Who Is Fighting in Sudan?

top military generals turn on each other in khartoum

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Conflict began in Khartoum early last week, destroying airfields, homes, and even hospitals. Hundreds died in the first several days of fighting. What’s happening in Sudan?

A sunset view of river Nile in Khartoum, Sudan
Khartoum in Sudan, pictured with a sunset view of the Nile River, is a major trade and communication center in Northern Africa. Photo by Feroze Edassery / Shutterstock

The African nation of Sudan is no stranger to political upheaval. In 2019, authoritarian former president Omar Hassan al-Bashir lost power amid mass protests demanding democracy for Sudan. Two, top generals turned on al-Bashir and helped oust him, promising to help Sudan in its transition to democracy. However, just two years later, they staged a coup of their own, becoming the two de facto leaders of the country.

Now, violence has erupted in the nation again, as the same two generals have turned against each other for control of Sudan. Who are they? In his video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography, Dr. Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, provides background on the violent conflicts in modern Sudanese history.

Why Is Sudan So Prone to Conflict?

The two generals vying for power in Sudan are Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, leader of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Army. Both rose through the military ranks during ongoing conflict in the nation. How did conflict begin?

“Sudan was a country that emerged, like all of Africa, from brutal colonialism in the 20th century,” Dr. Robbins said. “Sudan was under Ottoman and Egyptian rule for decades before the British then colonized the region fully in the late 1800s. The British administered the northern and southern halves of the country somewhat differently, somewhat autonomously, leading to an increased and enhanced separation of the two.”

Over time, Dr. Robbins said, the northern part of Sudan received greater investment and infrastructure from the British, while the southern part of Sudan was neglected and mined for resources. After World War II, the British colonizers fled and Sudan’s government held a conference to unite Sudan as a single country with its capital, Khartoum, in the north.

What Was the War in Darfur?

South Sudan continued to suffer from ongoing neglect and discrimination; so, the region almost immediately began a campaign for separation. War in Sudan waged for decades, from the 1960s to the 1990s, with only brief periods of peace. These wars, which were violent and horrific, are best exemplified by the War in Darfur.

“This region is in the western part of Sudan,” Dr. Robbins said. “It was the site of conflict between the Sudanese military and militia groups against local non-Arab ethnic populations. Perhaps a half-million people were killed in Darfur in the early 2000s—a figure that is very, very difficult to wrap your head around.”

Gen. al-Barhan, acting at the behest of the Sudanese government, led forces in the War in Darfur, which resulted in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Hamdan led one of the militias that carried out a massacre in south Darfur, killing 126 civilians. Since then, his group—the Rapid Support Forces—has committed a number of crimes against humanity in Darfur in 2014: killings, mass rape and torture, and forced displacement of entire communities.

Understanding Cultural and Human Geography is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily