Sudan’s Road to Nowhere

Sudan’s Road to Nowhere

The civil war that began in April between rival generals shows no signs of ending.

“The Army to the Barracks and the Janjaweed Dissolved,” chanted the Sudanese protestors who flooded the streets of the country in December five years ago this month. The chanting voices of the women and men rose to the sky and merged with the smoke of the burnt tires behind them. They held Sudan’s flag high or wrapped it over their clothes. Their hands held colorful pieces of paper and cartons with handwritten slogans. Amid the suffocating air from the tear gas relentlessly hurled at them, those words reverberated through the streets. 

Yet again, Sudan stands at yet another political crossroads since its independence sixty-eight years ago and five years after the 2019 revolution that brought down dictator Omar Bashir. 

After millions of Sudanese took to the streets for months since December 2018 to call for the toppling of Bashir’s three-decade rule, in April 2019, Bashir’s own military apparatus, under popular pressure, removed him from power. In September 2019, a new Transitional Government took office as part of a three-year power-sharing agreement between the military and a civilian coalition. In October 2021, the military seized full power again in a coup, dissolving the government and arresting senior officials, including Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok. In December 2022, Sudan’s generals and a coalition of major pro-democracy civilian forces signed a Framework Agreement to end military rule and restore civilian-led government for a two-year transitional period leading up to elections. Many Sudanese political and civilian forces were against the agreement and continued to protest against it.

The outbreak of fighting in April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is yet another conflict over political and economic power, resources, and privileges, born out of the Sudanese state’s deeply entrenched political, economic, and regional inequality. Breaking away from the modes of thought and parameters that have shackled and molded the state’s political and socio-economic system since independence and pushing against the tides of its traditional political oligarchy, Sudanese revolutionary forces had begun to envisage and practically work towards building a new system aimed at creating meaningful political change toward democracy. 

This political project, as envisioned by Sudan’s revolutionary forces, had different manifestations throughout the Transition period. One of the strongest forms it adopted was the development of the political charters of the Resistance Committees.

The political vision of Sudan’s revolutionary forces was clear from the outset, manifesting itself in different ways and acts. During the protests—and despite the efforts of Bashir’s regime to recast them as legal partners of the military—it is significant that the protestors, consciously, never referred to the RSF in their slogans except as the “Janjaweed,” thwarting the calculated objectives of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Hemedti), the paramilitary group’s leader, who had spent a lot of money and engaged in much PR to reinvent himself and his forces. 

Even before their October 25, 2021 coup, disagreements over the Framework Agreement, clash over the integration of the RSF into the army, and issues of military “command and control,” the army chief and the RSF leader never trusted one another. Theirs was a relationship founded on interconnected political and financial interests, shared fears, opportunism, and exploiting one another’s strengths and advantages. 

Amid this, they were practicing a soft rivalry, not always visible, which took different forms. Both were quietly building their political capital inside the country. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the SAF, tried to secure a stronger social base within the army not confined to the former regime elements and Islamists. At the same time, Hemedti sought to buy his support from civilian and professional groups. The two had their eyes on the presidential elections that were supposed to follow the Transition period. Their competition also expressed itself in their foreign relations and engagements. Both men, for instance, tried to maintain ties with the Israeli government. 

The nature of this simmering rivalry was highly underestimated by many Sudanese political elites and most of the International Community. Members of the Western International Community who engaged with Sudan during most of the Transition were predominantly focused on saving the power-sharing formula between the civilians and the military. Meanwhile, they failed to correctly assess the undercurrents between the two men and their military establishments until it was too late. “Hemedti used to talk about Burhan in a very derogatory manner within his circles,” a source close to the military said. 

More importantly, many of the middle and lower ranks of the army principally have never been happy with the RSF since its formation. Then, since the Transition, the Sudanese Army’s top leadership had been growing steadily, exasperated with Hemeti’s efforts to consolidate his political and economic status and expand his foreign relations. 

But more important than the development of the association of the two men are the structural factors related to the historical role of the military establishment in Sudan’s political and economic system, the constitution of the country’s political elite, the nature of this elite’s relations with the military, and their conceptualizations of power. 

Different recruitment and mobilization patterns became apparent after the April 15 conflict erupted between the two military institutions. Since the beginning of the war, several local communities and social groups have voluntarily joined each side. “Almost all the men in my family and village have joined the fight with Hemedti. My cousins have stopped talking to me and cut me off because I have not gone to the battle,” says Mohamed, a sixteen-year-old from West Sudan. 

Aside from these self-motivated actions, citizen mass mobilization has been taking place. Sources also said that some of the non-Arab tribes in Darfur are being trained after the terrible atrocities and ethnically-based mass attacks committed by the RSF there. 

However, after the RSF stormed the city of Madani (southeast of the capital Khartoum) unchallenged and indulged in their usual course of killing, raping, torture, looting, and destruction of civilian infrastructure, sharper calls for mobilization have been set in motion. Acting Governors and senior officials in different states and cities (e.g., River Nile State, Merowe in the Northern State, Gadarif in the East) have declared their readiness to support SAF through the states’ civilian volunteers.

At the same time, sources say that former regime elements and Islamists have been extensively mobilizing their own membership to fight against the RSF. “They are feeling a serious existential threat and are convinced that the RSF represents the strongest danger to their presence within the Sudanese state,” emphasized a source familiar with the matter.

It is important to remember here that the previous regime had established and militarily trained a number of Sudanese civilians for years under different titles, such as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF). These individuals still exist, are trained to wield firearms, and have previous fighting experience since they fought with the army in the South Sudan War. 

Some of the language used in this mobilization process and fighting is already framed in strong religious terms. History shows in Sudan and the region how religious agendas often attach themselves to local and regional issues and how, when this happens, the nature and purpose of political battles change. 

At the same time, the constant intake of many recruits from different social groups and communities is creating problems of organizational capacity and internal control for the RSF leadership. Those joining have their own agendas and interests.

From the other side, following its control of Madani, the RSF could advance to other regions in the country, mainly to strengthen its negotiation position in any future talks.

However, even though the militia leader is interested in progressing to East Sudan, for example, the move is beset with many challenges. “It’s not an easy task—militarily. Moving from one battle to the other requires a lot of preparation—in information, supplies, and logistics. You also must be certain that the back of your forces is secured,” one source said.

“So it might be difficult at the moment for the RSF to wage a major battle that strategically changes the military situation inside cities like Port Sudan, but they could use military tactics to destabilize the area—for example, by using pockets of their forces,” added a source. However, this is still feasible. 

Still, in the Red Sea State, the Acting Governor checked military locations and outposts. He stressed in statements that “Sudan will not be attacked through the Red Sea State,” emphasizing that the Security Plan is that all “entries and exits to the state are to be closed.”

At another level, acutely aware of the damage to their image due to the RSF’s unobstructed control of Madani, SAF rushed to design a coordinated media campaign to address both narratives of “betrayal” or “inefficiency” within its ranks. Messages by senior army members and its controlled media warn against “the enemies driving a wedge between the people and the army.”

At the same time, there are a number of reports accusing SAF and its Military Intelligence apparatus of arresting or killing individuals “based on ethnicity” in areas under its control, accusing them of being RSF “sleeper agents.” Moreover, military intelligence arrested some Sudanese civil society activists doing volunteer humanitarian work.