Sudanese army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (left) and RSF head Lt Gen Hemeti (Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo)
“Sudan is not Arab enough for Arabs and not African enough for Africans” Leila Aboulela, Sudanese writer (Aboulela, 2023)
Following the removal from power of former Sudanese President Omar Hasan al-Bashir in April 2019, Sudan’s transition to civilian rule proved to be not only turbulent but almost a Fata Morgana, after the civilian-led transitional government established immediately after Bashir’s overthrow was toppled through a military coup in October 2021. And as a continuation of what happened a year and a half ago, on 15 April 2023, and shortly before Sudan was expecting finally, a final peaceful transition of power from General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s military rule to a civilian government, Khartoum is once again the scene of bloody clashes; this time between the leaders of two distinct (armed) forces in Sudan: on the one hand, is the head of the Sudanese army, the facto leader of Sudan and on the other, his deputy, who is also the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known by several nicknames, including Hemmeti, Hemedti (little Muhammad), an ex-warlord.
The main narrative being circulated internationally about the reasons for the dispute that led to the armed confrontation (still ongoing at the moment of writing of this article) is that they are related to the timing of the unification of Sudan’s armed forces, the modalities by which this unification should take place, and more importantly, who should become the commander-in-chief of the army: a career military officer, which is the option advocated by al-Burhan, or an elected civilian, as Dagalo insists.
But should the bone of contention between al-Burhan and Dagalo be limited to these grievances? Whereas Sudan is known for security, social, economic problems that have become rampant, and issues such as drugs trafficking (including Captagon), human trafficking, or people being subjected to forced labour, as well as the interests of regional powers and major powers cannot be taken out of the equation, given Sudan’s geopolitical significance as well as its economic potential. Taking into account the complexity of the subject, the present analysis does not claim to be exhaustive at all, more than that, it is limited by a number of factors including the use of exclusively open-source data, time allocation, etc.
In order to answer the question in the headline, we will be looking slightly into the history of Sudan to get an answer, particularly in the recent period to identify those points of connection between what is being said on various channels and what might be hidden beyond the mainstream narrative.
- A short glance in the history of Sudan
Medieval Muslim geographers gave the name ‘Bilad al-Sudan’, ‘the Land of the Blacks’, to the belt of African territory south of the Sahara Desert (Holt, 1961, pp. 3-4). In the sense known today, the term originates from the 19th century, from the time of Muhammad Ali Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, used as an administrative term with reference to Sudan. Throughout history, Sudan has been known by many names, including Nubia, which traditionally applied to the entire riparian region from the First Cataract to the Sabaluqa, not far from the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. According to P. M. Holt, Nubia was divided into two parts, which had separate histories; i.e., from the early 16th century to the early 19th century, namely Lower Nubia, called Berberistan by the Ottomans that stretched from the First to the Third Cataract which was at least nominally dependent on the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, and Upper Nubia that was under the suzerainty of the Funj rulers of Sennar (Holt, 1961, pp. 3-4). Important for the present research is the early identification of the Beja ethnic group – east of Nubia – by the same medieval Muslim writers, which was described as neither Nubians, nor Arabs, nor Sudanese (“blacks”) (Holt, 1961, pp. 3-4). Knowledge of Sudan’s history requires time for it takes a journey in time almost as long as the one necessary to know the history of Egypt. This is a long and beautiful journey that has been going on long before the famous Kingdom of Kerma, which lasted for about 1000 years (about 2500-1500 BCE) until it was absorbed into the New Kingdom of Egypt, and that was followed by the Kingdom of Kush during which the Sudanese gained independence from the Egyptians; and then at the end of this well-known kingdom, the Nubians established on the territory of the present day Sudan, three Christian kingdoms: Nobatia, Makuria, and Alodia, from which at lasted one until 1500, according to the World Fact Book (The World Fact Book, 2023). Between the 14th and 15th centuries, much of Sudan was settled by Arabs, and between the 16th and 19th centuries, especially under British rule, it was subjected to extensive Islamization. Following the Egyptian occupation in the early 19th century, the British established an Anglo-Egyptian Sudan – nominally a condominium, but a British colony (The World Fact Book, 2023).
