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Sudan: Military and militia driven by hunger for power

April 17, 2023

The current clashes are emblematic of Sudan's difficult national and international situation, as well as the helplessness of its civil society.

Smoke rises from a central neighborhood of Khartoum
Sudan's current conflict has already caused 180 deaths and 1,800 injuries, according to UN envoy Volker PerthesImage: Marwan Ali/AP/picture alliance

Sudan's current clashes between the army and the paramilitary militia Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, have killed 180 people and injured 1,800, said the UN envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, late on Monday evening.

The battles have spread to several regions, and increased airstrikes were reported from Khartoum on Monday morning.

Christine Roehrs, head of the Khartoum office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German foundation that promotes civil and democratic values, told DW that she, like all other residents of the capital, is getting a lot of exposure to the fighting.

"The facilities of both the military and the Rapid Support Forces are in the center of the city. So this power struggle is also being fought here, in residential neighborhoods where people would normally go shopping or to school. You can hear the fighting everywhere; you can hear it all day long," Roehrs said.

The clashes are the latest escalation after weeks of a struggle for power between the regular army under the command of Sudan's de facto ruler, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, led by his deputy, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as "Hemeti." Following a military coup in 2021, Sudan has been ruled by the so-called Transitional Sovereignty Council under the lead of Burhan, with Hemeti as deputy chairman. 

Sudan's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in front of a microphone
General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan accuses Hemeti's forces of starting the violence, and vice versaImage: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Unstable alliance 

The current fights were sparked by negotiations over a security sector reform. According to media reports, one of the central points of contention was the integration of the paramilitaries into the regular army. 

But ultimately, the alliance between the two men has never been stable, Roehrs said. "When it benefited their common interests, they worked together — for example, in October 2021 — in the joint coup against the interim government at the time. Now, however, on the issue of the future relationship between the army and the militias, their interests are diverging, and the ex-partners are becoming adversaries."

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, standing in front of a microphone.
Hemeti, lives in the same area as his rival Burhan in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Image: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

Bound by fear and greed

Meanwhile, Burhan and Hemeti continue to be linked — but by the fear of being held accountable for their actions, says Marina Peter, chair of the German Sudan and South Sudan Forum.

"Both men have military backgrounds; both are proteges of [the former long-time ruler] Omar al-Bashir, albeit in very different ways," she told DW. 

While Burhan pursued a regular career in the military, Hemeti was commander of the paramilitary Janjaweed group, which brutally cracked down on predominantly African, non-Arab rebel forces and uninvolved civilians in the Darfur conflict, one which dated back to a famine in the early 1980s.

Later, the militias were also sent as mercenaries to the conflicts in Libya and Yemen.

"Wide swaths of the civil society want to hold both of them accountable: Hemeti for crimes committed during the Darfur war, and Burhan for those committed during the 2019 uprising against Omar al-Bashir. They are both afraid of that," Peter told DW.

International actors and their interests

In addition, the two rivals are likely to be concerned about the control of the country's rich natural resources.

Sudan has considerable gold mines, which also interest Russia. "Sudan could become Russia's key to Africa," then-dictator al-Bashir promised during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017.

At that time, the Russian company M-Invest, which, according to the US Treasury Department, is  a cover company of the Wagner Group, was granted mining rights for Sudanese mines. These are now being exploited by the RSF together with M-Invest.

Other states also have interests in Sudan. The Egyptian government, for example, prefers an autocratic government under Burhan and therefore supports him, according to Marina Peter.

As recently as in early April, the two countries conducted a joint military exercise.

At the same time, Egypt also provides humanitarian support to Sudan, for example, during the devastating floods last summer. 

Burhan's rival Hemeti, on the other hand, has good relations with Eritrea and Ethiopia, as well as with Yemen, where parts of his militia have been active. Due to the joint exploitation of the gold mines, he also has close contacts with Moscow.

Satellite photo of fires burning near a hospital in Khartoum
Smoke seen near a Khartoum hospital confirms reports by civilians who say there is fighting all over the cityImage: Planet Labs PBC/AP/picture alliance

Helplessness of civil society

All this explains the fierceness of the current fighting, says Christine Roehrs. Both Burhan and Hemeti are fighting for power and influence. "They are fighting this battle on the backs of Sudan's civilians, even though both know that millions of Sudanese have already expressed their support for democracy and against military rule in 2018 with the revolution," she said.

That's why it is technically not correct to call this an imminent civil war, says Marina Peter.

"This is in no way a civil war, but a power struggle between two actors. Civil society, after all, has kept trying to push toward democratic reforms and has continued its protests to that end," she told DW.

Democracy activists have always seen both the military and the militias as obstacles on the road toward peace and democracy. "Now," Peter said, " the activists and civil society are caught between all fronts."

Fighting rages in Sudan: Patrick Oyet reports

This article was originally published in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East