The removal of Omar al-Bashir, one of Africa’s longest-serving authoritarian leaders, after months of popular protest in 2019 ushered in the hope of a restoration of democracy and a civilian-led government.

When fighting broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces in April 2023, that restoration looked less likely and fighting continues to this day.

Sudan faces a major humanitarian crisis. The UN is calling for $4.1 billion to provide humanitarian aid but is finding limited support. The UN aid chief says “Sudan keeps getting forgotten by the international community”.

What is the humanitarian situation in Sudan?

About half the population, 25 million people, over half of whom are children, needs humanitarian assistance and support. In February 2024 the International Rescue Committee said Sudan is facing a “catastrophic hunger crisis”, warning seven million people could face extreme hunger by June 2024.

About 15% of the population, an estimated 8.1 million people, have been displaced since the conflict began in April 2023.

The UN launched a combined $4.1 billion appeal for Sudan in February 2024. The head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, has called on the international community to “not forget Sudan” .

Internet blackouts are also hampering the delivery of humanitarian assistance and access to information.

Why is there conflict in Sudan?

Fighting broke out in the Sudanese capital Khartoum between the SAF and RSF on 15 April 2023.

The conflict has been described as “primarily a power struggle” between the leaders of the two powerful forces: General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the SAF and General Mohamed Hamden Dagalo (also known as Hemedti) as the head of the RSF.

Both men participated in the 2019 coup that deposed long-time President Omar al-Bashir and oversaw the subsequent civilian-led government. However, in October 2021 they deposed that government and took power themselves, after which tensions between them emerged over Sudan’s future.

Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for International Development and Africa, says the SAF and RSF have “dragged Sudan into a wholly unjustified war”.

What is the current state of fighting?

The conflict is at a stalemate, with the balance of power shifting from week to week.

Analysis by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which maps crises, suggested the RSF was gaining the upper hand at the beginning of 2024. However, the SAF has launched fresh offensives in February, prompting ACLED to suggest the war has taken a new turn.

Khartoum, much of it controlled by the RSF, remains a flashpoint.

Accusations of war crimes and atrocities

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, says members of both sides have committed war crimes, and says members of the RSF and its allies have committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

A report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recounts indiscriminate attacks, sexual violence against women and girls, and attacks on civilian objects such as hospitals. The International Criminal Court Prosecutor, Karim A A Khan, says his office is investigating allegations concerning the “killing of 87 ethnic Masalit, allegedly by the RSF and members of their allied militia in West Darfur”.

Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, as President of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2023. He accused the RSF and other militias of committing genocide and urged the international community to designate them as terrorist groups.

Concerns about genocide in Darfur

A particular concern is the return of the RSF to the Darfur region, where in 2003 the RSF’s predecessor, the Janjaweed, is accused of committing acts of genocide against non-Arab and other communities.

Several MPs, including Vicky Ford, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Sudan and South Sudan, and Lyn Brown, the Shadow Minister for Africa, have raised concerns about RSF violence in Darfur with ministers. In April 2023 the APPG published a report on violence in Darfur  since 2020.

Reuters news agency says the leaked report by the panel of experts for the UN Security Council details RSF abuses in Darfur. The UK Government says it welcomes the report and looks “forward to its final publication”.

Who else might be supporting the conflict?

Both men have powerful support networks.

In July 2023 the UK imposed sanctions on six commercial entities associated with the SAF and RSF to put pressure on both to halt the fighting. Announcing the measures, Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for International Development and Africa, said the SAF and RSF “own and control vast commercial empires which provide them with economic resources and weapons”.

The Financial Times says the leaked report by experts for the UN Security Council found “credible” evidence that the UAE is arming the RSF. The UAE denies these claims, saying the aircraft flights involved were carrying humanitarian aid.

Egypt, Turkey and, to an extent, Iran, are supporting the SAF. An expert on Sudan at the UK’s Chatham House think tank, Ahmed Soliman, told the Financial Times that “‘middle powers’ had filled the void left by western countries”.

The UK is calling on all countries to comply with existing UN sanctions, which includes an arms embargo.

What diplomatic initiatives are there?

Formal diplomatic talks between the two sides took place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but they collapsed at the end of the 2023.

UK supports regional efforts led by IGAD

The UK is supporting efforts made by the East African regional bloc IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development) to bring the parties together. Kenya and Djibouti have led efforts by leaders from IGAD.

However, it is unclear whether IGAD has credibility with all the conflict’s protagonists. Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allied to the SAF, announced it was suspending its membership of IGAD in protest at the invitation of Hemedti to a summit held in Uganda in January 2024.

Sudanese civilian-led groups

Within Sudan, there are a number of civilian-led groups seeking to end the fighting and restore civilian rule.

The deposed leader of civilian government, former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, is leading the Coordination of the Civilian Political Forces Initiative, also known as Tagadum (or Taqaddum). In January 2024 Tagadum and the RSF signed an agreement, known as the Addis Ababa Declaration, setting out a plan to end to the war and return to democratic civilian rule. Hamdok has also reached out to the SAF.

What are the prospects for peace?

The Crisis Group think tank says Sudan is at “the edge of a precipice” and is calling for a coordinated, high-level diplomatic effort to resolve the war. It said that “without a political settlement, Sudan risks plunging into a free-for-all with rival militias proliferating and only the thinnest veneer of governance.”

Some analysts fear a Libya-style scenario, in which the country is divided between the two rival camps, with neither side able to achieve victory and no obvious path to peace and a return to civilian rule.

What is the UK Government’s position?

The UK is one of several countries working to resolve the current crisis in Sudan and has issued several joint statements alongside the US and Norway.

In November 2023, the three countries reiterated their call to end the fighting and condemned reports of human rights abuses in Sudan. They said ending the conflict sustainably will require resuming a “civilian-owned political process to form a civilian government.”

The UK is also the ‘penholder’ on Sudan at the UN Security Council, meaning it leads the council’s activities on the country. At the UK’s request, the Security Council discussed Sudan on 21 December 2023.

The UK is funding “open-source investigation experts” to use satellite and social media to verify and preserve information relating to attacks on civilians and infrastructure during internet blackouts.

The UK provided £38 million in aid in the 2023/2024 financial year. This will be doubled to £89 million in 2024/25.

Further reading

More information on the UK’s response to the outbreak of fighting in April 2023 and the evacuation of British nationals from Khartoum can be found in Commons Library briefing: UK response to unrest in Sudan.

About the author: Louisa Brooke-Holland is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in Africa and defence.

Photo by robnaw on Adobe Stock