Sudan’s military rivals fight to the death over the spoils

Four years after Bashir was ousted, Sudan’s transition to civilian democracy is in peril.

The explosion of violence in Sudan this week has derailed the country’s troubled post-Omar al-Bashir transition from military rule to democratic civilian government, perhaps irretrievably.

The full-scale military warfare in the capital Khartoum and elsewhere between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) shows just how far the military will go to cling to power. The SAF is led by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti). Burhan is also head and Hemedti deputy of the Sovereign Council running the country. The RSF evolved out of the brutal Janjaweed militia that committed so many atrocities in Darfur.

If two generals are prepared to plunge their country into all-out warfare, regardless of civilian casualties, to keep the other one from sharing the spoils, what chance is there that either would really submit to civilian rule?

With SAF fighter aircraft bombing and strafing RSF positions in Khartoum and artillery thundering across the city, the death toll is reaching 300 mostly civilians, with over 3 000 wounded, according to the World Health Organization.

Tensions between Burhan and Hemedti had long been simmering. The fighting was seemingly precipitated by the political Framework Agreement (FA) signed by Burhan, Hemedti and pro-democracy elements led by the mainstream Forces of Freedom and Change on 5 December 2022. The United Nations (UN) and some supportive countries mediated. The agreement should have put back on track the transition to democratic civilian rule, which was derailed by Burhan and Hemedti’s joint 2021 military coup.

This month – the fourth anniversary of the popular uprising/military coup that ousted long-time president Bashir – the FA was supposed to usher in a transition to elections and a fully civilian democratic government in two years.

The full-scale military warfare shows just how far Sudan’s military will go to cling to power

Burhan and Hemedti signed the agreement but probably never intended to honour it – both only stood to lose power and the extensive business interests that went with it if a civilian government took control. The FA was vague about what should happen to the RSF in the transition, but Burhan evidently demanded it be absorbed into the SAF in two years. Hemedti insisted that could only happen in 10.

That apparently was the disagreement that sparked the clash between them on Saturday.

How did things go so wrong? Joshua Craze, writing in the New Left Review, partly blames the FA itself, which he said ‘had the rare distinction of being both extremely vague and entirely unrealistic.’

In September 2022, Sudan analyst Jonas Horner warned that mediators were placing too much emphasis on easing the tensions between the military and the civilian pro-democracy forces, and not enough on ‘the military-military dynamic between SAF and RSF.’ It was this dynamic ‘that touches on existential questions that is most consequential in real terms,’ Horner said, presciently. Other commentators also warned of the rapidly rising tensions between Burhan and Hemedti.

In March, Volker Perthes, UN Special Representative in Sudan, told the UN Security Council he was ‘encouraged by how little substantive difference there remains among the main actors.’ But he was also ‘alarmed by rising tensions between the Sudanese army and the [RSF] in recent weeks.’ He was encouraged by Burhan and Hemedti’s decision to establish a joint security committee the week before and by ‘their agreement on fundamental aspects of security sector reform and integration.’ Despite this, things fell apart.

So where to from here? All the usual actors, including the African Union, Arab League and UN, have called on Burhan and Hemedti to lay down arms and talk. On Sunday, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development decided to send the presidents of Kenya, South Sudan and Djibouti to Khartoum to try to broker peace. However no one can get into or out of the country because of the fierce fighting, including attacks on Khartoum’s airport.

Tensions between Burhan and Hemedti have long been simmering

Perthes told journalists at the UN on Monday that he was in direct contact with both Burhan and Hemedti – and neither was interested in negotiations. Both had in fact issued dire threats to destroy each other. He couldn’t say which side had the upper hand in the fighting. Burhan has the advantage of commanding the aircraft of the air force, which he is using to strafe and bomb RSF positions. Some observers believe Hemedti has more boots on the ground in this fight, though the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates SAF strength at about 100 000 versus only 40 000 for the RSF.

With no ceasefire, the priority should be at least to prevent the warfare from spreading beyond a personal feud between two ambitious generals and their armies, to suck in other Sudanese forces – such as the country’s many ethnicities and militias. And also to avoid drawing in other countries.

Many countries have meddled in Sudan’s troubles. Egypt has taken Burhan’s side in his standoff with the civilian pro-democracy forces, probably to try to prevent a dangerous precedent of successful transition from military autocracy to civilian democracy. The RSF captured Egyptian military personnel and aircraft this week north of Khartoum, raising fears of an Egyptian retaliation – though that seems to have been defused by Hemedti promising to keep the Egyptian captives safe.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were meanwhile believed to be backing Hemedti before the latest upheaval. He helped them fight the Iran-backed Houthi in Yemen. Hemedti also had the backing of Eritrea. And Russia has been on Hemedti’s side, mainly through its Wagner private military company which has business interests in Sudan.

Horner suggests that because of these extensive Arab interests, a ceasefire would have to be driven by Arab powers. But he also says it’s worrying that those powers with the greatest weight, Egypt and the UAE, have empowered the SAF and RSF respectively. Perhaps US and other international pressure on the interested Arab powers is needed.

Can Sudan’s already turbulent – and uncertain – transition survive its toughest test so far?

The UN-led mediation can partly be blamed for failing to address the growing tensions between Burhan and Hemedti. But the huge eruption of warfare this week shows just how far both men would go to preserve their interests, raising doubts about whether the mediators could possibly have met their demands.

What would it have taken to pacify them – and what might it still take if a ceasefire can be agreed and negotiations take place?

As always when trying to winkle a stubborn military out of power, it would probably take a particular and judicious balance of carrots and sticks. Perhaps amnesty for the military and amnesty for violence against pro-democracy demonstrators over the past four years? Instead of insisting on accountability, as the FA demands? Or threats of even tougher accountability including for their current actions?

And would it even require the generals to be literally bought off by allowing them to keep some of their extensive business interests if they agreed to ride off into the sunset? Or rather should they and their backers – such as Wagner – be slapped with tougher sanctions?

Pragmatic questions must be asked if this battle doesn’t end in the total defeat of one side. And if Sudan’s already turbulent – and uncertain – transition is to survive its toughest test so far.

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: ©AFP

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