Creating new perspectives since 2009

Who is fighting who in Sudan, and why?

April 25, 2023 at 12:30 pm

Head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council and Commander-In-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C) and his Deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (L) in Khartoum, Sudan. [Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency]

When fighting erupted between the Sudanese army headed by General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan — the de facto ruler of Sudan — and the Rapid Support Forces headed by Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known simply as Hemedti), a deputy leader of the Transitional Sovereign Council, it was clear that the already lame duck democratic process in the country was being put out of its misery. The dream of Sudan being a country governed by a democratically-elected civilian authority has died.

Foreign states have evacuated diplomatic staff and citizens after eight days of fighting. This suggests that they had collected intelligence that the fighting between Al-Burhan and Hemedti was only going to get worse. The announcement of a ceasefire today provides some cause for optimism, but it is not expected to hold.

The power struggle between the two men has so far resulted in more than 520 being killed and 3,700 wounded. The World Health Organisation said on Friday that it had recorded eleven attacks on health facilities in the country. The situation is now “untenable” for civilians left without food or water, and some hospitals had stopped working, Red Cross Spokeswoman Alyona Synenko said on Sunday.

“We saw bodies everywhere — there’s no security whatsoever so nobody dares go to collect them — but there’s utter destruction too,” Italian NGO boss Stefano Rebora told the BBC. “Everything is just devastated.”

INTERVIEW: ‘We escaped the bombing in Sudan but we had to leave my brother behind’

While civilians bear the brunt of the problems, as usual, Al-Burhan and Hemedti each claim to be fighting to save Sudan from the other, and trying to install a civilian government. Hardly anyone is convinced. Al-Burhan is accused of fighting for the Islamists and the remnants of ousted President Omar Al-Bashir’s regime, while the RSF leader is accused of fighting in the interests of foreign powers.

Both men have a dark past and blood on their hands, enough to destroy their credibility. Both also have dubious relationships with foreign powers and have broken promises about the transition towards democracy. It is fairly obvious that neither has much respect for human rights, national security or democracy. They are ready to violate human rights, create a proxy war and shed a lot of blood for the sake of clinging to power. This is nothing new for either man: look at what happened in Darfur and the atrocities committed; their involvement in the war in Yemen; and the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters since their coup in 2019. They are men ready, willing and able to use extreme violence to achieve their selfish aims.

Behind them in this lie foreign powers, as usual. Al-Burhan and Hemedti have good relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. None of these countries want to see democracy prevailing in the Middle East. According to activist Iyad El-Baghdadi, a Palestinian refugee living in Oslo, the policy of both men is affected by the general context of the aforementioned countries.

At the end of 2019, Al-Burhan visited Egypt and the UAE, while Hemedti visited Saudi Arabia. They met with the leaders of these countries and, according to El-Baghdadi, were encouraged to stop the democracy negotiations with the opposition at that time. It seems as if they did what they were told.

With clear support from outside Sudan, they knew that they would be able to stay in power. The only question was, who was going to get the top job? Al-Burhan said that the estimated 100,000 members of the RFS should be integrated within the Sudanese army. Such a merger would guarantee that he would have the upper hand. Hemedti knows that he will lose out politically if he loses control of the paramilitary force that he has built up as his private militia.

Al-Burhan turned to the Islamists who ran the country for 30 years, knowing that he needed people with experience if he was to run the state. To this end, he has released hundreds of the Islamists from prison and returned them to their former positions.

Meanwhile, Hemedti, who did not have much school education and was basically a gangster, relies on tribal support and backing from abroad. According to Dr Taj Al-Sir Othman, the head of the Strategic National Centre, “Emirati arms were seized from Hemedti’s house.”

READ: Clashes between Sudanese military, RSF enter second week

He not only has the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also the UN, the US and Britain. Professor of Political Science Al Rashid Mohammad Ibrahim said that the “communist rebels” (the RSF) have an “undisclosed alliance” and are dealing with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sudan and Head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, Volker Perthes, as well as with the Sudanese Quartet: the US, the UK, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The Professor of International Affairs at Qatar University, Mohammad Al-Mukhtar Al-Shinqiti, reiterated that Hemedti is backed by the UAE. His social media accounts are being run from the neighbouring Gulf state, he confirmed.

Even Russia’s Wagner Group is helping Hemedti, reported CNN. It noted that Russian mercenaries used airports controlled by Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by the UAE, the US, Russia and most of the Western countries and Arab dictatorships, to send arms to Hemedti. The RSF head has also apparently spoken with Israeli officials and told them that his forces are being subject to terrorist attacks by Islamists, “Just like Israel is targeted by Islamist terrorist group Hamas.”

The enemies of Sudan who have been imposing sanctions on the country for decades do not want it to have a strong national army. “Sudan and its people will pay the price of this war from the blood, security and safety of its people, as well as from the sovereignty, unity and collapsed economy,” observed the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood’s Adel Ibrahim. “This is a result of a cunning and deceptive conspiracy by regional powers and internal collaborators. The army is involved in a battle of honour.”

According to Shinqiti, “Sudan will not remain safe under Hemedti, and there will be no democracy under Al-Burhan. The priority now is to save Sudan from Hemedti’s militia, backed by the UAE, and to let Al-Burhan hand over power to a freely-elected civilian government, not to the remnants of the left wing from the group of the Americanist Abdullah Hamdok.”

In the meantime, we must wait and see if the ceasefire holds. For the sake of the people of Sudan, we must hope that it does.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.