A land of coups d’état and constant military intervention for the last seven decades, Sudan is currently living through the chaos of a bloody rivalry between two military leaders and what could be the worst of its turbulent post-colonial history.
As the saying goes: “when the elephants fight, the grass is trampled.”
The war between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a. Hemedti), leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has killed tens of thousands over the last nine months.
The civil war is the culmination of events that kicked off in 2018, with the spread of popular riots in Sudan. The following year, long-time despot President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir was overthrown, and Sudan was placed under the rule of a transitional government formed by a coalition of civilian and military administrations.
The two generals were instrumental in al-Bashir’s overthrow, and played leading roles in the transitional government.
In late 2021, the Sudanese military, headed by al-Burhan, attempted a coup that successfully ousted then civilian coalition leader and Prime Minister Abdella Hamdok before he was reinstated a couple of weeks later following international condemnation.
By January 2022, Hamdok had tendered his resignation, marking the beginning of the power struggle between al-Burhan and Hemedti, whose feud would push the country over the edge and into civil war in April 2023.
The rivalry has since seen at least 12,000 dead, millions of Sudanese displaced internally, and hundreds of thousands more forced to seek shelter in neighboring countries like Ethiopia, which are already struggling with the consequences of their own deadly conflicts.
It is a catastrophe unfolding in a region that grows less and less stable each day, and at the heart of it all are two men who have surprisingly much in common.
Al-Burhan studied at the Sudanese Military College in the 1980s before embarking on a decorated military career that eventually saw him appointed regional commander in Darfur as another brutal civil war wreaked havoc in Sudan’s west in the early 2000s. Al-Burhan was appointed as Chief of Staff for the Sudanese military in 2018, under al-Bashir.
Hemedti is also a military man. He began his career as a member of the Janjaweed, a paramilitary group active in western Sudan and eastern Chad since the late 1980s. Hemedti rose to become a leader of the militia during the Darfur War, where al-Burhan was also a commanding officer.
The Janjaweed militia is accused of responsibility for more than 350,000 lives lost during its brutal crackdown on rebel groups operating in Darfur.
The militia was, however, successful in putting down the rebellions, and al-Bashir rewarded Hemedti with the title of Brigadier General and placed him in charge of the newly-formed Rapid Support Forces in the 2010s.
The RSF answered directly to the office of President al-Bashir. The RSF was used to crackdown on protests calling for al-Bashir’s resignation in 2019, and is accused of committing a massacre in Khartoum in June of the same year.
In April 2023, fighting broke out between Hemedti’s RSF and al-Burhan’s SAF as the two generals began their bloody struggle for control.
The deadly violence in Sudan has largely flown under an international radar preoccupied with the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. The past eight nine months have seen several attempts at curbing the hostilities fail.
Constantinos Berhutesfa (PhD) is a political analyst, professor of public policy, and a former United Nations policy advisor and chair of the African Union Anti-Corruption Board.
He was part of an investigation team led by the AU and UN Security Council that went to Darfur in 2005 to investigate the genocide.
“I met Hemedti in Darfur, then. His troops were accused of killing hundreds of thousands, with the US Congress labeling the Darfur War as a genocide,” said Constantinos.
The expert, who keeps a close watch on Sudanese politics, warns the conflict could drag on.
“The war will likely get worse,” he told The Reporter.
Constantinos points to a lack of attention from the international community, and a simultaneous meddling in Sudanese affairs by foreign governments for his fears the war will continue.
Reports have revealed that the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is providing support to Hemedti and the RSF, while there are indications that al-Burhan is the beneficiary of supplies from neighboring Egypt.
“Hemedti controls the gold mining sites and reportedly has several assets in the UAE, so the UAE could appear to be his biggest supporter,” Constantinos said.
Al-Burhan’s military administration expelled over a dozen UAE diplomats last month.
The International Crisis Group, a non-government organization providing analysis and insights on conflicts, released a detailed report on Sudan on January 9, 2024. The Group indicates the belligerents are being backed by outside supporters.
“The United Arab Emirates is reportedly arming the RSF, and Egypt (and, many diplomats suspect, Iran and others) is providing materiel to the Army (SAF),” the Group said in its report. “Both parties appear to have the wherewithal to fight on, although the RSF has the military upper hand.”
The RSF took control of Wad Madani, Sudan’s second-largest city, last month, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to flee. Hemedto also has control over key positions in the capital, Khartoum.
Many pundits see the RSF’s insurgence as a sign that al-Burhan is losing the war.
“To be honest, the [Sudanese] army has probably been losing for a while. There hasn’t yet been a major battle in this war,” said Alan Boswell, head of the Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa operations, during an interview with Al-Jazeera a couple of weeks ago.
The Group’s report indicates the RSF has gained the upper hand during the first phase of the war, dividing Sudan into two zones.
“The question is whether phase two – already underway – can be stopped before Sudan suffers an epochal failure, reminiscent of Somalia’s three decades ago,” reads the report.
Following its assumption of control in Wad Madani and other key positions, Hemedti set off on a tour of Africa, presumably in search of support from key states with influence in the AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), both of which Sudan is a member of.
The two-week tour began in Uganda before Hemedti landed in Addis Ababa, another key UAE ally in the region and the seat of the AU. Djibouti, Kenya, South Africa, and Rwanda were also on his itinerary, along with sit-downs with the respective heads of the state.
In the midst of his diplomatic shuttle, Hemedti met with the overthrown Prime Minister of Sudan Abdalla Hamdok in Addis Ababa on January 2, 2023.
After being appointed Prime Minister by the Transitional Sovereignty Council in 2019, Hamdok was put on house arrest and overthrown from his post barely two years after assuming office.
Hamdok, who currently chairs the Sudanese Civilian Coalition, approached the possibility of a ceasefire with Hemedti. The RSF leader expressed his openness to a ceasefire agreement and further talks with the SAF, signing a declaration with Hamdok.
Sudan has almost no history of being governed by civilian leadership. In the nearly seven decades since it gained independence, Sudan has seen at least 18 coup attempts, with six of them ending successfully in a regime change.
The most recent Sudanese leader to be ousted via coup was Hamdok, who was overthrown by the same military leaders who placed him at the helm.
Constantinos suspects neither al-Burhan nor Hemedti wants a civilian government administering Sudan.
“It [Sudan] has lots of resources and they want to continue exploiting that,” the expert said. “I don’t think the Sudanese public will accept either side, but maybe they would consider the army [SAF] as the more legitimate one.”
Observers say the ‘strongarm’ method of rule employed by either group in their respective territories is keeping Sudan from splitting into two states. Still, they warn the possibility of a split is very real.
Many of Sudan’s regions espouse questions about independence and self-determination, according to Constantinos.
“Dagalo [Hemedti] cut short these questions from Darfur two decades ago, in support of al-Bashir,” said the expert. “Several other regions, including Kordofan and Blue Nile, also have their questions, so more warlords will probably arise if the war continues.”
The way out for Sudan, according to the Crisis Group, is “major, coordinated, high-level diplomatic efforts involving the outside powers that wield the greatest influence in the region,” which it says is lacking.
For the expert Constantinos, continued war in Sudan, which seems eminent, means continued chaos and arms smuggling in the region as its neighbors aren’t very stable themselves.
“The region will be in more chaos as each country, including Ethiopia and South Sudan, develop their own problems with arms. There will probably be greater circulation of arms in the region,” Constantinos told The Reporter.