Sudan: The Fight of Two Barons
By: Khaled A. BaRahma
Credit by: www.Ō.com
In Sudan, a conflict has arisen between the nation's armed forces and a paramilitary organization called the Rapid Support Forces, leading to a power struggle between the president and vice-president as they vie for control of the third-largest country in Africa. Following a coup in 2019 that ousted the long-standing dictator Omar al-Bashir, both individuals emerged as leaders of the transitional government.
Currently, Sudan's military government is experiencing an overt conflict between General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the president, and his rival Lt General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemeti, who serves as the vice-president and heads the RSF. The escalating violence has claimed the lives of nearly 100 civilians since Saturday, raising concerns that it could escalate into a full-fledged civil war. Both factions possess bases throughout the country and perceive this struggle as a master of survival. Alan Boswell, the head analyst for the Horn of Africa at Crisis Group, a think-tank, characterizes this conflict as a pure power struggle, vying for control over Sudan. Consequently, any hopes for the prompt reinstatement of civilian rule have been dashed by this ongoing war.
Hemeti's Rapid Support Forces (RSF) originated as a combat unit referred to as the Janjaweed. It was initially established by Bashir with dual objectives: suppressing a civil uprising in Darfur, located in western Sudan, and safeguarding his own interests. Al-Burhan and Hemeti had previously shown commitment to transitioning Sudan towards democratic elections. However, the likelihood of realizing this goal has steadily declined over the past four years, especially after the resignation of Abdalla Hamdok, a civilian prime minister and member of a hybrid transitional government, in 2022 due to a subsequent coup.
Chidi Odinkalu, a scholar from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, commented on the Hemeti and Burhan alliance, describing it as a convenient but fragile partnership that was unlikely to endure. The recent outbreak of violence has shattered any semblance of unity between them. Al Burhan's forces now openly label Hemeti as a "criminal" and have issued a bounty on his life. In response, the RSF commander conveyed to Al Jazeera Arabic that his forces would either apprehend Hemeti and bring him to justice or see him meet a grim fate. The immediate trigger for the conflict stemmed from a dispute over the timeline for integrating the RSF into Sudan's primary armed forces, a move that Hemeti vehemently opposed.
According to Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British billionaire and founder of a foundation that supports democratic transition in Sudan, both individuals, referring to the mentioned men, are unwilling to give up power and the associated control over valuable resources. Ibrahim emphasized that their vested interests extend beyond political power to encompass significant economic and financial considerations. The armed forces have substantial control over various business sectors in the country, and Hemeti, in particular, has personal interests in gold mines and provides support to the military in Libya and Yemen. If the conflict escalates, Ibrahim warns of wider regional consequences that could arise.
The United Arab Emirates played a significant financial role in supporting the transitional military council, which included Hemeti as a prominent figure, following the coup in 2019. According to a western diplomat, the UAE has been a long-standing supporter of Hemeti since the coup occurred, providing substantial financial assistance over the past decade. This backing has contributed to Hemeti's increased influence and power. Additionally, the diplomat noted that Egypt has been a supporter of al-Burhan, further highlighting regional dynamics within the political landscape.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with the United States and the United Kingdom, forms part of the Quad group, which aims to assist the democratic transition and promote dialogue. Both the UAE and Gulf states share concerns regarding instability in the Red Sea, a crucial trade route, and are wary of the emergence of Islamist groups in the area. Saudi Arabia has publicly called for a cessation of hostilities by both parties. Similarly, the UAE has emphasized the need for de-escalation and the initiation of dialogue to resolve the crisis.
According to Alex de Waal, a former African Union adviser on Sudan, the potential for escalation is considerable, given the evenly balanced nature of the conflict. While the army possesses superior firepower, Hemeti's RSF has significant combat experience and potentially greater financial resources. De Waal expressed concerns, stating that it appears to be the start of a civil war, as both factions have armed support bases that harbor deep mutual fear. He further noted that there is currently no credible mediator among Sudanese parties to facilitate a resolution.
According to Omer al-Digair, the leader of the Sudanese Congress party, which holds a significant civilian role in the negotiations for establishing a civilian government, he remains optimistic about the eventual transition to democracy. He emphasized the urgent need to halt the ongoing clashes between the two military factions. Al-Digair believes that the political process remains the sole alternative for achieving the formation of a civilian government.
Ibrahim expressed concerns about the military's reluctance to voluntarily surrender power, considering their longstanding rule in Sudan since its independence in 1956. However, he acknowledged that true progress would be difficult to achieve without the establishment of democracy. Uncertain about the
ultimate outcome, Ibrahim expressed a desire for both military factions to be overcome, as he believed Sudan would greatly benefit from their absence.
