People fleeing fighting across Sudan gather  in Port Sudan
People fleeing fighting across Sudan gather in Port Sudan

Tussle between 2 generals causes havoc in Sudan

Since fighting between paramilitaries and the regular army began on April 15, in Sudan, at least 512 people have been killed and more than 4,200 wounded, according to the United Nations (UN).

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Western powers have sent special forces and military aircraft to repatriate their nationals and diplomatic personnel for fear of an all-out civil war in an already unstable region. Many other countries began evacuations by road and sea shortly after the 72-hour United States (US)-brokered cease-fire went into effect last Tuesday.

Rival factions of Sudan's military have, however, agreed to renew the three-day ceasefire shortly before it was due to expire yesterday. The extension of the ceasefire for another 72 hours — follows intensive diplomatic efforts by neighbouring countries, as well as the US, the United Kingdom (UK) and the UN.

Evacuation

There are continuing reports of heavy fighting in the capital, Khartoum. The previous truce allowed thousands of people to attempt to flee to safety while dozens of countries have tried to evacuate their citizens.

Those who cannot leave Khartoum, a city of more than five million people, are trying to survive without water and electricity and are also exposed to food shortages and telephone and internet cuts.

Mounting tension between Sudan’s two most powerful generals, each backed by a formidable force, has boiled over into open conflict just 18 months after they conspired to derail the country’s transition to democracy – with civilians caught in the crossfire of a deadly power struggle.

The deadly fight is the result of a vicious power struggle between the army chief and de-facto head of the country, Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, and Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as “Hemedti”, who leads the powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group.

Internationally backed plan

Tension had been building for months between Sudan's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which together toppled a civilian government in an October 2021 coup.

The friction was brought to a head by an internationally-backed plan to launch a new transition with civilian parties. A final deal was due to be signed earlier in April, on the fourth anniversary of the overthrow of long-ruling Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir in a popular uprising.

Both the army and the RSF were required to cede power under the plan and two issues proved particularly contentious: one was the timetable for the RSF to be integrated into the regular armed forces, and the second was the timing for when the army would be formally placed under civilian oversight.

When fighting broke out, both sides blamed the other for provoking the violence. The army accused the RSF of illegal mobilisation in preceding days and the RSF, as it moved on key strategic sites in Khartoum, said the army had tried to seize full power in a plot with Bashir loyalists.

The power struggle

The protagonists in the power struggle are General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Army and Leader of Sudan's ruling council since 2019, and his deputy on the council, RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

As the plan for a new transition developed, Hemedti aligned himself more closely with civilian parties to form a coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), that shared power with the military between Bashir's overthrow and the 2021 coup.

Diplomats and analysts said this was part of a strategy by Hemedti to transform himself into a statesman and cement his position at the centre of power. 

Both the FFC and Hemedti, who grew wealthy through gold mining and other ventures, stressed the need to sideline Islamist-leaning Bashir loyalists and veterans who had regained a foothold following the coup and had deep roots in the army.

Along with some pro-army rebel factions that benefited from a 2020 peace deal, the Bashir loyalists opposed the deal for a new transition.

Role of International Actors

The popular uprising had raised hopes that Sudan and its population of 46 million could emerge from decades of autocracy, internal conflict and economic isolation under Bashir but the current fighting, centred on one of Africa's largest urban areas, could not only destroy those hopes but destabilise a volatile region bordering the Sahel, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.

It could also play into competition for influence in the region between Russia and the US, and between regional powers who have courted different actors in Sudan.

Western powers, including the US, had swung behind a transition towards democratic elections following Bashir's overthrow. They suspended financial support following the coup, then backed the plan for the new transition and a civilian government.

Energy-rich powers 

Energy-rich powers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have also sought to shape events in Sudan, seeing the transition away from Bashir's rule as a way to roll back Islamist influence and bolster stability in the region. The Gulf states have pursued investments in sectors, including agriculture, where Sudan holds vast potential and ports on Sudan's Red Sea coast.

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Russia has been seeking to build a naval base on the Red Sea while several UAE companies have been signing up to invest.

The two generals, Burhan and Hemedti, both developed close ties with Saudi Arabia; after sending troops to participate in the Saudi-led operation in Yemen. Hemedti has struck up relations with other foreign powers, including the UAE and Russia.

The growing humanitarian crisis in a country already reliant on aid to feed its people could lead to large numbers of refugees. Already, up to 20,000 have left for neighbouring Chad, 10,000 for South Sudan and growing numbers are heading north to Egypt.

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