Sudan is trapped in feuding army generals: What are the possible ways out?

The shadow of Bashir in Sudan’s violent military confrontation

Sudan’s military confrontations that broke out on 15 April 2023 has claimed over a thousand lives and displaced about a million people. The extent of violations of human rights and the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) has yet to be determined as full records are yet to emerge. Talks jointly led by the US and Saudi Arabia are underway in Jeddah characterised by signing and violations of ceasefires. It is feared that the humanitarian crisis could soon reach the “breaking point” with the UN suggesting that “more than half Sudan’s population need aid.” The situation may escalate if coordinated drastic measures are not taken urgently.

Whilst it is, arguably, simplistic to reduce Sudan’s crisis to a “fight between the generals” at its centre are two feuding military strongmen (Abdel-Fattah Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo commonly known as Hemedti). Leading the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), respectively, Burhan and Hemedti have been comrades at arms for years. Markedly, they “played key roles” in the Darfur crisis in 2003 in which saw Bashir become the first ever sitting President to be indicated by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. His arrest warrants were issued on 04 March 2009 and 12 July 2010. The role of Burhan and Hemedti – as is with other of Sudan’s fragmented military strongmen – in the crimes that Bashir is accused of committing is perhaps understated. Another important issue that remains to be fully interrogated is whether Bashir set up his country for failure in a foreseeable future when he would be pushed out of power. These issues remain open and subject to further critical interrogation amid the ongoing crisis.


The story of RSF: From Bashir’s ‘useful’ militia to a national security threat

Since the violence broke out various commentators have provided great analyses of the situation, including how Sudan got here and who the two feuding generals are. For example, experts from Crisis Group provide a detailed background analysis of how Sudan got into this crisis. Beyond the intra-Sudan wrangling, there are concerns over how “too many competing interests and too many claims” from external players may have contributed to the implosion of the fragile balance in Sudan since 2019 that could not hold any longer.

Burgeoning resources notwithstanding a question on the identity of Hemedti and his RSF lingers on especially among people with little knowledge on Sudan’s interwoven political, military and economic crises. To understand Hemedti, and the RSF generally, it is important to revisit the complex story of how Bashir structured and managed Sudan’s armed forces. In a podcast by Crisis Group, Murithi Mutiga provides a concise explanation as to the nature of armed forces that there are in Sudan. Touching on several pertinent issues, Mutiga argues that fragmentations in Sudan’s armed forces are part of Bashir’s historical designs.

Hemedti’s RSF is, therefore, part of how Bashir fomented military fragmentation for his political survival. Craze delineates Bashir’s elaborate plan from how he seized power in 1989 to how he forged an enduring form of rule amid bloody conflicts. Craze observes that “rather than providing services in the peripheries, he used militias to wage a counterinsurgency on the cheap, setting Sudan’s many ethnic groups against each other.” According to Craze, Bashir went on to “privatize the state, carving it up into fiefdoms ruled by his security services, which he multiplied and fragmented in order to coup-proof his regime.” Indeed, RSF is a product of the way Bashir organised and ruled Sudan’s historically troubled margins. For instance, as Craze further recounts, “Bashir made a Faustian pact with Sudan’s cities: accept terror in the country’s margins in exchange for cheap commodities and subsidies for fuel and wheat, whose import required foreign currency obtained from the sale of resources produced in the peripheries.” To make the matters worse, Bashir established and sustained a system whereby “each of these forces built up its own economic empire.”

In 2003, Bashir founded a militia formed of Darfur’s Arabs to battle non-Arab rebels that were waging armed conflicts against his government from the margins. The militia was nicknamed the ‘Janjaweed’ (the evil horsemen). With Bashir’s continued support, the Janjaweed was to evolve into a force to reckon with. In its vicious and lethal campaign against rebels and civilians in Darfur, the Janjaweed enjoyed support from Bashir’s regime. This was a lifeline for Hemedti, and his ilk. Hemedti’s RFS took advantage of the enabling conditions established and sustained by Bashir to grow in number and strength.

Hemedti rose through the ranks of Darfur’s Janjaweed and went on to lead Bashir’s private militia. He had been working with Bashir until 2019’s popular uprising when he joined Burhan in deposing his former boss and hence party to a miliary power grab that threw the people’s quest for a democratic transition into jeopardy.


The feuding generals defiled a people-led revolution

The two generals shamelessly hijacked a people-led revolution which, among others, involved resistance committees, and subverted the will of the people through a rather shrewd and choreographed scheme that saw the military come into a strange coalition with a civilian Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdock. Expectedly, the coalition did not last long. On the 25th October 2021 Sudan’s feuding generals staged a coup against the civilian faction of the coalition effectively overthrowing Hamdock and illegitimacy assuming full leadership of the country much to public uproar and international condemnations. Following the said coup, the country embarked on what Pospisil describes as “simultaneous peace and democratic transition processes, whereby the latter has been halted by the military coup.” The current fighting between the two feuding generals is, therefore, only another turn in the continuum of Sudan’s unhygienic violent power grabs that stretch many decades back.

The defilement of a people’s revolution took place in 2019 when the military hijacked a popular uprising which, among others, was led by resistance committees and groups of young people, against Bashir’s long violent rule. In a way that evokes memories of Zimbabwe’s peculiar coup, the Sudan’s fragmented military pretentiously sided with the people’s revolution negotiating its way into the very heart of the country’s political power. The military earnestly side-lined, consistently undermined and eventually overthrew the resistance committees and other civilian actors within the fledgling transitional government, led by Hamdock. As Posipsil recounts, the people of Sudan protested attempts by the feuding generals to assume political authority and “the coup confirmed long-held assumptions among many in the civilian opposition that did not trust the Sudanese Armed Forces to relinquish their political role; particularly in light of business interests and possible legal issues of prominent figures due to their role in the Bashir years.” In the end, the people’s revolution in Sudan was defiled.

As a result, feuding generals in Sudan’s fragmented miliary factions have effectively brought the country’s political transition to a violent halt. Noteworthy is that the current violent confrontations occur at the confluence of political, security and economic crises that are historical, deep and complex. Faced with a real possibility of an existentially threatening protracted military confrontation, the most urgent and pressing question is how Sudan can pull out of this crisis and retrace its path to a meaningful political transition.


Where now from here?

First and foremost, indeed urgent, is putting in place measures that ensure respect for human rights and upholding of IHL in their breadths, including creating and respecting humanitarian corridors and refraining from targeting civilians. Actors with leverage over the warring factions are known. For example, as Chome, rightly, points out that “in the ongoing conflict in Sudan, Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to hold the most leverage over the feuding generals, alongside Washington and London – the so-called Quad.” These actors must effectively use strategic pressure and coercive diplomacy, including being assertive about the individual responsibility for military commanders who fail to respect human rights and uphold IHL in the ongoing conflict. Other actors, like human rights organisations must begin, in earnest, documenting violations of human rights and IHL in view of holding those responsible to account.

The kind of arrangement whereby the so called ‘military component’ took part in Sudan’s political leadership ought not to have happened. Therefore, a conversation on the possible ways out of the current crisis should, at a minimum, involve a deliberate and courageous revisiting of an incident in Sudan’s history when the feuding generals hijacked the people’s revolution and set-up the country for failure. Undoubtedly, pressure is necessary yet involved actors need to be thoroughly pragmatic and attentive to contextual dynamics. Whilst it must be made clear that war crimes will not go unpunished, a pragmatic response to the crisis calls for the need to incentivise the feuding generals in the ongoing efforts to broker a truce and subsequently revert to a transition process. Indeed, as Mutiga observes, devising a way to accommodate Hemedti, for example, is going to be a necessary compromise. However, his accommodation must be pegged on a condition that he confines his RSF to a restructured military whose reforms must commence in earnest.

Ongoing efforts to broker a truce and any peace talks must reflect the aspiration of a stable and democratic Sudan that its public dared to visualise and to which a majority are not prepared to give up yet. To achieve this, Sudan’s transitional council should be free from military elements. Meaning the civilians must take the lead in the prospective peace talks and should lead the eventual political transition. The infighting of the civilian coalition witnessed in the past must end. This paves way for a unified and well-purposed civilian transitional council. Revamping of the transitional council should leverage on efforts by resistance committees, women and youth movements, among others, to steer the process that culminates in a return to civilian rule under a revamped military-free transitional council. To avoid mistakes of the past, the transitional council must be supported with resources sufficient and widespread enough to stabilise the economy as one of the ways to gaining the much-needed public support and augmenting legitimacy during the transition and beyond.

Lastly, Sudan is one case where the international community has a real opportunity to play an important role in ending the crisis and getting the country back on the path of transition. The usual wrangling at the UN Security Council over what exact action should be taken and how to go about it notwithstanding, there seems to be a broad consensus on the need to prevent the crisis from further escalation. There seems to be so many players from around the globe who genuinely wish to see stability in Sudan if for their own interests. In view of this, all the players interested in Sudan’s stability should forge an alliance based on convergence of interests for the good of the people of Sudan. It is vital to take advantage of various niches that arise from individuals and entities that have leverage over Sudan’s feuding generals and other political players. For example, whilst the US may have higher military leverage, Gulf nations and China may have greater economic leverage and South Sudan may have higher cultural leverage in Sudan. If carefully channelled into a creative and well-coordinated polycentric approach, these niches, usual frictions notwithstanding, may result in better outcomes for Sudan.




Ibrahim Sakawa Magara is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the PeaceRep programme, based at at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR).

Learn more about PeaceRep’s Sudan research