Violent clashes erupted in Sudan last weekend, pitting the Sudanese Armed Forces loyal to Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the general who runs the country’s governing council, against the Rapid Support Forces, an estimated 100,000-strong paramilitary group led by Al-Burhan’s deputy, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.
Despite international calls for a ceasefire, the violence quickly spread, threatening to plunge the country into an all-out civil war. Absent furious diplomatic interventions or other efforts at mitigation, what began as gun battles in Sudanese cities and towns could potentially engulf a wider region already inundated by troubling developments, including a perennially fragile Sahel and the conflict in Libya.
The verified facts are few and far between for now, making it difficult to parse the exact ramifications of the return to arms in Sudan. What is clear, however, is the reasons why the confrontation happened.
Even after former President Omar Bashir was toppled by a coup d’etat in 2019, Sudan remained in turmoil due to frequent protests, the enduring effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and fragmentation and infighting within nascent governing institutions mostly ill-equipped to manage a troubled transition.
A nominal power-sharing agreement resulted in some semblance of a loosely held together government, but deep divisions and polarization within the Transitional Sovereign Council have severely undermined its ability to tackle the root causes of civilian angst and growing public frustration, including economic, political and social marginalization.
However, it was still enough to at least corral sufficient support to put together the controversial Juba Peace Agreement with several rebel groups in October 2020, as a first step toward curing Sudan’s many ills in a post-Bashir landscape.
Unfortunately, the implementation of the agreement faced numerous challenges, as the military and civilian factions of the Sovereign Council differed in their approaches to granting legitimacy and agency to bitter rivals-turned-aspiring politicians, which just exacerbated existing tensions.
At the same time, Sudan’s economy was circling the drain as record inflation rates, soaring food prices and fuel shortages gripped a country struggling to shake off the debilitating effects of COVID-19, inciting ever-greater public discontent that the mere appointment of a civilian head of government could not hope to assuage.
Following the October 2021 military coup, massive protests once again erupted across Khartoum and other Sudanese cities. The public, led by civil society organizations, demanded the immediate release of civilian leaders who had been arrested and the end of military rule. The military responded with force, leading to a number deaths and injuries among the protesters. Under immense 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 greeted with skepticism and criticism among the public and members of civil society organizations, who argued that it lacked transparency and did not guarantee an end to military rule.
In hindsight, the motivations behind the coup were complex and multifaceted, going beyond mere concerns about the country’s myriad crises, a peace agreement with rebel groups that was worth less than the paper it was written on, and even the role of international actors such as the US, Egypt and Ethiopia, to name but a few.
Nonetheless, that coup revealed the fragility of the power-sharing agreement, the deep divisions between the military and civilian factions, and the ways in which both sides were co-opting public dissatisfaction to justify excluding each other from critical decision-making in a slowly unraveling transitional process.
The tensions began mounting further late last year after the Sudanese elite signed on to an accord that was supposed to usher in a new civilian-led government and sideline the military junta that forcefully seized power in October 2021.
However, the so-called Framework Agreement frequently kicked the can down the road (yet again) on a number of challenging issues, such as security sector reform, in the hope of achieving “a government by the end of Ramadan,” as demanded by foreign diplomats.
It also initiated an extremely vague and unrealistic political process built on delicate compromises and formed within a short time span at the behest of an impatient international audience, which only exacerbated the latent tensions.
After Al-Burhan excluded the Rapid Support Forces from meetings on security sector reforms that required the integration of the militia into the Sudanese Armed Forces within two years, Dagalo set about building up and positioning his forces around the capital, Khartoum, in anticipation of an armed confrontation. They deployed at or near strategic locations around the city, including an airport where Sudanese and Egyptian fighter planes were based.
Al-Burhan’s forces saw this as a preemptive escalation that aimed to subvert the Sudanese Armed Forces’ aerial advantage and possibly commandeer some of its superior weaponry, prompting warnings that the security situation in Sudan would collapse unless the Rapid Support Forces withdrew.
They did not and so now, instead of protracted talks about how to integrate the two groups according to a more appropriate timetable, a powder keg of intense rivalries, divisions and discontent was ignited — seemingly catching Sudan’s neighbors off-guard.
A protracted conflict between the two groups risks dragging Sudan’s regional patrons and neighbors, such as Chad, Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia, into the dispute, especially given that the Sudanese rivals seem fairly evenly matched. Bellicose rhetoric makes it clear that their leaders are currently set on annihilating each other. This is perhaps the culmination of their competition for influence and authority, which is rooted in the tenure of former autocratic leader Bashir.
In the early 2000s, Bashir employed and armed Arab tribes to initiate an aggressive counteroffensive against the predominantly non-Arab armed factions that opposed governmental neglect and exploitation. His strategy proved effective, albeit with significant human consequences, most notably the 300,000 fatalities during a six-year conflict in Darfur.
Then, in an effort to “coup-proof” his regime, Bashir integrated the Arab tribal militias from Darfur into the Rapid Support Forces and appointed Dagalo as leader of a force that became a de facto “presidential guard” answerable only to Bashir.
Soon, the power wielded by the Rapid Support Forces expanded as it gained control over lucrative, albeit illegal, gold-mining operations, as well as generous funding from overseas in exchange for deploying its members as mercenaries in other hot spots.
In addition, Dagalo’s proximity to Bashir allowed him to cultivate personal relationships with regional neighbors and even seek collaboration from the notorious Wagner Group, which began to make inroads in Sudan not long after Bashir’s 2017 trip to Moscow to pitch to President Vladmir Putin the idea of Sudan as a “gateway to Africa.”
Thanks to its considerable financial resources and backing from international sponsors, the Rapid Support Forces quickly emerged as a formidable rival to the conventional Sudanese military. Dagalo set about laying the groundwork for an eventual confrontation with the Sudanese state by instrumentalizing the transition process to thwart Al-Burhan’s ambitions, which often involved supporting civilian calls for an end to military rule even though the Rapid Support Forces was part of that military.
Once the Framework Agreement was signed, the already complicated dynamics of Sudanese politics, predominantly characterized by civilian-military antagonism, grew even more complex. Al-Burhan and Dagalo embarked on a quest to garner support from both civilian factions and rebel groups, while simultaneously seeking support from the peripheries, away from their respective urban strongholds.
As a result, attempts to initiate comprehensive security sector reforms that would have effectively neutered Dagalo became increasingly untenable, pitting the nation’s two principal military entities against each other.
The international community, meanwhile, remained strangely insistent that there were little or no substantive differences between Sudan’s forces that might hamper progress toward solving the country’s intractable woes.
For most Sudanese people though, it was already clear late last year that a conflict between Al-Burhan and Dagalo was a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Whatever the outcome of the conflict, and the likely devastating losses arising from it, Sudan will once again face an intractable dilemma, and it will not be the resolute call for democracy that an enraged populace sought after putting an end to Bashir’s reign.
Instead, the corrosive legacy of Bashir’s transactional politics and his exploitation of militias, having found new political life in Dagalo’s ambitions, will continue to wreak havoc which, as always, will be paid for with the blood of the innocent.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.