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The deadly power struggle between Sudan's rival generals

The deadly power struggle between Sudan's rival generals
6 min read
17 April, 2023
Analysis: A simmering rivalry between the army and the Rapid Support Forces over the balance of power in Sudan has erupted in deadly fighting, with the country's future at stake.

Sudan woke up on 15 April to violent clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), with more than 100 people killed so far after three days of fighting.

The battle for control of the country centres around a struggle between the army, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

So far, both men have refused to negotiate or halt the fighting, and each has declared their military advantage over the other concerning key strategic areas and institutions.

In the months preceding the sudden outbreak of violence, negotiations had been taking place to continue the democratic transition halted by a military coup in October 2021, in which the RSF was also involved.

But a deal to end the crisis in December 2022 and establish a civilian-led transitional government had left many of the most difficult political, security, and military issues unresolved.

Integrating the RSF into the army

The process of integrating the RSF into Sudan’s military has proved a central point of contention during the negotiations.

The RSF are a paramilitary group of around 100,000 fighters that evolved from the Janjaweed militias formed by former president Omar al-Bashir to brutally quell rebellions in Darfur and southern regions in the 2000s, leading to accusations of war crimes and genocide.

Disputes over their integration into the army revolve around how long the process would take and who would ultimately have control over the RSF’s weapons and fighters.

“Integration is the main reason for the disagreement,” Dr Muhammad Khalifa al-Siddiq, a professor of political science at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, told The New Arab.

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According to the professor, while the RSF says that this process could take at least 10 years the army wants it to take place within little more than a year.

In order to find a compromise between the two parties, Volker Perthes, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) for Sudan, has suggested that integration takes place within five years, a proposal rejected by both al-Burhan and Hemedti.

The Framework Agreement signed last year stipulates handing over transitional authority to a civilian government, distancing the army from engaging in politics or the economy, and a security reform plan to integrate the RSF and other signatory armed groups into a single, professionalised military.

The signing of the final political agreement on 6 April was postponed due to disagreements between the army and the RSF over reforming the security and military sectors.

Smoke rises as clashes continue in the Sudanese capital on 17 April 2023 between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). [Getty]

Sudan's army and the RSF: Conflicting visions on reforms

Longstanding tensions between the powerful military blocs emerged again last month during a security and military workshop in Khartoum.

“The RSF presented its vision for security and military reform in Sudan and said that the Sudanese army is not a national army, and that it lacks professionalism,” Dr Imad Eddin Bahr El-Din, a Sudanese researcher specialising in security and strategic affairs, told The New Arab.

The RSF described the military as an “army composed of a specific militia belonging to certain tribes, suggesting that the foundations for appointment to the Military College should be re-established and should not be based on recommendation,” he added.

In turn, the army issued several recommendations, "which included the dismissal of any officer who joined the RSF after the fall of the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir, and the integration of the RSF into the military establishment," El-Din added.

The ‘Security and Military Reform Workshop’ ended on 30 March without reaching any final recommendations, with both al-Burhan and Hemedti absent from the closing session, reflecting their deepening disagreements.

"The recent political settlement, represented in the framework agreement, widened the rift between the military component on the one hand, and civilian forces, and unleashed a fierce struggle for power between these parties," Abbas Mohamed Salih, a Sudanese researcher in African affairs, told The New Arab.

While the Sudanese army is insisting on integrating all paramilitary forces and militias into the military, specifically the integration of the RSF within two years, the RSF is attempting to ally with civilian groups and extend the integration process to 10 years.

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Salih adds that issues of control and chain of command represent the key disagreements between the two parties.

While “the armed forces propose that all armed groups be subject to the Joint Chiefs of Staff […] the RSF adhere to their subordination to a civilian prime minister, which means their continuation as a military and political entity independent of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces".

The RSF’s demand for a longer integration period is in part linked to Hemedti’s desire to be part of Sudanese politics after the transitional period.

This will only happen if the RSF remain an armed formation outside the army system, enjoying complete independence in arming, leadership, movement, deployment, and financing.

Sudan's protest leader Ahmad Rabie (2nd-R), flashes the victory gesture alongside General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C), the chief of Sudan's ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), during a ceremony to pave the way for a transition to civilian rule on 17 August 2019, accompanied by General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo 'Hemedti'. [Getty]

How did we get here?

The dispute between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the RSF translated into a state of escalating tension in the country prior to fighting at the weekend, as the RSF began mobilising forces from outside Khartoum, such as those from Darfur, while also moving their forces towards the Marawi region north of the capital.

“All of this was mostly in order to put pressure on the armed forces to accept the RSF’s vision of the issue of integration,” Dr al-Siddiq told TNA.

The RSF had likely planned to take control of the capital hoping to find international and regional support, Dr al-Siddiq said.

“If it succeeds, the commander of the RSF will become the head of the state, as well as reaching an agreement on the form of government and the lists of people who will be arrested and kept in custody.”

The army, al-Siddiq believes, became aware of this plan and found it an appropriate opportunity to strike at the RSF, whose size and role within Sudanese politics have significantly increased in recent years.

With insurmountable differences on how integration should proceed, Sudan’s military may have decided to resolve the issue once and for all by attempting to dismantle the RSF, al-Siddiq added.

This would involve stripping all soldiers and officers of their rank and the army seizing control of the RSF’s headquarters, weapons, and equipment.

With no signs of compromise by either al-Burhan or Hemedti, the prospects for a ceasefire remain slim, despite calls for an end to hostilities by international and regional actors.

If such pressure fails, there are fears that fighting could become more intense and prolonged, drawing Sudan into a protracted conflict that would make negotiations virtually impossible to return to.

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli