The outbreak of violence in Sudan, which has now erupted between the country’s two most powerful military leaders and their forces, unfortunately was foreseeable. The alliance of convenience between the two warlords, built on a shared contempt for the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese civilian population, has given way to a battle for supremacy in which civilians have suffered losses.
After the well-known uprising that toppled Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemetti, commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), overcame bureaucracy and ethnic prejudice to uphold a common cause. Unfortunately, their partnership has been built on undermining, delaying, and impeding Sudan’s transition to a democratic civilian rule. The two leaders sought to avoid accountability for crimes dating back to the genocide in Darfur and the recent massacre of over 120 unarmed protesters in June 2019.
First and foremost, their pact stipulated that the Sudanese army would never be held to account by civilian authorities. However, they have yet to decide which one of them will take over when the civilians are deposed. At one point in time, the alliance was very auspicious for the Sudanese army and the RSF. They ostensibly pretended to be partners of Sudanese civilian parties, exploiting their rivalry, they ridiculed international partners who supported the civil-military transitional government. Both al-Burhan and Hemetti pretended to be responsible parties on the world stage, promising to participate in counter-terrorism operations and declaring their support for the “Abraham Accords” to normalize relations with Israel.
The Sudanese resistance committees, the relentless, decentralized protest movements that were the main driving force behind the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, remained generally suspicious towards, and distrustful of, the two military leaders. Nevertheless, the West, led by the United States, which played a major role in Sudan, adopted what it believed was the only solution to ensure its interests: full support for the two militaries. The armed forces and the RSF, with the help of the West, have been firmly embedded in all aspects of Sudanese life. Instead of facing harsh penalties for repeated acts of impunity, which could have resulted in constructive reform and a long-term transfer of power to a civilian administration, the West appeased and coddled the two leaders.
Even after former President Omar al-Bashir had been overthrown in a coup d’état in 2019, Sudan remained in turmoil due to frequent protests, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and fragmentation and infighting within nascent governance institutions, mostly ill-equipped to manage the problematic transition. The nominal power-sharing agreement has resulted in some semblance of a loosely cohesive government, but deep divisions and polarization within the Transitional Sovereign Council have severely undermined its ability to address the root causes of civil anxiety and growing public frustration, including economic, political and social marginalization. However, it was still enough to at least garner enough support to strike a controversial peace deal with several rebel groups in Juba in October 2020 as a first step towards resolving Sudan’s many woes.
Regrettably, the implementation of the agreement has faced numerous challenges, as the military and civilian factions of the Sovereign Council have diverged in their approaches to granting legitimacy and freedom of action to bitter rivals who have become ambitious politicians, which has only exacerbated existing tensions. At the same time, Sudan’s economy was running out of steam as record inflation, soaring food prices and fuel shortages swept the country, struggling to escape the debilitating effects of COVID-19, fueling growing public discontent that could not be mitigated by the mere appointment of a civilian head of government. After the military coup in October 2021, mass protests broke out again in Khartoum and other cities in Sudan. The public, led by civilian organizations, demanded the immediate release of the arrested civilian leaders and an end to military rule. The military responded with force, resulting in the death and injury of many. Under tremendous public pressure, al-Burhan eventually released Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok a month later.
Al-Burhan and Hamdok subsequently announced a political agreement designed to restore the power-sharing agreement and pave the way for a peaceful transition to civilian rule. However, the deal was met with skepticism and criticism among the public and members of other organizations, who argued that it lacked transparency and did not guarantee an end to the military rule. It can be said that the motives for the coup were complex and multifaceted, going beyond mere concern about the countless crises in the country, a peace agreement with the rebel groups. We can also say that, it costs less than the paper on which it was written.
