For Sudan, April 2019 was a turning point: the country faced a popular uprising that took the power from the President Omar Hassan al Bashir. Bashir, who installed an authoritarian government from 1989 (following a coup), was forced to give up power: for months, many Sudanese groups – bonded by the oppression of the authoritarian regime, unbearable inflation and economic collapse – organized protests and peaceful sit-ins, demonstrating against the raising prices and the lack of essential goods such as gasoline and bread.
Led by the Sudan Professionals’ Association and empowered by the solidarity across the country, the demonstrators held up non-violent manifestations for months: a key role in the uprisings was played by doctors and lawyers, targeted by the regime in order to spread fear and suffocate the insurrectionist forces. Many cases of doctors murdered by the police were registered and documented. Not even hospitals had been spared by the government’s violence.
Many women were registered on the frontlines of the protests, both on the streets and during the negotiations that occurred after the demonstrations. Dozens of them were killed, injured and abused by the security forces while taking part in peaceful protests. Some local artists turned the naked walls of Khartoum into murals, in order to pay tribute to the bravery of the demonstrators, becoming also silent witnesses of the atrocities perpetrated by the police.
June 3, 2019, marked one of the bloodiest days of the uprising, as the police fired on the unarmed protesters, throwing their bodies into the Nile. At least 40 bodies were recovered, while many others were never found. We also count roughly 60 women sexually abused. The acts of violence were followed by a wave of detentions and arrests between Khartoum and Omdurman.
In July 2019, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which filled the power void left by Bashir, and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the civil opposition alliance, reached an agreement. The parts agreed a transitioning period of maximum three years, alternation in controlling the sovereign council and the creation of a transitional technocratic government of hybrid nature, both civil and military. The transitional government had the tasks of revitalizing the economy and leading the country throughout a democratic process that would end up in the elections. The government also founded an agreement to open a dialogue with the rebel and insurrectionist groups.
What is being fought for
In Sudan, clashes are still taking place in the Darfur, Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains regions, where deaths and migrations are still ongoing. The war in Darfur caused over 400 thousands deaths, as well as the flee of over 2.8 millions of people. The region is still highly unsafe, among armed clashes, criminal activities and a recent increase of gender and sexual violence.
Internal fights within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North in the Blue Nile State, which go back to 2017, are still causing civilians to flee. Villages and communities on the Nuba mountains, along the South Sudanese border, are still suffering from the aftermaths of the heavy aerial bombings that took place under the Bashir presidency.
The internal conflicts within the army’s ranks are still alive, together with the dangers posed by the integration of former rebel groups members. The tension is high also among the regular Sudanese Armed Forces army and the paramilitary group called Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF was initially created by the Bashir’s regime as an armed counter-revolutionary group, led by General Hamdan Dangalo – also known as Helmeti, a nickname chosen by the dictator for his “protector”. Among the RSF ranks we found pro-government militias, many of which are directly responsible for the atrocities that occurred in Darfur. However, towards the end of the dictatorship, the RSF played a key role in Bashir’s overthrow, a move that saw the pro-government group switching side and allying with the Forces of Freedom and Change. This allowed Helmeti to consolidate his military leadership in the country: although the head of the Transitional Military Council is formally Abdel Fatteh Burhan, it is evident that the General is still the de facto leader. One of the reasons that allow Helmeti to stay in power are his personal relationships with the Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, enjoying the subsequent financial support.
In its late and post colonial history, Sudan never experienced long lasting peace and stability periods. Coups and military juntas have followed one another from the ‘50s until Omar Hassan El Bashir who, after taking over in 1989, stayed in power for thirty years, being overthrown only in 2019, following the aforementioned popular uprising.
Until South Sudan’s secession, tensions and armed clashes between the Northern regions of the country, with prevailing Arabic culture and Islamic religion, and the Sub-Saharan in the South, where Christian religion and traditional and animistic practices prevail, were a constant. The bloodiest point of the conflict was fought between 1983 and 2003, when rebel groups led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army fought to gain independence from the North. The end of the civil Sudanese war, after the Naivasha agreement in 2005, brought to a development of the extractive infrastructures and of oil wells, mainly funded by China.