Peter M. Holt, one of the most distinguished historians of the Sudan wrote that the first steps towards the creation of modern Sudan were taken with the arrival of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Ottoman Sultan’s viceroy in Egypt, who brought together Muslim cultivators with traders and tribesmen from Nubia, Sennar, and Kordofan. (Holt, 1961, p. xi) The experience of the Sudanese under the control of first the Egyptians and then the British, as well as the shared glory and disasters of the Mahdist revolution, stimulated the development of Sudanese nationalism, which finally triumphed on New Year’s Day 1956, when Sudan became an independent state (Holt, 1961, p. xi). But the road from independence in the long run was influenced by at least three factors (Holt, 1961, p. xi) that dominated and dominate the modern history of Sudan, as Holt expertly observes: The first is the indigenous tradition, itself the product of the mixture of Muslim Arabs and Africans, the fusion of which began over a thousand years ago and is still an ongoing process. This tradition is the basis of Sudanese nationality, religion, and culture. The other two factors, also according to Holt, are the influence of Egypt, and the influence of Britain (Holt, 1961, p. xi). Both influences, even if they have formally ceased, continue to exert a more or less fascinating attraction on the Sudanese, since contemporary Sudan is politically and materially the inheritor of at least some cultural influences of both Egypt and Great Britain, which seems to have a parallel history with the transformation of Sudan into a sovereign state.
- A brief overview of the contemporary Sudan
Sudan is a presidential republic located in northwest Africa, with an area of 1,861,484 km² and a population of approximately 49,197,555. Sudan has two official languages: Arabic and English while the Beja language is recognized also as a language of the Sudanese. Religiously, the majority of Sudanese are Sunni Muslims but Sudan also contains a small percentage of Christians. Ethnically the majority of the population is made up of Sudanese Arabs, about 70%, and the remaining 30% are made up of several other ethnicities such as Fur, Beja, Nuba, Ingessana, Uduk, etc. In terms of resources, Sudan possesses oil, gold as well as iron, copper, chromium, zinc, etc. (The World Fact Book, 2023).
Sudan’s neighbors are Egypt to the North, the Red Sea to the North-East, and Ethiopia to the East, South Sudan to the South, the Central African Republic to the South-West, Chad to the West, and Libya to the North-West. Sudan is the third largest country in Africa after Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (New World Encyclopedia, 2023).
It has been known that military regimes have dominated Sudanese politics since the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1956. In the last decades of the 20th century Sudan was the theatre of two civil wars that resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people, mainly due to famine and disease. Today’s chronic instability in Sudan keeps much of the population at or below the poverty line (New World Encyclopedia, 2023).
3.1. Sudan demographics
It is particularly interesting that in World Bank’s database, Sudan’s population estimation is separate from that of South Sudan ever since 1960. While Sudan’s population rose from 8.326 million in 1960 to 45.657 million in 2021 (548 % increase), South Sudan’s population rose from 2.908 million in 1960 to 10.748 million in 2021 (370 % increase) (World Bank IRBD-IDA Population, 2023). In terms of unemployment as percentage of total labour force (ILO model), Sudan (19 %) was surpassed only by Libya (20.6 %) in 2020 in its region (World Bank IRBD-IDA Unemployment, 2023).
The first census in Sudan had been carried out by the British in 1955/1956, while the most recent one was carried out in 2008 (A.H., 200*, p. 2). The data presented in this article is in line with World Bank estimates. For the period 1956 – 1993, the data indicates that Nomads percentages were the highest in the Eastern State (region). In 1993, the second highest percentage of nomads was registered in Kordofan, although the numbers decreased significantly from 1956 (A.H., 200*, p. 19).
The US Department of State estimated in 2022 that the population of Sudan was 46.8 million (midyear 2021) and cites Pew Research Center placing the Muslim part of the population at 91 % (Sunni, including Sufi orders), while 5.4 % were Christians and 2.8 % following folk religions (U.S. Department of State, Office of International Religious Freedom, 2022).