Nevertheless, the coup revealed the fragility of the power-sharing agreement, the deep divisions between military and civilian factions, and the ways in which both sides used public discontent to justify removing each other from crucial decision-making in the slowly unravelling transition process. Tensions began to rise late last year after the Sudanese elite signed an agreement that was supposed to lead to a new civilian-led government and push back the military junta that had seized power by force in October 2021. However, the so-called Framework Agreement often deferred business on a number of complex issues, such as security sector reform, in the hope of achieving “government formation by the end of Ramadan.” It also set in motion an extremely vague and unrealistic political process, built on delicate compromises and shaped over a short period of time by the will of an impatient international audience, which only exacerbated the underlying tensions.
After al-Burhan had excluded the Rapid Support Forces from security sector reform meetings that required the integration of militias into the Sudanese Armed Forces within two years, Dagalo began building up and deploying his forces around Khartoum in anticipation of an armed confrontation. They were stationed at critical places around or near the city, including the airport base, which housed Sudanese and Egyptian fighter jets. Al-Burhan saw this as a preemptive escalation, the purpose of which was to undermine the air superiority of the armed forces and possibly requisition some of their superior weapons, prompting warnings that the security situation in Sudan would deteriorate if the Rapid Support Forces were not withdrawn. They did not, and so now, instead of protracted negotiations on how to bring the two factions together according to a more appropriate timetable, a powder keg of intense rivalry, disagreement, and resentment has been ignited, apparently taking Sudan’s neighbors by surprise.
The protracted conflict between the two factions risks drawing Sudan’s regional patrons and neighbors, such as Chad, Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia, into the dispute, especially given that the rivals’ forces in Sudan appear fairly equal. The belligerent rhetoric clearly shows that their leaders are now set on destroying each other. This may be the culmination of their rivalry for influence and power, which goes back to the time of the former autocratic leader al-Bashir. In the early 2000s, he recruited and armed Arab tribes to launch an aggressive counteroffensive against predominantly non-Arab armed groups who opposed government neglect and exploitation. His strategy has been effective, albeit with significant human consequences, most notably the 300,000 deaths during the six-year conflict in Darfur. Then, in an attempt to “prevent a coup d’état” against his regime, al-Bashir united the Arab tribal militias from Darfur into the RSF and appointed Dagalo as leader of a force that became a de facto “presidential guard” accountable only to al-Bashir. The power of the Rapid Support Forces soon expanded, as they gained control of lucrative, albeit illegal, gold mining operations, as well as generous funding from abroad in exchange for sending their soldiers as mercenaries to other hot spots.
In addition, Dagalo’s proximity to al-Bashir allowed him to establish personal relations with neighbors in the region and even enlist cooperation with a number of military personnel in neighboring states. Thanks to significant financial resources and the support of international sponsors, the Rapid Support Forces have quickly become a formidable rival to the conventional Sudanese Armed Forces. Dagalo set about laying the groundwork for a possible confrontation with the state, using the transition process to thwart al-Burhan’s ambitions, which often included supporting civilian calls for an end to military rule, even though the RSF were part of that army.
Since the signing of the Framework Agreement, the already complex dynamics of Sudanese politics, characterized mainly by civil-military antagonism, have become even more intricate. Al-Burhan and Dagalo attempted to enlist the support of both civilian and insurgent groups, while seeking support on the periphery, away from their respective urban strongholds. As a result, attempts to initiate comprehensive security sector reforms that could have effectively neutralized Dagalo became increasingly unsuccessful, pitting the country’s two main military structures against each other. Meanwhile, the international community, led by the US, continued to strangely insist that there were virtually no substantive differences between the military that could impede progress on the country’s difficult problems.
However, for most Sudanese, it was already clear at the end of last year that the conflict between al-Burhan and Dagalo was a question of “when”, not “if”. Whatever the outcome of the clash and the likely devastating losses associated with it, Sudan will once again face an unsolvable dilemma, and it will not be the strong call for democracy that the population has sought since the end of al-Bashir’s rule. Instead, the destructive legacy of al-Bashir’s transactional policies and his exploitation of militants, finding new political life in Dagalo’s ambitions, will continue to wreak havoc, for which, as always, the blood of innocent civilian victims will pay.
* Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”