The signs of a split between Sudan’s army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the number two in the Sudanese military regime, Gen. Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Daglo, has been evident for some time now. But very few expected such a full-blown armed conflict to erupt, affecting huge swathes of the country.
Hemedti is the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF), which has grown in size and stature since its creation a decade ago. Burhan and Hemedti had joined hands to oust their mentor and long-serving military ruler Gen. Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
The two also played a key role in violently crushing the popular pro-democracy movement in 2021, derailing the promised transition to civilian rule. Before that, the military, along with the RSF and the police, orchestrated one of the worst mass killings ever in the capital city of Khartoum. On June 3, 2019, they violently targeted a civilian protest site and killed some 120 peaceful protesters.
Now, both these factions are blaming each other for the eruption of hostilities on April 15. Two weeks after the conflict broke out, more than 430 civilians have died. Repeated announcements of a temporary truce were not honoured by either side in the first 10 days of the fighting. Then, on April 25, a 72-hour ceasefire agreement brokered by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was announced.
Khartoum, with a population of over 6 million is the worst affected by the fighting. Hospitals and other civilian infrastructure have come under attack. Many residents are displaced victims of earlier wars and famines.
This is the first time that the capital has been affected directly. All of Sudan’s major conflicts so far had played out in the hinterland, a safe distance away from Khartoum, but this time even water and electricity supply in the capital city have been impacted seriously. The main airport has been non-functional since the start of the battle, complicating the task of evacuating foreign citizens trapped in the fighting.
An Indian citizen hailing from Kerala was among the first foreign casualties. He was killed by a stray bullet while looking out of his window. Although many Indians have managed to leave Sudan, the family of the slain Indian remained trapped in Khartoum for more than a week after the incident.
Most of those who were evacuated had to undertake a long journey from Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea Coast. From there they were taken by ferry to the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah. The Saudi government is playing a major role in rescuing stranded foreign workers and diplomats from Khartoum. The Indian government too is sending planes to evacuate citizens stranded in Sudan and neighbouring countries.
Caught in the crossfire
The Sudanese army under Gen. Burhan controls the air force, ostensibly giving it the upper hand against the paramilitary forces. But the army has not shied away from using air power to bomb heavily populated civilian areas in the capital. Hemedti and the RSF have accused the army of violently targeting the civilian population. At the same time, witnesses and rights groups have accused the RSF of using civilian areas to carry out attacks against the military.
Sudan, the third biggest country in Africa, is currently among the poorest in the world, even though the country has vast mineral wealth and agricultural potential. One-third of its population was already facing a hunger crisis before the latest round of fighting started.
According to the UN and other humanitarian agencies, millions of Sudanese civilians have been caught in the crossfire between the two factions of the country’s military establishment. Many citizens, especially those living in Khartoum, have run out of basic necessities.
Thousands of Sudanese residing in the country’s border areas are fleeing the country. Chad, the West African nation that shares a long border with Sudan, is facing a fresh influx of refugees. Eastern Chad already hosts more than 400,000 Sudanese refugees. The global refugee crisis will be further exacerbated by this latest crisis in an area adjacent to the volatile Horn of Africa.
The conflict has spread to the restive Darfur region, where a previous conflict had just led to widespread devastation, with more than 300,000 killed and 2.5 million people rendered homeless between 2003 and 2008.
Most experts are of the view that the latest round of internecine warfare in Sudan is not likely to end any time soon. They said that the Sudanese army, despite its superior firepower, would find it difficult to defeat the RSF, which is specialised in urban warfare. In fact, the RSF has its roots in the tribal militias initially created by the army in Darfur to combat the separatists there. These militias were integrated and renamed as RSF in 2013. President Bashir handpicked Hemedti to lead the RSF. Hemedti is from the Darfur region and is credited with playing a big role in subduing the rebellion there. For that matter, Gen. Burhan too bolstered his military credentials in Darfur. Both Burhan and Hemedti worked closely together during their years in Darfur.
President Bashir, according to Sudan watchers, used the RSF as a counterweight to the army. Sudan has had a history of coup d’ etats carried out by army generals. There were a few reported attempts to overthrow Bashir by reform-minded army officers. In 2017, a law was passed that formally incorporated the RSF into the army but kept it under the direct control of the President.
- The Sudan conflict has spread to the restive Darfur region. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the Sudan army chief, while Hemedti is the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF).
- In just a decade, the RSF has grown from 3,000 lightly armed fighters to a heavily armed force of more than 100,000.
- Mainstream parties seem to be supporting Hemedti because of his promise to hand over power to a civilian government. Hemedti also seems to have the tacit backing of Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis.
Within just a decade, the RSF, designed as a force to effectively tackle counter-insurgency and thwart military coups, has grown from being a force of 3,000 lightly armed fighters to a heavily armed force numbering more than 100,000. It has military bases all over Khartoum and other parts of the country.
When Sudan sent a large military contingent to Yemen in 2015 to help the Saudi Arabian-led war effort there, the majority of the Sudanese troops were from the Hemedti-led RSF.