From an ethnicity perspective, as of 2019, 70 % of Sudan’s population was Sudanese Arabs, while 30 % of the population consisted of Africans (Fur, Beja, Nuba, and Fallata) (Minority Rights, 2019). Except for Egypt and Libya (with which it has a relatively short border), Sudan is surrounded by countries in which African Arabs or Arabs are not a majority: Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea are not part of the so-called Arab World.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs International Migration Stock 2020 (UN Population, 2023) was consulted. In 2020, Sudan was hosting 1.38 million migrants, second only to 1990 when Sudan hosted 1.4 million migrants. While Uganda hosted more migrants as of 2020 (1.72 million), most of the regional countries hosted less: Ethiopia (1.082 million), Kenya (1.05 million), Egypt (543,937) and Morocco (102,358). The lowest number of migrants was 546,419 and was registered in 2005 (UN Population, 2023). At the same time, the number of Sudanese migrants leaving the country increased from 584,935 in 1995 to 2.1 million in 2020 (UN Population, 2023).
3.2. A short glance on the recent economic situation
The US sanctions on Sudan started with an arms embargo in 1992 and became mainstream in 1997 with trade prohibition and freezing of Sudanese government assets in the US. In 2017, three major components of US sanction on Sudan were lifted, but the economy was in dire condition. After two decades of sanctions, the slow-growing economy did achieve high growth. The brief economic outlook from table 1 encompasses trade and debt situations.
Table 1. Sudan’s imports and exports for years 2019 and 2020 (Harvard.edu, 2023).
|Value 2019||Value 2020||Observations for 2020|
|Imports||$ 9.16 bln||$ 10.4 bln||Sugar, wheat and meslin, cars, medicaments
China 28.67%, UAE 13.03%, India 11.95%, KSA 7.47%
|Exports||$ 4.96bln||$ 4.54bln||Gold 1.31bln, tourism, other oil seeds, peanuts
41.23 % UAE, 19.42% China, 7.28 % KSA, 6.55% India
Sudan’s trade is built around business with the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), as well as China. Exports to Egypt are relatively low (4.56%) and imports from Egypt as well (5.42%), but Egypt is a top 10 trade partner. The most exported commodity of Sudan is gold, and it is exported exclusively to the UAE. The pandemic did not significantly affect imports and exports of Sudan. Current account deficit of Sudan is significant: it imported more than double the value of exports in 2020.
The economic outlook of Sudan presented by African Development Bank mentions that inflation will increase from 163.3 % in 2020 to 358.9 % in 2021 (African Development Bank Group, 2023). In June of 2021, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund decided to begin providing debt relief to Sudan under Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative (IMF, 2021). The debt will be reduced by $ 50bln, i.e., over 90 % of total external debt. The Paris Club supported the initiative, the largest creditors under this arrangement being France, Austria, USA, Belgium, and Italy.
There are two important aspects to consider with respect to the economic situation of Sudan: it is in the UAE/KSA sphere of influence (Sudan is member of OPEC+ arrangement), and back in 2021 they received debt relief and were removed from the US Terror List, after agreeing to normalize relations in 2020/2021. As of 2023, a peace deal between Sudan and Israel is still under discussion (France24, 2023), but Israel is waiting for a normalization agreement and does not appear to have interests to provoke unrest in Sudan.
From another perspective, although neighbouring South Sudan is sanctioned by the US, press releases indicate that its oil and eventually iron reserves can help grow South Sudan’s economy (EnergyCapitalPower, 2021). After the split between the two, South Sudan is a potential economic competitor in terms of potential for foreign investments.
3.3. Illicit activities
Despite coordinated efforts of large international organizations like the United Nation, Sudan and its neighbouring countries are either destinations, sources, or routes for cross-border illicit activities. Among these, following activities are often mentioned, among others: arms trafficking, illegal drugs cultivation and trafficking (especially cannabis), as well as human trafficking.
A 2018 media report (Sudan Tribune, 2018), on Sudanese Disarmament Higher Committee (DHC) meeting with Anti-Drugs and Human Trafficking Commissions chaired by then Vice-President Hassabu Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, mentioned that crime prevention activities will intensify. The report mentions crimes like illegal drugs and food smuggling at Butana Plain, relatively high-scale human trafficking of people from Eritrea and Ethiopia on their way to Europe through Egypt or Libya (for example the arrests made at the Gaili Forest on the east side of Butana Plain). In the period August 2017 – August 2018, Sudanese authorities gathered 30,000 illegal arms from the 5 states of the Darfur region, estimated to have had 700,000 illegal arms back in 2018. An important channel for smuggling arms illegally into Sudan (as well as in Chad and Niger) appears to be Libya: in 2021, RSF arrested four persons (including two Libyans) for attempting to smuggle rifles, grenades, and an RPG launcher among other ammunitions into Sudan (Talal, 2021). Arms trafficking from Libya to Sudan is said to have been carried out through the territories controlled by Tabu and Tuareg tribes.
