Tensions have been reportedly brewing for weeks between the two most powerful generals of Sudan, who just 18 months earlier had jointly orchestrated a military coup, as the country struggles for transition to a civilian-led government. The two military leaders — General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chief of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, chief of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had worked together, toppling the Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir regime in 2019 and orchestrating a military coup in October 2021 that removed the transition civilian prime minister and cabinet and suspended the constitution. Now, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the de-facto leader of Sudan, while General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is his deputy Vice President.
Since last Saturday, violent clashes between SAF and RSF have been raging in the capital city of Khartoum and in other strategic locations throughout Sudan. Though the reasons for the fight between the two forces are unclear, it seems to be a power struggle between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (who’s also known as Hemeti who has humble origins as a camel herder from a minority tribe in Darfur and was once a rebel), for control of the resource-rich nation of more than 46 million people.
The Rapid Support Forces, headed by Hamdan Dagalo, is Sudan’s wealthy paramilitary force. The force amassed wealth through its gradual acquisition of Sudanese financial institutions and gold reserves in recent years. RSF grew out of the infamous Janjaweed militia, (or rather the militia was rebranded as RSF), which was accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. Niemat Ahmadi, the founder of the Washington-based Darfur Women Action Group, in 2019, described Hamdan to Washington Post’s Today’s WorldView as a “bandit” who gained notoriety amid Bashir’s vicious response to the rebellion in Darfur. RSF helped Omar al-Bashir — whom the International Criminal Court has accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide — put down a rebellion there during his presidency.
The former dictator Bashir was brought down in April 2019 by his former allies in Sudan’s security apparatus, after protesters took to the streets for months, clamoring for his exit and a transition to a civilian government in the country. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity committed during his three-decade rule and for genocide charges.
The junta that replaced Bashir has cracked down on the protest movement and political opposition in Khartoum with brutality reminiscent of the horrors unleashed in Darfur. In June 2019, soldiers from RSF attacked protestors in Khartoum, ransacking a central site that the pro-democracy movement had occupied for months, killing at least 128 people.
Since the coup of 2021, international aid has dried up and food & fuel shortages have become routine, plunging Sudan’s already inflation-riddled economy into deeper crisis. The peace deals made between the junta — known as the Transitional Military Council (TMC) — and the main opposition groups, have failed. A central sticking point remains the composition of a transitional legislative body that would eventually pave the way for fresh elections.
Ethiopia’s attempts to broker peace appear to have made little headway. Arab autocracies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are with Hamdan’s camp. “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are driven by their own fear that should a major Arab country transition to democracy, it would lead to upheavals at home,” Iyad El-Bagdhadi, an Arab pro-democracy activist, wrote in 2019. He added that “as long as the military junta has political and financial support from the Saudis and the Emiratis, it will have little reason to back down.”
Niemat Ahmadi said “the TMC was not as confident until Saudi [Arabia] and [the] UAE came into play,” referring to the assurances of support and billions in promised security aid that Hamdan and Burhan procured after removing Bashir.
“The country needs the Rapid Support Forces more than the Rapid Support Forces need the country,” the notorious junta leader Hamdan told The Washington Post, taking a lesson or two in dictatorial communication from the other Arab autocracies.
Analysts say RSF probably has about 100,000 members. Hamdan has also entered into business with the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit, in gold mining and security operations in Sudan’s gold mining areas, said Cameron Hudson, an expert on African peace and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. As per security analysts, Sudan’s formal military SAF, which includes an air force, has a major advantage over the RSF. As the RSF has traditionally fought in rural areas, its members are not well-trained for battle in urban areas such as Khartoum.
Who will win this war, SAF or RSF, is not importantant for the Sudanese people and the international community. What matters is, will there be an end to the rule by sword in Sudan?
[Sudanese soldiers stand guard around armoured military vehicles. Representational image by Agence France-Presse, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired senior corporate professional.