n Saturday, April 15, the residents of Sudan’s capital Khartoum woke up to sounds of gun fire as violent clashes erupted between the national army, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The surreal scenes of fighter jets flying over Khartoum and bombing RSF positions, and tanks rolling in the streets while dark plumes of smoke covered the city captivated the global news and social media platforms. How did the Sudanese peoples’ quest for a transition to a civilian democracy beget deadly clashes in Khartoum and a civil war that could engulf the whole country?
Since February, political tensions have been rising in the country between General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, the county’s president and chairman of the Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC), and his deputy General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, commonly referred to as “Hemedti.” Hemedti is the leader of the RSF, a paramilitary unit of approximately 80,000 heavily armed and pickup truck-riding militiamen that have bases all across the country. Since the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the RSF and its leader, Hemedti, have become a consequential political and security force to be reckoned with in Sudan’s political sphere.
After the Nile Spring revolution that ousted al-Bashir, the army had to “tame” and accommodate the RSF and its leadership by offering Hemedti the deputy leadership of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in post al-Bashir Sudan. In the last decade, the RSF was a political lifeline to al-Bashir’s regime, acting like the regime’s Praetorian Guard against any threats from within the military establishment and as an efficient power against rebels in the frontier Darfur region.
Four years after the Nile Spring revolution, what has become of Sudan’s quest for a civilian democratic rule? Will Burhan and Hemedti come to their senses and seek a political truce that will save Sudan from a long civil war and state collapse? To understand the genesis of the current violence, one has to grasp Sudan’s fragile and dispersed security apparatus; the relationship between the military establishment and politics; and the new actors and elites from the margins, such as the RSF and Hemedti, who have “tasted” power and wealth in the capital. When al-Bashir left, the military, security, and economic crony system he held together for three decades came crumbling down. The current violence between the SAF and RSF is one such spatter from a bigger crumbling, metastasizing, and re-ordering of the system al-Bashir left behind.
Sudan’s attempted transition to a democratic civilian rule has been a near-impossible herculean task. After three decades of al-Bashir’s military rule and a long history of coup d’états and military dictatorships since independence, an abrupt civilian democratic rule was practically unachievable. Although al-Bashir was ousted by a popular uprising of the masses, still the post-Bashir Sudanese politics was dominated and overseen by a military and security establishment that had no stakes in handing over power to a civilian government. Sudan’s military and security establishment has been the “invisible hand” that guided the supposed transition to democracy—and no wonder it has failed, or, even worse, imploded with violence.
The unwillingness of the military and security establishment to hand over power to a civilian government was clear in the coup that ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in October 2021. When the transition timeline dictated that the military branch of the TSC was supposed to hand over power to its civilian counterpart, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), instead the TSC ousted Hamdok and created discord amongst the different elements within the FFC. Hence, the military continued to consolidate its power and postponed indefinitely any possibilities of a transition to a civilian rule.
Why should the military and security elites risk losing their powers and interests by handing over government rule to civilians? Sudan is the third-largest producer of gold in Africa, and its military establishment is entangled in this lucrative enterprise. Moreover, to make matters more complicated, the Russian paramilitary group Wagner has joined the illicit mining and exporting of Sudanese gold.
More significantly, there is a new actor on the scene: Hemedti. Hemedti is an outsider to the military and security establishment, but he wields enormous powers and resources, and tilts the levers of power to his interests and advantages. The current war in Sudan is between two factions of the military and security establishment: the entrenched old cadres of the SAF and the newcomers, the RSF—this power struggle between Burhan and Hemedti and their foot-soldiers will either doom or reshape the future of Sudan.
From the margins to the center
Hemedti is a typical archetype of Ibn Khaldun’s consequential political figure who emerges from the margins and takes center stage by his sheer will and thunderbolt. Hemedti’s grandfather, Dagolo, was the leader of the Abbala Rizeigat pastoral clan that roamed across the pasturelands of Chad, western Sudan, and southern Libya. Hemedti doubles as both the political and cultural/tribal leader, and at his disposal is a confederation of Arabized pastoralist clansmen with strong Asabiyyah and loyalty across the Sahel region. Indeed, in the file and rank of the RSF one finds recruits from beyond Sudan who belong to Hemedti’s pastoral clan and other recruited mercenaries.
But Hemedti is not a hero; on the contrary, he is a villain in what the anthropologist Alex de Vaal termed Sudan’s “political marketplace.” This is a marketplace where the Sudanese state employs coercive measures or rewards, and instrumentalizes clan and tribal militias for political solutions. Hemedti himself is accused of committing war crimes in Darfur and other parts of Sudan in the 2000s when his Janjaweed militias were armed by the al-Bashir government to suppress rebels in the Darfur region.
Sudan’s post-independence politics and military-security establishment was dominated by politicians that hail from Khartoum and its riverine environs. Communities and tribes in the margin regions of Darfur and Kordofan were politically, culturally, and economically marginalized. Nesrine Malik, a Sundanese-born journalist and author, writes that many politicians and journalists in Khartoum made fun and ridiculed Hemedti when he was first appointed as vice president in 2019 for his vernacular Arabic and folksy dress and mannerisms. In other words, he was an outsider to politics in Khartoum. Yet, the militia leader from the war-ravaged and draught-stricken Darfur deserts who commanded the RSF as his personal army, soon become Sudan’s most powerful and feared general.
Sudan is geostrategically important in the Red Sea and the Sahel region. The current war will impact the region geopolitically and demographically as it will send millions of migrants into the neighboring countries. Egypt will be the most affected. Already hundreds of thousands of migrants have fled to southern Egypt and Cairo, and Sudan’s stability is crucial for Cairo. Moreover, Egypt has historically supported the military regimes in Khartoum. In this conflict, clearly General Burhan and the SAF are their primary interlocutors.
Hemedti is closely linked with the United Arab Emirates. The RSF took part in the Yemen conflict when it sent thousands of soldiers to fight alongside the Saudis and Emiratis in 2015. Nevertheless, Burhan and the SAF establishment also have strong relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. All regional powers have a vested interest in seeing a stable Sudanese state, but when push comes to shove, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are skeptical of Burhan since he never decapitated the remnants of the Islamists when al-Bashir was ousted.
Eritrea and Ethiopia are also geopolitically interested in the stability of the Sudanese state. Sudan has always played the balancing factor in the Ethiopia-Egypt Nile water dispute. If this conflict drags out, it could lead to a hydro-geopolitical conflict that affects the whole region. More significantly, South Sudan will be the most affected nation in this conflict. All the oil from Juba passes through South Sudan and is refined and exported from the Red Sea port.
Geographically, Sudan is a big country with a lot of oil and mineral resources. In the event that this conflict is protracted, there is the possibility of the mushrooming of diverse rebel groups and militias in the country and the involvement of neighboring countries in the conflict. Sudan could be the next Democratic Republic of the Congo, but our prayers are that peace prevails soon.