The World’s Forgotten War: Why Has Peace Been Evading Sudan?

Tongtong Zhang, Feb 12, 2024

As one of the most failed, fragile, and war-torn states in Africa and across the world, Sudan has followed a “one step forward, two steps backward” pattern in its quest for peace. Large-scale attacks and genocide between two major factions—the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), its current leader, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—have continued since the outbreak of another round of conflicts in April 2023. Violent political transitions have also continued following the civil revolution that subverted the 30-year-long, bitterly resented dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 [1]. However, factional or even personal power struggles cannot solely explain Sudan’s tragedy. Most conflicts since its independence have followed a pattern that mirrored the structural problems of its politics, such as government illegitimacy, neopatrimonialism, and ethnic fragmentation. A fundamental lack of state legitimacy, an important aspect of Sudan’s colonial legacy, has thrusted both parties into a ceaseless competition for legitimacy that will end in vain. Without lawful status, political leaders in Sudan—from the earliest ones implanted by the colonizers to the most recent military dictators—have to rely on distributing rewards to buy loyalty, which further upholds a tradition of neo-patrimonialism. This tradition is characterized by patronage and state predation alongside a pattern of resource misappropriation and ignorance of domestic needs. Finally, social division and antagonistic sentiments along ethnic lines extinguish any hope for a long-term, coordinated commitment to economic development. The more practical solution for Sudan might be to quickly create a basis for regime legitimacy by prioritizing economic development, which would also create a common goal for its divided populace.


Illegitimate State: Little Willingness to Create Peace


An initial lack of state legitimacy deprived Sudanese political parties of a common standard with which to assess government legitimacy and generated mutual denial of any one party’s lawful right to rule. The state post-colonial Sudan inherited from the Anglo-Egyptian colonizers was seriously devoid of vertical legitimacy, which is derived from a general agreement over the source of the ruling entity’s lawfulness. Not only was the first leader effectively implanted by the colonizers, but the initial transitional constitution was never ratified by a consensus among the competing political parties. Ever since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been entangled in power struggles and social unrest, frequently erupting into insurgencies [2]. According to a study by political scientist Pierre Englebert, pre- and post- colonial Sudan shared zero continuity in vertical legitimacy because the previously legitimate regimes —pre-colonial governments —failed to render any form of legitimacy to contemporary Sudan as a result of the complete political disjuncture induced by colonization [3].


As a result, Sudan has had to grapple with a history and a present marked by intense political competition in which rival factions will do anything to manufacture a façade of legitimacy. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s leader from the SAF faction, tried his best to launder his public association with the military junta and to project himself as the only statesman-like figure capable of bringing peace to Sudan during his tours in the Middle East and the West, despite having perpetrated multiple massacres years before [4]. Meanwhile, the SAF’s rival—the RSF—has maneuvered international social media platforms to spread propaganda and even misinformation to conjure up legitimacy without any de facto control of government affairs or diplomacy. For example, in 2021 alone, around 1,000 fake facebook pages and accounts associated with the RSF were discovered and taken down. And studies showed that the unverified and propagandist information released by the RSF has reached 1.1 million Sudanese Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter users [5].


The perpetual competition for legitimacy has progressively discredited leaders from both factions and compelled them to invest more resources to beat their opposition, creating hotbeds of resource misappropriation. To cover up the military’s brutal actions, Burhan imposed several internet shutdowns and blackouts during the 2019 revolution and transition — some of which lasted for weeks. Co-opting the state and private telecommunication giants into allegiance has also cost Burhan significant amounts of money and resources in the form of patronage. Yet the RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, was not outdone by Burhan, as he paid 6 million USD to a lobbying company to impress Western leaders. He has also sponsored human rights activist groups to craft a pro-civil society image despite his own breaches of promises for a truce. To both generals’ disappointment, the Sudanese people did not buy into their “war of words.” Hemedti was mocked and even humiliated by a multitude of people on social media following his speeches. Civil opposition also continued, forcing both leaders to make further overture to dissidents [6].


Political disputes in Sudan have frequently posed life or death struggles in which survival is the priority. The absence of state legitimacy entails that no party can feel secure based on its lawful right to rule, but only based on its absolute victory over the other. Consequently, all faction leaders are directed to control as many resources as possible for consolidation and win over elites whose support could yield immediate boosts in power. Working towards resolutions for peace, such as demilitarization and rule of law, risked granting existing and potential advantages to one's opponents and even complete destruction of oneself. In Sudan, each faction perceived their counterpart to be untrustworthy, and there was no institutional protection of the basic rights of whoever competed honestly. This made committing to short-term, immediate struggles a safer option and rendered it almost impossible for either side to be the first to demilitarize and work for peace. Cultivating public recognition is often discarded because it necessitates continuous endeavor and tangible achievements, which makes it a costlier and less effective strategy for survival. 


