Analysts warn that the ongoing fighting portends Sudan’s descent into a protracted war, which on the surface reflects the depth of the differences between the warring parties and the armed groups in Khartoum, but reveals the external interference and the game of interests practiced on the ground.
The violent conflict in Sudan continues to escalate since its outbreak in the capital, Khartoum, on April 15, and its rapid spread to other regions.
The fighting came after months of protracted tensions between the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, and the Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The dispute between the two former allies has disrupted a faltering political framework agreement backed by international powers to return the country to civilian rule.
The differences revealed a fierce struggle for power between the army and the Rapid Support Forces in the post-transitional period. Topics of disagreement ranged from the timeline for integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the army, to troubling issues of command and control, with disagreements over the distribution of ranks and salaries.
Political analyst David Wamajo Wagucha believes in a report by the Future Center for Research and Advanced Studies that the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces is an extension of the complex balance of power strategies that affected the political scene during the era of former President Omar al-Bashir.
The latter wanted to preserve the survival of his regime, so he resorted to networks Favoritism to disperse the various security units to reduce the risk of a coup from a unified army. Thus, during his rule, Al-Bashir followed a strategy of “divide and rule” to reduce the military threat by establishing a system of checks and balances between units, which continued for years. This policy sparked intense competition and struggle for influence, and created deep rivalries between security units.
In addition, Al-Bashir supported tribal militias in the periphery of the country by arming them to stand against armed groups hostile to his regime. It is natural that this strategy leads to the proliferation of armed groups, which led to the use of force and violence not being limited to certain official bodies in these areas, but rather extended to many other groups.
Dagalo appeared on the national security scene as the leader of the Khartoum-sponsored “Janjaweed” militia, which was organized by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) to counter the rebels in South Darfur during the 2003-2005 civil war.
In 2013, al-Bashir brought the Janjaweed into the RSF as a separate security unit to fight the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-Northern rebels in the Nuba Mountains. The RSF’s rise has continued since then, and in November 2017, RSF fighters took control of the artisanal gold mines in Jebel Amer in Darfur, Sudan’s largest source of export revenue.
The fighting between the army and the Rapid Support Forces is an extension of the complex balance of power strategies under former President Omar al-Bashir
Thus, Dagalo enjoyed absolute control over one of the two largest sources of hard currency in the country. Daglo took advantage of these resources to recruit individuals and include them in the Rapid Support Forces, and to equip the forces massively, as the number of members of the Rapid Support Forces is estimated at about 75,000 to 100,000 fighters in 2021, compared to the number of Sudanese Armed Forces soldiers, which ranged from 120,000 to 200,000 soldiers.
There is no doubt that Daglo’s rapid rise to become a major driving force at the heart of Sudanese politics has destabilized the Sudanese army as it threatened the dominance of the SAF, igniting an intense rivalry between them.
The prolonged political crisis that followed the overthrow of al-Bashir in 2019 exacerbated the rivalry between al-Burhan and Daglo, as both took advantage of the situation to extend their influence and secure their interests in the post-transitional period. And so the two kept stoking their rivalry, raising fears of possible escalation in order to extract political concessions from civilians. Political brinksmanship paid off as civilian-led parties split over the establishment of a transitional government with or without military representation.
The Popular Resistance Committees and the Sudanese Communist Party refused to sign the political framework agreement in December 2022, claiming that it legitimizes the army through power sharing.
Daglo denounced the October 2021 coup as a mistake, after widespread protests in the Sudanese streets in February, calling for a transitional government with civilian leadership. This was a major shift because it publicly confirmed the existing differences, especially with the news reported about Daglo’s reluctance to participate in the coup.
To defeat Dagalo, the army reconnected with Islamists, not just former members of Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party, by reappointing them to important government positions and restoring their privileges.
The political analyst believes that al-Bashir loyalists within the army have fears of Daglo based on two political scenarios: the first is that they fear reaching a political agreement that allows for a longer timetable for integrating the Rapid Support Forces into the army, which could cause great damage to their economic and political influence. And secondly, they claim that Dagalo abandoned al-Bashir during the 2019 coup.
Analyst David Wamago Wagucha stresses that the conflict between Daglo and Al-Burhan threatens to exacerbate social divisions in Sudan, pitting the politically dominant elite located in the Nile Valley (to which Al-Burhan belongs) against those living on the periphery of the Sudanese state (represented by Daglo). It is worth noting that the current violence differs from previous conflicts, where fighting prevails primarily in the heart of Sudan and not its peripheries, which may benefit the Rapid Support Forces, which have concluded several agreements with armed groups in their stronghold in Darfur, to focus on fighting in the heart of the country.
Moreover, the fighting could technically result in the collapse of the Juba Peace Agreement signed in October 2020 between the government, militias, and rebels. Hence, the risk of some groups returning to their activities, either individually or through their alliance with one of the warring parties, increases.
This danger still exists if we take into account the repeated patterns throughout history, which highlight the fluctuation of relations between armed groups, and the frequent establishment and re-formation of alliances. In addition, there are fears that armed resistance groups may take advantage of the current crisis to resume attacks, including the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North led by Abdulaziz al-Hilu, the largest Sudanese rebel group that controls large areas in the Nuba Mountains.
Sudan would risk sliding into a proxy war in which different countries would support the side that best served their interests
The violent conflict in Sudan may create a state of insecurity between the regions of Central Africa and the Horn of Africa, which are also prone to conflict, as there have been reports of the spread of Arab militias from the Central African Republic, Chad and Mali to join the fighting in the state of Southern Darfur through the states of Western and Northern Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan. Sudan, and launched attacks in that region.
Sudan has many disputed border areas, which often turn into hotbeds of violence. Thus the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, as state control declines, may encourage armed groups with local ethnic grievances across borders to launch attacks in neighboring states. Given past trends during previous conflicts in Sudan, instability may lead to cross-border insecurity, particularly in the border areas with CAR and Chad, including the areas of Abyei and Fashaga, which both South Sudan and Ethiopia claim to Sudan.
In addition, the ongoing water conflict over Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam along the Nile River threatens to overlap with the conflict in Sudan. The dam has caused strained relations between Sudan and Egypt – the two downstream countries – which view the dam as an existential threat to their water security.
On the other hand, the current conflict revealed the intertwined and conflicting interests of many competing international actors, which threatens to prolong the war in the medium and long term. Although the levels of support from the various countries remain unclear, there are concerns that they may support the warring parties.
The author of the report added that the intertwining of internal political dynamics in Sudan, regional security concerns and international interests in the country will ultimately determine the temporal extent of the current crisis. The danger of a continuation of the crisis remains if international partners provide political, financial and military support to the warring parties to advance their interests, instead of using their influence to reach a political settlement.
Undoubtedly, if this conflict is not resolved, Sudan will risk sliding into a proxy war in which different countries will support the warring party which they deem best serves their interests. This scenario is likely to undermine “regional security” in this targeted region, which is vulnerable to cross-border activities of armed groups.