19 April 2023
by Jordan Stevens
In the early hours of 15 April 2023, fighting erupted in the Sudanese capital Khartoum between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the leadership of Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (alias Hemedti).
Local media and social media sources reported heavy gunfire and explosions across multiple locations in Khartoum on 15 April. That same day, the RSF released a statement claiming to control strategic locations including the Presidential Palace, Khartoum International Airport, and the state broadcaster. The SAF denied these claims. At the time of publication, it is unclear who is in control of strategic locations across the capital as fighting continues and large parts of the city remain contested.
Between 15 and 17 April, clashes between the SAF and the RSF spread throughout Sudan, with key battles occurring in South Darfur, South Kordofan, at Merowe airbase, and in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. In a statement released on 18 April 2023, the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors (CCSD) claimed that 144 people had been killed since clashes began on 15 April.
Based on Janes definition, given that the SAF were both de facto and de jure in control of Sudan before clashes commenced and the RSF made visible efforts to take control of strategic locations across the capital, Janes considers the events of 15 April 2023 to be an attempted military coup by the RSF.
Since the removal of long-serving Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir during a military coup in April 2019, Sudan has been subject to military rule under the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC) while negotiations for a transition to democracy and civilian rule played out among Sudan's political and military elite. As Chairman of the TSC, General Burhan of the SAF has been the de facto leader of Sudan, alongside Deputy Chairman Dagalo of the RSF.
On 19 March 2023, the TSC reached an agreement with civilian political groups to transfer power to a civilian government on 11 April 2023. However, the TSC missed this deadline, resulting in an escalation of tensions between the SAF and the RSF, with the latter mobilising forces in Khartoum along with other cities across the country by 13 April 2023.
The key issue underpinning the conflict is the RSF's integration within the national armed forces. The RSF was formed in 2013 when the Sudanese government formalised pro-government militia groups, particularly the Janjaweed, who were operating in Darfur, southwestern Sudan, against Sudanese rebels in the region. Up until President al-Bashir's removal in April 2019, the RSF sat under the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) rather than the national military. Following al-Bashir's removal, the transitional government renamed and reorganised the NISS into the General Intelligence Service (GIS). Since then, the RSF's formal chain of command has been unclear and the RSF has essentially operated with autonomy. According to local media sources, in February 2023, two members of the TSC – General Yasir al-Atta Khartoum and Shams al-Din Kabbashi – issued separate statements claiming that the RSF must be absorbed into the SAF to move forward as a modern, democratic state. The current conflict and instability facing Sudan are reflected in the Janes Country Stability Indicators (CSIs). Sudan scored 3.40/4 – with four meaning ‘very high risk' and zero meaning ‘very low risk' of a disorderly government collapse, forceful transfer of power, or fragmentation of power – at the outbreak of violence on 15 April 2023, ranking 179 out of 181 countries globally, marking it one of the world's most politically unstable countries.
Since January 2023, Janes Military Coup Indicator has ranked Sudan among the top three states most likely to experience a military coup, with a score of 3.6/4. Sudan's elevated military coup risk is driven primarily by the country's extensive military coup history and the normalisation of the military's role as a political actor in Sudanese affairs. Since 1950, Sudan has experienced a total of 17 attempted and successful military coups, the greatest number of any single country in African history. Through repeated takeovers, the Sudanese military has cemented its influence over the political system, meaning military coup risk will remain elevated in Sudan over the long term, particularly around periods of planned political transition.
The RSF and the SAF worked jointly to overthrow former President al-Bashir in April 2019 and again in October 2021 when al-Burhan dissolved the TSC and reorganised its membership. The preceding fragmentation and current conflict between the RSF and the SAF mean that the events of 15 April 2023 differ significantly from previous coups. As a result, the likelihood that Sudan will fall into a prolonged internal conflict is greatly increased.
The SAF and the RSF differ significantly in capability and strength. With an estimated strength of 240,000 personnel, the SAF is known to operate several types of main battle tanks (MBTs) including Soviet T-55 MBTs and Chinese Type 59s (Al-Zubair-2s) and Type 85s (Al Bashirs). The Sudanese Air Force operates Su-25 ‘Frogfoot' and MiG‐29SE ‘Fulcrum' jets, capable of close air support, and Mi-24E ‘Hind' attack helicopters, with the Su-25s and Mi-24Es used extensively in counter-insurgency operations in Sudan's Darfur and South Kordofan regions.
The exact strength of the RSF is unknown, however, international media sources have estimated it as up to 100,000 fighters. Despite its origins as a militia, the RSF has to some extent professionalised and has gained experience fighting in the Libyan and Yemeni civil wars. Although the force has in the past exhibited armoured vehicles such as BTR-80 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and Nimr- and Samar-type mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, the RSF is overwhelmingly equipped with weapon-mounted pickup trucks equipped with 107 mm multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), 23 mm and 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, and 12.7 mm heavy machine guns (HMGs).
Since October 2022, five states in southern Sudan have been placed under a state of emergency because of an escalation of tribal clashes and violent protests. This includes the Blue Nile, Central Darfur, South Darfur, South Kordofan, and West Kordofan in October 2022, November 2022, December 2022, January 2023, and February 2023, respectively. The outbreak of conflict will likely exacerbate tribal tensions in the region and has the potential to embolden anti-government non-state armed groups (NSAGs), such as the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-North), particularly if the capabilities of the RSF operating in South Sudan are significantly weakened.
It is likely that the SAF and the RSF will continue to clash in Khartoum and across the country over the coming days, particularly as large sections of Khartoum appear to remain contested, including locations around Khartoum International Airport and the Presidential Palace.
As the conflict continues and as international pressure grows, the likelihood that the SAF and the RSF will agree to a ceasefire or armistice increases. Given the SAF's capability advantage in terms of weaponry and personnel, particularly in terms of MBTs and the Sudanese Air Force's use of Su-25s and MiG‐29SE jets, any eventual ceasefire agreement would likely be dictated by the SAF upon the RSF.
There is a roughly even chance that the current clashes will result in a prolonged civil conflict between the two factions, should regions under the respective control of the SAF and the RSF become entrenched and stabilise over time. Meanwhile, tribal tensions and civil unrest will likely continue in Sudan's southern regions.
The outbreak of conflict on 15 April 2023 means there is almost no chance Sudan will be in a position to continue with its planned transition to civilian government over the short to medium term.
Author's note: Country Stability Indicators (CSI) quantify the socio-political risk faced by 181 countries or territories on the basis of political, social, and economic factors with a scale of 0 – 4 representing a progressing threat up to and including the risk of disorderly government collapse, forceful transfer of power, or fragmentation of state power across the country, which may lead to societal unrest and violence.
Janes uses a proprietary bottom-up scoring framework comprising qualitative and quantitative elements. Each country is subject to an overall CSI score on the basis of three sub-indicators (economics, political, and social factors).
Additional contributions from Connor Davis, analyst in the Africa Country Intelligence team.
(Note: Items from news/wire services are abstracted from the originals and are not verbatim)
Since January 2023, Janes Military Coup Indicator has ranked Sudan among the top three states most l...