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Sudan's War: Retracing the World's Forgotten Conflict

Updated: Jun 9

Situated amidst a complex regional backdrop involving neighboring countries like Egypt, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, Sudan grapples with a volatile blend of political upheaval, economic challenges, and humanitarian concerns. The ebb and flow between authoritarian rule and tentative engagements with democratic forces make Sudan a focal point in the geopolitics of the region. With the Sudan Civil War sparking during the first half of 2023, the territory, which is Africa’s third largest producer of gold, has stimulated the interest of multiple great powers, while other actors in the international community are getting increasingly worried not only about the aims of the former, but also about the scope of a crisis that’s been permeating civilians’ lives for almost a year now.

A Historic Overview

The civil war that erupted on April 15, 2023 is not the first sign of instability Sudan has witnessed in the past 50 years. Following the achievement of independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956, the second half of the 20th century was characterised by a long series of coups d’état: starting with the self-coup orchestrated by prime minister Abdallah Khalil in 1958, brief moments of democracy interspersed with years of dictatorship, with leaders such as Nimeiry (in 1959), al-Dahab (in 1985), and al-Bashir (in 1989) seizing power through the military and imposing a reign of terror. al-Bashir was the most successful among these, as he managed to stay in power for no less than thirty years.

After taking over in 1989, al-Bashir took several measures aimed at avoiding the mistakes of his predecessors. Rather than relying on a single body for protection - thereby concentrating considerable power in the hands of the latter and endangering himself, - he adopted the so-called “coup-proofing” strategy, which included bolstering the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the official military corps of Sudan, while constantly checking on them and on the other potential threats to his regime.

Despite being stronger than ever at this point in history, the SAF did not dominate the field for long. In 2003, the Second Sudanese Civil War, paralleled that same year by the Darfuri rebellion, put a strain on the government, and the SAF was simply not enough to face two conflicts of such scope. While the Sudanese Armed Forces were busy fighting against secessionist groups in the south, al-Bashir opted to arm the pro-government, local Arab militias called “Janjaweed” in Darfur, asking them to fight for him. The atrocities that one of the leaders of the militias, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as “Hemedti”), committed against the protesters in the region were seen as a proof of loyalty by al-Bashir, who continued commissioning work to the group and in 2013 organised them into a paramilitary force called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF were placed under the dictator’s direct command in 2017, and Hemedti was allowed to take control of some of the gold mines in Darfur, thereby acquiring financial autonomy.

As the SAF and the RSF were becoming richer and richer - the former thanks to their monopoly of the telecommunication and weapon industries and the latter by smuggling minerals and weapons to bordering countries, - a financial crisis was raging in the 2010s. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 threw the country into massive turmoil, as most of the oil resources that sustained the country were located in that area. The years of economic downturn that followed the independence of South Sudan caused the national protests that broke out in 2018. With protesters increasingly dissatisfied with the dictator and demanding democratic rule, the RSF and the SAF, headed respectively by Hemedti and the general al-Burhan, staged a coup and overthrew al-Bashir in 2019, seizing power.

After several crackdowns against the pro-democracy protesters, or “resistance committees”, in the capital Khartoum, the international community (represented by the US, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the African Union), forced the military and protesters to institute a transitional Council, in order to promote a gradual shift to civilian rule.

This agreement, which included an alternation of power between the military and protesters, soon proved the civilians’ skepticism right: in October 2021, the new prime minister Hamdok was removed in a staged coup that saw the RSF and the SAF allied, again. 

A final attempt to restore democracy was made in December 2022, but problems such as the implementation of the Security Sector Reform, implying an incorporation of the RSF into the SAF and the exclusion of the security sector from the economic sphere, made the prospect of peace impossible. The relentless competition for power between al-Burhan and Hemedti (the latter of whom feared losing authority after the reform) and the failure of the last-ditch talks to find a compromise that satisfied both parties brought Sudan to the brink of the civil conflict that burst about nine months ago.

Strategic Alliances and Implications

One of the reasons the Sudan Civil War is still ongoing lies in the relationships the leaders of the RSF and the SAF had been able to build in the years leading up to and following the 2019 coup against al-Bashir.

Most of Hemedti’s strategic alliances date back to 2015. In that year, RSF troops were sent to fight alongside the Emiratis in the Saudi-led coalition during the Yemen Civil War, when president Hadi called for an intervention against rebels in the country. The service they rendered to the United Arab Emirates in 2015 is now being reciprocated by the UAE, which managed to involve Libya in the conflict as well. Libya’s warlord Haftar, who has close ties with the UAE and furthers their regional interests, has been supporting the RSF since the beginning of the war by providing missiles and weapons and by making soft interventions such as information sharing.

Among General Dagalo’s allies, there is one that is particularly relevant, when looking at the current situation in Europe. Russia’s Wagner Group - although largely absent following Prigozhin’s death - is currently supplying Hemedti with ammunition and the mercenary troops that have been sent to fight alongside the RSF in the past few months. This relationship has had a significant impact on the Ukraine War; in fact, not only have weapon exports to Sudan pumped liquidity into the Russian economy, helping Putin finance the conflict in Europe, but Hemedti has also given Russian firms permission to smuggle gold and other minerals directly to Russia, further enriching the country and aiding its war of aggression.