In 2016, the General Office for Combating Drugs in Khartoum mentioned that Sudan was the largest producer of cannabis from Africa, with El Radoom locality situated South Darfur being the central place for this activity (Dabanga, 2016). Drug trade in Sudan was said to have exceeded $ 7 billion in 2015/2016 while local cannabis consumption had grown by 34 % especially among young people including university students. In recent years, Sudan is said to have become not only a hub for Captagon (fenethylline) trafficking, but also a production center as well. For example, a 2018 raid uncovered a 300 pills/minute factory in Khartoum (Daghar, 2019), the value of a tablet in Sudan ranging from $ 0.2 to $ 0.4.
The 2022 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Report mentions that East Africa illicit drug dynamics reflect a spill of heroin traffic into local heroin use, widespread use of khat and a high prevalence of HIV among people injecting drugs. In the North and North-West of Africa, tramadol is increasingly used for non-medical purposes and cocaine trafficking is on the rise. East Africa is a frequently adopted route of heroin transiting from all African subregions towards Western and Central Europe (UNODC, 2022, pp. 27-30).
Sudan was mentioned in 2021 as the primary transit route for irregular migrants and refugees originating in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia) and aiming to reach Europe. The measures taken by the Sudanese authorities to counter human trafficking include the 2014 Combating of Human Trafficking Act, the 2017 plan released by the National Committee to Combat Trafficking and the efforts were supported by programs like Better Migration Management (BMM) funded by the European Union and Germany (UNODC ROMENA, 2021).
The 2022 US Department of State report (US DoS, 2022) on person trafficking mentions various illicit activities like the abduction of Eritrean nationals by groups linked to Rashida and Tabo tribes at border crossings in the Darfur region, extortion for ransoms, and abuses. Other tribes allegedly force abductees to perform forced labour or force them into sex trafficking.
- Historical overview of significant political and military developments
4.1. Sudan as a state
Between the Ottoman-Egyptian conquest of Sudan from 1820-1821 and the British conquest of Egypt, the Sudanese Mahdiyya spanned a large part of Sudan between 1881 and 1898 (Abu Shouk, 1999, p. 133). Under mainly British rule (in the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium) between 1899 and 1956, Sudan had been already considered to be composed of two regions: North and South Sudan. The Sudanese Mahdiyya contracted and lost its last bastion, Darfur, in approximately a decade. In July 1956, Sudan became an independent state following the agreement between Egypt and the United Kingdom.
Multiple conflicts and crises with Libya in the 1970s pushed Sudan towards the Egyptian sphere of influence, as Muammar Ghaddafi pressed more countries in the direction of pan-Arabism. The relations with Ethiopia were relatively good during the last decade, but developments like Renaissance Dam filling and the Tigray conflict on the Ethiopian side led to border clashes after 2020. From a Nile water perspective, Sudan and Egypt were on the same side when Ethiopia announced plans to fill the dam. Sudanese-Eritrean relations improved after resuming diplomatic relations in 2005. These led to indirect tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan.
Before 2003, the post-colonial governments are said to have been dominated by Arab-speaking elites (Sikainga, 2009). During the second part of 20th century, two main militant groups emerged: the “Islamic Legion” – apparently supported also by Gaddafi and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) along with its armed branch Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), dominated by Christians in the South. The National Islamic Front (NIF), staged a military coup in 1989 in order to limit SPLM’s growing influence (Sikainga, 2009), led by Hassan al-Turabi and under the military command of Omar al-Bashir. Al-Bashir’s regime was allegedly supported by Iran and China, the latter providing it also with arms.
4.2. The Darfur conflict and its aftermath
In April 2003, two rebel groups (SLA – Sudan Liberation Army and JEM – Justice and Equality Movement) attacked the al-Fashir airport and overwhelmed Sudan’s army. Sudan’s government deployed the army, police, and a militia group called Janjaweed, that started to carry out violent reprisals. The conflict led to more than 300,000 deaths and displacement of approximately 3 million people (UN estimates) (UN, 2009) and President Omar al-Bashir was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2009.
