Sudan, for the umpteenth time, has again been hit by violence and a major humanitarian crisis. The factions are back at war and are fighting for power. This time, beginning on 15 April, it is the military faction of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan that has ruled since 2021 through a military coup, versus his rival, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the Rapid Support Forces/RSF (quwwat adda’m assari’). RSF, a paramilitary organization, has hundreds of thousands of militia members, especially from the Janjawid group, which is suspected to be one of the main actors of violence and crimes against humanity in Darfur, West Sudan.
Inevitably, as a result of this war and violence, hundreds of lives have been wasted again. Property is gone. Thousands more suffered injuries. Khartum and a number of other cities were again in ruins. The war between military factions exacerbated and worsened the situation in Sudan, which has long been experiencing a chronic humanitarian crisis that has claimed millions of lives, far from what happened in Palestine.
History of violence
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates this year at least 15.8 million people in Sudan (more than three times the population of Palestine) are starving and need humanitarian assistance, 3.6 million people have lost their homes and become internally displaced people, 3.1 million experienced gender-based violence, 10.1 million experienced health crises, 4 million were malnourished, 3.7 million were unable to access education and 3.8 million children were neglected.
I do not know exactly how many times Sudan, of which more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, has been hit by civil wars and heartbreakingly brutal violence. Since independence from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, Sudan has experienced several military coups resulting in war and violence, which have claimed millions of victims. It is almost certain Sudan rulers will assume power through a bloody coup. Jafar Nimeiri, Omar al-Bashir, Ahmed Awad ibn Auf and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan all led following a military coup.
Now, Dagalo is trying his luck in the same way and with the same tactics. Because of this, it is not wrong for Sudan to be called a “coup country”. However, please remember, the war and violence in Sudan did not happen only after independence. Long before independence, Sudan was familiar with war and factional violence. In fact, since the founding of the Kingdom of Kerma in 2500 BC, Sudan has become an arena for power struggles by various groups.
Since then, various religious, political, ideological and ethnic factions have been involved in attacking, killing and taking revenge on each other. Various ethnic groups tried to conquer Sudan: Nubians, Arabs, Turks, British and African ethnicities. Various regimes took turns ruling Sudan: Kush, Nubia, Sennar, Turkic, Mahdi, Anglo-Egyptian and others.
Various ideological and religious groups (Islamism, salafism, Sufism, secularism, communism, socialism, Pan-Arabism, republicanism and others) also try to influence and control Sudan. Likewise activists from political parties, separatist groups and militia/paramilitary groups also clashed and fought for power. All want to rule, control and dominate Sudan.
I do not know when the war and violence will end. Wherever violence occurs, it is the people who are the victims: murder, looting, rape, scorched earth and so on.
There are a number of valuable lessons that we can learn from the Sudan case.
First, plurality or diversity, if not managed properly, carefully and prudently, can lead to or turn into disaster and misery. Sudan is very diverse, in terms of ethnicity, clan, religion, politics and ideology. Various major ethnic and tribal groups live in Sudan: Arabs, Nubians, Beja, Fur, Nuba, Dinka and so on.
This is not counting the hundreds of subtribes and clans. The predominant Arab ethnic group in Sudan (more than 70 percent) is also divided into several major factions, such as Jalayin and Juhainah; each is split further into complex sub-clans. Even though Muslims are the majority, they are divided into various groups: Islamists, salafi, Sufi, nationalists, secularists, traditionalists, communists and so on. Tragically, every religious, ideological, political and ethnic or tribal faction wants to be in power.
Second, for the sake of power, leaders (rulers) can change (ideology) like chameleons and join any group (even if they are ideologically opposed) that is seen as advantageous and can maintain/save power. The ruler’s character is pragmatic-opportunist, far from the idealism he campaigns for. Take Nimeiri, for example. Initially a secularist, socialist and pan-Arabist, later, in the early 1980s, he joined a militant Islamist group (supporters of the ideology of Islamism), which led to a protracted civil war. Likewise, Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s longest-serving ruler who managed to rule after the coup of Sadiq al-Mahdi, is also a leader of the Sufi order, al-Ansar.
Third, ideology, religion and whatever dogma the authorities adhere to do not guarantee the state and people will be just, prosperous, safe, peaceful and secure. Secular, socialist, democrat, nationalist, Sufi and Islamist groups have taken turns controlling and governing Sudan. None of them succeeded in making Sudan a prosperous, peaceful and war-free country. That means, whatever identity the authorities adhere to is not always directly proportional to their actions or behavior. What a true leader needs is not a “primordial identity” (religion, ideology, ethnicity) attached to him, but a character and behavior that is clean, honest and just; willingness to work for the public good; commitment to human values; and the maintenance of diversity.
Fourth, whatever political-economic and legal systems are used, including the formal implementation of Islamic law that was imposed by the government since the early 1980s in the era of the Nimeiri regime before being abolished in 2019, are only “political vehicles” for the ruling regime to control assets, the country’s economy and wealth, not for the sake of promoting Islam or ideology as they propagated.
Learning from the Sudanese tragedy, we need to be more vigilant in responding to socioreligious and political phenomena and to be wise in managing a pluralistic nation. If we are negligent, it is not impossible that what happened to Sudan could happen to our country, our beloved Indonesia.
Note: this article was first translated and published by Kompas