How civil war threatens democracy in Sudan

Dr Liz Payne, President of the National Assembly of Women (NAW), explains how the civil war threatens democracy in Sudan

For the people of Sudan, the war that broke out on 15th April between two factions of the military, the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is a disaster and a tragedy, especially following their great victory in late 2019. At that time, the people poured onto the streets demanding an immediate end to the 30-year dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir, and a move to civilian rule. Thousands upon thousands turned out, again and again, in the face the most brutal of crackdowns. Women were at the forefront of those revolutionary forces and their contribution to demonstrations, including under live fire, was legendary, their hopes high for greater equality and justice in a democratic Sudan. After three months, in a ploy by the military to halt the revolution, the dictator was ousted in an army coup, arrested, and incarcerated.

In the immediate aftermath, a transitional power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilians was put in place with the pledge that first the military would be the ‘senior partner’ and then the civilians. When the time came, however, the army was, as many had foreseen, absolutely unwilling to concede power to a civilian-led government and snatched full control in a coup in October 2021.

Eighteen months down the line, earlier this year, a new agreement for the army to share power with civilians was due to take effect on 11th April. The military again reneged. By then huge divisions had opened up in ruling circles about who would gain the upper hand in government, reflecting the differing interests of the army factions’ rich and powerful backers. Within days war had broken out.

The heavy fighting that began in the capital, Khartoum, in mid-April spread rapidly to Darfur in the west of the country, itself the scene brutal conflict, massacres and other war crimes between 2003 and 2020. Now full-blown civil war threatens to engulf the whole country and spread beyond its borders.

The latest ceasefire, instigated by the US and Saudi Arabia with vested interest only in keeping a government sympathetic to their designs in place, broke down some days ago. Fierce bombardment resumed. Gunmen rule the streets, and the majority of the population are living through a nightmare. Public infrastructure and services have broken down, food is scarce, and many are left without access to medicines and any form of healthcare. More than a million have fled their homes and are internally displaced and hundreds of thousands have left as refugees. As with all wars, events have disproportionately affected women, who are unable to access the very basic necessities for themselves and their families. They are secure neither at home nor in their neighbourhoods and are at risk of violence whether they stay put or flee.

For the instigators of the war, and their backers inside and outside Sudan, the stakes are very high. Sudan is of huge geostrategic importance as the third largest country in Africa bordering six neighbouring states, astride the Nile and with a coast on the Red Sea, one of the top five shipping routes in the world. It has wealth of gold and other minerals and huge potential for agricultural and livestock exports. The US, Britain (the former colonial power), and other Western states, not only want to protect their interest in Sudan, which they view as ripe for plunder, but to curtail the foothold of others including China, a huge investor and trading partner. It can be no accident that of the arms Britain sold to Sudan in the decade from 2012 to 2022, 78% were sold in 2022 alone. Westminster then cries crocodile tears for the civilian rule that never happened.

Meanwhile, the warring army factions, true to the colours of dictator Bashir’s military enforcers from which both sprang, remain united by one thing. They are absolutely determined that there will be no free and fair elections, no space for democracy and progress, and no possibility for voices calling for justice and equality to be heard. It was in this context that the RSF recently ransacked the Khartoum offices of one of the leading left parties in Sudan, looted its archives and turned the building into a war office. No one who openly speaks out for peace is safe and those who bravely continue the struggle have been forced ‘underground’.

In this now very dangerous situation, with the potential of contagion leading to regional conflagration, it is crucial that we demand of our government that they cease to intervene directly or indirectly in Sudan. They must not engage in diplomatic work with any ‘side’ that seeks continued involvement of the military in the government, neither must they provide with them with funds, weapons, or training on any pretext. Westminster must also under no circumstance seek to replace the army with a civilian government of the rich and powerful to do its bidding and that of the US, EU, and other Western allies.

The only acceptable way forward for the women and all the peace-loving people of Sudan who fought so courageously to bring down the dictatorship in 2019 and achieve civilian rule is an immediate cessation of hostilities, the return of all military forces to their barracks and the establishment of a democratically elected government through a free and fair election. This too must not be imposed through any foreign intervention. The process must be entirely in the hands of the democratic forces of Sudan which now, in the most difficult of circumstances, continue to voice their demands, making clear that it is the people of Sudan and they alone who must determine their future. Justice and equality can only come this way.


Liz Payne is on Education Committee of Liberation

This article was first published in the Summer 2023 issue of Sisters, the journal of the NAW,

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