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Overlooked Conflicts: Sudan on the Brink

Although the war between Ukraine and Russia has dominated the news, other countries have been suffering through their own violent conflicts in recent years. In this and other pieces, I highlight contemporary wars and other conflicts that are too often overlooked.

Sudan faces a looming civil war. Having long been plagued by political instability and violence, the country must now deal with a military divided into warring factions. These factions are trying to resolve their differences in the streets of Khartoum, the capital, as well as elsewhere in Sudan. The civil strife has already killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands of Sudanese. This crisis requires diplomacy to reach an agreement among the various parties involved as well as humanitarian assistance to those in need.

Struggling for Democracy

A religiously and ethnically diverse nation of some 45 million people in East Africa, Sudan has long experienced internal conflict and struggles against an authoritarian central government. For 30 years, Sudan was ruled by President Omar al-Bashir, who prosecuted two major violent, repressive campaigns against different groups within Sudan. The first campaign was against the country’s southern region and ultimately ended with that region seceding in 2011 to form the Republic of South Sudan. The second was a counter-insurgency campaign in the 2000s against the northwestern region of Darfur, which drew widespread international condemnation.

Sudan moved toward democracy in 2018 when economic hardships sparked widespread protests. The protests eventually led Sudan’s military to withdraw support for President al-Bashir and opened a path toward a new regime. In 2019, a coalition of civilian opposition groups reached an agreement with the military to form a new transitional government, with elections to be held later. The new prime minister was Abdalla Hamdok, an economist and former United Nations official.

Democratic hopes were dashed in 2021, however, when the military seized power in a coup. Since then, Hamdok and other civilians have wrangled with the military authorities over Sudan’s political future. Late last year, the different parties reached an agreement for a two-year transition back to civilian rule.

Feuding Military Commanders

Despite this progress, the conflict took a new form when splits appeared within Sudan’s military leadership. The two key players have been General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and Lieutenant-General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. Each of these men played a major role in the old al-Bashir regime. Al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s army, comes from the traditional military elite and was involved in the campaigns against both the south and Darfur. Hamdan has a less conventional background; he comes from Darfur and organized the militias, known as Janjaweed, that brutally suppressed Darfurian opposition to the regime. His participation in the Darfur campaign gave Hamdan power, and his Janjaweed became an official paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

A point of contention between al-Burhan and Hamdan is the fate of the RSF. Under the plan to return to civilian government, the RSF would be integrated into the regular military, which would mean the loss of Hamdan’s independent power base. Al-Burhan’s side maintained the integration should take two years; Hamdan’s side insisted on 10 years. Before the details could be resolved, the factions deployed forces in Khartoum and elsewhere and fighting broke out in late April.

The fighting has been concentrated in the capital and two adjoining cities, as well as the Darfur region. In mid-May, the Sudanese ministry of health reported 600 civilians killed and more than 5,000 injured. The actual numbers may well be much higher. The conflict has also disrupted electricity and water supplies in Khartoum.

Many Sudanese—tens of thousands, according to an April United Nations estimate—have fled the country, going to neighboring nations such as Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, and the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The United States and other nations have shut down their embassies in Sudan.

The Human Toll

Beyond those directly killed or injured, the emerging civil war is worsening Sudan’s humanitarian situation. Even before the current hostilities, the UN World Food Programme estimated that more than a third of Sudanese faced acute food insecurity. While 16 million people needed humanitarian assistance before the conflict, 25 million now do.

The World Health Organization estimates that fighting has effectively closed two-thirds of the hospitals in combat areas. Emad Abdel Moneim, the general manager of the country’s largest maternity hospital, reports that the fighting forced hospital staff to relocate in April. The staff moved many patients, but a lack of properly equipped ambulances forced them to leave behind patients on ventilators or in incubators.

Lack of staff and electricity resulting from the conflict has taken its toll on the children in Mygoma, a state-run orphanage in Khartoum. Dr. Doaa Ibrahim estimates that the dangers caused by fighting reduced orphanage staff to about 20 caretakers for roughly 400 children. According to Dr. Abeer Abdullah, at least 50 children, many of them babies, have died at Mygoma since the conflict began. Malnourishment and dehydration contributed to the children’s deaths. As Abdullah commented, “They needed to be fed every three hours. There was no one there…We tried to give intravenous therapy but most of the time we couldn’t rescue the children.”

The Need for a Ceasefire

Ending this crisis will require a ceasefire between the military factions that allows aid to reach those who need it, both inside Sudan and among the Sudanese refugees. Some brief ceasefires have been possible since the conflict broke out in April, and more lasting ones might be possible in the future.

In the longer term, Sudan needs a peace process that can bring both the military factions and civilian groups together to negotiate some kind of power-sharing arrangement that at least brings a degree of stability to the country.

A variety of countries and groups could play a constructive role in helping the Sudanese stop the conflict. Egypt, which neighbors Sudan and has received roughly 50,000 refugees since the conflict began, has an interest in a stable Sudan. The Egyptians might be able to bring the Sudanese factions together for negotiations.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have had some success in brokering cease-fires between Sudan’s military factions and might be able to continue these successes. The United Nations and regional organizations such as the Arab League or the African Union, both of which Sudan belongs to, could also help arrange negotiations.

These countries and organizations should also work to ensure humanitarian aid reaches the many people harmed and displaced by the conflict. Those interested in supporting private humanitarian efforts in Sudan should consider giving to Action against Hunger , Catholic Relief Services, and Islamic Relief USA.

Sudan’s situation is already dire. The Sudanese people need action before their country descends further into chaos.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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