The Janjaweed militia, also called “Toro Boro” and who were later (partially) included in various Sudanese security forces among which RSF, cannot be precisely identified as exclusively Sudanese or Chadian, neither exclusively Arab nor non-Arab. However, they appeared to obey West Darfur Arab leaders such as Amir Hamid ad-Daway and Amir Abdallah Abu Shinebat. The Sudanese government granted Amir title to leaders coming from Chad in the 1990s, a title specific to Sudanese Mahdiyya in the 19th century (Tubiana, The Chad–Sudan Proxy War and the “Darfurization” of Chad: Myths and Reality, 2008, pp. 15-16).
One of the SLA leaders – Abdul Wahid Mohamed has allegedly opened an office in Tel Aviv in 2008 and had been receiving Israeli financial support (HSBA, 2011). JEM was founded by Dr. Khalil Ibrahim, who finished his master studies in Maastricht (1999) and launched JEM from the Netherlands in 2001. A 2012 article claims: ”State-backed media sources claimed in mid-November 2011 that 400 JEM rebels had arrived in South Sudan after receiving “intensive military training” in Israel but provided no evidence (Sudan Vision, November 13, 2011). Khartoum later charged Israel with supplying JEM with weapons and vehicles transferred to France and Chad (SMC, December 27, 2011)” (McGregor, 2012). According to a UN report, SLA received finance from Libyan National Army, i.e., from Field-Marshal Haftar, for fighting in Libya (UN Rep., 2021, p. 42).
These two organisations merged into the Sudan Revolutionary Front, which carried out the conflict further along other factions against the Sudanese government.
The Darfur conflict spilled out in a region in which tribes and interest groups carry out cross-border operations. In 2003, the Sudanese Janjaweed militias began to raid the Chadian region Dar Sila, attacking the Dajo/Daju population (partially Muslim, non-Arab tribes). The 600 km long and porous border between Sudan and Chad is also inhabited by two further tribes: Beri (or Zaghawa in Arabic) and Bideyat. In April 2007, the Chadian Army is said to have entered Sudan and fought Khartoum’s troops and in January 2008 they attacked Chadian rebels in West Darfur (Tubiana, The Chad–Sudan Proxy War and the “Darfurization” of Chad: Myths and Reality, 2008, pp. 14-15).
The 2008 coup attempt against Chadian President Idriss Déby was allegedly supported with mercenaries and weapons by Sudan’s government, but when it lost pace, the French allowed weapons to come Libya in President Déby’s support and the Sudanese Movement JEM also supported him, as their leader Sudanese leadership was from the same tribe as Déby, i.e. the Zaghawa (Giroux, Lanz, & Sguaitamatti, 2009, p. 1).
Throughout the conflict, the southern SPLM / SPLA continued its struggle against Sudan’s central government led by Omar al-Bashir. In 2005, the two parties reached the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that paved the way for a unity-secession referendum. Against the will of Egypt and Libya, the USAID-assisted referendum (Frontlines/USAID, 2011) was organized in 2011 and more than 90 % of the population voted for independence. South Sudan is a country under sanctions, facing widespread poverty and internal conflicts. The North-South Sudan split did not pacify any of the two regions, but, among others, it increased water insecurity for Sudan and Egypt.
Sudanese Awakening Army Council (SARC) emerged as a party to the conflict in 2014, headed by Musa Hilal, also leader of the Janjaweed militia (Dabanga, 2021). The movement was founded after he left the back-then ruling party National Congress Party. Hilal’s daughter married Chad’s president Idriss Déby in 2011 (Sudan Tribune, 2011). Musa Hilal was allegedly defended by Russia, who blocked a UN report linking Musa Hilal to gold sales and big profits in 2016 (Lynch, 2016).
