A power struggle amongst military factions has erupted in Sudan following a faltering transition to a civilian-led government. The resulting clashes between the country’s primary paramilitary force and the military have been nothing short of intense, claiming the lives of hundreds and forcing thousands to flee in search of safety. As the situation in Sudan continues to devolve into a burgeoning civil war, the threat of destabilization looms large over the wider region.
Amidst an apparent power struggle between the two primary factions of Sudan’s military regime, clashes erupted in mid-April. While the country’s armed forces pledge loyalty to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, its de facto ruler, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militias, follow former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. According to the World Health Organization, the resulting unrest has claimed at least 459 lives and left over 4,000 injured, with parts of Khartoum, the capital, transformed into a war zone.
A 72-hour ceasefire, agreed to by both Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF, was agreed upon, with Volker Perthes, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Sudan, reporting that the ceasefire “seems to be holding in some parts.” Nonetheless, reports of sporadic shootings and troop relocations continue to surface. The roots of this power struggle can be traced back to the years preceding the 2019 uprising that ousted Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictatorial ruler who deliberately set his formidable security forces against one another. Following Bashir’s fall, the effort to transition to a democratic, civilian-led government faltered, and an eventual showdown appeared inevitable, with diplomats in Khartoum warning in early 2022 of such a violent outbreak. In the weeks preceding the clashes, tensions had further escalated. So, how has this region come to this point?
How did the military rivalries develop?
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were originally formed by Omar al-Bashir to quell a rebellion in Darfur, sparked by the political and economic marginalization of local communities by Sudan’s central government over 20 years ago. However, the RSF, previously known as the Janjaweed, became infamous for its widespread atrocities.
In 2013, Bashir rebranded the Janjaweed as a semi-organized paramilitary force and bestowed their leaders with military ranks before deploying them to quash the South Darfur rebellion. Subsequently, the RSF was dispatched to fight in the Yemen and Libyan conflicts.
In 2019, the RSF, under the leadership of Hemedti, teamed up with the regular military forces under Burhan to oust Bashir. However, the RSF later dispersed a peaceful sit-in protest in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum, resulting in the killing of hundreds and the rape of dozens of people.
A power-sharing agreement between the civilian leaders of the protests against Bashir, aimed at transitioning towards a democratic government, was interrupted by a coup in October 2021. The coup put the army back in control, but it faced weekly protests, renewed isolation, and deepening economic woes. Hemedti supported a new transition plan, which put him at odds with Burhan, resulting in the recent power struggle. Hemedti, who has amassed immense wealth from the export of gold from illegal mines, commands tens of thousands of battle-hardened veterans. He has long resented his official deputy position on Sudan’s ruling council.
Sudan is no stranger to upheaval
The toppling of former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was a momentous event in the country’s history, marking the end of his nearly 30-year-long rule. Protests against rising bread prices quickly turned into a mass movement that toppled Bashir, who had presided over a period of political turmoil and conflict, including the separation of South Sudan from the north and allegations of war crimes in the western region of Darfur.
Following his ouster, Sudan was governed by a fragile power-sharing arrangement between the military and civilian groups. However, this arrangement was dissolved by the armed forces in 2021, leading to the release of Ahmed Haroun, a former minister wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. There were unconfirmed reports that Bashir himself was among those released after chaos broke out at a prison in Khartoum on Sunday.
The RSF has a controversial past
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by their commander Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, have emerged as the most powerful paramilitary group in Sudan. Dagalo’s ascent to power has been nothing short of meteoric.
During the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s, Dagalo was the notorious leader of Sudan’s Janjaweed forces, accused of committing human rights violations and atrocities. International outrage eventually forced the hand of the then-president Omar al-Bashir, who rebranded the group as paramilitary forces known as the Border Intelligence Units in 2005.
In 2007, Bashir’s government integrated these units into the country’s intelligence services. And in 2013, Bashir established the RSF, a paramilitary group that was overseen by him and led by Dagalo.
In 2019, Dagalo turned against Bashir, but not before his forces opened fire on an anti-Bashir pro-democracy sit-in in Khartoum, killing at least 118 people. After Bashir’s overthrow, Dagalo was appointed deputy of the transitional Sovereign Council that ruled Sudan in partnership with civilian leadership.
What are the faultlines?
Since the 2019 uprising that ousted former president Omar al-Bashir, demands for civilian oversight of the military and the integration of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into regular armed forces have remained a major point of contention.
Civilian groups have also demanded that the military hand over control of profitable holdings in agriculture, trade and other industries, which have been a source of power for the army and its affiliated militias.
The pursuit of justice over alleged war crimes committed by the military and its allies during the conflict in Darfur has also been a significant issue. The International Criminal Court has called for trials of Bashir and other Sudanese suspects. Additionally, activists and civilian groups are seeking justice for the killings of pro-democracy protesters in June 2019, in which military forces are suspected to have been involved in. They have expressed frustration with the slow progress of the official investigation. Civilian groups are also seeking justice for the deaths of over 125 people killed by security forces in protests since the 2021 coup
What’s at stake in the region?
Located at the crossroads of the Red Sea, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa, Sudan’s strategic position and rich agricultural resources have made it a target of regional power plays, further complicating its already fragile transition to a civilian-led government.
Political unrest and conflict have also engulfed several of Sudan’s neighbours, including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, leading to an influx of Sudanese refugees into these countries. The strained relationship between Sudan and Ethiopia over disputed farmland along their border has added to the tensions in the region.
Sudan’s transition has attracted the attention of major global players, with Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other powers jostling for influence. The Saudis and the UAE see this as an opportunity to counter Islamist influence in the region. They, along with the US and Britain, have formed the “Quad” and have been involved in mediating the situation in Sudan along with the UN and the African Union.
Western powers are concerned about the possibility of a Russian military base being established on the Red Sea, a move that Sudanese military leaders have indicated they would consider. The geopolitical dimensions at play in Sudan are complex and are likely to pose significant challenges to any attempts to achieve stability and democratic governance in the country.
Sudan faces an uncertain future
The ultimate outcome of the ongoing conflict in Sudan remains uncertain. Despite both sides laying claim to key locations, reports of violence have spread throughout the country, beyond the capital city of Khartoum.
While official estimates put the number of Sudanese armed forces at around 210-220,000, the RSF, which is believed to be better trained and equipped, has an estimated strength of around 70,000.
International powers have expressed deep concern, prompting the UN Security Council to convene its first meeting on the crisis in Sudan earlier this week. While the well-being of civilians is certainly a top priority, it is worth noting that Sudan is an important player in the region, thanks to its strategic location and abundant natural resources.
In an effort to mitigate the conflict, neighboring countries such as Egypt and South Sudan have offered to mediate, but for the time being, the only certainty is continued suffering for the people of Sudan.