In a striking peculiarity, Sudan remains the sole nation in the world to harbor two national armies. Further complexities arise from a plethora of auxiliary militant factions. With a turbulent history marked by more military coups since independence than any other African state, Sudan now faces an alarming threat. Recent internal strife amongst the armed forces, culminating in intense skirmishes in Khartoum and beyond, goes far beyond a mere coup—it portends a potential descent into civil war, having already claimed the lives of scores of civilians.
The multifaceted Sudanese armed forces, led by army chief and President Abdul Fattah Burhan, comprise various factions: the conventional regular army; the formidable Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), numbering 100,000-strong; the Janjaweed, a ruthless paramilitary unit hailing from western Darfur; and other allied militias operating under the national ensign. These forces also include erstwhile rebel movements and intelligence agencies.
These factions function semi-autonomously, deriving income through commercial ventures such as mining, import-export businesses, or soldier deployment in Yemen’s war. The power struggles arise from monetary interests and the lofty aspirations of their leaders, with alliances forming and dissipating with alarming fluidity.
Burhan and Hemedti, once compatriots in the Darfur conflict in the early 2000s, served under the aegis of then-President Omar al-Bashir. Labeled a genocide by the United States, this Arab-against-African Darfuri war was fought under the patronage of Bashir, who established a kaleidoscopic military apparatus. His forces included the regular army, People’s Armed Forces, intelligence agencies, and a host of militias, all vying for resources while wielding formidable military weaponry. This divide-and-rule strategy ensured Bashir’s safety from military coups for three decades, with Hemedti’s RSF initially intended as his personal bodyguard.
In a dramatic turn of face, both Burhan and Hemedti ousted Bashir during the 2019 popular uprising. However, their allegiance shifted once more as they targeted civilian protesters, culminating in the deaths of dozens. Following the overthrow of the hybrid military-civilian transitional government in 2021, Hemedti distanced himself from Burhan, ultimately renouncing the coup as ill-advised. With the eruption of hostilities between Burhan and Hemedti’s forces on Saturday, the former declared the latter a criminal, while the latter vowed to eradicate Hemedti’s forces once and for all.
The decisive schism between the two military generals transpired in recent days amidst discussions on a nascent transitional government involving both army leaders and a divided coalition of civilian factions. A central aspect of the impending accord involved incorporating the RSF into the regular army—until now, Hemedti’s forces have largely remained sequestered on their individual bases.
The dispute over this integration between Hemedti and Burhan brewed as their soldiers braced for conflict. Saturday morning’s skirmish, seemingly initiated by Burhan, targeted an RSF base within Khartoum’s Sport City district. Consequently, Burhan dispatched a portion of his air force from Khartoum to a base near Marowe, making it one of the RSF’s primary targets.
Hemedti had previously alluded to presidential aspirations, necessitating the neutralization of Burhan, resulting in military discord and the looming specter of civil war. Civilians, caught in the crossfire since Saturday, have been relegated to the periphery in this power struggle between the two generals.
Throughout Sudan’s history, the military has often governed at the expense of civilians in this vast, diverse nation. This pattern dates back prior to Sudan’s independence in 1956. In 1882, the Mahdi, an Islamic warlord, wrested control from a British-Turkish occupying force, only to have the British recapture the territory shortly after. Since then, political power has predominantly been concentrated in the military. The national army emerged as the sole unifying institution, with its presence in far-flung regions serving as the only indication of a coherent state.
Militias have long been an integral element in Sudan’s complex tapestry, deployed by Khartoum’s rulers to quell insurgencies in the country’s peripheries due to its vastness. Initiated by British colonizers and perpetuated by post-independence governments, this strategy wrought devastation in South Sudan, where millions perished at the hands of Arab militias and government soldiers. A similar scorched-earth policy was implemented in Darfur in 2002 and 2003, resulting in over 200,000 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands.