

The new framework laid out basic principles and government structures but deferred five key critical issues, including transitional justice and security sector reform, to a second phase of talks. The issues were discussed in the first few months of 2023. However, as the military raised concerns regarding security sector reforms, tension between Burhan and Hemedti escalated over a delay in the integration of the RSF into the army, and who would lead the integrated force.

In the days preceding the 15 April onset of the conflict, both sides were stockpiling weaponry at key locations, including Khartoum. Since the start, more than 500 people have been killed and at least 4,200 injured and arbitrarily detained. There is an increased risk of civil war in Sudan. The actions of the SAF and RSF have damaged international confidence in the country’s democratic reform process.

Rules of War in Sudan

Armed conflict is governed by International humanitarian law (IHL), established by the Geneva Conventions of 1949. IHL differentiates between international and non-international armed conflicts. International conflicts relate to all cases of armed conflict between two or more states. Conflicts involving one or more non-state armed groups are considered to be non-international armed conflicts. Since the SAF and RSF cannot both be the government of Sudan, the conflict between them is a non-international armed conflict (NIAC). The criteria for NIAC was met in Sudan, after deadly clashes occurred between the SAF and RSF in Khartoum on 15 April 2023.

All parties to armed conflict are responsible for complying with the requirements of international humanitarian law. IHL seeks to protect civilians and other non-combatants from unnecessary pain and suffering during wartime. IHL provides fundamental protections for non-combatants, such as civilians, captured or surrendered combatants, and those who are unable to fight because of wounds or illness. IHL prohibits violence, including murder, torture, cruel treatment, attacks against personal dignity, and degrading or humiliating treatment.

In Sudan, both sides of the conflict have shown disregard for civilians. Reports of military strikes against health facilities, hijacking ambulances with patients and paramedics still on board, the looting of health facilities, and military forces occupying health facilities, all of which are violations of IHL. It is critical that all warring parties adhere to the rules of war and protect civilians.

Humanitarian Need in Sudan

Sudan is on the brink of collapse. Prior to the armed hostilities between the SAF and RSF, the UN estimated 15.8 million people to need humanitarian assistance in Sudan, an increase of 1.8 million from 2022. Some 334,000 people are internally displaced and at least 65,000 displaced people have fled the country across borders. Most of the more than 1.1 million refugees in Sudan are from South Sudan and Eritrea, living between camps, non-camp settlements, or in urban areas across the country.

The crisis in Sudan will lead to some 12 million students losing access to education. At least 10 million people need access to health services. Sixty percent of health facilities in Khartoum have closed. Health facilities across the country have had to close and those that remain open have had widespread blackouts. Hospitals have run out of blood and other lifesaving supplies. Hospitals face shortages of medicines to treat outbreaks of malaria, cholera, hepatitis E, and dengue fever. Food insecurity, lack of access to clean water, and health assistance are leading causes of death among children in Sudan. Nearly 3 million children under five years suffer from acute malnutrition.

There have been attacks against humanitarian workers. An International Office of Migration (IOM) staff member was killed when he and his family were caught in the crossfire between the warring parties. His wife and newborn survived the attack. Three WFP workers were killed in North Darfur. IOM has suspended operations in Sudan.

TGR joins with the UN and other humanitarian organizations and calls for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow civilians and aid workers to access supplies, food, and water. We stress that humanitarian workers are not targets and ask that all fighting parties respect that humanitarian aid workers are there to help the people of Sudan. Aid workers are not combatants.

Photo Credit: Women and children carry their belongings south. Tim Freccia/Enough Project. Licensed under CC by NC ND 2.0