Neo-patrimonial State: Little Resources Allocated to Peace


Such survival strategies have given rise to a neo-patrimonial system whereby military elites form patron-client networks among themselves and misappropriate national resources in exchange for loyalty. The current two major factions in Sudan have exerted a sprawling monopoly over almost the entire economy including key industries such as agriculture, fuel, finance, and mining — causing the economy to become politicized. In 2022, the state military under the SAF controlled 86% of shares in the Omdurman National Bank, one of the largest banks in Sudan; while the other major bank, Khaleej Bank, had 28.35% of its shares owned by Hemedti’s family alone through a joint venture with the United Arab Emirates [7]. Resources and investment were predominantly distributed to the sectors in which only the elites could profit, such as diamond and oil, through the politicized financial institutions and corporations. The state’s mishandling of resources also took the form of personal corruption. For example, al-Bashir’s Salvation regime spent 70% of the state budget on bribing elites and expanding its arsenal in the 1990s [8]. The corrupt institutions were able to remain intact largely because of the paralyzed judicial system, where the military dictator was granted the right to dismiss any judge at any time by the National Revolutionary Command Council in 1989 [9].


Sudan’s immoderate exploitation of natural resources exacerbates existing hostilities and hinders the peace process at the expense of other faction’s share and citizens’ welfare. The neo-patrimonial nature of the ruling entity also removes the need for accountability. Any pro-democracy, anti-corruption transition, or even just any form of organized opposition would eventually be countered by the patron-client networks that are averse to compromising on their interests. The confiscation of the officials' illegitimate properties by the transitional civilian government in 2021 ultimately provoked a coup by the senior military officers that led to its downfall. The economic hardship induced by corruption and disproportionate military spending also constituted a primary reason for most civil protests, e.g., the 1964, 1985, and 2019 revolutions against the government. Some of these uprisings were under the auspices of opposition military groups whose intervention only escalated atrocities and incited more severe military crackdowns.


The elite’s monopolization of resources and lack of accountability has generated a rentier mentality amongst both factions and further destabilized Sudan’s economy. The high profitability of predatory activities, such as natural resource extraction, has generated a reluctance to distribute resources to economic activities that depend on and can ultimately boost the population’s productivity — known as the rentier mentality [10]. Using the massive, immediate, and frequent revenues from petrol and gold, the Sudanese military elites have been freed from the burden of generating revenues from tax and general production. More fundamentally, the elites no longer needed to be accountable for meeting the population’s demands, as people’s consumption and production did not constitute a significant source of government income. Not only were petrol revenues embezzled, but the gold mines kept being transferred from one military commander to another. During the al-Bashir era in around 2005, the Sudanese government’s construction projects were still heavily run by loans, given that 30-35 billion USD petrol revenues accumulated in earlier years of the regime were divided among the elites. Less than 2% of state revenue was allocated to productive sectors such as infrastructure and manufacture — further perpetuating the impoverishment of Sudanese citizens.


Systematic misappropriation of resources entailed a shortage of resources allocated for peace, which involved the rebuilding of damaged infrastructure, reparation, and the reconstruction of the public service system. The lack of government accountability accompanied by the predatory nature of the neo-patrimonial economy has also diminished the necessity for the elites to distribute resources to peace creation from which they hardly benefit.


Ethnically Fragmented State: Little Commitment to Work for Peace


Ethnic division is another structural factor that has exacerbated Sudan’s commitment problems and underscored its acute lack of state legitimacy. Post-independence Sudan has been ethno-linguistically fragmented since the Sudanese Arabs and the African indigenous people were arbitrarily compacted into a single state and have long been inconsistently ruled by colonizers. An essential agreement over what people are to be governed by whom, which also accounts for state legitimacy, has been lacking since the establishment of modern Sudan. Initial distinctions in culture and language — as well as veiled ethnic hostility — quickly translated into militarized conflicts in independent Sudan. Killings based on ethnicity never fully ceased despite multiple peace agreements, including the recent 2020 Juba Peace Agreement between RSF and the non-Arab Joint Protection Forces (JPF). Traumatized by past violence, the two main ethnic groups refused to accept an equal coexistence between them or even to respect the cultural and religious differences. They have consequently been in constant competition for resources with the other. The constant threat from the other ethnicity deters any attempt of collective action, and people’s chronic insecurity compels them to take as many resources as possible when they can, perpetuating the lack of social trust and commitment. In fact, even now, the “fear of all-out ethnic war” is still extremely pressing for people in Darfur, an area in western Sudan.


