«Sudan is a country that has never known democracy, but after the revolution made by the people who took to the streets there was hope for a new beginning. But with these clashes that hope has vanished». Speaking is Amr, a young man of Sudanese origin who has been living in Italy since 2019. «It is a really complicated story that of my country. From the year of its independence from England in 1956, revolutions made by the people to have a democratic state have always been interspersed with years of dictatorships. In more than 60 years of independence, Sudan has only known democracy for a total of 10 years».
At the centre of the crisis in the country that erupted on 15 April are two men: Abdel Fattah al Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as ‘Hemedti’. The protagonists of the fighting are the two most influential figures in politics in Sudan: the former is the president of the country’s transitional government, head of the regular army, while the latter is its vice-president, a general in charge of the Rapid Support Forces (Rfs), a paramilitary group formed by ethnic Arab militiamen who committed massacres and torture during the war in the Darfur region, which began in 2003, to the point of being accused of genocide.
So far at least 97 civilians have been killed and more than 300 injured in the clashes, according to the World Health Organisation.
«Thank God right now my parents and my younger sister are in Egypt, on holiday. They are all very scared, but we are keeping in touch. On the other hand, one of my brothers and one of my sisters are in Khartoum, they are having a really horrible time. They are locked in their houses because both regular army and militia men are on the streets. But it’s hard without water and electricity, I think they will be forced to leave at some point».
The clashes, concentrated in the capital Khartoum, started with shelling by the regular army towards a military base controlled by the Rfs. From there on, the fighting spread to the presidential palace and the airport, of which both armies have claimed control.
Gunfire and loud explosions have continued to be heard in the capital for days, despite the agreement of a cease-fire by both sides to allow humanitarian corridors to operate. The office of the pan-Arab TV Al Arabiya and its news channel, al-Hadath, was also hit. Khartoum remained without light and water and Sudan’s airspace was currently closed. Civilians who go out into the streets in search of food and water risk becoming victims of the crossfire.
Sudan is a very large country with a population of 46 million and is a key strategic and economic location. Its territory is also the starting point for migratory flows from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya and then across the Mediterranean.
Burhan and Degalo have shared power since 2019, when a military coup led to the ousting of dictator Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of autocratic rule. After a brief period of democratic transition with former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in government, in October 2021 a new coup led to Burhan becoming the head of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, a civilian-military body that was supposed to lead the country to democratic elections in 2023. «However much they have always competed for the government of the state» – Amr continues – «both of them, however, agreed to stop the people’s revolution and depose al-Bashir. They never wanted the people to have power».
Degalo, appointed Burhan’s vice-president and in charge of Darfur’s gold mines, has become extremely rich since 2017, allowing him to maintain a strong autonomy of his militias and to purchase high quality equipment and weapons. Degalo is known to do shady business in gold mining and its smuggling. Several sources describe him as being linked to Russia and the mercenary group Wagner.
The relationship between the two had started during the war in the Darfur region and until today they have shared power in Sudan, remaining formally allies. Their bond started to become increasingly tenuous after Burhan’s government agreed to a deal in 2022 to return power to a civilian administration. The agreement also provided for the dissolution of the Rapid Support Forces, Degalo’s militia, which had always maintained a large degree of autonomy from the army. After the Rsf leader’s tough opposition to their disbandment, the two most powerful men in Sudan started to exchange harsh accusations that led to an armed confrontation.
«I do not believe that the blame for these attacks really lies with the failure of the two or Degalo’s desire to maintain his militia. The truth is that the promise of democracy would not have been realised anyway: both are criminals, both have been guilty of horrendous crimes in Darfur and neither believes in democracy», Amr continues. «When al-Bashir was deposed and put in prison they both had ambitions to lead the country. Dagalo has become very powerful with the Rsf, thanks to both Russian and Emirati interference. He has a lot of money, a good army. So he was preparing to rule the country and seemed ready».
Internationally, this clash is worrying many, prompting first and foremost the head of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to travel to Sudan to try to agree a ceasefire between the two factions. While the Arab League has scheduled an emergency assembly in Cairo, neighbouring Egypt, South Sudan and neighbouring Kenya have offered to mediate.
«I believe there is no chance of establishing democracy with these two men in power. But I am sure» – says Amr – «that even if not now there will be a new revolution, people will go back to the streets to fight for their fellow citizens, to demonstrate for a democratic system that will come sooner or later. At least until power is in the right hands: those of the people».