Sudan’s mass arming of civilians

24 February

Since December last year, Sudan’s army has conducted mass operations to arm civilians in areas under its control to counter an expanding offensive by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. Some civilians see this arming campaign as a critical move to help citizens safeguard themselves from marauding RSF soldiers and allied militias. Others see this as the beginning signs of Sudan becoming an uncontrollable civil war.

“The arming process takes place in almost every Sudanese home, and everyone is now planning to acquire firearms to protect themselves from any threats that may befall them, especially from the Rapid Support Forces,” says Musab Ali, a citizen from the eastern city of Kassala. “Every day the process of arming civilians expands –-I have seen in my area many armed civilian groups preparing to fight military battles-– this makes the people a part of the current war, it is no longer between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces only.”

Musab told Ayin he is now thinking of leaving the country. “I fear the spread of weapons this way will lead to a comprehensive civil war – arming is now being done to the youth…we see the holocaust coming.”

The outbreak of war in the capital (Ayin)

The war

Since mid-April, a war of dominance between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has taken place, displacing over 10 million people in the process. The RSF has made significant military gains in the capital, western Darfur region, and, more recently, in the strategic central city of Wad Medani. In a bid to regain territory, the army and its Islamist backers from the former regime are relying on civilians to take up arms to counter the RSF advances.

This conflict between the army under the leadership of Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF’s Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is not longstanding –-both men were allies, just a year before. The army and the RSF fought alongside each other under former dictator Omar al-Bashir, whose Islamist government controlled the country –brutally suppressing any armed or political opposition– for nearly three decades. When a popular uprising helped to topple Bashir in April 2019, both the army and RSF worked together to prevent a civilian government from taking power through a coup in October 2021. Divisions over power and resources, however, triggered the current conflict two years later.

Civilian recruitment in River Nile State (social media)

Civilian recruitment

Army operations to arm civilians are taking place in the states of Gedaref, Kassala, West Kordofan, Sennar, River Nile, and Northern State, under the name of the “national civil resistance“. These areas witnessed many marches of fully armed civilians in December as a show of power, while they cheered and raised slogans condemning any negotiations with the RSF, calling solely for a military solution.

According to former army officer and military expert Omar Arbab, the “national civil resistance” is the result of two factors, “the army’s inability to win the war, and the widespread violations committed by the RSF against civilians, including looting and rape.” Arbab fears the arming of civilians, while understandable, will expose them to greater risks. “Civilians are armed with personal weapons such as Kalashnikovs, which cannot withstand the advanced and large armaments of the RSF.”

The arming of civilians is not the practice of the army alone. Much earlier, since the beginning of the conflict, the RSF mobilised ethnically driven civilian recruitment campaigns, what is locally known as “Al-Fa’a”. This was acknowledged by the RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Himmedti”) last month, revealing that these groups had committed widespread violations against civilians.

According to several Kassala residents, influential members of the former ruling National Congress Party and Islamists such as Nizar al-Badawi and Al-Sir al-Qassas are orchestrating the recruitment drives within the state. Moreover, sheikhs of various villages in Kassala are providing lists of young volunteers to engage in their “national civil resistance”, and pledging to provide the volunteers with weapons, the same sources said.

الكشف عن تنسيق أمني مع انصار المخلوع لتنظيم موكب الزحف الأخضر بكردفان
Recruitment drives in Al-Muglad, West Kordofan State (social media)

West Kordofan State

In Al-Nuhud city, West Kordofan State, prominent National Congress Party (NCP) leader Hamad al-Safi has recruited hundreds of youths from the Al-Hamar community, according to sources who requested anonymity for security purposes. This recruitment within the Al-Hamar appears to be designed as a counterbalance to another community prevalent within the state, the Messiryya, which has several of its members within the RSF leadership, the same sources said.

“The spread of weapons in the states of West and South Kordofan is a very dangerous matter that may plunge the region into civil war,” says Ezzeldeen Ahmed Dafa’allah, an activist in civil society organisations in West Kordofan state. “Any party that distributes weapons among civilians is deliberately dragging large areas of the Kordofan region into a civil war — we may witness targeted ethnic attacks, possibly genocide if the process of mobilising and recruiting citizens continues at this scale.”

Abdul Mannan Suleiman al-Sharif, the commander of the militia, the Martyr Othman Makkawi Troops, told Ayin that they prepared 14,000 fighters to support the armed forces in their war against the RSF and that this was done long before the army’s call to arms among civilians. Abdul Mannan refutes claims that civilian-led armed groups will lead to further violence. “Talks about a civil war because we are armed and have weapons is just a scarecrow, we are working under the direct instructions and supervision of the army and are in an exceptional and temporary situation.”

