Sudan is heading towards complete state collapse

If it is serious about saving the Sudanese state, the international community needs to take immediate action to eliminate the RSF threat.

People walk among scattered objects in the market of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on April 29, 2023, as fighting continues in Sudan between the forces of two rival generals
People walk among scattered objects in the market of el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on April 29, 2023, as fighting continues in Sudan between the Sudanese military and the RSF [AFP]

As a result of a series of bloody conflicts, bad leadership, endemic corruption, long periods of complete international isolation and chronic economic vulnerability, Sudan has been classified as a failed or fragile state in academic literature and media reports for decades. The Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index, for example, has ranked Sudan among the world’s 10 most fragile/failed states every single year since its launch in 2006 (and placed it in the top five for 12 consecutive years). Nonetheless, in large part thanks to the Sudanese people’s resilience and determination to achieve true democracy, the country always managed to avoid complete state collapse and a descent into deadly anarchy – until now.

Today, Sudan is under attack from an ISIL-like rogue militia and with the international community seemingly unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect the country’s fragile institutions, it is facing imminent state collapse – a possibility that could prove catastrophic not only for the long-suffering people of Sudan but the entire region.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group formed in the 2000s to help Sudan’s longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir hold on to power, now controls large swathes of territory across the country. The militia, mostly made out of ethnic Arab fighters from across the region, has taken over most of Darfur, including West Darfur, where it embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Masalit people indigenous to the area. Many Masalit judges, lawyers, doctors, teachers, aid workers and other professionals have reportedly been killed in what appears to be a systematic effort to murder potential leaders.

West Darfur’s governor, Khamis Abakar, was also brutally killed, and his abused body gruesomely exhibited, after accusing the RSF of “genocide” in a televised interview and making an appeal for international intervention. Reports say that members of his security detail were also hacked to death.

In the seven Darfuri cities currently under the control of the RSF, fighters have burnt and looted all food stores, attacked and intimidated civilians and cut all communication lines with the outside world. One can only imagine the horrors still taking place in these localities, hidden from the gaze of the international community.

The capital Khartoum, where the RSF has been fighting against the Sudanese military and state since April 15, is also in ruins. Militia men have occupied public facilities, including hospitals, and looted almost every store. Government and civilian offices and businesses in the city centre, as well as homes in middle-class neighbourhoods, have also been looted and left in ruins. The terror RSF is inflicting on the city has brought state institutions to a complete halt.

No government service, from rubbish collection to medical aid, is available in the city and surrounding areas. There are no traffic controls or functioning courts. Essential documents, like birth or death certificates and passports, cannot be obtained.

Most civil servants, educators, doctors and other essential workers have left the city for safer destinations abroad or elsewhere in the country. Schools and universities are closed, and most public buildings have either been destroyed or are being used as barracks by the militia.

Now the Sudanese state only has a ghostly presence in the capital, and it is barely functioning in other regions.

Sure, this is not Sudan’s first existential crisis. The country has been plagued with composite crises and serious threats to its viability since at least the late 1980s. It went through many deadly famines, several episodes of near bankruptcy, and debilitating civil conflicts.

It never, however, came as close to experiencing a sudden and absolute dissolution of state sovereignty as it is today.

Even in the early noughties, when conflict was raging both in the South and in Darfur, and al-Bashir’s oppressive regime was suffocating the nation on multiple fronts, Sudan remained a largely functioning country. Its GDP growth, for example, averaged 6.5 percent between 2000 and 2007.

Of course, the grave state of affairs today is the direct result of past mistakes. It was decades of bad, short-sighted leadership, both at national and sub-national levels, that finally brought Sudan to the brink of collapse.

After all, the current crisis has its roots firmly in the al-Bashir era – the former president not only personally created and empowered the RSF, but also cultivated the culture of impunity, military dependency and civilian erasure that laid the ground for the tragic events we are witnessing today.

Since al-Bashir’s ousting in 2019, those leading the transition into democracy failed to get the country on a better path and eventually came on the verge of turning decades of premature predictions about state failure into reality.

The dominant political parties concluded a problematic deal with the military, of which the RSF was a core component, instead of broadening the civilian consensus. Rather than focusing on constitution-making and preparing the country for democratic governance, those in positions of power wasted time wrangling over issues not essential to the transition.

As civilians missed their window for taking charge of the process, the influence the military had over the country increased exponentially. The emergence of the military as a leading power in a so-called democratic transition led to a comparable increase in the power of the RSF militia, which came to be seen by many as the only counterforce against an untrustworthy and power-hungry military. 

Emboldened by its newfound prominence, the RSF is now openly waging a genocidal war against the people of Sudan. And the Sudanese state, perhaps for the first time, is fighting for its very survival.

All this leaves the regional and global powers who had long been predicting the “failure” of the Sudanese state facing difficult choices.

These actors, of course, can abandon their illusions about the RSF being a useful actor in the democratic transition, accept that it is nothing more than a feudal crime syndicate hellbent on genocide, and stage a wide-ranging (and likely costly) intervention to save the Sudanese state.

So far, however, key actors insist on simplistically categorising the ongoing crisis as an unfortunate conflict between two equally culpable generals and ignoring Sudanese calls for meaningful, constructive intervention.

Britain, for example, recently joined the US in sanctioning the Sudanese military alongside the RSF for the ongoing violence. And at the recent IGAD meeting in Addis Ababa, which Sudan boycotted, Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed called for a no-fly zone over Sudan and a ban on the use of heavy artillery – moves that would have robbed the beleaguered Sudanese military of its slim advantage over the RSF, and ensured immediate state collapse, exposing the civilians in Khartoum and the rest of the country to the same genocidal targeting to which Darfur is currently being submitted.

While the prospects of a meaningful international intervention are almost nonexistent, thankfully, there are (albeit insufficient) efforts to give the Sudanese state a fighting chance against the RSF.

The UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court and the US government, for example, have all expressed interest in investigating and exposing the atrocities being committed by the RSF in Darfur. Exposing the violence of the militia would not only bring its victims closer to finding justice but will help delegitimise it, helping the Sudanese state fight for survival.

Leaders from Sudan’s seven neighbouring countries, meanwhile, recently came together at a summit in Egypt and expressed their commitment to preserving the Sudanese state and the integrity and viability of its institutions – this means supporting the military, which in the current dynamic is the backbone of Sudanese statehood.

However, while commendable, these efforts are not nearly enough. If the international community wants Sudan to avoid a catastrophic collapse, leading global and regional powers should stop wasting time with well-meaning statements and expressions of support and take meaningful action to eliminate the RSF threat.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.