Mass Rape in Khartoum, Sudan
Numerous women have come forward with accounts of comparable assaults, occurring within their residences, along roadways, and in forcibly occupied hotels, since the outbreak of conflict in mid-April between the national army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Disturbing reports of rape committed by the RSF have surfaced throughout Sudan, alongside a documented case of rape involving an army soldier. Activists and medical professionals are utilizing social media platforms to raise awareness, caution others, and establish a vital support network for survivors and women vulnerable to sexual violence.
Online plaƞorms have witnessed the sharing of explicit information as various entities and individuals confront challenges with internet access, portraying a distressing scenario of escalating and indiscriminate assaults against women as the conflict enters its fifth week. According to reports, the cities most affected by sexual violence are Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and el-Geneina in West Darfur. Neimat Abubaker Abas, a senior program adviser at the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), stated, "Confirmed reports indicate that approximately 24 women and girls were abducted and subjected to sexual assault at the Otash IDP camp in South Darfur last month."
While not all reports have undergone independent verification, they collectively indicate a consistent trend wherein women are frequently singled out as targets. Disturbingly, these incidents often occur in the presence of family members and involve horrifying acts of sexual violence.
Based on accounts from undisclosed sources who have direct contact with the victims, Al Jazeera reports that the initial targeting of foreign women has expanded, leading to widespread attacks on Sudanese women. Instances of sexual violence by security forces have been documented in Sudan in the past. In 2019, reports surfaced of the RSF and other troops engaging in acts of rape against numerous women following the dismantling of a protest camp in Khartoum. The sit-in camp had been the focal point of demonstrations where protesters had been persistently demanding a transfer of power from the military.
According to the United Nations, rape was employed as a weapon during the onset of conflict in Darfur in 2003. Non-Arab rebel groups predominantly stood against the central Sudanese government, protesting against the historical marginalization of their region and the ongoing exploitation of its resources by the elites in Khartoum. In October 2014, a distressing incident occurred in North Darfur where 221 women and girls were subjected to mass rape, often in the presence of their loved ones, by Sudanese army forces within their residences and on public thoroughfares.
Advancing the United States' Role in Sudan's Future
Both prior to and following the December agreement, the United States has played a significant role in the ongoing political negotiations led by the U.N., African Union, and IGAD. Given the persisting conflicts, it is crucial for the United States to advocate for prompt and urgent engagement at the highest levels, directly with the conflicting parties as well as neighboring nations that hold influence, interests, and leverage.
Taking proactive measures now will not only save lives but also prove more economically viable than delay. In the short term, any diplomatic involvement in Sudan must prioritize the following objectives:
1. Ensuring the safety of civilians and preventing atrocities: Intense clashes are unfolding within urban areas, including downtown Khartoum. As the fighting extends over several days, the urgent requirement for essential resources like water, food, and basic supplies becomes increasingly critical. Regrettably, there has been a lack of civilian evacuation, leaving many individuals trapped and seeking refuge from the ongoing violence. Given the urban warfare scenario, the humanitarian conditions are bound to deteriorate rapidly.
Although the SAF and RSF assert their commitment to precise targeting, there is evidence of residential buildings being utilized as bases for clashes between RSF ground forces and the SAF air force. Multiple media sources have documented SAF air strikes occurring within Khartoum and its surrounding area. Disturbingly, hospitals and medical clinics have been struck, indicating potential deliberate targeting. Reports of civilian casualties continue to emerge, raising alarm. Additionally, there are troubling accounts of looting, including at embassies, as well as incidents of harassment and assault by security forces. These events, along with indications of the potential for mass atrocities, are of great concern.
Clear and forceful messaging from the United States and other allied nations is essential to convey that leaders bear full responsibility for the actions of their forces, and any violations of international humanitarian law will result in accountability. Urgent measures must be taken to establish humanitarian corridors and guarantee the safety and protection of agencies and local initiatives dedicated to providing crucial life-sustaining aid.
2. Brief respite in hostilities: Despite multiple attempts to establish a humanitarian cease-fire facilitated by the United Nations, only partial success has been achieved. The reasons behind this limited progress remain uncertain, whether due to delayed agreement, a lack of directives from higher authorities, or non compliance from those lower down the chain of command. Effective cease-fires necessitate comprehensive diplomatic involvement, clearly defined procedural measures, and robust mechanisms for de-escalation should violence resurge. As the conclusion of Ramadan and Eid Al-Adha, urgent actions are required to address the growing humanitarian crisis. Mobilizing Sudanese leadership, close consultation, active engagement of regional powers in the Horn and the Gulf, as well as broad international coordination, will play a crucial role in this endeavor.
3. Prudent strategies for post-conflict scenarios: The events on Saturday presented another significant disruption in the political landscape, leaving little room for uncertainty regarding the exercise of power. It will be imperative to thoroughly reassess the mediation framework for future political negotiations, ensuring a realistic acknowledgment of the prevailing power dynamics. Additionally, it is crucial to reaffirm the unwavering commitment to meeting Sudanese aspirations for a government led by civilians and grounded in democratic principles.