/ 29 December 2023

Sudan civilians rush for arms as paramilitaries advance

Smoke Rises Over The City As Army And Paramilitaries Clash In Power Struggle, In Khartoum
Smoke rises over the city as army and paramilitaries clash in power struggle, in Khartoum, Instagram @lostshmi/via REUTERS

The rapid advance of Sudanese paramilitaries has intensified calls on civilians to carry arms, raising the spectre of the eight-month conflict between rival generals transforming into full-blown civil war.

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has seized most of Sudan’s southern Al-Jazira state including its capital Wad Madani and has begun pushing further south into Sennar state in their war against the army.

Amid growing claims of abuse by RSF fighters, groups of civilians have called for “armed popular resistance” across the Sudanese states of White Nile, River Nile, Gedaref, North, Kassala and Red Sea.

The RSF meanwhile has ordered inhabitants of areas brought under its control to provide the paramilitary force with volunteers who would be armed to “protect their territory”.

The fighting, which started on 15 April, pits army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against his former deputy, RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo.

The violence has killed more than 12 000 people, according to a conservative estimate by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. The UN says at least 7.1 million people have been displaced, including 1.5 million who have fled across the border into neighbouring countries.

Last week at a thousands-strong rally in the northern city of Shendi, River Nile state governor Mohammed Badawi said: “We are going to train young people on weapons, so that they can defend their lands and their honour, and protect the families from the rebellion” of the RSF.

In the coastal city of Suakin, south of Port Sudan, Beja tribal leader Mohammed al-Amin Turk announced this week: “We are ready to take up arms [against the RSF] for the victory.”

In a village in Al-Jazira state, one resident — requesting anonymity for safety reasons — said the paramilitaries had already handed out weapons.

“The RSF are arming a number of young men in each village, giving them Kalashnikovs and one or more cars, depending on the size of the village,” he said.

The proliferation of arms has spurred fears that the conflict might spill over beyond the ranks of the army and the RSF.

According to the Small Arms Survey project, 6.6% of Sudan’s 48 million people have weapons.

The risks are particularly grave in the vast western region of Darfur, scarred by bloody violence in the 2000s that killed about 300 000 people.

Darfur as well as Kordofan in the south and the capital Khartoum have borne much of the brunt of the current war.

In May, the UN warned that armed civilians, tribal fighters and rebel groups had already taken up arms in Darfur. The calls now to arm more civilians “are disastrous”, a Sudanese security official said, requesting anonymity.

“They add fuel to the fire, in a country already suffering from the proliferation of weapons.”

To Sherif Mohammed Othman, a leader of Sudan’s main civilian alliance the Forces for Freedom and Change, “We must call on both parties to put an end to the conflict, instead of encouraging citizens to join the popular resistance or the ranks of the army.

“The only thing it would do is prolong the war,” he said.

A government agency tasked with collecting arms estimated that at the end of 2022, “5 million weapons were in the hands of civilians, excluding those of rebel groups in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile” states. 

The security official said that was probably an underestimate.

“Even before the war, gun permits had become easy to obtain” and many weapons were being smuggled into Sudan from neighbouring countries, the official said.

Al-Jazira state resident Yussef Ali said he was determined to be armed.

“If no side gives me a weapon, I’ll buy one myself,” he said. “It’s easier than finding food.”

Agence France-Presse