What’s Behind the Fighting in Sudan

The Sudanese army and its main militia rival are turning the country into a battle zone—and it could get worse

Fighting erupted in Sudan a month ago, turning the capital Khartoum into a battlefield. The clashes started after months of escalating tensions in the country, which is just south of Egypt in northeastern Africa.

The conflict is often described as a war between rival generals: Sudan’s military ruler and head of the army, Abdel Fattah Burhan, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as Hemedti), the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group.

The bloody power struggle comes just 18 months after the country’s top general joined forces with his current rival to seize power in a coup.

Neither side has widespread backing from the Sudanese people, says Alex de Waal, a research professor at The Fletcher School who is a Sudan expert and executive director of the World Peace Foundation. “Their power arises from money and guns,” he says. “It doesn’t come from popular support.”

Tufts Now recently spoke with de Waal to understand the conflict, its impact, and its possible resolution.

Tufts Now: Who are the two factions in the current fighting and what do they represent?

Alex de Waal: I think it’s best to think of this as a sort of mobster shootout. It’s really a gangland war over turf, for ill-gotten gains.

General Burhan would like to present himself as the face of an established, conventional military, representing the state. But he comes from a long line of military leaders who have been fantastically corrupt.

The army is less a professional war-fighting outfit and more a kleptocratic club of officers who are also merchants. Over the years, they’ve outsourced the fighting of their wars.

For example, in South Sudan in the 1990s and early 2000s, the army essentially hired a South Sudanese militia to do the fighting for them. The drawback was that when the South Sudanese militia got the chance to vote for independence with the peace agreement signed in 2005, they deserted their paymasters and they went with their people—and with the oil wealth in that region.

In Darfur, the local militia that were used in the counterinsurgency of 20 years ago, the so-called Janjaweed, were drawn from one ethnic community in Darfur, the Arabs, to fight another set of ethnic communities. That militia in turn became so powerful it ended up running Darfur. And when gold was discovered in Darfur, the militia controlled the gold mines.

Hemedti was a leader in the Janjaweed, a group that has been accused of war crimes. How did he end up having more influence in the capital?

When you control the gold trade, you can get very wealthy, and that’s what Hemedti and others in that militia did. They had this combination of wealth and effectiveness in combat.

They were brought to Khartoum by the former president, Omar al-Bashir, because he didn’t trust the army. He thought the army might stage a coup. He thought, “This fellow Hemedti is just a hoodlum from Western Darfur, from the sticks, he’s not going to be able to turn against me.” Well, he was wrong.

In the 2019 overthrow of the president, Burhan and Hemedti were allies, right?

Yes. They jointly came together to overthrow Bashir. They basically wanted to take power for themselves, but were pressured by the street protests that had brought the Bashir regime to the point of collapse.

Burhan and Hemedti were pressured by these very courageous protesters to compromise, and they did. But they compromised only for as long as it took them to consolidate their grip on the real levers of power and money, and then launched a coup in 2021.

They were rivals, but they had a common interest in keeping the civilians out, keeping the democrats away.

Why are they fighting now?

After the coup, they didn’t have a political program other than power and money and that was not getting them even the basic support they needed for running the country. They reluctantly agreed to negotiate back to where they had been before, which is sharing power with the civilians.

But the problem is that you can’t have two armies in one country. So the question was, Does the RSF come under the army command in a short period, such as two years, which basically means Hemedti will never become number one? Or does he retain separate command of his own parallel army for 10 years and then the two are integrated, in which case he has enough time to reconfigure his political options?

The deadline for resolving this question was April 1. It was delayed for a week, it was delayed for another week, and then on April 15, it exploded into a deadly fight.

Where is the fighting centered now? Is it mostly in the capital?

The worst fighting is in the capital, but there are other clashes elsewhere, particularly in Darfur.

Hemedti is from Darfur, but he’s a very polarizing figure there. A lot of people don’t like him for his role in the Janjaweed. Also, when he took control of the major gold fields five years ago, he drove out others who were controlling them.

Burhan is very eager to whip up whatever support he can amongst those who oppose Hemedti. So Darfur is already burning again.

How is the fighting affecting civilians?

