Fighting for power in SudanBurhan and Dagalo – greed-driven egotists
Heavy fighting in Sudan between the army under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, is ongoing. Sudanese women's rights expert and democracy activist Hala al-Karib reports from Khartoum on how the civilian population in the cities is suffering. She resents the international community's double standards, which hailed Sudanese women during the revolution – and then abandoned Sudan to the generals. Al-Karib is regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA).
Ms al-Karib, what is the situation like in Khartoum right now?
Hala al-Karib: The situation is very grim. Heavy artillery is being used all over the city; around our houses, we hear shots and fighter planes bombing different neighbourhoods. RSF fighters are looting shops, breaking into houses and terrorising residents. We have also heard about cases of sexual violence. We have no idea what will happen, there is great uncertainty.
How are you?
Al-Karib: I don't really feel safe, but I'm fine compared to many of my compatriots. I have a roof over my head and enough food. About eight million people live in Khartoum. The majority of them depend on the informal economy; they are day labourers, work in transportation, or sell their own products on the market. This means they have to leave their homes to earn a living and put food on the table.
Now people are stuck at home because it's too dangerous outside, and with that, they are losing their income. The people in the Darfur region have also experienced terror in the past few days. A number of shops were looted and many people are holed up in mosques. It is a very difficult time for the Sudanese right now.
Many people are desperate
What's the supply situation?
Al-Karib: Bad. Almost all shopkeepers have closed their shops because they fear looting. Nearly all the bakeries are closed because of the looting and the power cuts. This is a big problem because people in Khartoum depend on bread. In many parts of Khartoum, running water is scarce. There are no safe routes through the city. We hear repeatedly that the conflict parties are advocating a ceasefire, but we see nothing of that. Many people are desperate and are considering fleeing.
Did you expect such an outbreak of violence between the army and the RSF?
Al-Karib: The growing tension between the two groups had become impossible to ignore. I have been very critical of the political process in recent years, as have many Sudanese democracy activists. The international community was extremely naive to think there could ever be such a thing as democracy in Sudan with those two generals at the helm.
Why is that a naive assumption?
Al-Karib: The tensions between the army and the RSF have been obvious through the course of the past months. In addition, an important country like Egypt feels excluded from the political process in Sudan. It is essential to understand what interests and allies’ agendas influence the positions of the two groups.
Since the independence of South Sudan in 2011, investment in Sudan has been minimal, superficial, and poorly informed, despite the many atrocities committed. The world has left Sudan to the generals, who have no interest in or vision of governing. All they want to do is control and extract the country’s resources for themselves and their families.
"The system protects them in everything they do"
How have the two generals led the country so far?
Al-Karib: They have exercised control over the people, terrorizing them in the process. Al-Burhan and Dagalo formed a coalition based on aligning state institutions to serve their interests. Both sides have created a system that protects them in everything they do. And the international community went along with it, thinking they would in time exert a positive influence on them.
Taking an honest look at the deeds of those two groups and their daily leadership, it is obvious that the international community has been turning a blind eye to war crimes and atrocities. As a result, both generals felt invincible and were thus emboldened to engage in such an egotistical and irresponsible conflict.
The fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 did not lead to the longed-for democratisation. Instead, army chief Burhan and RSF leader Dagalo took control. Since then, both men have refused to transfer power to a civilian government. Why?
Al-Karib: Because they are both greedy egotists. In 2021 they orchestrated a military coup against the interim government that was supposed to pave the way for democratic elections after 2019. With the coup, they aimed to undermine the transition to democracy.
The international community has not held Burhan and Dagalo accountable for this, nor for the extrajudicial killings, forced evictions and terrorisation of civilians that have taken place under their leadership. There has not been a single independent investigation into these incidents by international organisations.
Burhan and Dagalo control large areas of the economy, so we're talking about a lot of money.
Al-Karib: They have organised the economic system primarily to serve their own purposes. They are plundering resources, while also being involved in criminal activities such as money laundering and illegal mining. They are exploiting the country.
But it seemed as if the conflicting parties had reached an agreement. In December 2023 the military leadership and political parties agreed to a transition to civilian government. Why didn't that work out?
Al-Karib: Burhan was recently under tremendous pressure to reform the army and incorporate the RSF into it. The conflict between the two men escalated mainly because Dagalo refused to integrate his fighters into the army and lose his leverage and his ability to be in control.
With the current outbreak of violence are you worried about the women in the country?
Al-Karib: Absolutely. RSF fighters and army soldiers have been known to commit violence against women and girls. They terrorise women and therefore most of the time women are excluded of public spaces and meaningful political engagement. In the current chaos, women are a terrified of the impact of the conflict.
In Khartoum, dozens of female students have been stuck in their dormitories for days. They've barricaded the doors because they're afraid fighters might come in and do something to them. Their fear is justified. Both the army and RSF soldiers have an ongoing history of committing sexual violence crimes against women. That could happen again now.
"Women challenged Bashir's Islamist party"
What role have women played in the political upheavals since 2019?
Al-Karib: Sudanese women have always played a key role in political change. Women led the revolution to Bashir's overthrow and the end of his 30-year dictatorship. They were not only participants but actively organised the protests.
They have challenged Bashir's Islamist party, the National Congress Party (NCP), and made it clear to officials that they will no longer abide by Islamist, repressive rules. But while women led the resistance to brutal repression, they have been largely excluded from the transition process.
Al-Karib: The political system in Sudan is still very patriarchal and influenced by militant Islamist ideology. Women are not recognised as influential actors in political institutions. In civil society, on the other hand, women are successful and well-organised. That's why we activists have been insisting for a long time on involving women even more in civil society initiatives. For example, those young women who drove the revolution and are working hard to ensure that there is peace and stability in Sudan.
In which areas are Sudanese women disadvantaged?
Al-Karib: Sudanese women experience systemic discrimination and do not have the same access to services and education as men. Their appeals to end sexual violence and establish a system that gives them access to education and employment are ignored by the political elite.
Is democratic change even possible in Sudan without involving women?
Al-Karib: No. There can be no stability unless the military and political elite strengthen women's rights and learn to appreciate the importance of compromise. Laws passed by dictator al-Bashir that dehumanise women are still in force in Sudan. Sudan is one of four countries worldwide that has not signed the UN Convention on Women's Rights.
In Sudan, a girl as young as 10 can be given away in marriage. We still have guardianship laws that allow forced marriages and child marriages and laws that provide for corporal punishment for women, such as stoning for adultery. Structural discrimination against women must be overcome for real democratic change.
Is that realistic?
Al-Karib: It isn’t easy in the current situation. The political elite is bent on maintaining the status quo. But democracy means sharing power and respecting diversity. I’m annoyed by the double standards displayed by the international community. Although the fighting spirit of Sudanese women was applauded during the revolution, little has been done to advocate for them since.
What has to happen for the political transition process to get going again?
Al-Karib: It will be challenging. Neither a ceasefire nor political negotiations are in sight. The RSF is an established militia not easily brought to the negotiating table and the military is fighting for its future role in the country. Today's priority has to be working out how to ensure civilians are protected. Then both parties need to be made aware that their crimes against the civilian population will be internationally prosecuted. There can be no peace without holding both groups to account for the crimes they have committed.
Interview conducted by Andrea Backhaus
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