Not only did antagonistic sentiments continue to fuel ethnic conflicts, but the harsh reality of these conflicts deprived people’s faith and commitment to any collective project that could potentially offer reconciliation and cooperation. Activists were preoccupied by the fight between Arab and non-Arab tribes, and ordinary people could barely survive under military atrocity and limited supplies — cross-ethnic cooperation, as a precondition for peace, was and still is an extremely distant possibility.


Any simple peace solution for Sudan now would be superficial and unrealistic, but there is room for hope. Given that the Sudanese people have always been eager to build a civil society and healthy economy, it would be more practical for pro-democracy groups to strive to prioritize the development of the more productive sectors including agriculture, manufacturing, and infrastructure. Sudan offers great economic potential to the general public as over 90% of its fertile, arable land has been uncultivated, and many factories did not operate at full capacity due to limited infrastructure [11]. Democratic protests would probably be the only feasible and most effective option for the Sudanese populace to strive for a fairer allocation of resources including greater investment in industrial sectors and provision of public goods. The disadvantaged groups typically including the disenfranchised youth and women constituted a sufficiently large community that have been acting and could continue to act to obtain government concession. In fact, precedents of powerful mass movements abounded during al-Bashir’s regime and managed to force the government to take actions that unfortunately turned out to be oppressive and ineffective [12]. However, these results attest to government incapability rather than the passivity of civil society. International assistance might also be needed to mediate armed conflicts, contain political factions, and provide humanitarian aid as the Sudanese populace continues to live in dire circumstances. Additional empowerment projects regarding women’s rights and basic education might also be helpful in creating a basis for civil society and enhancing solidarity among the ordinary people in Sudan. Still, external sources are often unstable and ineffective due to the changes in international circumstances and the corruption of domestic rule. With that being said, prioritizing the development of the general economy — especially the industrial capacity — through democratic protests is a more feasible solution that will give Sudanese people more control over their course of action and more tangible resources for empowerment.


In conclusion, state illegitimacy has reduced the leaders’ willingness to create peace, neopatrimonialism has reduced the resources devoted to peace, and ethnic division has reduced people’s commitment to work for peace. There is no simple way around addressing these problems. Attributing the conflicts to historical, systemic factors discredits the deterministic view that Sudan is doomed to fail to find peace. It recognizes the long-standing causes of the domestic hostilities which persistently obstructed peace processes throughout Sudan’s post-independence history.


[1] Ahmed, Dirdeiry M. “The War in Sudan Is a Consequence of a Derailed Transition.” Al Jazeera, October 29, 2023.

[2] University of Central Arkansas. “Republic of the Sudan”.

[3] Pierre Englebert, “Pre-Colonial Institutions, Post-Colonial States, and Economic Development in Tropical Africa,” Political Research Quarterly 53, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 7–36,

[4] Marc Español, “Inside Burhan's Quest for International Legitimacy in Sudan,” The New Arab, October 2nd, 2023.

[5] Hiebert, Maram Mahdi Kyle. “Manufacturing a Veneer of Legitimacy, Warlords Drag Sudan into the Abyss.” Centre for International Governance Innovation, June 1, 2023.

[6] Malik, Nesrine. “Sudan’s Outsider: How a Paramilitary Leader Fell out with the Army and Plunged the Country into War.” The Guardian, May 2, 2023.

[7] Nashed, Mat. “Sudan’s Economy Dominated by Military Interests: Report.” Al Jazeera, June 29, 2022.

[8]أحمد, السر سيد. “Instability and a Rentier Mentality Threaten Sudan’s Resources | السر سيد أحمد.” السفير العربي, April 15, 2022.

[9] “Sudan - THE LEGAL SYSTEM,” n.d.,%2C%20divorce%2C%20and%20family%20relations.

[10] Puranen, Bi, and Olof Widenfalk. “The Rentier State: Does Rentierism Hinder Democracy?” In Palgrave Macmillan US eBooks, 160–78, 2007.

[11] Schwartzstein, Peter. “One of Africa’s Most Fertile Lands Is Struggling to Feed Its Own People.” Bloomberg.Com, April 2, 2019.

[12] Marsden, Dame Rosalind. “Pressure from the People in Sudan.” CHATHAM HOUSE, March 15, 2019.