Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, is in grave danger. As the days passed, the fight between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Gen.), also known as Hemedti, and the national army, under the command of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (Gen.), became increasingly violent.
As of this writing, about 300 civilians have been killed. More than 2,000 people have been injured, and that number is likely to climb as many bodies are still lying in the streets where the fighting has persisted. International organizations and neighboring countries, including Ethiopia, called for a halt to the conflict, but their efforts ultimately failed.
The dispute between the Sudanese generals is a result of a poorly managed transfer of power following the ousting of autocratic dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who ruled the country for nearly three decades.
Hemedti and al-Burhan had been devoted aides to Sudan’s leader, al-Bashir, before their relationship hit rock bottom.
The civil war in Darfur has played a role in Hemedti’s rise to prominence. The former businessman-turned-military member was instrumental in Bashir’s execution of his grand military operation against the rebel organization. Over 300,000 ethnic Africans were killed in Darfur at the hands of Hemedti’s Janjaweed militia, which had the support of the government and was ordered to suppress the rebel groups by the president.
Hemedti was able to gain the trust of the president and transform the militia into a formal force, now known as the Rapid Support Force (RSF), after the incident for which Bashir was indicted for war crimes and genocide. In the meantime, Hemedti’s involvement in the export of gold and even camels has also contributed to his growing influence.
Al-Burhan, born in Kundu, northern Sudan, in 1960, is in charge of the national army. Sudan, Egypt, and Jordan all contributed to Al Burhan’s military education. As Sudan’s military attaché, he traveled the world, including China, representing his country. The general commands a military force of over 100,000 strong, the same size as the RSF’s.
During Bashir’s rule and in the immediate aftermath of the coup d’état orchestrated by the national army that ousted him from power three years ago, Hemedti and al-Burhan cooperated without trouble. Few anticipated a conflict between the two armed forces, given that they had already reached consensus to unify their forces.
Neither the RSF nor the army disagrees with the establishment of a combined army during the transition from a military to a civilian government in Sudan. Disagreement centers on who should be the next commander of the combined military and how long that should take. The national army wants the unification to be completed within two years, whereas the RSF demanded a 10-year delay before the unification could be completed.
A disagreement over the transfer of suspects, including Bashir, to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over allegations of war crimes by the military and its allies during the 2003 conflict in Darfur has also contributed to the end of what experts refer to as “the partnership of mutual interests” between the two armed forces. Hemedti rejects the demand for accountability for past atrocities, such as the Darfur genocide.
Jeffery Feltman, the former US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, referred to the relationship between the two generals as a “marriage of convenience” in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post this week. He says the two engaged in a “partnership of mutual interests” that undermined civilian hopes for democratic government and pushed back against attempts to hold perpetrators of crimes like the massacre in Darfur to account.
“In the end, that partnership did not define who would end up being on top,” Feltman says. “So what you have now is a fight to the death over who is going to prevail, and should military rule continue in Sudan?”
The partnership between the two generals, according to the US diplomat, was “premised on undermining, delaying, and ultimately derailing Sudan’s transition to democratic, civilian rule.”
On December 5, 2022, the Sudanese military and a coalition of major civilian actors signed a framework agreement, clearing the way for a new civilian government more than a year after the military seized full authority in an October 2021 coup that resulted in the overthrow of civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
According to the agreement, a new prime minister was to be appointed by April 11, 2023, at the latest. The deadline has passed, however, due to disagreements over the incorporation of the RSF into the army.
The warring parties remain unable to reach an agreement through negotiation, although there have been dire predictions that the country may descend into civil war.
Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor, expressed his concern and cautioned that if the ethnic element of the conflict is not going to be managed carefully, it could exacerbate the situation.
“Ethnic factors will probably manifest. The split has historically been more regional than ethnic, but this may change,” he warned. He says conflict fragmentation combined with ethnic massacres or displacement and the formation of local ethnic alliances are factors that could drive the shift.
Contributed by Abraham Tekle