July 9, 2011, marked the secession of the Southern regions and the birth of the Republic of South Sudan. On the eve of the division of the two countries, oil represented the 80% of the country’s export. After the secession, new problems arose: the majority of the oil wells are located in the South, while the extractive infrastructures and the refinery industry is still based in the North. Therefore, it was necessary to renegotiate the division of the profits and the agreements for the use, from the South Sudan side, of the pipelines that go through the North and that are still under Khartoum’s control. Despite that, Abeyi, South Kordofan and Blue Nile are still disputed areas.
After Bashir’s fall, the peace negotiations were held in Juba, South Sudan, and lasted over one year, leading to a final agreement signed on October 3, 2020, from Khartoum’s transitional government and from the members of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, the armed Sudanese opposition. The Front includes groups from the Darfour States, South Kordofan and from Blue Nile (the so-called “Two Areas”) and from the Eastern regions.
It is important to consider how two armed opposition groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – whom are both politically very strong – were left out from the Juba’s negotiations. Their absence was motivated by the concern that some Islamist networks are still holding control of some state institutions. While the peace agreement marked the official ending of a decades-long conflict and the beginning of the slow democratic transition – set to happen no later than the beginning of 2024 – Darfur is still characterized by ongoing violence. The rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army in the area reported attacks by regime’s law enforcement groups against some pacific protests organized in solidarity with the Khartoum’s revolution. In 2020, internal conflicts in the Sudan Liberation Army led to further violence, deaths and migration of civilians in central Darfur. In the Blue Nile State and in South Kordofan, armed acts of violence are still taking place, even if on a lower degree of intensity if compared to the past.
The pacification process is still hindered by many challenges. Within the Sudan Revolutionary Front persist diverging interests among the factions, with very few common elements shared among the different armed groups that form it. Moreover, the Beja youth in Eastern Sudan and the Arabic Misseriya in Western Kordofan, expressed their discontent around Juba’s negotiations.
Finally, the practical cost to put in practice the dispositions reached in the peace agreement is assessed around 13 billion American dollars, to be spent throughout a ten year time span. The Sudanese government, already in great need of liquidity, will have to find this amount without having, at the moment, a significant support from outside the country. The success of the peace agreement highly depends on the capability of the international community to finance the transition, to show support to the government and to involve in the negotiations also the armed groups that were initially absent.
On the Eastern front, the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – also known as Gerd, Ethiopian’s Renaissance’s Great dam – is causing friction between Sudan and Ethiopia. Ethiopia continues to consolidate its relations with Eritrea, while Sudan turns more and more towards Egypt: an example are the so-called “Guardians of the Nile” combined military trainings, which happened between May and June 2021.
Focus 1 – No longer a “Rogue state”
On the international level, the Sudanese government under the Bashir’s regime had difficult relations with Europe and the West.
For having supported international terrorist groups such as Hamas (also for having offered shelter to Osama bin Laden and for the support to al-Qaeda in the two shelling in the U.S. embassies in 1998 and the USS Cole attack), the U.S. government included Sudan in the list of countries supporting terrorism, together with Syria, Iran and North Korea. Despite an attempt at improving relations between the Sudanese and U.S. intelligence services following the attacks on 9th September 2001, Sudan remained in U.S. “black list”. They motivated the sanctions imposed to the country by referring to the violence in Darfur, the 2003 genocide and the restrictions imposed by Khartoum to the access of humanitarian aid in the country.
After long and complex negotiations, which saw Khartoum compensating for the victims of the attacks, Sudan was removed from the black list on 14th December 2020. This was an important step, as it makes Sudan suitable to receive investments and international aids to lighten the public debt.
Focus 2 Darfur: the exploitation of natural resources
In the already troubled Darfur region, climate change and the scarcity of economic resources continue to cause damages. In 2003, the systematic hostile takeover of fertile lands was one of the driving reasons for the genocide. In the meantime, desertification proceeds: in 1992, the border with the desert was located 120km west of Nyala (capital of South Darfur), while in 2018 the desert was only 5km away from the city.
Climate change has worsened the quality of the soil and reduced the access to water, even in the (Scarce) woodlands. The effects are devastating: the community are now living in increasingly restricted spaces, while the competition for the already limited resources is fostering conflicts.