What Started the Fighting in Sudan?

17 April 2023

Over the weekend, fighting broke out between the armies of Sudan's two most powerful generals.

Tensions had been rising for weeks between the armed forces chief, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.

Just 18 months earlier they worked together to overthrow the government as Sudan moved toward democracy.

Smoke rises from a central neighborhood of Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, April 16, 2023, after dozens have been killed in two days of intense fighting. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)
Smoke rises from a central neighborhood of Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, April 16, 2023, after dozens have been killed in two days of intense fighting. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

Both men each have tens of thousands of troops just in the capital of Khartoum. They have repeatedly said they will not negotiate nor stop fighting, even with rising international pressure.

Here is a look at how Sudan, a country with 46 million people and a long history of military overthrows, reached this point.

What led to the fighting?

In recent months, negotiations had been under way to restart the change to a democratic political system. The process had been suspended since October 2021, when the government was overthrown.

Under rising international pressure, the armed forces and the RSF signed a deal in December with pro-democracy and civilian groups. But the agreement left many important political issues unsettled.

Tensions between Burhan and Dagalo worsened during long negotiations to reach a final agreement. A main dispute is over how the RSF would be mixed into the military and who would have control over fighters and weapons.

Dagalo's RSF took strong action against tribal unrest and pro-democracy activists. But he claimed he was a supporter of the democratic transition. In March, he criticized Burhan, saying military leaders were unwilling to hand over power.

Experts argued that Dagalo is trying to cover up the reputation of his paramilitary force. It had been accused of war crimes during the Darfur conflict.

How did the situation worsen?

On Wednesday, the RSF began sending forces around the small town of Merowe, north of the capital. The town is important, with its large airport, central position and dam on the Nile River. The next day, the RSF also sent more forces into the capital and other areas of the country.

On Saturday morning, fighting began at a military base south of Khartoum. Each side blamed the other for having started the violence. Since then, the military and the RSF have battled each other with heavy weapons in highly populated areas of the capital and the nearby city of Omdurman.

By Monday, people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting.

What are the chances of a ceasefire?

An immediate ceasefire appears unlikely. Burhan and Dagalo have demanded that the other surrender. The fierce fighting also might make it harder for the two generals to return to negotiations.

However, the military and the RSF both have foreign supporters, who all called for an immediate end to the fighting. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to discuss Sudan on Monday.

Who are the foreign interests?

During the decades-long rule of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was removed in 2019, Russia was a strong influence. At one point, Moscow reached an initial deal to build a naval base on Sudan's Red Sea cost.

After al-Bashir's removal, the United States and European nations began competing with Russia for influence in Sudan. The country is rich in natural resources, including gold.

Burhan and Dagalo have also made close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Sudanese troops from the military and the RSF have fought alongside the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen's civil war.

Egypt also has deep ties with the Sudanese military. The two armies conduct regular war exercises, most recently this month.

The military controls most of the country's economy. But the RSF runs major gold mining areas, an important source of money for the group.

I'm Faith Pirlo.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

reputation — n. the way in which people think of someone or something

influence — n. the power to change or affect someone or something