Sudan: Regime-Change Violence, Begun April 15, Is Still Not Defeated
by David Cherry, April 22, 2023
War broke out within Sudan early on Saturday morning, April 15,
between the military government and the large, powerful militia, the
Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
The current military government came to power when the army
overthrew and arrested President Umar al-Bashir in 2019. Bashir had
been in power since 1989. The army had the help of the large RSF
militia that, like the army, had supported al-Bashir. The army and the
RSF are now fighting each other.
The RSF grew out of the notoriously brutal and criminal
Janjaweed—based on the upper-class cattle herders in the five Darfur
provinces in the west of Sudan. From the RSF’s point of view, killing,
raping, and burning down villages is the way to demonstrate its power.
Bashir had adopted it as his private army. The cattle herders were the
upper class in Darfur, but were looked down upon as crude, illiterate,
and incapable of governing by the elites of the cities along the Nile. The
RSF helped the government terrorize and destroy any opposition, armed
But the RSF became powerful and wealthy through contract work for
Khalifa Haftar in Libya and for the Emiratis in the Saudi-Emirati war on
Yemen. Its leader is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti), whose
company, al-Junaid, has investments in mining, transport, car rental, iron
and steel. He also took over some gold mining operations in Sudan in
2017 by force. He is said by some to be the wealthiest man in Sudan.
Another version is that he is the most powerful man in Sudan, and one of
the wealthiest. (Leaders of the army have also embedded themselves in
After the two forces had overthrown and arrested al-Bashir, in 2021 they
overthrew the ensuing civilian government led by Abdalla Hamdok that
oriented toward the Anglosphere. (Hamdok has a doctorate from the
University of Manchester, UK in economics and had a senior position at
Deloitte & Touche in the 1990s.) Then the RSF aspired to displace the
army. Such an aspiration is possible because the RSF is variously
estimated to have 20,000, 50,000, or even 100,000 men, many of them
hardened fighters. And they are distributed throughout Khartoum and
the country. That’s why it is so difficult to dislodge them.
Sudan was given nominal independence in 1956 by the Anglo-Egyptian
Condominium, which had ruled it ever since the Condominium
reconquered Sudan from the Mahdists in 1896-1899. Independent
Sudan’s entire history since 1956 has been one of military rule except
for about 9 months, years ago.
The poverty and misery in Sudan cannot be blamed principally on the
government, any more than the Nigerian or Democratic Republic of
Congo government can be principally blamed, but the government
seems distant from the problem.
Sudan is huge, the size of Europe, with a relatively small population of
47 million today. Sudan’s GDP per capita in 2023 was projected to be
$975, one-third of what it was in 2016! What happened? U.S. sanctions,
for one thing.
Gold is Sudan’s biggest export, and Sudan is Africa’s third-largest
producer after South Africa and Ghana.
The Misery Before the Fighting Broke Out
The New Humanitarian, Sept. 9, 2022, cited a then recent report by the
World Peace Foundation at Tufts University:
“Sudan has faced hunger before, but in the last century it has never faced
levels of hunger as widespread, persistent and acute as today.”
The article continues: “Hassan Mahmoud, a 44-year-old Khartoum
plumber, added that incomes can’t keep up with rising prices at local
markets. ‘Living in dignity for the lower class, even the middle class, is
nearly impossible,’ Mahmoud said in an interview in April.”
Months earlier, in 2021, this writer had been told the same thing by a
Sudanese expat of the urban elite who had recently visited his home. He
said he didn’t know how people managed to live.
Persistent hunger is usually a rural phenomenon, but today it is also
found in the cities.
But Why This Warfare? The Strategic Contexts
A cascade of strategic developments on the larger scale preceded the
outbreak in Sudan. While the proxy war in Ukraine raged on, Saudi
Arabia declined to cooperate with Washington on fixing the oil price.
Then the Saudis expressed a willingness to do oil trades with the yuan.
But the big surprise came last month, on March 10, when China
announced that it had brokered an historic peace between Iran and the
Saudis—a geopolitical earthquake that meant Washington and London
had lost their coveted 100-year control over what they liked to call “the
Middle East.” It caught Washington off guard.
The cascade continued. Russia and China announced a new policy
agreement on March 20 that solidified their cooperation. Then Russia
released a new foreign policy concept on March 31, responding to the
West’s economic warfare: It called for the creation of “world trade and
monetary and financial systems” against the abuse of “monopoly or
dominant position in certain areas of the world economy.”
Washington asks itself, what can we do to upset this, and to set at least
some of the parties in the region against each other? What can we do to
weaken governments to benefit our new drive to get African minerals on
a huge scale to make electric vehicles? And what can we do to trash the
optimism that has been building in the West Asia-Africa region?
It seems highly unlikely, therefore, that the fighting at this moment in
Sudan is coincidental.
Developments in Sudan-U.S. relations were nested within this
configuration of events. The State Department had been trying to force
Sudan’s military government to cede power to a civilian government, a
government presumably led by economist Abdalla Hamdok, who would
be in Washington’s pocket. In late 2021, State sent Jeffrey Feltman, as
U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, to Khartoum, where Feltman
bluntly told the military government what it was going to do, and said
anybody who got out of line would be punished. The arrogance was
thick. Khartoum was underwhelmed and gave the State Department the
middle finger. Sudan then increasingly oriented toward Russia. In
February 2023, Sudan and Russia revived the plan for Russia to build a
naval base at or near Port Sudan on the Red Sea—another flame-thrower
event for Washington.