Al-Dabbah Northern State Recuirtment, December 2023 (social media)

River Nile State

The pace of civilian recruitment into the army in the northern River Nile State increased significantly last December after the RSF took control of the central city of Wad Medani in Al-Jazeera State. According to eyewitnesses, intensive recruitment drives of civilians are taking place in the cities of Atbara and Shendi where civilians can be seen walking around markets and public facilities carrying arms. The Imam and preacher Adel Abdel Latif of the Al-Mina Al-Bari (“the Land Port”) Mosque in the northern part of Atbara city, ascended to the pulpit during the Friday sermon on 22 December wearing a full military uniform and a gun slung across his shoulder. The Imam, an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged his followers to carry firearms and support the army.

Tariq Nour El-Dein, a resident of Al-Damir, the capital of River Nile State, says it has become a necessity to carry a weapon for self-defense and supports the army’s efforts in supplying the public with arms.

Another Damir resident, Mohamed Yousif, told Ayin that the civilian recruitment drives are army efforts to mobilise and form new militias. According to Yousif, a large part of the drafted civilians joined the fight under Al-Baraa bin Malik forces, one of the arms of the Islamic movement.

The owner of a licensed arms shop in Atbara, who asked not to be named, said that the regulation of weapons has stopped since the outbreak of the war. Instead, weapons are sold illegally in public areas as the demand and price for firearms increases.

“Civilians are unlikely to use weapons solely to protect themselves from RSF attacks, but also to settle their conflicts with any other parties as well, and the victims will turn into criminals themselves,” warns Dr. Bakri Al-Jack al-Madani, a lecturer in Public Policy at Long Island University Brooklyn.

New recruits in River Nile State (social media)

“The Mustanfareen”

The public in River Nile State are already suffering from the repercussions of the mass civilian recruitment drives, local sources within River Nile State told Ayin. Those recruited to join the army, the civilian-turned-soldiers are known as “the mobilised” or, in Arabic, the “mustanfareen”. Often young and unaccustomed to handling arms, let alone the public, these recruits are now acting like the same militias that the civilians armed themselves against in the first place. The “mustanfareen” are, local sources said, misusing their new positions to set up arbitrary checkpoints, forcing civilians to pay bribes, raiding homes, and arresting anyone who calls for peace instead of an outright military victory.

The actions of these recruits, sources in Atbara said, are reminiscent of the old regime where security officers and so-called Public Order Police terrorised the public under the rule of the ousted president, Omar al-Bashir.

“The majority of the mobilized are young and have no experience in dealing with citizens, so it is expected that their transgressions towards civilians will expand and they may become bribed,” says Omar Al Amin, a civil society activist from the Ubaidiya area of River Nile State. “They are now like a new militia that receives their instructions from state security, which is made up of elements of the former regime.”

Adam Suleiman, a civilian from the eastern city of Gedaref who voluntarily helps the war-affected, says the “mustanfareen” are acting with impunity under the silent watch of the army. “They abuse merchants and street vendors, often blackmailing them when the curfew begins,” he told Ayin. Any transgressions by the “mustanfareen” are purposefully overlooked by the army in Gedaref. “The army does not want to lose them so they don’t interfere – they [mustanfareen] also do not earn salaries so they may let them earn from other means.”

Lawyer Mohamed Salah Banawi told Ayin the current impunity enjoyed by the “mustanfareen” is similar to that of the infamous RSF recruits, whose human rights violations against civilians are widely documented. The recruits’ near absolute powers to search and arrest civilians are a blatant civil rights violation, Badawi says and could lead to a loss of control.

Youth recruitment in the Matama area (social media)

Military gains at a price

Nevertheless, a military source who is not authorised to speak to the press told Ayin, that these “zealous new recruits” are making headway on the battlefield.

Some of the newly recruited mustanfareen have participated in the recent battles in Omdurman and have contributed to the advances the army has made in Sudan’s capital sister city, the same source said. Most of mustanfareen recruits came from Omdurman while others came from the states of River Nile, Gedaref, and Sennar. University students loyal to the Islamist movement also joined the fighting in Omdurman. According to Omdurman residents – the new forces are more brutal than the army and have already committed violations such as arbitrary detention and looting. 

“In previous experiences with militias in Sudan, including the RSF and Popular Defence Forces, firearms cannot be controlled after they have been deployed to civilians,” says lecturer in peace and development issues, Dr. Juma Kunda. Creating a new militia that neither the state nor the army can control is all part of the plan, Dr. Kunda told Ayin. “The plan to arm, mobilise and militarise civilians is devised by the Islamists from the former regime as an entry point to the second stage, which will be civil war […] and their eventual return to power.”