Sudan army on a path to self-destruction, risks state collapse

Tuesday February 20 2024

Sudan's military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan stands at the podium during a ceremony to sign the framework agreement between military rulers and civilian powers in Khartoum, Sudan on December 5, 2022. PHOTO | REUTERS


It is now 10 months since the outbreak of civil war in Sudan in April 2023, pitting the Sudan Armed Forces (Saf) against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group. The war, which erupted after relations between the two wings of Sudan’s security apparatus broke down, rapidly spread beyond the capital, Khartoum.

More recently, the Saf have suffered numerous setbacks at the hands of the RSF. For months, army units have struggled to break their grip on much of the capital. The paramilitary group and their allied militias have overrun most of Darfur and swathes of South Kordofan in western Sudan.

Since December 2023, RSF columns have also advanced into Central and Eastern Sudan. This followed the collapse of army defences in Wad Medani, one of the country’s biggest cities. This was a landmark humiliation for the Saf.

In the eyes of decision-makers across the region, the prospect of RSF supremo Mohamed Hamdan Daglo “Hemedti” becoming Sudan’s new strongman is a distinct possibility.

Read: Sudan' army claims first major advance

This success owes much to the RSF outperforming expectations. Their management of logistics over immense distances, local commanders tactically outwitting their opponents, and Emirati support via neighbouring Chad have all played a part.


But at least as important is the Saf’s under-performance, militarily as well as politically.

I have studied Sudan’s tempestuous political transition from war to peace and back to the present crisis. My recent paper details the strategies used by the Saf in managing revolution and democratisation efforts, today as well as in past transitions.

It is my conclusion that the once mighty Saf have made military and political errors that have increased the possibility of their disintegration and the collapse of the Sudanese state. The ongoing civil war could be the trigger of this implosion, but not the underlying cause.

Storied history

The Saf should be thought of as a complex institution. They are not just an amalgamation of caricaturised generals preoccupied with furthering their personal interests or ethnic agendas.

The institution itself is older than independent Sudan and has always guarded its autonomy from the state and society. It has history, a corporate ethos and enduring interests that go above those of individual commanders or interest groups.

Read: US sanctions entities linked to Sudan war

This insistence on autonomy and desire to protect what they perceive to be their legitimate institutional prerogatives fuelled competition with Sudan’s other security organs. These include the intelligence services and paramilitary militia.

Officially, all groups exist to defend Sudanese sovereignty and the constitution. In practice, intense rivalries fanned by Sudan’s political rulers have always existed alongside cooperation. This has shaped the rise and fall of regimes. The desire to re-establish the Saf as pre-eminent among the security organisations after the previous regime’s collapse in 2019 helps explain why war erupted with the Rapid Support Forces in April 2023.

The Saf had overthrown three civilian governments before they launched their latest coup, in October 2021. The first was in 1958 at the request of the sitting prime minister. The second was in 1969 with the hope of constructing socialism with the Sudanese Communist Party. The third followed in 1989 in league with Islamist revolutionaries.

The circumstances surrounding these coups differed, as did the level of support within the army itself. But each time a Saf officer became president.

History repeats itself

After the consolidation of each regime, disappointment resurfaced as the military strongman at the apex began to mistrust the comrades who put him in power. Other state security providers were increasingly empowered, deepening the fixation of army officers with security competition.

This is precisely what happened in the final years of the military-Islamist regime that ruled Sudan between 1989 and 2019. Omar Al-Bashir cultivated his image of the soldier-president by spending hours at army messes with his comrades and approving exuberant spending on the army’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, the state and army were weakened after the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Much of the population blamed the loss of one-third of the territory on the military-Islamist government’s mismanagement of diversity and the economy.

Read: Sudan army begins operation to 'eliminate' RSF

After that, Al-Bashir’s survival as head of state increasingly relied on the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the battle-hardened Darfurian militias that were rebranded as RSF. Al-Bashir bolstered the intelligence service and RSF to counterbalance the Saf. This was also meant to prevent a coup or an alliance between the army and re-emerging civilian opposition.

At the president’s invitation, the RSF participated in the Yemen War and captured much of Sudan’s lucrative gold exports. These filled the RSF treasury and gave Hemedti invaluable international networks.

In response, the Saf increasingly charted their own course. They moved into commercial industries – meat processing, telecoms, sesame production and much else – at a heightened pace. This enriched the commanders personally and gave the army extra finances amid intensifying security competition.

During the 2019 revolution propelled by civilians, the Sudan army abandoned Al-Bashir as their commander-in-chief and chose Abdelfatah El-Burhan as the next supremo. It was vital for much of the army’s officer corps that their new leader was not an Islamist. Islamism was seen as politically toxic after a decade of economic crisis and corruption scandals. It was also vital that Burhan was not a charismatic general with privileged ties to any other institutions or political parties.

But events didn’t unfold according to plan.

Incoherent calculations

Burhan appeared to be sufficiently weak, compelling him to rely on his fellow Sudan army bigwigs to govern. He struggled to position the military as an indispensable partner for civilian politicians and protesters and to pit them against RSF. Such an outcome could have affirmed the army as the primary security institution and put Sudan on a firmer track towards civilian-dominated politics.

Read: Sudan’s paramilitary head Hemedti holds talks with civilian leaders

Instead, Burhan instigated the October 2021 coup against the transitional civilian-military government he served. He was hoping it would ensure the Saf's dominance over the RSF or lead to a slimmed down cabinet of trusted civilian partners. This would have enabled him to rule with greater effectiveness.

Neither of these things happened.

Since April 2023 and the outbreak of the civil war, Burhan’s incoherent military strategy and diplomatic tactics have continued, with disastrous results. Because the battlefield situation is so dire and no external force appears to be rushing to its side, the Sudan army have re-embraced the Islamist networks around former ministers Ali Karti and Usama Abdallah. These men have the money and motivated infantry. They also possess talent for organising. However, this partnership comes at a high cost.

Many in the army, including Burhan himself, distrust Sudan’s Islamic Movement and have mixed feelings about the decades of partnership with Islamists during the previous regime. This ambivalence about cooperation is a sentiment reciprocated by Islamists. Moreover, the Sudan Armed Forces’ embrace of the Islamic movement and other hardliners is not only anathema to Sudan’s civilian parties. It also damages Burhan’s attempts to portray the army as embodying the Sudanese state and middle-of-the-road nationalism.

In contrast, Hemedti has been successfully touring East Africa and has issued a “road map” for peace with former prime minister Hamdok and other civilians. This explicitly excludes former regime constituencies.

The Saf bet on Burhan steering them away from the contradictions of the past. Unfortunately for the institution, however, that choice appears to have been instrumental in bringing Sudan to the edge of an abyss. It threatens to take the army with it.

By Harry Verhoeven - Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University