Despite a long history of cooperation, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have diplomatically drifted apart. As the two members of the GCC compete for hegemony in the Arabian world, it seems that they have found a way to indirectly confront each other through the Sudan conflict. As Riyadh continues to side with al-Burhan and Abu Dhabi with Hemedti, the rift between the powers deepens in what resembles a proxy war. Such tensions are bringing to the surface one of the major fears of diplomats in the international community: that of whether the Sudanese Civil War will spillover to other regions, due to the influence of the Gulf countries on African states.

This fear is already being realised. Egypt has become one of the most important supporters of al-Burhan, thanks to its provision of fighter aircrafts to the SAF and to its bond to Saudi Arabia - one of its largest creditors, along with the other GCC countries.

Further fueling instability, the Sudan conflict aroused the interest of the Chadian anti-government group “Front for Change and Concord”, which took the opportunity exploit the instability in the Darfur region to create a new base to attack the Chadian authority with the tacit approval of the RSF, ruining the peace that had been reached in 2010.

Map of Sudan reporting the current status of the conflict

Humanitarian Aid

One of the major problems concerning the war are the affected regions. Al-Burhan and Dagalo are currently using cities as their targets during attacks, possibly with the aim of destroying as much as possible, in the hope of dissuading their opponent. 

While military confrontation before the conflict used to occur mostly in the peripheries of the country, where no severe damage could be done, the civil war is now moving towards cities such as Khartoum (the capital) and Port Sudan. As a consequence of this, at least 12,000 civilians had died by December 19, and around 33,000 had been injured by the armed forces: a number that would have likely been considerably lower had the conflict taken place in rural areas. The number of people that had been displaced, both domestically and amounted to over 7 million by December 29, as shown in the graph below; these figures keep increasing, given that the RSF and the SAF largely operate in the only areas of the country where health infrastructure exists.

As of November, around 80% of Sudan’s healthcare facilities had been shuttered, and the absence of coping mechanisms in the cities is causing even more to seek foreign humanitarian aid. Despite the efforts made by resistance committees to help civilians flee the country and receive support, the international community is struggling to find a way of access to the territory and send aid as Port Sudan, formerly the main entryway to the country, has now become the base for al-Burhan’s corps, with aid deliveries currently being held hostage.

Map of Sudan reporting the extent of displacement within the country

Diplomatic Prospects Moving Forward

With a situation that looks so tragic, what are we left hoping for? Diplomats from the EU and the US have formulated multiple potential developments in the conflict which may lead to varying outcomes.

Among the hypotheses brought forward, the best case scenario would see a final agreement between the two military leaders. This prospect appears to be realistic for a number of reasons, including that external pressures might force the two factions to break down and allow for a democratic transition, and that both Hemedti and al-Burhan are suffering from a significant decrease in popularity.

On one hand, the RSF (with all the charges brought by the International Criminal Court against potential genocide in Darfur) are perceived increasingly unfavourably both abroad and domestically, as the elites of certain Sudanese regions are repulsed by the group’s actions; such widespread malcontent might risk the diplomatic recognition Hemedti could instead acquire through negotiation.

On the other hand, al-Burhan has always been less successful in building solid, enduring relationships diplomatically, and by not being able to defeat a paramilitary group - a clear signal of weakness, - he has increasingly turned to ruthless Islamist militias, a move that is at the heart of the riots that are sparking across the country.
Despite the appealing possibility of this alternative, its naivety is evident due to several factors. Although it is true that external pressures are present and are attempting to reconcile the two generals, a peaceful outcome will not be possible as long as either faction is supported in its military efforts by external actors like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In order for there to be a final agreement, the foreign parties that are financing thewar should  apply serious financial pressure and further leverage their diplomatic positions to advocate for a cessation of hostilities.

Another issue is the possible inability of the civil polity to govern, despite American efforts to converge political interests through summits in Addis Ababa.

With the idea of a democratic government in Sudan slowly fading, the most concrete possibility American and European diplomats are exploring is that of a military regime under the purview of the chief of the SAF. Despite its evident shortcomings, this option may represent the most practical solution to the conflict. Retaining al-Burhan in office may prove to be the lesser evil to allowing the war to rage on or Hemedti assuming power.

The international community is considering the possibility of supporting the SAF, so that it can finally dissolve the RSF and install a regime that would be constrained by the limitations imposed by foreign diplomacy; this could for instance imply forcing al-Burhan to bring his Islamist allies to justice through sanctions, suspensions from lending and in pursuit of accountability. If this plan turns out to be ineffective, the horizon unfolding before us provides  a bleak vision of the future, with Sudan being split between the RSF and SAF’s zones of influence and militias created by the former taking over the country.

The Sudan war must come to an end. The ongoing challenges facing the country underscore the urgent need for solutions that will be sustainable in the long term, after its  80-year-long history of subversions. Cooperation in the international arena, which continues to fragment is becoming increasingly crucial.

The political instability, economic struggles, and humanitarian concerns plaguing the area demand a collaborative effort from the international community. As Sudan navigates through this critical period, it is essential for Dagalo, al-Burhan and the conflict’s other stakeholders to prioritise diplomacy and socioeconomic development, leaving aside personal interests and discarding the view of the Horn of Africa as a battle ground or an opportunity for profit.

Only through concerted efforts can Sudan hope to build a stable and prosperous future and prove current forecasts wrong, ensuring the well-being of its citizens and fostering a path towards lasting peace and progress.


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