The fall of Khartoum
Khartoum holds a central place in the hearts and minds of most Sudanese people. An epicentre of wealth and power, the city has always been contested. Today, Khartoum’s fate lies in the hands of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces waging a war forcing the residents to flee. What was once a fortress is now caught in the crossfire. Could this war be the beginning of another fall of Khartoum?
Khartoum at the centre of events
Khartoum where the plane takes off and the president sleeps! is a common saying in Sudan that might not make any sense at a first glimpse for someone who is not familiar with the place of Khartoum in the sentiment of most Sudanese people. Countless songs written about Khartoum and famous Sudanese singers such as Abdul Kareem Alkabli, and Sayid Khalifa sang for her exceptional beauty and the aspirations to visit and live in Khartoum. Even fashion has been inspired by Khartoum, for example, Khartoum at Night is the name of a black and glittery Sudanese toub or garment worn by women, who Marie Grace Brown, the Stanford Historian, named her book after: “Khartoum at Night: Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan.
Today Khartoum has turned into a war zone amid the strife of the Sudanese Army under the command of Abdul Fattah Alburhan and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary Junta under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemetti. Certainly, this is not the first time the military clashes with the RSF. Nima Elbagir (a Sudanese CNN reporter) has for example exposed their disputes in her brilliant documentary ‘Meet the Janjaweed’, the hatchery of the RSF. Most of these conflicts occurred and are still occurring in the different regions of Darfur, where the Janjaweed committed genocide, burned the villages, terrorised the inhabitants, and forced the ones who survived to seek shelter in the refugee camps. The difference this time is that the clashes are happening in Khartoum.
When the conflict started, on 15 April 2023, and the RSF base was struck by the military weaponry in Khartoum, I reached out to two of my cousins who live in Alriyad, one of Khartoum’s neighbourhoods, to check on them. We started communicating through the family WhatsApp group, and they were updating us every now and then. All around them shops and markets were shut down, the electricity and water supply were cut, and people started to run out of food. I encouraged both my cousins to leave their flats and stay at our grandmother’s house in Omdurman, as everyone said it was safer than Khartoum.
They did eventually manage to get to Omdurman, and my cousin wrote that life in many parts of Omdurman seemed almost normal: The shops were open, vendors were working and the gunfire they could hear came from afar compared to what they experienced in Khartoum. “This war is mostly happening in Khartoum”, my cousin said. I recalled that Hemetti once threatened to bring the war to Khartoum, and I started thinking about how Khartoum as a place with a particular historical development and geopolitical position instigated and fostered this war as well as all other wars that occurred in the past and are still raging today.
This is not meant as any “root cause analysis”. At the time being, we are all grappling with what is happening and mostly thinking of how to get our loved ones out of there before the situation becomes even uglier. Moreover, the misinformation and the conflicting statements by everyone on both social and mainstream media hardly gives any room to comprehend what is occurring. So, these are simply my personal reflections of someone who is observing from afar.
Khartoum the colonial city
In his article ‘Khartoum a Portrait of an African Colonial City’, Idris Salim Elhassan (2015) illustrates how colonialism and the colonial legacy in cities such as Khartoum reflect the colonial project in its planning policies, the control over trade and labour, local administration, and implementing racial and social segregation. Since colonial times, Khartoum has been the centre of wealth and power accumulation in Sudan, and it has continued to play this role throughout the successive Sudanese civic governments and military regimes. It is no coincidence that for a long-time investment and job opportunities, quality education and healthcare facilities, and housing have been concentrated in Khartoum. The growth and development of the capital region have come at the expense of all other regions in Sudan.
The colonial project was always about exhibiting power through military presence in the colonial city to oppress the colonised and to proclaim the supremacy of the colonial master. According to (Stevenson 1966), Khartoum at the beginning of the Turko-Egyptian rule was a military base. Uthmān Bey Jarkas al-Birinji was the Turkish officer who chose the location of Khartoum to be the Capital of the Ottoman Empire in Sudan (1824) and he was the first one to build a mud brick fort around it. All successive Turkish officers who governed Sudan contributed to exhibiting the power of the Ottoman Empire through planning Khartoum as a military post, building forts, a barracks, and government quarters known as Ḥikimdāriyya that later became the Republican Palace. Khartoum played a strategic role throughout the Turko-Egyptian era, until the siege of Khartoum (also known as the fall of Khartoum) in 1885 and the rise of the Mahadiyya state (1885-1898) in Sudan.
Following the fall of Khartoum, Muhammed Ahmed al-Mahadi, the leader of the Mahadiyya revolution, moved the capital from Khartoum to Omdurman and the former was destroyed. After the sudden death of al-Mahadi in the same year, his successor al-Khalyifa (Caliph) Abdullah al-Ta’aishi used the remains of Khartoum to build Omdurman, founded a military camp, and built a wall around the camp. Sooner Omdurman started to grow as al-Ta’aishi constructed few ample streets, a mosque, a marketplace, premises for himself and his assistants, a treasury, a workshop to coin money, and an ammunition store (Adil Mustafa Ahmed 2000). Omdurman was the Capital of the Mahadiyya state until the Anglo-Egyptian invasion of Sudan (1899).
After the Anglo-Egyptian invasion, Herbert Kitchener, the first governor-general of the British colonisation in Sudan, moved the capital to Khartoum. Cities are strategic in the spatial domination of the colonial power to enable resource extraction and serve the welfare of the colonisers. Kitchener sketched Khartoum’s first blueprint and the plan was to construct news roads, open green spaces, and rebuild the Republican Palace. One can argue that Khartoum was a typical example of early colonial urban planning in Africa where military officers designed most colonial cities, for example Sir William McLean, the urban planner who designed the layout of Khartoum, introduced the concept of the native villages, which he described as “a desirable arrangement from a sanitary standpoint”.
City planning as a tool of power
Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, the continuity of the colonial power relations and economic objectives formed an elitist minority that enabled continuing colonial economic and political objectives, which Kwame Nkrumah, the first Ghanian President after independence, termed as neo-colonialism. I quote him here:
“[…] neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial state may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere. Control over government policy in the new-colonial state may be secured by the payments towards the cost of running the state, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy, and monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of banking system controlled by imperial powers.” (Nkrumah, 1965, pp. ix-x).
Nkrumah’s notion of neo-colonialism, echoes countries like Sudan, especially when he emphasised the rise of dictatorship in Africa and their exclusionary policies. For Khartoum to play the role of a collection point it had to be fortified not just by building a fort but through the presence of the coercive power. The military headquarters are in the heart of Khartoum, “where the president sleeps”, the republican palace, the air forces, the Ministry of Defence, and other military bases that are in or surrounding the triangular capital.
In 1989, after the Islamists and the military plotted to take over Sudan, ironically, episodes of depowering the Sudanese Armed Forces SAF were occurring. In relation to urban planning, several planning policies considered moving the military bases away from civilian residence areas, but the plans ended up as mere words on a piece of paper. For example, in the Khartoum fifth Structural Plan (KPP5), there was a suggestion to move the military away from the centre. According to KPP5, the military institutions were to be relocated in areas proposed for defence and security, which are the far east and west sides of the capital region.
However, the military was in a process of being divided and “politicised”, and then president Omer Elbashir and the ruling junta started to empower other institutions such as the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) which were considered more loyal to the regime than the SAF. NISS was responsible for internal security in the country during Elbashir regime and became renowned for using brutal power to clamp down on any opposition to the regime. NISS, which was Islamist at its core, also performed the actual task of stripping the army of power. Their strategy was to target both the army’s physical presence and their standing in the hearts and minds of the Sudanese people. To damage the army on both these fronts was crucial to prevent any upheaval within the military. The NISS had excessive powers both economically and politically. It was, and still is, one of the most violent institutions Sudan has ever witnessed, but despite all this, NISS never managed to gain the “prestige” of the army.
The army’s high ranks grew detached from its structure and organisation. Instead, the generals got increasingly involved in business ventures, becoming facilitators for external imperialist powers’ resource extraction. Slowly the army started to lose its physical presence in the city and the appeal it once had in the Sudanese imagination. Diminishing the military’s presence meant to physically relocate them by replanning Khartoum, while at the same time giving the RSF a stronger presence in the city. Little did Elbashir know at the time that the paramilitary junta had had their own agenda and aspirations to power.
Today the RSF is a powerful player. Sudanese sarcastically call the RSF “the forces of wilderness”, who came from “nowhere”, as opposed to the army and its historical role in the colonial and post-independence Urbanisation in Sudan. Nevertheless, RSF managed to position themselves strategically in the city scape by being deployed to protect all military facilities and the city’s strategic infrastructure such as, bridges, airports, hospitals, the national television and radio station, the upper-class neighbourhoods, and the checkpoints of the capital region. They might be the forces of the wilderness, but with no doubt they know that if they want to continue as a powerful player in the region, they must control Sudan and to achieve that, Khartoum must fall.
This Sudan blog post is written by Azza Mustafa Babikir Ahmed. She is a postdoctoral fellow researcher at HUMA- the Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SNAC project or CMI.
Al-Hassan, Idris Salim. 2015. Khartoum: a portrait of an African Colonial City. Dirasat Ifriqiyya Journal d'études africaines،Vol. 2015, no. 53, pp.7-27. https://search.emarefa.net/detail/BIM-599529
Stevenson, Roland, (1966). Old Khartoum, 1824-1885. In: Sudan Notes and Records 47:1-38.
Ahmed, Adil Mustafa, (2000). Khartoum blues: the ‘deplanning’ and decline of a capital city. In: Habitat International 24:309-325. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0197-3975(99)00046-6
McLean, W. H., (1980). Town Planning for Khartoum and Omdurman in the Earliest Period of British Rule. In: Urbanization and Urban Life in Sudan. Pons, Valdo. (ed.) Khartoum, University of Khartoum. DSRC.
Kwame Nkrumah. (1965). Neo-colonialism: The last stage of Imperialism. International Publishers. New York.
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