How both sides in Sudan claim to be cracking down on gang violence and looting

Amid the ongoing fighting in Sudan since April 15, reports of street gangs looting and assaulting civilians, especially in Khartoum and two nearby towns, have emerged. These gangs, known as the "Niqez", have a long-standing presence in the country. However, both conflicting parties in Sudan are now taking measures to arrest and publicly shame gang members to improve their image among civilians, according to our Observer.

RSF fighters handcuff gangsters accused of looting the Bank of Khartoum in the east of the capital on April 29, 2023.
RSF fighters handcuff gangsters accused of looting the Bank of Khartoum in the east of the capital on April 29, 2023. © @RSFSudan

"Niqez", an Arabicised pronunciation of a common racial slur, is how they've come to be known. The gangs have been wreaking havoc in Sudan since the 2003 armed conflict in Darfur, reemerging during periods of instability, such as the 2011 and 2019 protests against former President Omar al-Bashir, the 2021 military coup d'état, and the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) vying for power over the country.

Video filmed on May 7 in Omdurman, showing Niqez gangs, as well as some civilians, robbing a Khartoum Bank building and Central Market shops.

Images showing RSF fighters arresting and publicly humiliating members of the Niqez gang in Khartoum have been circulating on social networks since late April, particularly in official accounts from the paramilitary forces.

Video posted on Facebook on April 27 and filmed in Bahri (a city north of Khartoum). After arresting them for theft, a member of the RSF forced Niqez to crawl, firing shots at the ground right next to the men.

Police officers and supporters of the Sudanese army have also shared videos showing soldiers arresting suspected gang members.

In this video posted on Twitter on April 29 – the day the Central Reserve Police were officially deployed in Greater Khartoum – members of the Central Reserve Police, wearing beige camouflage uniforms and displaying the unit's signature eagle emblem, are seen whipping a group of Niqez gang members.

Several eyewitnesses to the looting in and around Khartoum, however, claim that the RSF themselves are looting banks, shops and hospitals, before leaving the way for gangs and civilians. The same forces, they say, later intervene at the same site to arrest "looters" including members of street gangs. 

‘These gangs are only arrested to create a discourse of glory for the paramilitary forces arresting them.’

Our Observer Mohammad (not his real name) is from Khartoum. He has been living in Omdurman for a few weeks, after his house was taken over by RSF troops. He told us that he saw RSF members looting a Bank of Khartoum in Omdurman on May 5.

On May 5, I was walking from my home to the former revolution headquarters [Editor's note: where pro-democracy activists operated during 2019 sit-ins, now closed] and pass through the city's central market [on the same street as the Bank of Khartoum]. I saw the Rapid Support Forces looting and ransacking the Bank of Khartoum. There were also members of the Niqez gang around the building.

In this video filmed on May 7, fighters wearing RSF uniforms are seen carrying boxes in a military vehicle outside the Bank of Khartoum in Omdurman. "They have been there for three days," the person filming says.

Some gang members tried to break windows and rob shops, taking advantage of the chaos, and the shopkeepers chased them into the market, but they managed to escape without consequences.

In this video from April 22, a Khartoum shopkeeper chases a member of the Niqez gang who was trying to rob his shop, while another shopkeeper aims a gun at the thief.

According to the merchants who were there, the RSF started looting on May 4 at the Bank of Khartoum, taking mostly high-denomination banknotes and foreign currency, and then left, leaving the area open to gangs and civilians who picked up what was left. 

I saw several men in RSF uniforms in at least two military vehicles parked around the bank. They were firing in the air and dispersing anyone who came near. Then, after I left, the RSF showed up at the site again to arrest gang members and film the whole "arrest operation".

In this video from May 7, uniformed RSF fighters are seen in a military vehicle in front of the Bank of Khartoum in Omdurman, and gunfire is heard echoing before the vehicle leaves the scene.

There have been similar incidents in Khartoum and Omdurman, documented in videos shared on social media, contradicting the videos posted by RSF accounts that portray gangs as the main perpetrators of looting.

In this video from April 29, young men are seen entering the Bank of Khartoum building in Sawba (east of Khartoum). The person filming says that the RSF looted the bank in the morning and then left it open to civilian looters.

In a video filmed on April 29, a uniformed RSF member addresses several suspected thieves that are handcuffed and sitting on the ground: "You are aware that it is wrong to steal money from your Sudanese brothers [...] We don't want this war, but we were forced into it. We only want to protect civilians." He says nothing regarding the fate of those arrested.

In response to accusations that the RSF was looting, a political adviser to the paramilitary force said that these alleged looters were actually gang members dressed up as RSF fighters in order to take advantage of the instability "to intimidate and terrify citizens".

'These groups are not really organised'

As for the "Niqez" gang, the name does not have the offensive racial connotations one immediately thinks of, but rather refers to the lifestyle of African-American gangsters. The members of this gang are generally street children from the suburbs of Khartoum, mainly of Nubian ethnicity. They are concentrated in unsafe areas of Khartoum, which many people avoid at night.

These groups are not really organised, so the Sudanese call any street gang "Niqez" in reference to their brawling attitude and their knives. They attack people randomly, sometimes they can be seen walking around with small blades in their hands during the day in the street.

This video taken on May 1 shows Sudanese army soldiers parading through the south of Khartoum in military vehicles transporting Niqez gang members arrested for theft.

'These gangs are a kind of political terror tool'

In my experience, they mainly come around during periods of instability, such as in 2019 during mass opposition to the military regime. 

These gangs would attack activists' offices or sit-ins, and this would create a pretext for the police and army to impose their presence in civilian areas and to arrest and assault protesters.

These surveillance videos from January 7 show three Niqez gangsters armed with guns and swords attacking and stabbing a shopkeeper outside his shop before robbing the business.

For us civilians, these gangs are a kind of political terror tool, appearing and disappearing suddenly when the city is going through a wave of protest or chaos. In other cases, the police come and arrest them publicly to show that they are there to restore order.

In a video filmed in 2021, police officers (in blue uniforms) and armed forces soldiers (in grey uniforms) arrest gangsters accused of robbery and parade them in public. They are then seen handcuffing them and tying them in the police vehicle with chains around their necks.

At the moment, it is not only gangs that take part in the looting of banks and businesses, but also civilians. 

This means that, between the images propagated by the RSF or the central police reserve, these gangs are only arrested to serve a discourse to the glory of the paramilitary forces that arrest them. Each side of the conflict wants to show itself as the only security apparatus that hunts criminals and protects civilians.

Although several banks and businesses, including jewellery shops, have been robbed since the fighting began, it is still difficult to estimate the amount of damage caused by the looting, which continues on a daily basis, according to the Sudanese Chamber of Commerce. The Sudanese Central Bank, whose branches were looted, assured in a statement that its customers' deposits have not been affected.