Hemedti, while garnering the goodwill of the Saudi authorities, is also said to have profited handsomely from the effort, and is now reputed to be among the richest men in Sudan. Many of his immediate family members run lucrative businesses and are also involved in politics. Hemedti also reportedly controls the lucrative gold export business from Sudanese mines to Dubai.
The Sudanese military has even bigger business interests. It has virtually monopolised the country’s economy, controlling agricultural conglomerates, banks, and medical import companies. According to reports, the army and the security services control more than 250 companies having interests in sectors ranging from mining to agribusiness. The army-owned companies are exempt from paying tax and operate in secrecy.
After Gen. Bashir was overthrown in 2020 and Sudan began its transition to a democracy, an anti-corruption commission was set up to confiscate assets of those who had made a fortune under the patronage of the military government. The fear of losing control of key sectors of the economy was no doubt a factor that prompted the military coup of October 2021 led by Gen. Burhan and Hemedti, who were then acting in tandem.
The international community did not bother to crack down on the dealings of the military after the coup, despite the country being under UN-mandated sanctions. For instance, the military was allowed to conduct business through the Omdurman National Bank, which it controls. The RSF operated through the Khaleej Bank, which it controlled in partnership with the UAE.
Abdallah Hamdok, a civilian technocrat who served as Prime Minister in the transitional government after the military came to an agreement with the civilian-led Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), had strongly criticised the military over its vast business interests. (He was sworn in as Prime Minister on August 21, 2019. He was kidnapped and moved to an undisclosed location during a coup d’ etat in October 2021. On November 21, 2021, he was reinstated as prime minister as part of an agreement with the military. But he resigned on January 2, 2022, amid protests.)
In 2020, he said: “Every army in the world invests in defence companies. But it is unacceptable for the military to do so in productive sectors, and thus compete with the private sector.” His statement came just days after the Donald Trump administration in the US removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror.
That happened because the US was more interested in making the military government recognise Israel and sign the “Abraham Accords” than in strengthening the nation’s democratic movement. Its other goal was to make the Sudanese government distance itself from China, Russia, and Iran. Hamdok lasted only 14 months in office before the military once again seized power. It was clear that the army was extremely reluctant to let go of the privileges it had acquired after running the country for four decades.
Army versus Hemedti
At the same time, the army began to get increasingly alarmed at Hemedti’s growing clout within the country and outside. The rift came out in the open last year after Gen. Burhan insisted on the immediate integration of the RSF into the army. Hemedti and his supporters reacted by characterising the army chief as a die-hard Islamist who was against a return to civilian rule. He also made the demand that the army should come under the complete control of an elected civilian government.
The democratic movement represented by the mainstream parties seems to be supporting Hemedti in the current power struggle because of his promise to hand over power to a civilian government and his strong stand against the Islamists aligned with Burhan.
Hemedti initially accused Egypt of encouraging the Sudanese army to crack down on RSF. Burhan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were classmates in the military academy in Cairo.
When the conflict began, the RSF captured 27 Egyptian air force officers from the Meroe air base along with a few Egyptian fighter planes. They were released after the Egyptian government issued a statement emphasising that it was not taking sides in the conflict.
Hemedti seems to have the tacit backing of Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis. If the fighting goes on much longer, outside forces could be drawn into the war. The Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar is reportedly backing Hemedti and supplying the RSF with arms. The US has accused the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, of providing RSF with anti-aircraft weaponry. The head of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, denied these claims. He instead offered to mediate between the two sides.
The New York-based Soufan Centre has warned of “meddling from external states, warlords, armed militias and a range of other violent non-states actors” if the conflict continues unabated.
Jehadist forces are already very active all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are reports that Ethiopia has reoccupied al Fashaga, a 260 sq. km fertile area on the border between the two countries. Sudan had evicted Ethiopian farmers from the area in 2020 when the Ethiopian government was preoccupied with the war against the secessionist Tigrayan forces. Sudan and Ethiopia are the two biggest countries in the volatile Horn of Africa region.
Rebel groups such as the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-North, which has its base in the Nuba mountains and controls significant swathes of territory there, could complicate the situation for both sides in the current conflict.
The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) of Darfur, which had been previously fighting the central government, could take the opportunity to once again revive the independence movement in the province.
There is also a crisis brewing in Sudan’s resource-rich eastern part, where Port Sudan is situated. Last year, tribal groups blockaded the vital highway connecting the area to Khartoum. Under the Juba Peace Agreement of 2020, all the major rebel groups agreed to lay down arms and participate in a transitional civilian government.
Sudan occupies a key strategic position in the region, located between Egypt and Eritrea. Its long Red Sea coastline gives it control over busy maritime sea routes. The Sudanese military regime had agreed in principle to allow Russia to construct a naval base on its Red Sea coast. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that the deal would have to be ratified by the civilian government that is supposed to take over.
Khartoum and Moscow have a long-standing military relationship. Sudan, which had sanctions imposed by the US since the mid-1980s, has been dependent on Russia and China for its military hardware.
Sudan is important to U.S. interests in the region as well, and Burhan and Hemedti hope to use this to ensure that Biden focuses on stability rather than on enforcing democracy.