In 2013, after founding various local paramilitary forces (militias or incorporating militias) like Border Guards or Central Reserve Police, Popular Police and Nomadic Police (Tubiana, Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias, 2017), the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were founded. Its role was to strengthen the government’s control over territories like Darfur, but since they also incorporated former militias, did not prove to be very effective. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) took over RSF and tried to utilize it to counter the influence of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). RSF was under the command of General Abbas Abdelaziz, and Hemmeti (Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – former Border Guards commander) served as his operations commander. Hemmeti is part of a community originating from Chad and allegedly a rival of Musa Hilal (Tubiana, Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias, 2017). Although placed under SAF control in 2016 through a law, against the wish of its commander – Hemmeti, RSF remained “autonomous”. In November 2019, RSF elements allegedly fought SAF. The deployment of several thousands of RSF troops to Yemen boosted Hemmeti’s political influence and relations with KSA and the UAE.
Hemmeti has allegedly become one of the richest men in Sudan after taking over the gold mines from Darfur region in 2017. His brother Abderrahim Dagalo is RSF second in command and holds the gold mining company Al Junaid / Al Gunade (Nova.news, 2023). In February 2022, Hemmeti visited Moscow for 8 days. Before arriving in Moscow, he had visited Ethiopia, South Sudan, Arab Gulf countries and had met the head of Egyptian intelligence, accompanied by ministers from the interim government (Maher, 2022). This series of visits followed General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s visit to Russia from 2019.
Important to note is that in spite of rumours that Russia is supporting Hemmeti via Libya, Russian Federation has not labelled General al-Burhan’s take-over as a coup d’état, and in 2019 Sudan became the second largest Russian arms importers from Africa (FutureUAE, 2022). According to the same source, Russia has three major interests in Sudan: expanding influence in Africa, access to gold and other resources and to build a naval base in Port Sudan. Hence, the Russian Federation does not appear to have an interest in provoking unrest in Sudan, as it is a good partner both ways: customer for military equipment and provider of natural resources.
4.3. Context of the recent outbreak in Sudan
The Egyptian publication Arabi 21 News discussed in a 16th of April article the decision of the US to exclude Egypt from mediating between SAF and RSF, arguing that Egypt would tend to favour General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, hence not neutral, and that the crisis may have been provoked by a spat between KSA who supports General al-Burhan and the UAE who supports Hemmeti (Arabi21, 2023). A second opinion related to this matter is that Saudi and Emiratis have both relations to army officers and money to help quench social unrest.
A 19th of April article (SudanTribune, 2023), citing Wall Street, claims that in the spark on integrating the RSF in the SAF, which apparently led to the confrontation, claims that Khalifa Haftar (allegedly supported by the UAE and Russia but in general, not in this matter) sent military support to Hemmeti and RSF and simultaneously Egypt sent warplanes to General al-Burhan. Egyptian war planes have allegedly destroyed an ammunition depot belonging to RSF before the conflict became large-scale.
As of April 2022, General al-Burhan is the commander of the Sudanese military and the de facto ruler of Sudan after the coup that ousted former president Omar al-Bashir. Media reports claim that al-Burhan’s plan to incorporate RSF into the regular army very quickly (in 2 years instead of 10 years) (SudanTribune, 2023) might have led to frictions, but there are two additional elements that can impact this claim: RSF commander Hemmeti is a relatively rich person connected internationally and the size of RSF forces, i.e. an average of estimations around 100,000 personnel, has become very large in comparison to regular army’s estimated 110,000 – 120,000 personnel (Deutsche Welle, 2023). These simultaneous developments suggest that a multitude of factors has led to the existing situation and while the pretext of the duration required to integrate a growing RSF into the army appears to be valid, it may actually reflect the point of intersection of larger dynamics and plans.
The classical Cold War rivalry between the US and Russian Federation is present in the region in various forms. A reassessment of positions requires a separate study, but while both seek clients for weapons, the US and Israel strived to contain Muslim influence in the region and Russia partnered with countries like Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt in various businesses.
Another layer of the conflict includes interests of former colonial powers in the region, like France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. All these countries had and maintained influence and connections in the region. The competition is not at the level it used to be in the second part of 19th century, but these countries still strive to project power either directly or through European Union-like mechanisms.
