Let's not be naive. "Violence is not a new phenomenon in Sudan. Military rule has been rife in the country since independence, despite the people's peaceful overthrow of military regimes in 1964, 1985 and 2019, and their vow never to allow dictatorship again".
Since colonisation, the outlying areas - in the south, west and east - have felt marginalised and demanded their share of the wealth and power. Violent repression by the North and Centre elites has always resulted in millions of deaths and displaced persons. What is new is that today the periphery is bringing these ongoing clashes to Khartoum. This is the first time there has been war in the capital since the Mahdists conquered the city in 1884 against the British, and apart from an attack by the Darfur Movement for Justice and Equality.
The fighting between the head of the SAF (Sudanese Armed Forces), General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his colleague, the commander of the RSF (Rapid Support Forces), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo - known as Hemedti - is aimed at controlling the self-proclaimed military junta, the Transitional Supreme Council (TSC), but has its roots in the past.
Even today, behind what is happening in the capital Khartoum, there are political, social and economic complaints against the northern and central Sudan elites who are still in a position of power; moreover, there are the shadows of the power balance intended by Omar al-Bashir, the military dictator for thirty years, from 1989 until his removal in 2019.
Alongside the SAF, al-Bashir put the RSF in the same Sudanese army, intended to monitor each other and protect the regime from the people's demands for justice, democracy and the distribution of wealth and power.
The process towards democracy initiated by the civil revolt in 2019 was interrupted by a new joint military coup d'état by the army’s two branches on 25 October 2021 and by the installation of the TSC, although Hemedti claims to have considered this coup d'état a mistake planning to give entire power at civilian hands.
On 5 December 2022, the TSC and around fifty political parties, associations and civil society organisations signed an agreement to break the deadlock in the transition to democracy. Not all Sudanese civil society was in agreement, considering that the initiative was legitimising the 2021 coup and the TSC dominated by General al-Burhan. Negotiations nevertheless began with the aim of installing a civilian-led government in two phases: on 3rd and 11th of April. But in Khartoum, on 15th April, the fighting started. The subject of the dispute was, it seemed, the unification of the SAF and the RSF, to which Hemedti was opposed.
The forces at play
Under al-Bashir's regime, the SAF was purged of professional officers and replaced by soldiers - including al-Burhan - loyal to Islamist ideology and state policy. When al-Bashir fell in 2019, the army remained intact.
The RSF, on the other hand, is a transformation from the infamous Janjaweed militia, formed in 2003 to suppress the rebellion in Darfur. Formed by Arab herders belonging to the Baggara family, established in western Sudan and eastern Chad, they razed villages and killed non-Arab farmers in Darfur to take control of the grazing land: between 200,000 and 450,000 people were killed and millions displaced by the Janjaweed. These armed groups were financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It is a well-known fact that, when transformed into RSF on 2015, the Janjaweed militias fought in Yemen alongside Saudi and Emirati forces, earning a lot of money and gaining military experience. In Khartoum, rumours are circulating that Hemedti can count on the Russian mercenaries’ help. Actually, the Russian mercenary company Wagner is present in Sudan and operates in the regions where there are gold mines alongside with Hemedti. The war in Yemen and the involvement of the Wagner group in gold mining, in close collaboration with the RSF, have added a regional and global dimension to the conflict. Meroe Gold, Wagner’s mining subsidiary in Sudan, has been sanctioned by the European Union Council because its activities endanger international peace and security.
Overflowing to be feared
Russia reportedly tried to persuade the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) to sit down at the negotiating table with RSF, but they refused, raising the prospect of a fight to the death between Burhan and Hemedti, with the risk of setting the whole region ablaze as Egypt could be drawn into the conflict. The RSF published a video showing Egyptian forces captured during exercises in Sudan: even if the video was false, it served to inflame tensions.
On the other hand, the flow of Sudanese refugees to Europe, Gulf and neighbouring African states is opening the doors to kleptocrats from all over Africa who are watching to take free advantages in Sudan, a country rich in resources and with a unique strategic position.
Southern Sudan, to begin with, where the fire smoulders beneath the ashes, shares a history of the armed conflicts and problems dividing Sudan. Like Sudan, Southern Sudan has two main, heavily armed factions, allied to numerous ethnically-based local militias which, over the last 20 years, have vied for wealth and state control. As in Sudan, corruption is the system by which state institutions are exploited for unaccountable enrichment. As in Sudan, in Southern Sudan enough is displayed to deceive the international community, then the peace agreements are undermined and the provisions of the UN Security Council trampled underfoot. Sudan is a harbinger of what can come for Southern Sudan.