The outbreak of war in Sudan is, further, an expression of the Anglo-
American powers’ drive to do to all of Africa what it has been doing in
West Asia, notably so far in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen.
The parallel drive in Africa was for a long time on a slower timetable
and usually at lower intensity. But no longer. This is what China’s Belt
and Road, and Russia’s drive to electrify the continent, are up against.
The Anglo-American powers have been promoting the break-up of
African states to keep Africa weak. That is what is happening in Sudan
today: In addition to all-round destabilization, there is the threat of the
secession of Darfur. The RSF leadership comes from the elite of Darfur.
If the RSF backs down, it will attempt to extract a price: the secession of
Darfur. Darfur was an independent sultanate until the British invaded
and murdered its sultan in 1916.
Several African countries have either suffered a secession, or are
currently fighting a secession operation against them, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic
Republic of Congo, and South Africa.
There Are No Good Guys Here, But a Racial/Cultural Divide
Neither the military government nor the RSF has shown interest in the
welfare of the Sudanese people. When there were days of
demonstrations against the military government in 2019, they jointly
solved this problem with a massacre of demonstrators in Khartoum on
June 3, 2019. The RSF took the lead in this massacre, and the army was
part of it too.
There is a significant racial/cultural difference between the army and the
RSF. It is a difference that matters in the struggle for power.
The Nile elite—upper-class families who have lived for generations in
the cities and towns along the Nile—are an alliance of tribes, known
collectively as the Jellaba, the same word used for the all-white robe that
the men wear. In other words, this elite is known as “the suits.”
The Darfur elite is part of the larger Baqqara (Baggara) alliance of tribes
that speak Chadian Arabic and extends from Darfur across the Sahel,
including Chad, Northern Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, and Mali.
The Jellaba along the Nile are the elite that have been continuously in
power in Sudan. They think of themselves as Arabs; others call them
pseudo-Arabs. They are hated by the peripheral cultural groups because
these peripheral groups have always gotten the short end of the stick.
John Garang attempted to bring all of the peripheral groups together to
overthrow the Jellaba. The one peripheral group that has grown in power
is the Baqqara in Darfur, in the form of the RSF. The peripheral groups
orient toward Africa, while the Jellaba orient to neighboring Saudi
Arabia, across the Red Sea. The Jellaba see the peripheral groups as
African and alien.
In the region and along the Sahel, Africans know this racial/cultural
difference and are drawn to Hemedti for that reason.
Hemedti was inspired by John Garang. Like Garang, he is utterly opposed to the
Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood that Bashir had given rein to, and is
concerned over their remaining influence in the Jellaba (and the
The War Has Greatly Intensified the Misery
The current struggle has made the misery much worse. The water system
in Khartoum is down. Electricity is off more frequently. It is dangerous
to leave home because there are tanks in the streets and gunfights in the
suburbs. Jets overhead are bombing RSF facilities. So the food problem
is worse than before. The WHO said as of April 20, “Almost 330 people
have died in the fighting and almost 3,200 more have been wounded in
Khartoum, the western region of Darfur and other states.” But the
hospitals have run out of blood and medical supplies. According to a
report of April 20, “39 of Khartoum’s 59 hospitals have been shut down
by artillery fire and aerial bombing.”
The World Food Program (WFP) suspended operations in Sudan a few
days into the fighting, after three of its people were killed in the fighting.
Of the 16 million suffering hunger even before the conflict (one third of
the population), the WFP had been reaching almost 10 million.
The Attempted Merger of the Army and RSF
For months before the shooting began, the army and the RSF had been
engaged in attempting a merger, under pressure from especially
Washington to do so. But it’s purely a power struggle that no “conflict
resolution” routine can fix.
What the outside powers—including the U.S., Egypt, Saudi Arabia,
UAE, and the eight IGAD trading group of countries—should have done
is to say that Sudan already has a government, and we will back it up
and support Sudan’s territorial integrity. You, the RSF, can be integrated
into the army on the army’s terms. If you don’t like those terms, we will
intercede for you up to a point. What was actually going on in the talks
is not public. It does seem however, from public pronouncements, that the two military forces are being treated as equally legitimate by the U.S. and others.
The Chairman of the ruling military Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah
al-Burhan, had made Hemedti his second-in-command, and the RSF
people had been given ranks. Those moves conferred some legitimacy.
The sticking point was who would oversee the integration. In other
words, who would come out on top? There was not enough clout applied
to compel the RSF to submit to a monopoly of force on the part of the
Neither side is interested in an actual truce or in a negotiated settlement.
The suffering of the people is not a major consideration. They prefer to
fight to the death.
The International Dimension
Egypt is supporting the military government, with which it has strong
ties. Russia and China have Egypt as their key ally in the region, and
they also support the government, believing that is the choice for
stability. In its first move, the RSF attacked the airbase where six of
Egypt’s most advanced MIG 29s were deployed, destroying four of
them. Egypt is a target of this operation for obvious strategic reasons.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are said, by Palki Sharma on her “Vantage”
program April 22, to be quietly supporting the RSF.
Beyond that, there is a good deal of disinformation about who is
supporting whom and why.
by David Cherry
The author thanks Dean Andromidas for his contributions.