In Sudan, a Deadly Reckoning for Rival Forces

With civilians trapped, scores have been killed as the army and a paramilitary group battle for control of the country

In Sudan, a Deadly Reckoning for Rival Forces
Army soldiers deploy in Khartoum on April 15 amid clashes in the city. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)

In the early morning of April 15, civilians woke up to the sounds of gunshots and explosions across Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. As smoke filled the air, many realized that the scenario they had dreaded for years was now unfolding. Sudan’s army and a powerful paramilitary force known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had declared war against each other, with little regard for the civilians caught in the middle. 

In three days, violence has quickly spread to eastern Sudan and the western province of Darfur, threatening to engulf the region. Medics and doctors say the death toll is now more than 100, while more than 300 have been injured. Casualties may be underreported since few people can reach the hospital. 

It’s also unclear who has the upper hand. Both the RSF and the army claim to be winning as the violence escalates. 

“The shooting is getting louder and worse and there is no electricity or water. … I don’t know what to do. Pray for us, please,” Sammar Hamza, 26, told New Lines from her home in central Khartoum. 

The Sudanese army and the RSF have long competed for power and relevance dating  to the rule of the onetime autocratic leader President Omar al-Bashir. 

In the early 2000s, Bashir armed and recruited Arab tribes to wage a brutal counteroffensive against mostly non-Arab armed groups, who were rebelling against government neglect and exploitation. 

The strategy worked but at a considerable human cost. More than 300,000 people were killed in Darfur from 2003 to 2009, prompting the International Criminal Court to indict Bashir for genocide and crimes against humanity. 

By 2013, Bashir repackaged the Arab tribal militias from Darfur into the RSF in a ploy to “coup-proof” his regime from senior military officers and his feared intelligence service. Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo — universally known as Hemedti — was put in charge of the force and instructed to take orders directly from the president himself. 

Over the years, the RSF grew stronger by consolidating control over lucrative gold mines while earning hundreds of millions of dollars in exchange for sending mercenaries to fight for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Hemedti also deepened his ties with the United Arab Emirates and — like the army — he cooperated with the notorious Russian private military company the Wagner Group, which has been implicated in grave human rights abuses in places like Syria, Ukraine and Mali. 

Flush with wealth and support from foreign patrons, the RSF quickly became a formidable rival to the military, setting the scene for the conflict today. 

“I wouldn’t say the conflict between the army and RSF was inevitable … but Bashir’s unshackling of Hemedti was definitely fateful,” said Jonas Horner, an independent analyst on Sudan. 

Not long ago, military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemedti were partners. After Bashir was toppled four years ago, Burhan became the head of the Sovereign Military Council — then the highest state body — with Hemedti as his deputy. The two men ordered security forces to break up a sit-in in which the protesters were calling for the generals to surrender power to a civilian government. 

The June 2019 dispersal left at least 120 people dead outside the Defense Ministry. Survivors say that RSF led the killing while the military sealed its gates to prevent protesters from seeking shelter. 

Nobody was ever held accountable for the bloodshed, even after both Hemedti and Burhan submitted to internal and international pressure to join with a broad coalition of political parties now known as the Forces for Freedom and Change — Central Council (FFC-CC). Bound together, the army, the RSF and the FFC-CC formed a military-civilian transitional government in August 2019. 

During the transition, Burhan and Hemedti portrayed themselves as benevolent leaders and guardians of the revolution. Hemedti, unlike Burhan, didn’t have the legitimacy that comes with being the head of Sudan’s military, so he hired advisers to lobby on his behalf in Western capitals while building hospitals and clinics across Sudan. 

Few people were swayed by Hemedti’s PR campaign or surprised that he backed Burhan’s coup on Oct. 25, 2021. Both the military and the RSF — along with unpopular armed groups from Darfur — upended the democratic transition out of fear that they would soon lose their political and economic stranglehold over the country. Indeed, both the RSF and the military control lucrative sectors such as the export of gold, sesame and gum arabic. 

“There was a lot of hand holding and appeasement of these generals because the U.S. believed that they could somehow create reformers out of them. Despite a popular movement that unseated a dictator, the calculation was that Sudan was not ready for completely military-free politics. So the forces that were pushing for military-free politics were not supported,” said Kholood Khair, the founding director of Confluence Advisory, a think tank in Khartoum. 

After Burhan and Hemedti’s power grab, it looked like the international community might take a more punitive approach against the generals. The U.S. paused $700 million in development aid, while the Paris Club suspended billions worth of debt relief. However, the real resistance came from Sudan’s broad and vibrant civil society and particularly from the resistance committees, neighborhood groups that were integral to unseating Bashir by mobilizing nationwide protests. 

This time they were opposing the coup under the slogan “no negotiation, no partnership, no legitimacy” for the putschists. 

Many diplomats supported the right of civilians to protest peacefully, yet they believed that resistance committees were not pragmatic, so they continued to appease the generals by refusing to impose — or even to threaten to impose — sanctions on them,  Khair said. 

Western capitals also called for a return to a “civilian-led” transition — a euphemism for negotiating a new partnership between the FFC-CC, the military and the RSF. 

Bestowed with impunity, Hemedti and Burhan oversaw grave human rights abuses in the months after their coup. They killed 125 protesters and subjected others to enforced disappearances and torture. Still, Western and U.N. diplomats called on pro-democracy groups to negotiate with the coup generals.

“The fact that these military leaders were allowed to negotiate [their role in a new government] when they were killing protesters and torturing people — and all we heard from the international community was that resistance committees should join — showed us that there was no red line to abuses,” said Anette Hoffmann, a Sudan expert at the Clingendael Institute, an independent think tank based in the Hague. 

Negotiations continued into the summer even as tensions surfaced between Hemedti and Burhan. In August 2022, Hemedti said that the country was worse off from the coup since it had emboldened Bashir-era Islamists. 

Indeed, Burhan had brought back Islamists from Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) to run the state bureaucracy, since he lacked any other constituency. Other NCP loyalists reportedly occupy senior positions in the military and detest Hemedti for turning against Bashir in 2019. More broadly, army generals from all ideological strands feared that the RSF could turn the military into a de facto secondary force if Hemedti got any stronger. 

Sensing that Burhan was under pressure from within his own ranks, Hemedti began repositioning himself as a supporter of democracy in a bid to secure his power and privileges under a new civilian-led transitional administration. 

Four months later, on Dec. 5, 2022, both men inked the U.N.-backed Framework Agreement, which launched a new political process to restore Sudan’s transition to democracy. Most resistance committees opposed the settlement, arguing that Burhan and Hemedti had shown no signs of genuinely supporting a democratic process. 

Burhan, for his part, said that he signed the deal to rein in the RSF, while Hemedti claimed to back the agreement to end military rule. A close relative of Hemedti, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said the RSF commander was just instrumentalizing the political process to thwart the military. 

“Hemedti was given wide power and unlimited privileges [by Bashir] … and he aims to preserve these gains without regard for his homeland or for civilians,” the source said. 

Despite the optimism from Western diplomats and capitals, the Framework Agreement had a number of problems from the start. It was not inclusive, had little popular support and was overly ambitious — it promised to address key issues such as transitional justice and security sector reform in weeks, even days. Both issues typically require months of sensitive talks, concerted international effort, and clear mechanisms and benchmarks. Even then, efforts don’t often succeed.

However, diplomats and the FFC-CC were in a rush: The former needed a deal to justify restarting development assistance that would stabilize the economy, while the latter was eager to get back into power. Little attention was paid to the brewing tensions between the RSF and the army, as each feared losing power to the other in a restored transition. 

The most contested issue between the two forces was the RSF’s integration into the army. Hemedti called for his forces to integrate in 10 years, yet Burhan wanted the RSF to integrate in two. 

The dispute distracted attention from equally important issues such as when and how the security forces would be subjected to civilian command and whether security sector reform would be a civilian or military-led process. FFC-CC officials, for their part, appeared to exacerbate divisions by siding with the RSF in hopes that the group could thwart the revival of NCP loyalists in the army.

Despite the sensitivity of the matter, the FFC-CC and the global community announced in March that a new political agreement would be signed on April 1 and a new government would be formed shortly after. 

The timelines were pushed back a few days after the army walked out of the first workshop on security sector reform on March 29. Tensions mounted in the days that followed, with the RSF relocating hundreds of fighters to the capital. Arab activists in Darfur also reported that the army was recruiting a new force from their tribes to undercut Hemedti’s support base. 

A number of Western diplomats believed that a new political deal would stabilize the situation rather than accelerate an armed confrontation between the RSF and the military, according to one Western diplomat who was not authorized to speak on the record. 

“This [current] crisis is the making of the international community with all their stupid [calls] that a ‘swift deal is needed,’” the diplomat said. 

High-level Western diplomats didn’t see the war coming since several were on vacation for Easter. Curiously, few, if any, rushed back to Sudan after the RSF deployed near an airport that houses Sudanese and Egyptian fighter planes. The military viewed the move as a preemptive attack to neutralize its aerial advantage and warned that all security could collapse unless the RSF withdrew. War erupted two days later. 

Now, fighting could turn into a protracted conflict, with many fearing that the war could drag in regional patrons and neighbors such as Chad, Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia. In the end, nobody knows if the RSF or army will vanquish the other, but their quest could upend the region. 

“So many of us were spelling out how [the political process] could go wrong, and it has,” Khair said from her home in Khartoum. “The writing was on the wall. It is now written in blood.”

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