Sudan has for a long time sent mercenaries abroad: today it has become a battlefield for foreign fighters, and their backers in the shadows, attracted by money and gold: armed fortune seekers who flock from all over the Sahel region, from Mali, Chad and Niger, in significant numbers according to the UN special representative.
Al-Burhan accuses the RSF of recruiting mercenaries from Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic. Witnesses in Khartoum claim to have heard RSF soldiers speaking French, the language of neighbouring Chad. Washington and Brussels accuse the RSF of having links with the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which its boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, denies. Western diplomats report that groups of mercenaries pass through Khartoum airport and hotels.
It is also a well-known fact that General Hemedti’s Dagalo family has long controlled gold mines in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, the third African largest producer of the precious mineral. According to Andreas Krieg, a professor at King's College London, "The fact that Hemedti has access to a large amount of gold wealth and the means to put it on the market means he can pay wages in a way that no one in sub-Saharan Africa or in the Sahel can".
The two Sudanese militias have often swelled their ranks by offering Chadian Arabs access to Sudanese citizenship and to land abandoned by displaced non-Arabs.
While the RSF relies on mercenary fighters, it receives arms from Libya. Money and fighters are interchangeable currencies in the Sudanese political market, and Hemedti is said to trade in both. "The RSF is now a private transnational mercenary business", a trade in "gold and armed arms" that Hemedti is constantly expanding.
Can this conflict end and how?
The Sudanese conflict is fuelling another sector of activity. Professional ex-soldiers are offering to desperate foreigners -who failed to take part in the mass evacuations- help in order to leave the country, at prices up to 20 000-50 000 dollars.
The shadow of the country falling into a new all-out civil war, the 3rd since independence in 1956, hangs over Sudan because a peaceful solution is not on the horizon.
There was talk of elevating Hemedti to the rank of Burhan in the army to calm tempers. The Islamists, whom Burhan tactically reincorporated into his government, opposed this and, according to Foreign Policy, in a recently published decree Burhan sacked Hemedti and replaced him with former rebel leader, a Sovereign Council member, Malik Agar.
Many forces are therefore at play. Hemedti is seen as aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while Burhan is seen as an ally of Egypt.
If the SAF win, with the help of the Egyptian air force, we would see the return in force of the former Islamist regime, with plans for revenge in mind. If the RSF, better equipped for urban warfare and better trained in combat, controlling most of the capital, well established among the civilian population and controlling the gold trade, wins, Sudan would be at the mercy of a civil war and a tribal and family militia. No one can predict the direction the country would then take, although Hemedti claims he wants to establish a civilian regime.
According to Nigrizia, the specialist magazine on Africa, there are three possible keys: personal rivalries, geopolitical interests and the civil society.
The alliance between Al-Burhan and Hemedti of October 2021 was a convenience marriage, designed to derail the transition phase. The two generals, however, represent also two economic poles: al-Burhan controls some 250 companies vital to the Sudanese economy; Hemedti controls the gold mines.
Also, Sudan's resources and geographical position make it a strategic country. Rich in minerals, gold, natural gas and iron, it is at the centre of conflict interests in the region, bordered as it is by the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, occupying a privileged position for trade with the countries of Central and North Africa and the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are major investors in Sudan, Israel maintains close diplomatic relations with Khartoum and Egypt is one of the main supporters of the SAF. Moscow, in its way, is keeping its foot on two stools: it is negotiating with the government to build a naval base on the Red Sea, while its paramilitary group Wagner is helping Hemedti to extract gold.
Finally, the civil society. It has considerable breadth and depth and was the protagonist of the first anti-Islamist and democratic revolution in a country that is 90% Muslim, being at the origin of the demonstrations starting on 19 December 2018 and leading to the fall of the dictatorship of Omar El-Bashir on 11 April 2019. Although unarmed, it is nevertheless well organised and made up of citizens - professionals, women, young people - calling for a change of regime and a new social order.
The people's desire for democracy and participation is today being stifled in Sudan by the force of arms, a page of violence that adds to those that continue to bloody the world. Out of fear, the voice of civil society has remained silent, but it could represent a way out: the military are once again showing their inability to run Sudan like so many other countries. An invitation to look elsewhere for hope and answers.
See also, Sudan clashes: Hemedti plucks page from Omar al-Bashir ouster book ; Sudan: l’incubo di una crisi senza precedenti ; Sudan, chi c'è dietro alla guerra ; The rapid assessment report on the humanitarian situation ; Why is the African Union absent in Sudan?
Photo. Displaced persons from Juba, capital of South Sudan