Sudan fighting: How army, paramilitary rivalry escalated to war

Monday April 17 2023

Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (left), the head of the ruling military council and his deputy Sudanese paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo greet supporters at different events in 2019. PHOTOS | AFP


Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary unit that often runs a parallel command system but says it plays alongside the army, clashed with the country’s military on Saturday leading to fears of a third coup in four years.

The RSF is led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti, who is the deputy leader of the Sovereignty Council, the definitive leadership organ of the junta led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.

Yet their rifts have been an open secret. The two wings of Sudan’s security component have had a long-running dispute that revolves primarily around their respective gains in the post-overthrow era of former Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s long-time ruler jettisoned in April 2019.

Read: Bashir loyalists blamed for Sudan discord

Their tiff is also linked to the personal competition between army chief al-Burhan and RSF.

Sudan's army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan

The chairman of Sudan's Transitional Sovereign Council Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan. PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY | AFP


The latest round of disagreement, and hence the reason for their clash, occurred following the signing of the Framework Agreement establishing the transitional period on December 5. The junta was to re-sign a deal for a new transitional government led by civilians this month. It collapsed, following the junta’s own internal wrangling.

Read: Sudan’s transition: Burhan fluffs his lines

The framework said Sudan’s military will quit politics and hand over power to civilians. It also provided for the integration of RSF into the ranks of the army, a sticky matter that aroused differences.

The rift between Burhan and Hemedti, may place the country into a third coup in four years. But it actually threatens the four-year journey of the transitional period since the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir after the Sudanese revolution in 2019.

Sudan clashes

Sudanese civilians run past a military vehicle in Khartoum on April 15, 2023, amid reported clashes between the country's paramilitaries and regular army. PHOTO | AFP

In October 2021, Burhan forcibly took over power after dissolving the cabinet of the transitional government led by former Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok. It isolated the country and saw aid suspended for its key projects. This came just after the US had lifted sanctions on Sudan, which would have opened investors into Khartoum.

Read: Sudan's revolution a 'failure', experts say

An open secret

Initially as a junta, the two leaders let their differences boil under the table. It had been common knowledge that their rivalry was playing even in deals they made with outside entities, such as Russia. After the Framework Agreement was signed, it became an open secret.

But they have also been met with a hardline civilian movement which wants nothing from the military in running the politics of the country. Everyone else including the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) and the United States have demanded a civilian-led government.

As it is, Sudan is suspended from voting at the AU and United Nations. But it chairs Igad, the regional bloc in the Horn of Africa.

Read: How power struggle in Sudan has spanned out

So how did the junta crack?

Al-Burhan had been trying to isolate Hemedti for a while. One such sign was when Khartoum signed an updated version of the peace agreement with the armed movements in Juba, South Sudan. Sovereignty Council member Shamsuddin Kabbashi signed the agreement on behalf of the government instead of Hemedti, who had signed the first version with the movements in October 2020.

Al-Burhan also stopped Hemedti from receiving security, diplomatic and criminal reports he was routinely receiving. In fact, Hemedti was also denied role in dealing with the country’s peace bids.  

General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo

In this file photo taken on June 8, 2022 Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), now de facto deputy military leader, attending a meeting in Khartoum. PHOTO | AFP

But Hemedti isn’t new to the game. Some five years before Bashir ouster, he was consolidating his influence in the capital Khartoum. He created the RSF, an offshoot of the Janjaweed militia feared for its atrocities in Darfur in the 2003 rebellion which Bashir crushed and earned an indictment at the International Criminal Court.

RSF was integrated into formal security service in 2013. And after the coup in 2019, Sudan’s army and the RSF maintained their relationship against the transitional government of Hamdok.

Hamdok won the hostility of the duo together after he sought to solve the problems of his country's economy and eliminate the depletion of the local currency by several decisions that included transferring military investments into joint stock companies.

Also read: Sudanese PM Hamdok denies signing agreement under duress

This was rejected by the military, offering instead that those companies pay the prescribed taxes without being put under civilian supervision. Hamdok also clashed with the RSF over an initiative that included attaching those forces to the military and regularising their status. Ultimately, Hemedti and Al-Burhan agreed to oust Hamdok in October 2021.

Hemedti playing good cop

That appears to be last time their interests converged. They have been differing on how to move the transitional programme forward.

They also haven’t agreed on key foreign policy changes such as Hemedti’s controversial decision to meet with Israeli officials without his partner’s knowledge. This was seen as Hemedti’s bid to advance his domestic political agenda by seeking allies abroad. Hemedti has also strengthened ties with Russians where he has travelled to recently and is said to enjoy security cooperation for the RSF.

When Hamdok was ousted, Hemedti did not comment on it publicly even though it is clear he too didn’t like the PM.

Now he prefers to flirt with the street by raising demands for change and demanding civil rule. Even if he finally agrees to a civilian rule, perhaps he knows playing good cop may save him from any punitive measures on his conduct by the new civilian-led government.