From an Arab world perspective, Sudan already represented a border region between North-African Muslim countries stretching from Egypt to Morocco and the rest of Africa. The 2011 secession of Sudan on the premise that a Muslim North and Christian South will solve a problem has proven to be not very helpful, or if still helpful, the problem that was solved had not been the most pressing one. Egyptian and Libyan influence was not a secessionist one as these two countries opposed the 2011 referendum. However, both countries projected power in the region of their southern neighbours and the solidarity networks followed Arab and Muslim lines. General al-Burhan studied in the military field in Egypt and Jordan, and is apparently actively supported by Egypt against the RSF.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional powers like the UAE and KSA are also connected to Sudan. The UAE are closely connected to the gold industry for example, but they are also pursuing the development of a defense industry and Abu Dhabi has already found and will look for potential new customers, including in this region. The UAE and KSA have also pursued agricultural business in Sudan. KSA has especially invested since 2016 in Sudanese agriculture (UNCTAD, 2016). Also, it plans to expand investment (Sudan Tribune, 2022) and since there is no significant breakthrough in small-scale local food production, it may also rely on its agriculture investments in Sudan for food safety in the Kingdom. Therefore, the type of investments that Riyadh plans for Sudan could benefit not only from a relatively peaceful Sudan, but a lower vulnerability to clandestine indigenous or cross-border violent groups as well.
The “strategic” initiative of many countries to place military bases along the Suez Canal has developed into a competition with no clear winners. While this trade route remains important, the competition for influence in the region will probably see new components added. The security of trade on this shipping lane will be influenced by other strategic elements as well. As for Russia, its planned military base in Sudan, which waits for approval from the expected civilian government (Magdy, 2023) just as the Abraham Accords do, is part of a larger plan to build military bases across Africa. Furthermore, the possibility of adding the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will decrease Russian dependence on other maritime routes.
Finally, the interests of local tribes and influence groups or tribes and tribe unions bring instability in the entire region, not only Sudan. Low incomes and a general lack of long-term trust in large/state institutions, which may be not so large after all if one considers how fast groups change sides, can instantaneously turn any pretext into a large-scale conflict. Power projection and outcomes in this region are very complex when compared to other regions.
What is behind the clashes between the Rapid Support Forces led by Hemedti and the Sudanese Army led by General Al-Burhan?
If we were to start from the quote by the Sudanese writer quoted at the beginning of the article and argue that “Sudan is not Arab enough for Arabs and not African enough for Africans” we would probably only be pointing to one of the many facets of the ongoing conflict in Sudan. Also, if we accept that the current armed clashes in Sudan would only have to do with the control of money and power as some voices in Sudan tend to project externally, again we would only be pointing to another facet of the conflict. And then what would the answer be?
Sudan’s latest armed conflict has emerged as a next phase in a longer set of armed confrontations. This is not Sudan’s only problem in 2023, it emerges as a problem on top of many other challenges it faces on the one hand due to prolonged conflict, at national and regional level, and on the other hand due to structural social, economic and security issues that lead to a very slow-developing society, prone to small-scale or generalized conflicts.
As for the current narrative circulating about the causes that led to the current clashes, it is true yet incomplete; since General al-Burhan, however sympathetic he may be to his deputy Hemmeti, probably knows that “the wolf can change his fur but not its temper”. In other words, no matter how much influence, or power the personage who rose from warlord to general may enjoy, the affairs of a state cannot be left in the hands of such an individual. And a Sudan ruled by civilians in the current political, economic and social context, where Hemmeti may at any time wield influence or even remove any civilian in power, is not a viable option at this moment in history. At least not now when the Sahel is studded with unscrupulous mercenary elements destroying everything, they touch under the umbrella of a seemingly indestructible type of terrorist organisations. The major powers probably acknowledge that what is happening in Sudan is a battle that is out of their hands, but it is a battle that concerns them since making Sudan even more unstable will damage regional and international security on many levels in the short, medium, and long term. Also, they have to understand that punctual external support may solve issues only in the short term, but the challenge Sudan is facing is a fundamental long-term transformation that requires significant resources, trust, and support, beyond existing reconstruction theories.
The Sudanese security landscape appears to remain very unstable despite multiple regroupings of small or local militias and rebranding them as legitimate state entities. It is not clear for certain authors who the Janjaweed actually are, at a time point, since armed forces in Sudan, be they rebels or government, are very dynamic structures, while the regional actors from Libya or Chad, for example, have interests and host transnational networks with connections in Sudan as well. Egypt appears to support General al-Burhan in his endeavour to pacify Sudan and integrate RSF into the Sudanese Armed Forces.
