Violence and Nonviolence in Sudan: Democracy Under the Knife

By Haley Morrow with Tom H. Hastings

The streets of Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, have been engulfed in violent conflict for two weeks; thousands have fled the country, hundreds have been killed, and some 5,000 people have been wounded. 

The US and other countries have shuttered their embassies and there have been many daring evacuations–convoys speeding to the borders, helicopter flights–as armed factions invade and occupy sections of the capital city. Some 16,000 Americans remain, though most hold dual US-Sudanese citizenship and many are choosing to stay.

Since 2019, Sudan has been in political limbo as the Army and different political groups have shared control in what they call a transitional government. The end goal of this transitional government was supposed to be a democracy, but years later, there is still no democracy in Sudan. In fact, in 2021, potential democracy was interrupted by a coup that placed the military in charge of the government.

Like many countries, freedom and democracy come and go, with both violent and nonviolent uprisings over the decades, and in Sudan’s case it’s been both bloody force and nonviolent people power since they won freedom from the United Kingdom in 1956. Mohamed “Quscondy” Abdulshafi was a youth leader in a nonviolent student movement opposing war criminal and dictator Omar al-Bashir and is a Conflict Resolution scholar and advisor to Freedom House on his homeland. He was part of a successful nonviolent uprising that, much like Arab Spring in Egypt, was ultimately first successful in bringing down the dictator but which was then hijacked by the military, which promised it would be “transitional” to free and fair elections. 

Instead, the military broke that promise, held onto power despite ongoing brave nonviolent protests, and now the violent wings of the military are in hot conflict with each other.

The conflict is between Sudan’s Armed Forces, and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces, or the RSF. Particularly, the conflict is between the two men who rule the militaries, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the Sudan Armed Forces, and the RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. 

The RSF has origins in the Darfur conflict, which began in 2003. Back then, the RSF were known as the Janjaweed, and they perpetrated numerous human rights violations and atrocities on the people of Darfur, which is where the nonviolent student movement began. Along with the Janjaweed, of which General Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo was a leader, the Sudanese military displaced some 2.3 million people and killed 300,000 people from 2003 to 2008. Out of the Janjaweed came the RSF.

The current conflict is between al-Burhan and Hemedti and their struggle for power and control of Sudan. Since the military coup in 2021, the Sudanese Army and the RSF had an uneasy shared power. Tensions escalated over the last few months due to a breakdown of negotiations on how to transition the country to democracy. Anger increased over the potential integration of the RSF into the Army. 

This partnership broke down further on Saturday, April 15th, when the RSF deployed forces throughout Khartoum. This sparked a violent conflict.

A resident of Khartoum, Yassir al-Awad, said, “The Sudanese should not take part but sadly we have been dragged into it, as Sudanese people we do not have any interest in this. Whichever one wins, we are the losers at the end.”

The people who suffer the most are the civilians of Sudan. People live in fear as conflict has spread through Sudan that has displaced, killed, and injured many. Many have fled to neighboring countries where they continue to suffer. Reporter Ahmed Idris noted, “People are exposed to the elements. There is little food, little shelter and a lot of confusion as to where people will go.”

When Sudanese people rose up in nonviolent resistance in 2018, they succeeded in toppling the brutal rule of 30 years. Can they achieve a lasting nonviolent victory and the democracy that they seek?

Of course foreign powers may decide to “help” in the conflict by providing arms to one of the belligerents, as has happened so often in the past–we see it right now on full display in Ukraine–but which only leads to a more protracted disastrous war. The US government and the UN Security Council have attempted to place sanctions on any country supplying weapons to Sudanese military–primarily Russia and China–but US weaponry has also found its way there from other countries that have received US arms, such as Pakistan and Iraq.

The peace movement in the US lobbies for a cessation of military aid. Lethal aid, paid for by our taxes, is sold or given away, the profits go to military corporations, and the regular tax-paying citizens pay to be part of the bloody business overseas. To the extent we can stop this flow of deadly force, we can help empower nonviolent people power and increase the chances for peace and democracy.

Haley Morrow is a Conflict Resolution masters candidate at Portland State University and PeaceVoice Associate Editor. Tom H. Hastings is Founding Director of PeaceVoice.

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