The Historical Roots of Sudan's Current Crisis

By Umayya Youssef Abu Fedayah July 09, 2024 78


Sudan, within its geographical borders before the secession of the south in 2011, is the result of the invasion by Khedive Muhammad Ali Pasha, the ruler of Egypt (1805–1849), who had expansionist ambitions to establish his own empire under the umbrella of the Ottoman Caliphate. His invasion of Sudan in 1821 was led by his son Ismail Pasha and his son-in-law, Muhammad Bey Al-Daftardar. The objectives of Muhammad Ali Pasha in this invasion can be summarized as follows:

  1. A military objective aimed at finding men to support his army, which would consolidate his rule and build his empire.
  2. An economic objective with the goal of searching for gold in the far southeast of Sudan (part of those areas currently belong to Ethiopia).
  3. A security objective to secure the sources of the Nile.


Since independence, Sudan has been caught in a vicious cycle of disturbances that doesn’t end only to begin again!

Muhammad Ali's army eradicated kingdoms in northern Sudan, and then Ismail Pasha headed to central Sudan to eliminate the Islamic Sultanate of “Sennar,” in the current central and southeastern Sudan, which emerged in 1504, just 12 years after the fall of Andalusia, and lasted for nearly three centuries. Meanwhile, Al-Daftardar advanced to control the western center and southern regions of present-day Sudan.

The Mahdist state then inherited the rule of Sudan after a series of successive victories and conquests that resulted in the liberation of Khartoum in 1885. The Mahdist state seemed more like a revolution than a state, as it succeeded in liberation under the leadership of its inspiring Imam, Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. However, it did not achieve much success in building and establishing the state, nor in achieving political stability or societal satisfaction, especially after losing its leader who died shortly after the liberation.

Then, Sudan fell entirely under British rule, which was disguised as a dual administration with Egypt, though in reality, Egypt itself was under British rule. This rule lasted from 1899, the year the British overthrew the Mahdist regime, until 1956, for a total of 57 years.



No sooner had Sudan gained its independence than the effects of the colonizer’s plotting became evident. A rebellion broke out in southern Sudan in 1955, and the divide between northern and southern Sudan widened due to a colonial plan that separated the north from the south through the “Closed Districts Ordinance.” This law banned the use of the Arabic language, prohibited Islamic attire, and forbade the preaching of Islam, while allowing Western churches to operate and missionary campaigns to move freely. This situation persisted until President Abboud's rule (1958–1964).


One of the most prominent issues was that Sudanese political parties often came to power in military garb!

Since independence, Sudan has been trapped in a vicious cycle of disturbances: a democratic period is overthrown by the military, followed by a popular uprising that topples military rule, leading to a new democratic period that is again overthrown by a new set of military rulers. This cycle continues, undeniably indicating the failure of all Sudanese elites, both civilian and military, to achieve political consensus. However, the external influence was never absent during all these times. This external hand pursued a policy of perpetual exhaustion for Sudan, as if the desired state for Sudan was one of political instability. Such instability prevents any renaissance, hinders development, and denies the country autonomous decision-making in politics and economics.


The Current Crisis

To understand the current crisis in Sudan, one needs to consider several facts and insights. One such fact is the nature and history of the Sudanese army. The Sudanese army ranks 75th globally and 11th among Arab countries. The Sudanese soldier has always been sought after for his courage, valor, and high discipline. For instance, in 1863, France sought the help of a Sudanese battalion of 435 soldiers through an agreement with the Khedive of Egypt. Only 313 of them returned to Sudan after four years, with 140 having been martyred in the Mexican War of Independence, which was supported by France.

Sudanese soldiers participated in World War I alongside the Allies. However, the Sultan of Darfur, Ali Dinar, who remained independent from British colonization in Darfur, joined the fight alongside the Ottoman Caliphate. As a result, he was punished and killed in 1916, and Darfur was subsequently annexed by British colonizers.

Sudanese political parties often came to power in military uniforms, meaning they operated within the military institution. No party, whether right or left, deviated from this trend. This political activity within the military institution, even if it didn’t succeed in seizing power, caused some tensions within it. If it did succeed, it burdened the military with the responsibilities of governance and the concerns of securing it.

This undoubtedly hindered the Sudanese army, which had the potential to be very advanced in all aspects related to the development of armies, considering its nature and capabilities. This trend continued throughout all periods of post-independence Sudan. Regardless of any criticism of the National Salvation Revolution regime and the condition of the military institution during its time, an objective observer would recognize the achievements in military manufacturing during this period. These successes were significant enough to attract external attention, which was discontented by any attempts at self-sufficiency in manufacturing, especially military manufacturing, as it always strives to weaken the armies of the Arab and African regions.


Sudan is a resource-rich country but remains very poor in reality, with a population of no more than 45 million people.

Another key insight for understanding the nature of the current Sudanese crisis is recognizing Sudan’s resources, which have long been a target of covetousness. It is not an exaggeration to say that Sudan possesses a wealth of resources unfound in other countries. Any one of these resources would be sufficient to drive Sudan to prosperity and ensure the well-being of its people, but only if they had political stability!


Land of Wealth

Sudan is endowed with a wealth of underground resources, including gold, reserves of silver, mica, talc, manganese, chromium, platinum, oil, and gas.

Additionally, it possesses 84 million hectares of arable land, of which only 20% or less is currently utilized. Of this 20%, more than 80% relies on rain-fed irrigation in a country traversed by the longest and greatest river in Africa, the Nile, as well as other rivers and non-river water sources.

Sudan has a livestock wealth of 30 million head of cattle that are not optimally exploited for meat or dairy production. There are also 40 million head of sheep that are similarly underutilized for meat and dairy production, and 32 million head of goats. Furthermore, it has 15 million camels, most of which are exported for their high-quality meat and, to a lesser extent, their racing prowess.

Sudan’s diverse climate allows for various pastoral and agricultural activities. It also boasts a significant fishery resource. It is widely known that Sudan is the world's leading producer of gum arabic, an essential ingredient in many industries worldwide.

Thus, we are talking about a country with immense resources, yet very poor in reality, with a population of no more than 45 million people.


The Rapid Support Forces as a New Player

But what's new in the current Sudanese crisis is the “Rapid Support Forces” (RSF), whose backbone and foundation are tribal (Arabs from Darfur). They were established in 2013 during the era of the ousted President Omar al-Bashir after the South's secession and the loss of its oil, alongside increased activity of rebel movements in Darfur (in number and area). Most of these rebel movements were from non-Arab African ethnicities with hostility towards neighboring Arab groups.


With the onset of war, the “Rapid Support Forces” gained control over most parts of the Sudanese capital and military facilities.

After the uprising or revolution against the al-Bashir regime in 2019 and until the war on April 15, 2023, the role of the RSF expanded:

  1. They became the largest economic force in the country (exporting gold, live and slaughtered meat, and agricultural products), while importing almost everything, including fuel.
  2. They became the strongest military force, controlling all strategic facilities in the capital and possessing all types of weapons except aircraft.
  3. They established international and regional relations outside of state institutions.
  4. They acquired a political role; the commander of the RSF became the second most powerful figure in the official institution and the ruling coalition of military and civilian partners since 2019.

At the start of the war on April 15, 2023, the RSF took control over most parts of the Sudanese capital and military facilities, except for the General Command, armored vehicles in Khartoum, the Al-Mohandiseen and Karary regions in Omdurman, and the Signal Corps in Bahri. This was because they were the most prepared in terms of equipment and personnel, and before the war they were already in most of these strategic locations they occupied, under the pretext of guarding them. This all happened only within the first months of the war.

Many changes have occurred with the prolongation of the war on the military front and in the balance of power. However, it is undeniable that the war has drained the resources of the already weak state, with losses reaching nearly 200 billion Sudanese pounds during the first year.

Around 8.1 million people were displaced within Sudan (to areas controlled by the army), while 2.25 million migrants sought security, job opportunities, and livelihoods.

Additionally, approximately 13,000 armed forces personnel and 100,000 from the Rapid Support Forces were killed, along with a large number of civilian casualties and injuries. There were also 507 documented cases of rape (with most cases going unreported), with all accusations directed at individuals from the RSF.

Furthermore, homes, shops, and businesses of civilians were looted, totaling an estimated 203,000 thefts, all of which were blamed on members of the RSF by citizens.

All of this has created an extremely complex and difficult humanitarian situation, with almost no presence from international relief and health institutions, as the world's attention is focused on the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza.


The current war, led by the RSF supported by regional and international countries, aims to divide Sudan.

The war currently unfolding in Sudan by the RSF, supported by regional and world countries, aims to divide Sudan. It is not just against the Sudanese army but against all of Sudan—its land and its people. Attacks by the RSF on civilians occur in areas where there is no military conflict to justify them. This was evident in the states of Al-Jazira and West Darfur previously. In these instances, the armed forces withdrew, leading the RSF to seize everything, commit killings, and engage in looting and plundering. This situation has prompted citizens in other states to take up arms and organize themselves in popular resistance and general mobilization campaigns to protect their lives, property, and dignity.


Possible Scenarios for the War’s End

1- Going back to negotiations, as happened last year (Jeddah platform), in which the Rapid Support Forces did not adhere to the initial agreement.

2- The armed forces achieving victory, even if delayed and at a high cost, leading the Rapid Support Forces to withdraw from political and military activities. This is certainly the preferred option for the majority of the Sudanese people.

3- The Rapid Support Forces prevailing, which is the worst case scenario and a looming danger. In that case, Sudan would be divided into four conflicting states, posing a threat to the region as a whole and neighboring countries in particular.



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