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Inside Burhan's quest for international legitimacy in Sudan

Inside Burhan's quest for international legitimacy in Sudan
9 min read
02 October, 2023
In-depth: In recent weeks, Sudan's army leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has engaged in intense diplomatic activity, while his rival leading the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has been unable to keep pace.

Last August, after being holed up for over four months in the army HQ in Khartoum, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, surprised many with a daring operation that saw him move to an airbase 20 kilometres away.

From there, Burhan went on to Port Sudan, the army-controlled Red Sea city that has become a temporary administrative capital of sorts since the outbreak of the war between the SAF and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in mid-April.

Burhan’s unexpected, and successful, manoeuvre quickly sparked much speculation as to whether it presented proof that he retains more control over Khartoum than is perceived, or, rather, was a desperate move by someone aware that he will not hold his ground much longer.

Yet Burhan was quick to make it clear that one of the main reasons for his move had less to do with the frontlines than with the diplomatic front, and within days he embarked on a series of trips abroad in search of legitimacy and support – with an as yet unclear outcome.

“Burhan and [RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo] are both fighting a war to gain legitimacy as credible leaders of Sudan. And this is very important in this war,” Kholood Khair, founding director of the think tank Confluence Advisory in Khartoum, told The New Arab.

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Regional tour

On his first official trip abroad Burhan flew to Egypt, which is a major backer of the SAF, and met with President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who only weeks earlier had put forward an initiative of his own - that failed to gain traction - to address the Sudanese crisis.

During his visit to Alamein, Burhan blamed the RSF for the war and claimed that the army remains committed to a political transition, despite having led a coup in October 2021 against a transitional civilian-military government.

In a nod to his Egyptian allies, Burhan also denied paving the way for the return to power of Islamist cadres in the orbit of the regime of former president Omar Al Bashir, deposed in 2019, even if they have moved closer since the coup to broaden their base of support.

After Egypt, Burhan set course in early and mid-September for South Sudan and Eritrea, where he tried to build bridges with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, one of the most powerful armed rebel movements in Sudan.

Since the beginning of the war, the SPLM-N led by al-Hilu has launched attacks on SAF positions in South Kordofan, allegedly to better protect civilians from possible future RSF attacks and to strengthen its position ahead of any eventual negotiations with Khartoum.

In Juba, Burhan discussed the issue with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who in the past has mediated between the two, and some unconfirmed reports claimed that the SAF leader met Al Hilu while there.

Burhan reportedly held talks with him again days later in Asmara, where he also met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, who was hosting a parallel meeting between several other Sudanese armed groups.

In mid-September, Burhan visited Uganda, which in July had hosted a delegation from the Forces for Freedom and Change, the civilian coalition that led, with the army, the transition that ended with the 2021 coup. Burhan met with President Yoweri Museveni, and one of the topics expected to be on the table was regional disputed mediation efforts in Sudan.

In recent weeks, Burhan has been highly critical of the initiative led by four members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to find a way out of the crisis, accusing Kenya, which holds the group’s chairmanship, of being too close to the RSF.

Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council and Sudan's army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in El Alamein, Egypt on 29 August 2023. [Getty]

Burhan has also criticised the African Union’s (AU) roadmap, blaming it for suspending Khartoum’s membership over the 2021 coup and for validating the RSF as an interlocutor.

Another thorny issue to deal with while in Kampala was the rumoured supply lines of the RSF.

“The most important [trip] was Uganda, because there is a belief that there are arms being shipped [for the RSF] from the Emirates via Uganda to Chad and into Sudan,” Jihad Mashamoun, a researcher and analyst on Sudanese affairs, told The New Arab.

More political in nature were Burhan’s trips to Qatar and Turkey during the first half of September. In Doha, he was given a red carpet welcome and received by the Emir Tamim ben Hamad Al Thani, but he could not extract more than a statement calling for dialogue.

In Ankara, he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yet few details were released.

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“Qatar and Turkey share military interests in Sudan. They have intertwined interests, [including] investments in one of Sudan’s military companies,” Mashamoun noted.

Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst on Sudan and now an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, however, that the most telling aspect of Burhan’s diplomatic trips may be the countries he has not visited.

“I would say that the countries that he hasn’t visited are more important: he has not visited Saudi Arabia nor the UAE,” Hudson.

