In Sudan, the US government finally begins evacuating its citizens

Large black smoke clouds fill the air near airport runway.
Heavy smoke fills the sky near Khartoum International Airport after explosions rocked the Sudanese capital on April 15, 2023. | AFP via Getty Images

Sudanese citizens have fought for democracy, but the last week’s hostilities threaten the transition process.

The US military led the first effort to evacuate American citizens from Sudan on Friday as a convoy of buses left the embattled capital Khartoum for Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Weeks of vicious fighting between two entrenched military generals in Sudan have forced foreign governments to scramble to extricate their employees and citizens; approximately 100 US embassy personnel and a few foreign officials were evacuated in a mission early in the conflict that involved the US military and included three MH-47 Chinook transport helicopters. But as many as 16,000 Americans not employed by the government remained in Sudan, without an exit plan — only suggestions from US officials on overland evacuation routes.

Initially, the embassy in Khartoum announced that there would be no formal evacuation of US citizens, drawing critical comparisons to other countries’ active withdrawal of their own nationals. The US convoy, which was monitored by armed American drones and brought 300 people safely to the port on Saturday, happened as many other countries are winding down evacuations of their citizens.

The conflict began in the early hours of Saturday, April 15, between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the country’s military, run by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government paramilitary organization controlled by Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly called Hemedti. Hostilities arose after an agreement between the two sides to negotiate a transition from military to civilian-led government and a timetable for integration of the RSF into the regular army fizzled amid rising tensions between the two sides.

Following weeks of failed attempts to mediate a ceasefire by numerous countries, the African Union, and the UN, at least 512 people have been killed and more than 4,000 have been injured in the conflict, according to the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Saturday that the conflict could stir up old hostilities in the Darfur region where in the early 2000s violence between ethnic groups led to the first genocide of the 21st century, killing 200,000 people and displacing millions more. “In El Geneina, West Darfur, deadly ethnic clashes have been reported, with an estimated 96 people killed since 24 April,” he said, calling on all parties “to use every possible means to de-escalate the situation.”

Sudan has struggled to transition to civilian rule after overthrowing dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019; April’s clashes cast a long shadow on the country’s hopes for democracy.

The violence is a further setback to democratic transition

Despite strong civil society participation and the express wishes of the Sudanese people, the transition to democracy after decades of Bashir’s authoritarian rule has been enormously challenging; Saturday’s violence is just the latest breakdown in the transitional process.

Power struggles, too, are nothing new in Sudan; since its independence in 1956, Sudan has undergone the highest number of attempted coups of any African nation, the New York Times reported Saturday. That kind of entrenched instability tends to breed further coups, too.

The RSF is an officially recognized independent security force made up of about 100,000 troops, according to Reuters. Though the group’s relationship with the regular military has at times been uneasy, the groups did work together to oust Bashir, and the integration of the RSF into the SAF is a tenet of the democratic transition.

Bashir, Sudan’s authoritarian former leader, utilized Janjaweed paramilitary groups, made up of Sudanese Arab fighters including the forces that would become the RSF, to put down an uprising in the Darfur region in the early 2000s. That conflict displaced an estimated 2.5 million people and killed 300,000, according to Reuters; prosecutors with the International Criminal Court subsequently accused Sudanese government officials and Janjaweed leaders of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in that conflict.

But the relationship between the two groups hasn’t been easy, Sudan conflict zone analyst Mohammed Alamin Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “It’s a power struggle that began a long time ago and it has escalated to direct clashes today,” he said.

Still, the SAF and the RSF worked together to overthrow Bashir, with the significant support and mobilization of the Sudanese people, which resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the military and Abdalla Hamdok, the now-deposed former prime minister, who was chosen by the Forces for Freedom and Change, Sudan’s major pro-democracy civilian coalition.

Under Hamdok, whose leadership was intended to move Sudan toward elections, the government instituted stringent economic reforms to successfully garner support from the International Monetary Fund, and lobbied the US to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror to open up access to international funding. Hamdok was a firm supporter of the transition to democracy and proposed to bring some of the military’s business interests under civilian control.

Burhan and the SAF, with the help of the RSF, ousted Hamdok in late 2021; after a month under house arrest, Hamdok was released and agreed to resume the power-sharing agreement. However, the Sudanese people protested the secretive arrangement in favor of full civilian rule, which resulted in more than 125 deaths. Hamdok resigned his post in January 2022 and Sudan has since been under military leadership, with Burhan as the head of the ruling Sovereign Council and Hemedti as his deputy.

In the near term, the risk of continued conflict is significant, according to Ahmed. “There is an exchange of accusations on who started this, and the fighting has extended, not just in Khartoum, but also in the strategic city of Merowe where the Sudanese armed forces have a strong air force,” he told Al Jazeera. “And it looks like the RSF is trying to neutralize the capacity of Sudanese army [and] air force there to pull them towards a ground battle.”

In Darfur, too, the presence of multiple armed groups increases the possibility of a prolonged and potentially devastating conflict should fighting persist in that region.

In the longer term, the prospect of Sudan achieving the peace and democracy its people have been working toward seems dim. Blinken, on a recent diplomatic visit with Vietnam, told reporters that though the situation was “fragile,” a transition to a civilian government was still possible though some groups “may be pushing against that progress.”

Sudanese civil society groups supportive of a transition to civilian rule and who had signed on to a new transition agreement in December told Reuters in a statement, “This is a pivotal moment in the history of our country. This is a war that no one will win, and that will destroy our country forever.”

Update April 30, 12:00 pm: This story has been updated many times since publication on April 15 to include events as they occur. It was most recently updated to include information about US citizens being evacuated by the US government.

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