Researcher: Hemedti and Al-Burhan represent historical division in Sudan
The head of the Sudanese army rejected a recent peace proposal by Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), saying that he refused to “negotiate with traitors”. NAI Senior Researcher Redie Bereketeab foresees a protracted conflict. “As long as both sides think they can win, they are not likely to sit down at the negotiation table”, Bereketeab says.
The armed conflict in Sudan broke out in April between rivals General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who commands the Sudanese army, and Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary RSF. The trigger was disagreement over the proposed incorporation of the RSF into the national army.
The conflict started at a time when Sudan was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis due to political turmoil and food insecurity. According to conservative estimates from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), nearly 5,000 people have been killed. More than 14 million children need humanitarian aid and over four million people have fled the fighting, either within Sudan or as refugees to neighbouring states, according to UN agencies. UN and human rights groups have accused both the military and the RSF of human rights violations. Both forces have rejected the accusations.
Hemedti on 27 August said the RSF was open to a long-term ceasefire with the army and presented his vision for a "Sudan Reborn", a ten-point plan for peace, spurring hope that the warring parties would engage in talks. However, optimism soon faded after al-Burhan rejected the proposal, calling Hemedti a “traitor” and promising victory for his side.
Bereketeab says that fundamental differences between the two men make a solution in the near future unlikely.
“Al-Burhan has made it clear that the army is not willing to negotiate with [the] RSF – they want to dismantle them. Hemedti, on his part, sees al-Burhan as a remnant of the old regime, a continuation of the power system of [former president] Omar al-Bashir and the Islamist movement. He wants to dismantle not the army as an army but the ideology and old powers behind the army”, Bereketeab says.
The fact that neither side has a clear upper hand on the battlefield also points towards a protracted conflict, he observes.
“Al-Burhan relies on the exclusive resources of the national forces, especially the air force conducting air strikes over Khartoum, while Hemedti is controlling major parts of the capital on the ground. As long as they have this balance, I don’t think either party is willing to compromise.”
Only a major development on the military front could change the current balance, Bereketeab argues.
“If, for example, an external power would provide the RSF with airplanes or anti-air weapons so they could seriously threaten the Sudanese army in Khartoum, then conditions for negotiation would be very different, of course”, he says.
The ongoing conflict is in many ways a continuation of the struggle between Sudan’s north and south, which has shaped national politics since colonial rule, says Bereketeab, whose research focuses on state- and nation-building in the Horn of Africa.
Before independence in 1956, Sudan was an Anglo-Egyptian condominium where northerners and southerners were separated under the British colonial policy of divide and rule. The British invested heavily in the Arab north, modernising and liberalising political and economic institutions, and improving social, educational and health services. However, economic and social development in the southern provinces was held back.
Since independence, political and economic power has been confined to an old elite in Khartoum, while the majority of the country’s 200 ethnic groups have remained politically marginalised and poor.
“These two men do not only represent two armies; they also represent two groups of Sudanese. Al-Burhan represents the privileged people of Khartoum who have controlled power for many decades. Hemedti is from Darfur in the southwest and represents the poor and marginalised.”
The question of the future of Sudan’s military forces, which ignited the conflict in April, also plays an important practical and symbolic role in the north-south power dynamic, Bereketeab explains.
“When Hemedti talked about a break-up of the old army and the integration of the RSF, he also meant the dismantling of the old system of political and economic power.”
Hemedti’s call has resonated with marginalised Sudanese, especially people from the south, who see the push for a new army as a push for the creation of a new Sudan. The RSF leader is building on the tradition of John Garang, a Sudanese politician and revolutionary who was killed in 2005, whose guiding philosophy centred on building a secular and multi-ethnic ‘New Sudan’.
In the longer term, Sudanese leaders will have to address the previous failures of Sudan’s political elites to create a common national identity and inclusive state institutions, according to Bereketeab.
“Those failures always come back; they poison national politics and create a cycle of conflicts and wars. It means that even if the current war and conflict is resolved, we might have after some years the same problem, because the fundamental issues are not resolved”.
Bereketeab continues: “What Sudan needs is devoted political leaders who take into account the multiplicity of society and build national institutions which are representative of all. That can only be achieved through inclusive negotiation and compromise.”
TEXT: Mattias Sköld
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan
Head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan’s de facto leader.
In 2019, Al-Burhan, together with Hemedti and other generals, staged a coup to eject Sudan’s long-serving dictator, General Omar al-Bashir, from power. Protest leaders and the armed forces then struck a power-sharing deal which was supposed to lead to elections and a civilian government.
In 2021 General Burhan, backed by powerful Islamist groups linked to Bashir’s old regime, carried out a second coup against the civilian leaders of a transitional government. Again, he was joined by his rival, Hemedti.
Leaders of the civilian bloc and the junta signed a provisional accord promising a fully civilian government and elections in two years. It included the integration of the RSF into the SAF and creation of a single national army under civilian oversight, reducing the power of the armed forces in politics and the economy.
Al-Burhan acted to ensure the pre-eminence of the SAF, which led to a fallout with Hemedti. He was unwilling to accept any deal which curtailed the SAF’s business interests. In the months before the fighting broke out, both SAF and RSF built up their forces and reinforced their positions in the capital and other strategic places.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, “Hemedti”
Head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Once a camel herder and small-time businessman from the deserts of Darfur, he started out with neither formal education nor military training.
Hemedti played a key role in the counter-insurgency against Darfuri rebels, in the civil war in Sudan's western region that began in 2003. He was the commander of the Janjaweed, an Arab militia accused of committing genocide against the region’s African tribes on behalf of the country’s long-serving dictator, General Omar al-Bashir.
A true pragmatist, over the last two or three years, he has tried to position himself as a national figure, and representative of the marginalised peripheries – trying to forge alliances with rebel groups in Darfur and South Kordofan that he had previously been tasked with destroying.
He claims to be fighting for democracy. But as recently as 2021 he joined forces with his rival, General Burhan, to oust the civilian-led government. He portrays himself as a staunch opponent of political Islam, even though he was for years an enthusiastic participant in the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir.
Despite Hemedti’s recent efforts to portray himself as a representative of Sudan’s downtrodden masses, it is unclear whether he can attract a wider popular base.