Sudan’s Spate of Disorder


By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Photo Source: Arab News

During mid-April 2023, there was renewed tension among power brokers in Sudan, namely General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto leader and head of Sudanese Armed Forces and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This division between armed men in uniform has led to the latest delays in moving Sudan forward. Since then, horrendous human rights violations have become rampant as low-flying aeroplanes attack the ground. To add more chaos, United Nations and NGO compounds have been looted across the African nation.

According to Justin Lynch’s Oped in Foreign Affairs, Sudan is facing a state of collapse similar to Yemen. As the Sudanese Armed Forces had launched an intense bombing campaign in Khartoum, it reflects that the air force in Sudan has been a decisive element in Sudan’s wars, especially beginning in 2003, when the SAF and the precursor to the RSF, the janjaweed, fought on the same side during the war in Darfur.

This civil war also has the potential to suck the entire region and some global powers, as there are already reports of tribal mobilisation along the border of Chad and Sudan, the traditional homeland of Hemedti.

As per Sudan’s foreign policy under Hemedti, the UAE has been its key ally during the former’s war in Libya and Yemen. The UAE also benefits from financial ties to Hemedti’s businesses and is a crucial arms supplier to Rapid Support Forces. The only powers with limited ability to shape peace in Sudan are the United States and its Western allies. For a try, they have been insisting on a security sector reform. To prevent state disintegration in Sudan, the US government is working with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, but these US allies are on opposing sides in Sudan.

The tensions around the reform of the security services come as no surprise. Both the military and the Rapid Security Forces wish to keep as much power as possible, to escape accountability for their economic activity and to ensure impunity against crimes committed against Sudanese civilians. Both of them also want access to Sudan’s rich gold reserves. 

Sudan’s lucrative gold mines are allegedly controlled by Hemedti’s men. Besides the Sudanese government, the group also provides gold to the governments of neighbouring countries. Gold mines are the main source of income for Sudan, which is experiencing an economic crisis. That’s why, indiscriminate mining in gold mines has been carried out. It has resulted in frequent accidents in the mines and a large number of people have died in them so far. Also, mercury and arsenic exposure during the gold extraction process has led to outbreaks of disease in the villages surrounding the mines. While many gold mines were captured at gunpoint, Hemedti’s men controlled many mines. Due to these gold reserves, the Rapid Support Forces are not short of money.

Observers and diplomats alike have used this moment of conflict to reframe the popular narrative around what qualifies as realpolitik for the military in Sudan. It’s also understandable to be frustrated by the fact that civilian leaders involved in negotiations don’t speak for the primacy of the pro-democracy forces in Sudan.

For watchers, it is not clear if the US or Western governments could have prevented the 2021 coup against Hamdok. The transitional constitution that was backed by the United States seemed like a bad choice. After that, the ensuing US and Western policies in Sudan directly contributed to the violence on the streets, renewed in April 2023. It shows the failures of Western peacebuilding.

Sudan’s contemporary history has been boiled down to bedlams. After Omar al Bashir, a dictator accused of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, was toppled in April 2019, it paved the way for Hamdok, a civilian prime minister, to run Sudan for over two years. But another coup halted a democratic transition once again.

As per Mai Hassan, an associate professor of political science, Sudan's political characteristics are a result of coup-proofing. It is called a coup-civil-war-trap which means creating rival centres of power for creating an internal security apparatus.
Back in the early 2000s, around the war in Darfur, Bashir decided to rely on janjaweed or Arab militias to engage in scorched-earth tactics and genocide. After that, he incorporated some of these janjaweed militias into an official paramilitary of the Sudanese state and allowed them to grow. He allowed them to enrich themselves and passed a parliament decree allowing the Rapid Support Forces, the successors to the janjaweed, to be on an equal institutional footing as the Sudanese Army Forces. In 2013, the janjaweed were incorporated as the Rapid Support Forces, which began to be brought into the Sudanese state. By 2017, through an act of a parliament decree, the leader of the RSF responded directly to the head of state. Bashir did this to coup-proof, to ensure that if the Sudanese Armed Forces ever got too rebellious or too powerful, he would have a counterweight in RSF. Due to this stance taken by Bashir, both RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces regarded Bashir as untenable for not securing the political and economic interests of both factions. That’s why both parties joined with the civilian bodies and ousted Bashir. Burhan, who’s in charge of the Sudanese Armed Forces, was the leader of the transition. These indifferences between them mobilised Sudanese on the streets time and again.

During their uprising after Bashir’s ousting, several informal resistance committees, called neighbourhood resistance committees, were formed, which emerged organically to lead mobilisation as formal civil-society groups were repressed. Before, it was easy to find them, which made it easy for the power handlers in Sudan to infiltrate them. But many of these groups that emerged organically avoided verticality, for having a leader, a vice-leader and all that. These groups were much more horizontal, which was great for mobilisation.

With Hamdok in power, he tried to engage in civil service reform. He had an asset-recovery program to try to reclaim assets that the Islamists had taken from the state. But it wasn’t strong enough to find ground.

As Hemedti went live on television in August 2022, he realised the coup was a mistake. Many people were then rumoured to be saying that Hemedti realised that Burhan was being run by the Islamists and that the Islamists didn’t want Hemedti in power. It resulted in a growing tension between them.

Islamists have had a growing presence in Sudan. The Islamist movement in Sudan grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood through National Islamic Front. Bashir’s party, the National Congress Party, embodies it in a way. And, in October 2021, when Burhan and Hemedti no longer had shared interests, the civilian forces were out, Bashir was out, and the split between them started to emerge.

Also, not only the Sudanese Armed Forces, even the city forces look down upon RSF. As many top Sudanese Armed Forces leaders went to war colleges in Egypt, they consider themselves highly professional.

For both leaders, there is a lot of ethnic support as well, which is another reason that divides Sudan. Both of them are riverine Arabs. Hemedti comes from the Darfur area and has lots of co-ethnic support in the west of Darfur. As per Isaac Chotiner’s Oped in The New Yorker, if anyone goes by the opinion of myriad ethnic groups together for having to choose between these two belligerents for ethnic reasons, they might support Hemedti. It is because the Sudanese Armed Forces under Burhan could probably do a better job of ensuring that democracy doesn’t come, which is also like securing Egypt’s real interests.


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