Crisis in Sudan: A Q&A with Ali Ali-Dinar

The Sudanese scholar and senior lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies offers some background that led to the recent violence and potential paths to peace.

A view of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum shows brown buildings and dark grey smoke billowing against a blue sky.
Smoke rises from a building in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 19, 2023. The U.S. conducted its first organized evacuation of citizens and permanent residents from Sudan on April 29, two weeks into the conflict. (Image: AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

Two rival generals have turned Sudan’s capital of Khartoum into a war zone, just weeks after it appeared the nation was on track to establish a democracy after years of dictatorships. Hundreds have been killed, thousands have been injured, and tens of thousands have fled the country since the violence erupted on April 15.

Talks backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia are underway in Jeddah, with the goal of ending the conflict between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and allowing in humanitarian aid.

To get a sense of why the two factions are at odds, how this happened so quickly, and what can be done to bring peace, Penn Today spoke with Ali Ali-Dinar, a Sudanese scholar and a senior lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies.

Sudanese scholar and Penn lecturer Ali Ali-Dinar sits at table with his elbows on the table, clasping his fists under his chin, in front of a large bookcase.
Ali Ali-Dinar is a Sudanese scholar and senior lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies. (Image: Eric Sucar)

What is the struggle between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces? Why did it erupt in this way?

The issue since the end of the Bashir regime in December 2018 has been how to define ways in which the power will be transferred into the hands of civilians.

The old regime never withered away or died. It’s always been here and has tried many ways to come back to rule, and one of those ways is making a lot of obstacles for the government after the 2019 revolution, particularly for the elected prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who was in power until 2021. He faced a lot of issues that ended with him being detained. When he was freed, he just left Sudan, and that is the one of the issues which led to the situation which we are having today. 

There was a coup against the civilian government in 2021 and ever since that coup the regime at the time, which was mainly dominated by the army, changed back all the resolutions and all the policies which were being advanced during the time of the civilian government. A lot of people from the old regime were reinstated in their positions and a lot of policies were reversed. There was an impasse; there was no election of a new government. They were just negotiations back and forth. At the end, the international community represented by the United Nations and Norway, Britain, and the African Union intervened to negotiate a settlement between the political parties in Sudan. They had seemed to reach an agreement, but then there was split between civilians who were in support of the old regime, and the civilians who were in support of the new regime. 

Under the negotiated settlement, the army and the RSF agreed that the government should be led by a civilian prime minister and that prime minister would be in charge of appointing all the ministers, including the minister of defense and the minister of the interior. Previously, the army was in charge of appointing people to those positions. So, this would be a big change. Under this new agreement, the military would only be in charge of serving the country and not interfere in the politics.

The agreement was supposed to be signed on April 11, but the army, represented in the personality of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and others, demanded extra time and changes. The RSF was in support of a call for a civilian government, but the army never showed the same commitment to this kind of a change. This resistance was being guided by the old regime, which are the Islamists in the army. So, instead of signing the agreement, this war has erupted.

The U.S. and others thought Sudan was moving toward democracy. What might we expect next and what should the international community be doing in this crisis?

No one expected a full-fledged war. People expected some skirmishes because of the idea that the army and the Islamists would be robbed of any kind of political control in Sudan. They’ve been very powerful in the army since 1989. For the new deal to succeed, a lot of power would be lost by the army and the Islamists behind it. Not just power would be lost but also all the economic enterprise which was under the hand of the Islamists. They have a lot to lose, and I think they had a naive idea that their rival in power, the RSF, could be easily defeated, and that never happened. The army was not prepared in full. So, what we will see today here is almost a suicidal move by the army. Today, they control some of Khartoum, the capital, but the RSF controls about 90% of all the installations and government organs. Just this week the RSF are in the Republican Palace, showing in their videos that they’ve captured the headquarters of the army, who denounced what happened.  The international community must have some distance from both factions and not side with the army or RSF. It has to stand on an equal footing because this is a Sudanese issue here. The best way to deal with it is to discuss it with the Sudanese and let every voice have the same weight.

You see it in the media now internationally, with coverage that can seem pro-army, but in reality the army doesn’t control much now in Sudan. The international community should not take sides. It has to create an atmosphere that’s conducive for those two factions to negotiate in earnest. Taking sides won’t be of help to end the war peacefully.

What needs to happen to bring peace?

We need more than a cease fire; we need a way to end the conflict that is good for all parties. 

Everyone is now calling for this war to stop. Annihilating ‘the other’ won’t bring peace to Sudan. The army will exist and so will the RSF. You cannot just let 100,000 people disappear with all their weapons; that’s disastrous for the people of Sudan. Everyone remembers the atrocities the RSF committed over the years. But a plan where the RSF would be absorbed into the army was agreed upon in the most recent deal, and that absorption was to happen over the course of 10 years. Sudan needs a professional army that protects its borders and not to be used against its civilians. That is exactly what is happening with regard to the Sudanese army and the RSF. They are just tools, not for waging war against foreign troops but for waging war against the Sudanese citizens. The best scenario for us is for the army to exist and for there to be improvements within the army hierarchy and in the army recruitment. We would have one army with a mandate and an objective: a professional army.

What are you most concerned about when you see what's happening?

I’m concerned about the prolongation of the war. Time is of the essence. This war broke out suddenly. With the continuation of this war, there will be shortages of goods and services because there is no movement, there is no airport, there are no railways working, and even traveling by road is nearly impossible. That means suffering for civilians, not only in Khartoum, but also outside the capital. Of course, there are humanitarian issues: shortages of medicine and food and so on. People who are affluent can flee, but most are just trapped. Many fled years ago to Khartoum from war in Darfur, and now they find themselves again in war. The prolongation of the war and failure to reach a settlement will make all this more severe.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about what is happening in Sudan?

People have to know that the road to civilian rule in some parts of the world is not easy even if the country is striving to reach that goal. War can erupt and when that happens it is not only between those who have the guns, but those who bear the brunt of that kind of conflict are the civilians, whose lives are affected immensely. I always tell my students to try to think about what is happening there and its implications on them here, so they can better understand. 

People fight wars for a reason, just like in America people fought also the War of Independence and there were a lot of casualties. This war was prompted by the way in which civilians want to control their destiny, and that desire for controlling their destiny is met by force by those who believe that they have the right to do so. It’s important to see our connection to those in Sudan, so we can sympathize with those in Sudan.