“These are the two countries he has been rumoured to be travelling to [but] he has not yet travelled, and I think it’s far more significant that he hasn’t been there yet,” he told TNA.

UN podium

Following his regional tour, Burhan flew to New York at the end of September to attend the UN General Assembly. During his address, he called on the international community to declare the RSF a terrorist organisation, in an attempt to limit its power and undermine its legitimacy. He also stated that the paramilitary group is a threat to regional security.

Burhan’s trip to New York came weeks after the United States imposed sanctions on prominent members of the RSF for their crimes in Darfur. These included visa restrictions on their commander in West Darfur, Abdul Rahman Juma, and sanctions on commander Abdelrahim Hamdan Dagalo, brother of the RSF’s leader, also known as Hemedti.

“This doesn’t help Hemedti [in] the narrative that they are a legitimate entity. And both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have written reports about crimes committed by the RSF in West Darfur, which doesn’t help [their] image,” Khair told TNA.

Washington has also sanctioned four companies linked to the RSF, two to the SAF, and an Islamist former minister of the Bashir era seen as close to the military.

While in New York, Burhan held brief meetings with other international leaders relevant to Sudan’s interests such as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the President of neighbouring CAR Faustin-Archange Touadéra and members of the Saudi delegation.

Hemedti has controlled the Rapid Support Forces since 2013. [Getty]

To avoid being completely side-lined in the face of Burhan’s hectic diplomatic activity, RSF leader Dagalo released a video on social media, coinciding with the former’s appearance before the UNGA, dramatising his address to the international community.

In the video, Dagalo said he is ready to declare a ceasefire in the country and start political negotiations with the army. Yet so far both sides have systematically violated all the truces they have announced since the beginning of hostilities.

One of the main surprises left by Burhan’s trip to New York was his unscheduled meeting at an Irish transit airport with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after the UNGA.

In a message on X, the former Twitter, the Ukrainian leader said he was “grateful” for “Sudan’s consistent support” for his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and stated that he had discussed with Burhan common security challenges, including the activities of Moscow-funded armed groups, in a veiled allusion to the Wagner Group.

“Zelensky gave him good PR, [as] Burhan is looking for international recognition, especially from the West,” Mashamoun said.

The unexpected meeting between Zelensky and Burhan came just three days after CNN published an article suggesting that Ukrainian special services were likely behind a series of recent drone strikes and ground operations against the RSF near Khartoum.

The information, however, is based on anonymous sources and has not been confirmed. The Wagner group is known to have been operating in Sudan for years, but its presence in the country is rather limited and the scope of its current ties with the RSF is unclear.

Quest for legitimacy

One of the main political goals that many analysts believe Burhan was pursuing with his recent regional tour and appearance before the UNGA was to project an image of a statesmanlike leader and try to bolster his position of power in Sudan.

“[Burhan really wanted to] demonstrate the difference between him and [Dagalo]. He is trying to look and act like a statesman, he is trying to give an image of not just a general and belligerent but of someone capable of leading Sudan out this conflict,” Hudson said.

Similarly, the SAF leader was seen as seeking to gain political and institutional legitimacy over his rival Dagalo, framing the war in Sudan as a conflict between the state, embodied by his figure at the helm of the army, and a paramilitary group.

This narrative, however, overlooks the complex and entangled historical relationship between the two actors.

“Burhan is very upset that the SAF is compared to the RSF. He is very upset that some people in the international community equates the two and see both in the same way, as illegitimate and as responsible for the war. Through these trips, he is trying to show that that comparison is not correct,” Hudson noted.

In this context, Dagalo has been unable to keep pace with Burhan, rival his diplomatic activity, or project an external image similar to that of the SAF commander, just as he did during the period between the coup they both staged in 2021and the onset of the war.

The RSF enjoys varying but close ties with the UAE and Russia and is thought to receive support from groups in eastern Libya, CAR, and Chad. The extent to which some of these relationships have evolved since the beginning of the war is unclear.

“Both Burhan and Hemedti want to be seen as legitimate leaders, and they both want to win the war militarily as well as politically,” Khair said.

“What is happening now is that the RSF are taking territory, and they think they are winning as they are quite militarily dominant. But politically they are losing the narrative,” she added.

“The SAF has the opposite problem: militarily [it] is very weak, but politically, it has been able to get a lot of support,” Khair concluded.

Marc Español is a Catalan journalist based in Cairo.

Follow him on Twitter: @mespanolescofet