The violence that has gripped Sudan has left at least 413 dead and 3,551 injured, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday (21/04). Clashes between paramilitaries and government forces broke out in the streets of the capital, Khartoum, on April 16 and spread to other regions of the African country.
The fighting erupted after months of tensions between two rival military leaders. The Sudanese Armed Forces, under the command of General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, and paramilitary units of the Rapid Support Forces (FAR), headed by Sovereign Council Vice-President Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, exchanged accusations of provoking the conflict.
“Both military and FAR installations are in the middle of the city. So this power struggle is being waged here too, in residential neighborhoods, where people would normally go shopping or to school. Everywhere you hear the battles, and during the whole day”, tells the resident of the Sudanese capital and director of the office of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in Khartoum, Christine Roehrs.
Check out the main points to understand the conflict:
Who is Burhan?
General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan is the de facto leader of the African country. He became a household name in 2019 after the army overthrew longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir after months of mass protests.
A former Bashir ally and military commander who led criminal campaigns in the Darfur conflict (2003-2008), Burhan switched sides with the fall of the autocrat in 2019. He chaired the Transitional Military Council, a body created to oversee Sudan’s transition to the democratic regime, and became interim president of the country.
However, with the deadline to hand over power to civilian rulers looming, in October 2021, Burhan staged a coup, ousting civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and ending the democratic transition.
Since then, Burhan has tightened his grip on the country, despite ongoing protests and a December 2022 deal to pave the way for a civilian transitional government.
Who is Hemedti?
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, has enjoyed a strong position since Bashir took power. Coming from a family of camel herders far from the capital, he rose through the ranks to become leader of the notorious Yanyawid militia, which spawned the FAR and is accused of committing crimes against humanity during the Darfur conflict.
Conflict in Darfur erupted when local ethnic minority rebels launched an insurgency in 2003, citing oppression by the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. Up to 300,000 people are estimated to have been killed and 2.7 million driven from their homes in Darfur over the years, according to the UN.
The Yanyawid militia fought alongside Bashir’s forces against rebels in the conflict. Although he had no formal military training, Hemedti managed to gain a foothold in Bashir’s security machine. In 2013, he took over the leadership of the newly formed paramilitary group FAR, which emerged from Yanyawid.
Bashir often relied on the paramilitary group to quell the protests and discontent that led to his downfall. As the FAR grew and strengthened, concerns grew that the group was becoming more powerful than Sudan’s official security forces.
In 2017, the country passed a law that recognized the FAR as an independent security force.
Like Burhan, Hemedti moved to the winning side after Bashir’s fall. Reports of him speculating the role of president spread after he became the deputy leader of the Transitional Military Council.
In June 2019, a deadly crackdown on a protest camp in Khartoum left more than 100 dead. The action was attributed to the FAR. Despite this, Hemedti’s position only strengthened. His years at the head of the FAR also saw him amass allies in Russia and the Gulf, where the paramilitary group was sent to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Burhan relied on the FAR to quell the protests after the 2021 coup. The paramilitary leader, however, disappeared from the spotlight at the time, leaving Burhan to be the face of the coup. Hemedti was then appointed deputy head of the government’s Sovereign Council, effectively being Burhan’s number two.
How did the current conflict break out?
The current conflict was triggered by negotiations over a security sector reform. Since the military forces and civilian representatives signed a transition agreement in December, negotiations are underway to integrate the FAR into the Sudanese Army. This integration could mean the loss of influence of paramilitaries.
Analysts believe Hemedti, whose paramilitary group is estimated to number 100,000, would not be in favor of restructuring. In February, in a speech that called the coup a “mistake”, Hemedti described the action as the “gateway to the old regime”. The televised speech came amid rising tensions over military restructuring, which has derailed the return to civilian rule.
A week before the speech, Burhan said he would not tolerate the FAR operating independently, stressing the importance of merging the paramilitary group with the army. In response, Hemedti said that “representatives of the old regime” wanted to “cause a split” between the FAR and the armed forces.
According to Christine Roehrs of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in Khartoum, the alliance between the two rivals was never stable. “When they had common interests, they worked together, as in the joint coup against the then interim government, in October 2021. Now, however, interests diverge on future relations between the Army and militias, and the former partners have become opponents”, explains the specialist.
Despite the current open rivalry, the President of the Sudan and South Sudan Forum, Marina Peter, adds that Burhan and Hemedti remain mutually linked by the fear of being held accountable for their actions. “Both have a military background, both are Bashir’s adopted sons, albeit in different ways.”
Peter points out that much of civil society holds the two accountable for the violations committed: “Hemedti for the crimes committed in Darfur, and Burhan for those committed during the 2019 uprising against Bashir. Both are afraid of that.”
Postponement of the democratic transition
The signing of an agreement to name a civilian government was scheduled for early April but was indefinitely postponed at the last minute. The deal was seen as vital to allow elections that would bring civilian leadership back in command after years of turmoil.
In mid-April, days before the outbreak of conflict, the Sudanese army had warned that the country was going through a “dangerous situation” that could lead to an armed conflict after units of the FAR, Sudan’s most powerful paramilitary group, “mobilized ” in Khartoum and other cities. The FAR deployed troops near the town of Merowe, located 330 kilometers north of Khartoum.
After clashes broke out on 16 April, Hemedti and Burhan exchanged accusations of coup attempts.
In addition to political interests
Economic interests may also be behind the current conflict, that is, the control of mineral resources would also be at stake. Sudan has considerable gold reserves, which are of interest to Russia.
In 2017, then-dictator Bashir said in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Sudan could be “the key to Africa” for Russia. At the time, the Russian M-Invest – a front company of the Wagner Group, according to the US Department of the Treasury – received the right to exploit Sudanese mines. Currently, these mines are operated by M-Invest in partnership with the FAR.
Other countries are also interested in Sudan. Egypt is betting on an extended Burhan government and, therefore, supports him, says Marina Peter. In early April, the two countries even held a joint military exercise. Cairo also provides humanitarian assistance in Sudan, for example during the floods that occurred last year.
Hemedti, on the other hand, has good relations with Eritrea, Ethiopia and Yemen, where militias under his command have operated. Due to the exploitation of gold in partnership with Russia, it has close links with Moscow.
Powerlessness of civil society
According to Christine Roehrs, both Burhan and Hemedti are currently struggling for power and influence. “They are fighting this battle behind the backs of civilians, and even though they both know that millions of Sudanese stood against military rule and in favor of democracy as early as the 2018 revolution,” she points out.
For this reason, Peter claims that there can be no talk of an imminent civil war. “This is by no means a civil war, but a power struggle between two actors. Civil society has always continued to try to impose democratic reforms,” he says, adding that democracy activists have always seen militias and the military as an obstacle to peace and to the change of government.