What next for Sudan?

Asmaa Al-Husseini , Wednesday 30 Aug 2023

Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan’s tour of areas in the country and planned meetings in Cairo and Riyadh raise more questions than answers.

Al-Sisi and Al-Burhan


General Abdel-Fattah  Al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and chairman of the Sovereignty Council, left his headquarters last week for the first time since the outbreak of the war in Sudan in mid-April.

His emergence prompted many questions. How could he guarantee his security given the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) control many parts of the Sudanese capital Khartoum? Did his appearance come within the framework of regional or international arrangements to end the war and, if so, has the RSF command agreed in principle to these arrangements? Does he have anything up his sleeve to end the war, whether through negotiations or some definitive military action and if he has, will it be accepted by his followers, the RSF, the people of Sudan, and regional and international powers?

Al-Burhan toured areas in Khartoum and other parts of the country, his movements seemingly choreographed to convey messages both at home and abroad. Above all, he appeared to want to reaffirm that the army was capable of achieving victories and that, in his capacity as commander of the army and head of the Sovereignty Council, he represented legitimacy. Al-Burhan was also keen to raise morale among his supporters and demoralise the SAF’s adversaries. His visit to Wadi Sedna Air Base in Omdurman conveyed gratitude for its support of ground forces.

His visit to the artillery corps at Atbara seemed to involve a similar tribute for its role in the ongoing battle. He met with soldiers and spoke with the wounded: among the latter was the commander of the Baraa bin Malek Brigade, affiliated with Sudan’s Islamists. Perhaps this, too, was to express his appreciation for their contribution to the SAF’s war effort. Al-Burhan also met with civilians and his tour included Port Sudan, where he inspected government offices that had been relocated and met with senior officials and other government staff.

The Port Sudan visit gave rise to reports that Al-Burhan intends to form an emergency government or conduct government business from the city, speculation that was met with mixed reactions from his supporters and opponents. Al-Burhan also plans to visit some Arab capitals, starting with Cairo and Riyadh, for consultations on how to restore peace and stability to Sudan.

Meanwhile, Khartoum experienced a major escalation in fighting. RSF forces launched repeated attacks against SAF positions and other strategic locations in the capital. Analysts suggest that the purpose is to expand the areas under RSF control and strengthen its hand in future negotiations. The SAF retaliated with intensive bombardment of RSF positions.

When Al-Burhan first emerged from army headquarters in Khartoum, rumours were rife that it heralded some regionally and internationally brokered arrangement preparatory to a peace agreement to be signed in Jeddah with the RSF, and that as part of the agreement the Islamist movement that has been fighting alongside the army against the RSF would be designated a terrorist organisation.

The rumours sparked anxiety among some of Al-Burhan’s supporters. He allayed their concerns three days after his appearance. During his visit to the Flamingo naval base in Port Sudan, he denied that any agreement had been reached with the RSF and pledged that the army would persist in its fight to defeat “this rebellion and this treason”.  

 “We will fight and we will go on fighting until we reach the shores of safety and end this ordeal with our heads held high,” he told cheering troops, adding that he had had no outside help in leaving his headquarters and it “was not the result of any agreement but the result of successful military operations.”

In fact, Al-Burhan is under pressure from all sides. The war is nearing its sixth month with no end in sight. In the first month of conflict he had shrugged off the RSF’s insurrection as “futile”.  Now he is under pressure from within his own camp, some segments of which are urging him to continue the war until the RSF is eliminated. These hardliners are certain to resist any attempt to promote a peaceful negotiated solution which could eliminate their influence on subsequent arrangements.

Others among Al-Burhan’s supporters are urging him to strengthen the SAF’s position on the ground ahead of any possible negotiations, while a third group believes that the fighting must cease immediately and negotiations resume as soon as possible. They argue that continuing the conflict will only cause more bloodshed, destruction and suffering, anger the regional and international community, court a slide into full-scale civil war and thus jeopardise the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sudan.

It is unclear whether Al-Burhan’s statements represent posturing ahead of possible negotiations or an expression of intent to continue the fight to the end. What is certain is that during his visits to regional capitals he will be alerted to the catastrophic consequences of the war, many of which are already apparent. He may hear the appeals of Sudanese citizens who have been displaced by the violence and are now refugees in the countries he visits. Their cries of distress will jar with the cheers he hears from his supporters.

Regional capitals will also try to advance their initiatives calling for an immediate ceasefire, safe humanitarian corridors and the return to negotiations which include civilian participants who continue, despite the current devastation, to demand freedom, peace, justice, transition to a fully civilian government and a single, professional national army.

Shortly after Al-Burhan emerged from his headquarters, RSF Commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) unveiled a 10-point initiative to resolve the conflict. It urges a return to a peaceful process, starting with a long-term ceasefire agreement, that addresses the root causes of the conflict, the establishment of a professional, apolitical Sudanese army, political inclusion of all social and demographic segments of society and an end to attempts to monopolise power on ideological, partisan, tribal, or other such bases.

Against this backdrop, US Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey posted a tweet saying “the belligerents, who have demonstrated they are not fit to govern, must end the conflict and transfer power to a civilian transitional government.”

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry shot back that the ambassador’s remarks were “inappropriate, a departure from diplomatic norms and the conventions of relations between states, and an interference in the internal affairs of Sudan.” It added that such comments “do not help Sudan solve this crisis, ignore the fact that the armed forces are defending the nation and its people, and treat the armed forces as a party on par with terrorist and criminal militias that perpetrate the worst atrocities.”

The hope now, for the sake of both Sudan and the region, is that Al-Burhan’s meetings with officials in Cairo and Riyadh can yield positive results.

On Tuesday, Al-Burhan arrived in the Mediterranean city of Alamein and was received by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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