A raging battle between the military and a powerful militia is ripping the country apart. We explain why this civil war and Sudan matter oh-so-much to the great powers, including Russia and the Arab states.
First: How we got here
Intro to Sudan: Located in northeast Africa, Sudan is one of the biggest countries on the continent—and one of the poorest in the world. The population is primarily Muslim and its two national languages are Arabic and English.
Where it began: Until 2019, Sudan was ruled by Omar al-Bashir—a military dictator of 30 years. Any rebellion was squashed with great ferocity—by the military and a notorious militia known as Janjaweed—Arab warriors who terrorised African tribes.
The worst of these atrocities took place in Darfur during the early 2000s. The military and the Janjaweed worked together to decimate a tribal uprising. More than 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced. Bashir was indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court.
The two ‘generals’: One of the military officers in charge of the Darfur operation was Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The man leading the Janjaweed: Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, nicknamed Hemedti. The two men met in Darfur—and rose to prominence by cultivating the patronage of Gulf powerhouses like Saudi Arabia and UAE—and, of course, Bashir. Hemedti became a brigadier general—and the Janjaweed was transformed into a paramilitary force called RSF. Burhan became the army’s inspector general and the third most senior military leader.
The hope of democracy: In 2019, a popular uprising ousted Omar al-Bashir. As unprecedented pro-democracy protests spread across the country, the RSF and the military indiscriminately killed protesters. But the people’s movement got an unexpected assist from Burhan and Hemedti—who colluded to topple their master.
Death of democracy: The RSF, army and civilian leaders came together to reach a compromise. Bashir was shunted out. And the three formed a transitional government—under a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok. The plan was to steer Sudan towards democratic elections in three years. But the two generals soon got tired of jostling for power—and they kicked out the civilian leaders in October, 2021. Hemedti and Burhan seized power—with Burhan as the official leader.
The leadup: The coup failed to create stability—as protests continued unabated. And the infighting between the two generals didn’t help. So they went back to the civilian leaders in December—and signed another deal to prepare Sudan for democracy. It was supposed to be finalised in April when all hell broke loose.
The big breakup: The goals of Burhan and Hemedti have always been at odds. Burhan wants to absorb the RSF into the military—without losing his pole position. Hemedti wants political legitimacy—to become part of the establishment so he can push Burhan aside. It isn’t clear who fired the first bullet. But by April 15, the RSF took over Khartoum airport and the presidential palace—and the military retaliated with aerial strikes. The generals were at war.
How bad is it in Sudan?
According to UN estimates, more than 400 people have been killed and 3,500 wounded so far in the fighting. Though the actual toll is likely to be higher. Around 20,000 people have already fled to neighbouring Chad—and are mostly women and children.
A humanitarian crisis: Around a third of Sudan’s population of 45 million people were facing hunger before the fighting began. The violence has shut down humanitarian aid. The healthcare system has collapsed due to street battles and air strikes. Family members struggle to retrieve bodies of those killed in the streets. And there is no end in sight. Two cease-fire agreements have already failed.
Running for the exits: Countries are scrambling to evacuate their citizens. There are around 3,000 Indians stranded in Sudan—including 100 people from the Hakki-Pikki tribe from Karnataka. They were in Sudan to sell herbal medicine and products. Most are in Khartoum—while others are over 1,000 km away in Al-Fashir. While PM Modi has ordered officials to make an evacuation plan, Saudi Arabia has already airlifted some Indians—along with citizens of 66 other “brotherly” countries. Meanwhile, the US flew in military aircraft and 100 Special Forces soldiers to rescue embassy staff.
And what’s the ‘big picture’? Why is this a big deal?
Location, location, location: The country sits at the crossroads between the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. And its coastlines offer access to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes—making it ideal for commercial ports and naval bases. Here’s how important Sudan’s coasts are:
In December, a U.A.E.-based consortium signed a $6 billion deal to build a new port facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Sudan’s ports are the only point of export for around 135,000 barrels of oil a day produced inside the country and neighboring South Sudan. They are also the main gateway for goods to and from landlocked, mineral-rich Central African nations such as Chad and the Central African Republic.
The damned dam: Ethiopia is building a $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam in the southern stretches of the Nile river. Egypt is terrified the project will leave it without freshwater. FYI: “The river is the key source of water for Egypt, whose population of about 96 million is squeezed mostly along its banks.”
The dam is being built 12.8 kilometres from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan—which lies between the two countries. Since Khartoum also relies on the Nile for agriculture-Egypt is hoping to enlist its support to squash the project. That’s why Cairo immediately jumped into help Burhan:
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi has thrown his weight behind Gen. Burhan, who, like the Egyptian leader, seized power through a coup. He has already sent jet fighters and pilots to support Sudan’s air force, bolstering Gen. Burhan’s control over the country’s skies and his ability to strike his rivals’ positions from the air.
The great Arab land grab: Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bought up precious land along the banks of the Nile in Sudan—to grow crops to feed their own people and livestock. For decades, the Sudanese government has been selling land and water rights to foreign nations—at the expense of its own people. Example: in 2016, Bahrain leased 100,000 acres—a plot almost as large as Bahrain itself. Also this:
The country features as much as 200 million acres of arable land, a strategic location less than a day’s sail across the Red Sea to the Saudi port of Jeddah, and a roughly 25% share of the Nile’s waters under regional agreements, much of it unused.
Moscow calling: Hemedti has close ties with Russia—and President Putin’s favourite band of mercenaries—the Wagner Group (explained in this Big Story). There is strong evidence that Wagner is supplying RSF with surface-to-air missiles—to take down Burhan’s aircraft.
Sudan offers Putin great strategic clout—right when he needs it most:
[T]he Kremlin is awaiting final signoff from Sudan’s leadership on a 25-year lease for a naval base in Port Sudan, around 1,000 miles north of the biggest U.S. military base in Africa. The Russian base would hand the Kremlin’s warships access to the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean in the middle of Moscow’s greatest confrontation with the U.S. and Europe in a generation.
Washington also claims that companies held by Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin have been mining gold in Sudan for many years—though Prigozhin strongly denies it. Western intelligence agencies have been worried about Putin using Wagner to access precious natural resources in Africa—to fund his war in Ukraine.
The bottomline: We leave you with this clip of Ala Salah—dressed in a white robe and gold earrings, and dubbed a “Nubian goddess”—leading the people’s rebellion in 2019:
It's a reminder of the courage, hope and sacrifice of the Sudanese people—all of it trampled underfoot by insatiable greed.
Wall Street Journal (splainer gift link) has an excellent piece on why Sudan is the crown jewel for the great powers. CNN looks at new evidence that shows Wagner arming Hemedti. BBC News has a good piece on why the civil war is especially tricky for Egypt. The Guardian has the best, most detailed account of how Sudan came to this sorry pass. Globe and Mail focuses on the fraught relationship between Burhan and Hemedti.