Breaking Analysis | September 5th, 2023
New article by a former deputy chief of Sudanese intelligence explains how corruption of the armed forces and empowering of paramilitaries have sparked the country's "meteoric descent."
Despite ceasefire calls by a powerful paramilitary leader, the head of Sudan’s army has vowed to defeat that rival force, even as he acknowledges that the country’s northeast could be split if there is no resolution. Airstrikes south of the capital reportedly left at least 20 civilians dead over the weekend, and the death toll from the civil war has soared past 4,000.
How did the breakaway Rapid Support Forces (RSF) rise to challenge the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) for supremacy? A former high-ranking official argues in the fall issue of Middle East Policy that decades of civil strife driven by deep-seated ethnic hostilities sapped the financial strength of the state, which empowered the RSF to wage counterinsurgency on the cheap and allowed it to become “an integral part of Sudan’s new order.”
“The Sudanese military, by outsourcing its work to the militias, has long since lost vitality,” writes Majak D'Agoôt, who previously served as deputy chief of Sudan intelligence and defense minister of South Sudan. “The boundary between what defines the paramilitary and what legitimates the enforcers of law and order, has been elided.”
In late August, after more than four months of civil war, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo declared support for negotiations and unveiled a plan for a return to civilian rule that was met with skepticism from some observers. But his nemesis, SAF General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, shot down that idea as he traveled from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and back to Sudan.
This animosity between the two generals may come as a surprise since they forged an alliance after civilian demonstrations forced President Omar al-Bashir from power in 2019. But warning signs emerged two years later, when the military leaders overthrew the transitional, civilian-led authority. On April 15 of this year, violence erupted in the capital of Khartoum as the “frenemies,” as D'Agoôt terms al-Burhan and Dagalo, battled for supremacy.
D'Agoôt, now a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College London, explains in his Middle East Policy article how the RSF gained enough power to challenge the regular forces. A key contributor was the SAF’s corruption and enforced divisions of identity under the former president. “Al-Bashir's kleptocracy institutionalized differentiation in the military, police, and intelligence bureaucracies,” D’Agoôt explains. The “politicization of the military through patronage and the rentier system caused a systemic risk.”
When civil war broke out in Darfur in the early 2000s, the government increased support for militia groups, creating independent—and potentially rogue—actors that came to benefit from “a climate of impunity.”
One such group was the Janjaweed, a Sudanese Arab militia, many of whose members are now part of the RSF. Actors like the Janjaweed profited from the resources, training, and experience gained in conflict while the SAF deteriorated.
The government also faced an economic shift in the early 2010s, when South Sudan gained independence. This deprived Sudan of oil revenues, empowering regional players over local elites. Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, took advantage and built a business empire through connections to Gulf royals and gold-trading relationships with mercenary outfits like Russia’s Wagner group.
Meanwhile, D’Agoôt argues, the SAF became “a machine for swindling the public and staging impressive parades of tanks and aircraft, while actual combat is waged by proxies.”
However, despite its power, the RSF has not been able to rally all of Sudan’s marginalized groups to its side, as ethnic divisions have been difficult to reconcile and many groups in the periphery are cautious about taking sides.
With neither armed force able to gain an upper hand, D’Agoôt contends that “the country needs a broad-based coalition from different ideological camps.” But this requires a plan to move from civil conflict to civilian rule, as well as re-establishing the boundaries between government and the military.
“If al-Burhan and Hemedti play roles in the transition, what is their unified vision for a democratic transition, federalism, and self-rule?” the scholar asks. “If they must participate, then they must widen consultation regarding the political process.”
He also calls on regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the African Union to push for a resolution.
“A unified peace effort," D’Agoôt concludes, “is perhaps the best way to resolve Sudan's endemic problems and rescue it from a Humpty Dumpty crash.”
Among the major takeaways readers can find in D’Agoôt’s Middle East Policy article, “How the Rise of the Rapid Support Forces Sparked Sudan's Meteoric Descent”:
- The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), has been at war with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) since April 2023.
- The RSF played a role in the 2019 ouster of President Omar al-Bashir, protecting citizens protesting his rule and then sharing power in a civil-military coalition.
- In 2021, the militia joined with SAF to overthrow the transitional authority.
- The SAF and RSF also partnered in the campaign against Houthis in Yemen.
- The RSF has now turned against that erstwhile ally.
- Founded to operate within the state military, the RSF became a versatile and capable independent force.
- Under al-Bashir, who ruled from 1989-2019, the armed forces were undermined by cronyism and dividing lines of identity and class.
- The corruption and decline of the SAF led to the outsourcing of operations to paramilitaries like the RSF, who gained resources, training, and experience by countering the insurgency in Darfur.
- Motivations behind today’s conflict between the RSF and SAF are economic, identity-driven, and opportunistic.
- Economic: When South Sudan split from Sudan, oil revenues disappeared, empowering regional players over the elite. Hemedti was able to build a business empire, including contacts with Gulf states and gold trading with the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
- Identity: Divisions between the north and south as well as ethnic groups from the Sahara and the Nile regions drive tensions. Islamists have backed the SAF, while the RSF has tried to build the support of marginalized communities.
- Opportunity: With the SAF weakened and combat undertaken by proxies, Hemedti took risks and the RSF acted boldly.
- The geopolitics are as messy as the internal divisions.
- Frontline countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan face their own chaos.
- Egypt is weakened, while Gulf states and Israel have seen states like Qatar, Iran, Turkey, and Russia flooding Sudan with cash and guns.
- The United States and the West are leaving the country to regional handlers.
You can read Majak D’Agoôt’s Middle East Policy article, “How the Rise of the Rapid Support Forces Sparked Sudan's Meteoric Descent” in the Fall 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, forthcoming in September.