Tribalism, Omar al-Bashir remnants fuel Sudan crisis

Saturday May 20 2023
sudan war

Sudanese army soldiers posing for a picture at the Rapid Support Forces base in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan on April 16, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


The Sudan crisis may have been boiling under the lid, and the spark that lit the fire had been the massive tribalism in the country which experts say borders on racism.

This week, deaths rose to over 1,000 people, 200,000 people forced to flee to neighbouring countries and 700,000 others displaced internally, triggering a humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilise the region, according to the UN.

But experts say remnants of Omar al-Bashir, ousted in 2019 in a revolution, have profited from underlying fissures among ethnic groups to ignite the conflict.

Hafiz Mohamed, the director of Justice Africa Sudan, says there are concerns that Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP), who are largely sympathetic to Sudan Armed Forces under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, are positioning themselves to bounce back to the centre of power.

The SAF has been fighting erstwhile allies, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Daglo Hemedti.

After the war broke out in Khartoum, the RSF began mobilising Arab militias to form a strong counterforce.


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“Since the 1989 coup, they created numerous militias, including the Marahil forces, Popular Defense Forces (PDF), Borders Guards and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), like one who raises a monster that later turns against them when it grows up,” Hafiz Mohamed told The EastAfrican.

Mohammed says that the situation needs the involvement of serious and neutral players because the two options available are not attractive. The defeat of the RSF by the SAF would not necessarily mean the end of the war but could lead to a prolonged civil war in many parts of Sudan, he argued. This is because the composition of the RSF is tribal, the majority are Arab tribes from greater Darfur state, as well as some elements from the Baggara tribes of Kordofan.


On the other hand, the victory of the RSF would mean the collapse of the SAF which would be replaced by an ethnically, tribally, and family-constituted militia with a bloody history in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. The takeover by the RSF would lead to an open civil war, and no one can predict when or how it would end.

The war may be prolonged, especially if we look at the RSF and their relationship with the tribes in Western Sudan.

The RSF faces two problems: ambiguity of its political project or its actual absence, and therefore the pursuit of power by some of its leaders through war, which civilians don’t support. In the days before the war, Hemedti presented himself as pro-people fighting a ‘junta’ that had sabotaged people’s will.

Indeed, conflicts between tribes have existed in Sudan for long, and their causes being historical grievances and scarcity of resources (disputes over land and between pastoralists and farmers).

The nature of these conflicts was limited and their effects not profound because the weapons used did not exceed swords, knives, sticks and unsophisticated firearms. Local administrations represented by tribal leaders addressed these conflicts with the help of the government with great success and settlement in accordance with prevailing customs.

When the Muslim Brotherhood regime seized power through a military coup in June 1989, it began to implement a dangerous policy aimed at splitting tribes and dividing civil administrations through the use of money and the temptation of power, and this policy was accompanied by the outbreak of civil wars in a number of regions, and the government steps to manufacture tribal militias and provide them with weapons and funds to fight the war on behalf of the state.

Read: Battles shake Sudan's capital Khartoum

Weapon availability

The Brotherhood regime of Bashir also worked to divide political power and distribute positions in various states on the basis of tribal affiliation in order to gain the loyalty of those tribes, in addition to establishing new states on a tribal basis, as happened in Darfur, to ensure that loyalty.

The proliferation of various weapons in a number of states, especially in the Darfur region, which resulted in large part from the wars in neighbouring countries, especially Chad and Libya, has exacerbated the nature of tribal conflicts, making them bloodier and increasing in the number of victims.

The Brotherhood has since resorted to using the tribe card as a cover to return to the political process. Indeed, there has been unprecedented fighting between tribes that have coexisted peacefully for long times in states such as the Nile River, the Red Sea and others.

Before the military coup, the transitional government, in which the parties participated, made appreciated efforts to stop the tribal fighting, but the worst development under the current regime was emergence of armed rebel movements in Darfur, eastern Sudan, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, which claim marginalisation and hence potentially ripe to join either side in fighting, or defend own turf.