If the Cold War and post-Cold War rivalry was projected by attempts of the US, EU, and Israel to depose Omar al-Bashir’s government and disconnect Sudan from Iran, China, or Russia, recent developments add interests of countries like the UAE and KSA. Except for the claims that General Haftar and Egypt intervened directly, there is no visible sign of direct and active additional and direct foreign intervention. However, actors supported by international or regional key players may have decided to redirect resources in this confrontation. Special interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Sudan, especially in the agricultural sector, will probably lead to these two countries demanding more security guarantees from the Sudanese government or demanding more influence in shaping the security landscape in order to protect their assets.
While Israel and Russia do not appear to have interests in provoking unrest in Sudan, although both countries have access to or influence networks present in the country, for all other actors it is difficult to assess whether their advantages are connected to both or only one military leader apparently involved in the conflict. The large blocks are anyway very divided and instability is inherent.
Pursuing local and global peace is becoming an increasing challenge in 2023, but as difficult as it may be, it remains probably the most beneficial result that can be achieved in a conflict. The faster it is reached, the better for all parties involved and not involved.
While clashes in and around Sudan are not a first, the global security mechanisms are experiencing a period of temporary or long-term change. The Western-led peace bids applied to this region in the form of military peace-keeping missions, democratization in various forms, support for secession of Sudan, sanctions or other pacification initiatives may have reduced the scale of conflicts but not the fundamental landscape. From this perspective, other types of initiatives have not been applied on the same scale, hence no assessment or comparison are possible and whether exogenous peace initiatives have the potential indeed to solve fundamental issues represents another open question.
In a classical security setting, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would have had more instruments to intervene, be they in the form of old or reactivated missions. In terms of scope, ensuring border security and observation missions may have helped to establish and call out direct conflict-generating actions on the ground. The UNSC may have worked with regional countries and gradually isolated aggression, with support from the African Union and the Arab League under the auspices of the UNSC. But since there is a small probability of the five leaders bringing a conclusive agreement to the table. If this small change is not turned into an opportunity, the UN will be able to act only through its agencies with limited resources and within a narrow direction.
The typical actor that aimed to strike peace throughout the world, the US, has apparently excluded Egypt already due to bias towards General al-Burhan and formed an “impartial” crisis working group focused. Its success chances are also impacted by failures to strike peace in more countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, to name a few recent cases. Furthermore, the broadening of US sanctions across the world, including in Sudan until recently, diminish the trust in US soft-power ability to reach sustainable deals. Not even the so-called George Clooney’s satellite for surveillance in Sudan’s region managed to yield results in achieving more peace in Sudan or South Sudan, hence the question: is it the concept or the implementation? On the other hand, China’s success in striking the Iranian-Saudi deal does not represent a precedent that is directly relevant to this context and although it appears to have led to conclusive action, durability is yet to be proven.
The neutrality concept in negotiations represents a pre-condition for success, but the chances of such a negotiation are also conditioned by the possibility to impose accountability in its own name or through a broader mandate.
Of course, a long-term resolution to the conflict is relatively complex and may not represent the first goal in approaching this conflict. Although an immediate and temporary ceasefire is not a guarantee for change of course, it may represent the only realistic solution that would allow us to move on in any direction. The organizations, countries and their leaders connected to the two military officers that can influence this conflict are listed in this article and in the media, and their success or lack of success in convincing the parties to switch to other means of achieving an outcome will be public. Any actor that will be willing to take the initiative of ceasefire will have to consideration that is not only the two camps, it is not only the external actors and their resources or militias from neighbouring countries, but a combination of at least these factors and tipping the balance may be done by either pushing back or by pointing to a new direction.
And as a conclusion to the conclusions, although the rhetorical question below may have to some extent a redundant character, I cannot help but ask: what is happening now in Sudan may or may not be related to, but not limited to, what is happening in Burkina Faso, for example?
About the author:
Prof. Ecaterina MAŢOI is Program Director at Middle East Political and Economic Institute. Her areas of expertise and interests are: National Security, Middle Eastern Studies, SSR in Post-Saddam Iraq, Disinformation, Cultures and civilizations; the Military in 20th Century Middle East Politics; Geopolitics of the Persian Gulf region and Nuclear policies in MENA. Prof. MAŢOI is also a devoted researcher and a volunteer trainer on different issues related to her fields of expertise.