Before the fighting erupted, Sudan was in dire economic straits, with very high levels of poverty. It is a country of 45 million people and about 14 million people were assessed as in need of food aid. After three weeks of fighting, the number had gone up by 3 million. And that understated the problem.

Is humanitarian aid reaching people in Sudan?

One of the things that upsets the Sudanese people is that the entire international humanitarian apparatus left when the fighting broke out.

The hospitals are all being run by Sudanese volunteers. Sudanese local communities have begun to organize things like distribution of basic food, medicine, getting doctors and nurses to and from hospitals, etc.

They’re doing all that and they’re saying, “If you—the UN or the World Food Programme—come in with your food convoys, you’re going to be cutting deals with the generals because they control the checkpoints on the roads. We’d much rather you found a way of going over their heads and dealing directly with us, who are doing the work on the ground.”

Within Sudan, who is supporting each of the two sides?

I think the great majority of Sudanese people didn’t want either of them. Their power arises from money and guns; it doesn’t come from popular support.

Is this strictly an internal conflict between two warring factions, or do the two camps have outside allies who are aiding them?

Each of them has potential backers who are becoming active backers. Burhan is supported by Egypt, and less directly by Turkey and Qatar. Hemedti is supported by the United Arab Emirates, by the Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar, and he also has a very close partnership with the Russian Wagner Group. The Russians actually are on both sides. The Kremlin leans more towards the regular army and navy, because they are interested in a naval base on the Red Sea.

In a power struggle of this type, though, you may want your friend to be on top, but you don’t want him to be on top of a ruined country. You want him to be on top of something that is functioning. So there was a basic consensus amongst other countries that there shouldn’t be a war.

Should the United Nations be involved?

This is the failing of the UN. There were no serious efforts made at a high level to mobilize that consensus, to get the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Saudis, everyone on the same page, that we don’t want a war. We may want this guy or that guy, but we don’t want a war.

In 2011 and 2012, during and shortly after the independence of South Sudan, clashes along the border almost brought the two countries to full-scale war. This happened several times and, on each occasion, proactive diplomacy by the African Union, the UN, and the U.S. succeeded in defusing the conflict. This could be done again—if the African Union and UN were more diplomatically active, or the U.S. were more active in using the multilateral system.

What can be done now?

At the moment, there are ceasefire talks between the two warring factions, on a short-term truce. But the two sides are still determined to fight it out.

The UN still has a chance if it moves quickly to convene everybody around that common agenda, to stop the war. If it doesn’t move fast, those external parties will have become involved, partly to pursue their own interests, and partly because the two sides fighting this intense war will need fuel, ammunition, money, etc. When the involvement of the external backers becomes much more substantive and overt, then stopping the fighting becomes that much more difficult.

What are the prospects for a peaceful resolution of this conflict?

I think they are very remote at the moment.

At this stage, in the faces and the mindsets of the generals, there’s a combination of anger, resolve, and fatalism. It is very difficult to get them to negotiate. There’s a sort of emotional blindness and unwillingness to think about anything other than mobilizing everything they have for the war effort right now.

The only document that the two have signed is a “Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Sudanese People.” It does no more than list some of their obligations under international humanitarian law. They signed it after a week of major arm-twisting by American and Saudi mediators—and they haven’t followed up by respecting their promises. They are still violating the Geneva Conventions and almost certainly committing serious war crimes.

Does that mean you anticipate a protracted battle between these two, and whatever forces support them?

I think we’ll see something slightly different. Each side is a coalition at the moment. They’re united by anger and fear and a fierce determination to win battlefield victories. But as time goes on, the members of the coalitions will begin to get discontented and they may begin to fragment.

And there’s a whole lot of other groups in Sudan, who haven’t joined the fray yet. There are former rebel groups that had signed a peace agreement but hadn’t demobilized. The guerilla armies are still there in their rural hideouts. And then there are neighborhood committees that have weapons for self-defense but haven’t been organized as fighting units.

You can see the possibility that all these might join the fray, in which case it wouldn’t be two sides. It would be a war of all against all, with groups switching sides, and then it becomes extraordinarily difficult to find a solution.

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