Everybody was expecting a clash between the army and paramilitary units in Sudan eventually, causing the country’s transition to civilian rule to teeter and potentially fade away. The de facto military regime of Sudan — led by Army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, nicknamed Hemeti, who is the head of the Rapid Support Forces, a militia turned paramilitary group — has been supervising the country’s search for a representative system of civilian rule since the coup of October 2021. That has to wait, apparently. As fighting continues in the capital Khartoum and other parts of the country and as powerful rival military factions battle to control the country, there is a risk that the violence will spiral into an all-out civil war.
Sudan is no stranger to autocratic military rule. Al-Burhan and Dagalo took power after a 2019 people’s uprising amid worsening economic conditions had unseated Omar Bashir, the autocrat who had ruled the country for 30 years.
A veteran soldier, Al-Burhan rose to become a high-ranking officer during the last days of Bashir’s rule. He was sworn in as Sudan’s interim leader in April 2019. Later that year, he chaired the ruling Sovereignty Council of military and civilian figures that was tasked with steering the country’s transition to full-fledged democratic rule. Two years later, he led a coup and arrested the prime minister and his civilian Cabinet, prior to returning to the negotiation table as spiraling political and economic turmoil proved unsustainable. Al-Burhan in July last year made a surprise vow to “make room for political and revolutionary forces and other nationals” to form a civilian government.
The framework agreement signed at the end of last year could not mask the months of tension building between the army and the paramilitary RSF. That friction was brought to a head by clauses in the internationally backed final framework agreement that was due to be signed early this month and which called for both the army and the RSF to cede power. Two issues have proved to be particularly contentious. One was the timetable for the RSF to be integrated into the regular armed forces and the other was when the army would be formally placed under civilian oversight.
The chaotic scenes of fighting that have seen the use of tanks, artillery, truck-mounted machine guns and even the use of air power in densely populated areas of the capital and other cities are unprecedented. They are also not a good omen for the country’s 46 million citizens, who had hoped the uprising could lead Sudan away from its decades of autocracy, internal conflicts and economic isolation under Bashir.
Al-Burhan and Dagalo are likely to fight to the end, as their sights have been set very high.
A conflict on the scale seen in recent days could also destabilize a volatile region that borders the Sahel, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. If the fighting endures, as both parties are armed to the teeth and do not lack resources for resupply, it risks spreading to the war-wrecked western Darfur region and areas of northern and eastern Sudan near the borders with Egypt and Ethiopia. It could also become an open conflict that may be used in the battle for influence between Russia, China and the US and also between influential regional powers that have previously courted various actors in Sudan.
Neither party spared a moment to divide the war along traditional lines, with each leader allegedly trying to save the revolution and blaming the other for helping invigorate the remnants of the Islamist-leaning Bashir era. Al-Burhan and Dagalo are likely to fight to the end, as their sights have been set very high. Sudan observers have often warned of the massive forces at their disposal, which could leave behind a long trail of destruction.
They are unlikely to rush to answer international and regional calls for a lasting ceasefire or to resume their dialogue and negotiations. That is clear from the parallel war of words, as the army has branded the RSF a rebel force and demanded its dissolution, while Dagalo has called Al-Burhan a criminal and blamed him for unleashing destruction on the country.
The resources and size of the national army, including its air power, should make it superior to Dagalo’s forces. But the RSF should not be discounted, as it is a large, well-armed and well-organized force. Unfortunately, this raises the specter of a protracted conflict on top of a long-running economic crisis and the existing large-scale humanitarian needs of the country.
With the world busy with Ukraine’s open-ended conflict, it has also become more divided than ever. And while the Middle East was hoping for some respite, it hardly had time to digest any benefits that could emerge from the new China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which could ultimately translate into an end to the conflict in Yemen, before Sudan suddenly exploded as another area of crisis that could simmer for years.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.