After one month, there’s no end in sight to the civil conflict between two rival military leaders in Sudan that has wracked its capital, Khartoum. The fight emerged from the messy politics following the 2019 social revolution and military coup that overthrew Sudan’s thirty-year dictator, Omar al-Bashir. But it’s also a new phase in a much longer set of civil conflicts that have beset the multi-ethnic country—as well as a new theater for the proxy conflicts that neighboring Arab states have pursued since the 2011 Arab Spring.
The current situation in Sudan is complex and those reporting on the conflict have a surplus of details to cover merely to describe what happened after the 2019 military coup, including the establishment of a civilian government after the revolution, its usurpation by the head of the armed forces, Gen. Abd el-Fattah Burhan, and Burhan’s rivalry with paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka “Hemedti”). Briefly put, Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are the rebranded and reorganized eastern Arab pastoralist militias known as the Janjaweed, which were responsible for many of the massacres of the civil war in Darfur two decades ago. Omar al-Bashir elevated Hemedti in the past decade as a counterbalance to other power centers in his government, in a vain effort to prevent a coup against himself. When renewed negotiations in 2022 to transition to civilian rule required Hemedti to demobilize a significant portion of his forces and subordinate himself to the regular army, Hemedti first delayed and then launched an attack against it on April 15, 2023.
Follow the Money
Jean-Baptiste Gallopin of the European Council on Foreign Relations provides more thorough detail on the financial structure of these new power blocks, shaped by the public aid and “dark money” granted—and withheld—by regional and global powers. Sudan had been on the US “state sponsor of terrorism” list since the 1990s, when al-Bashir harbored Osama bin Laden and other Islamists, preventing the World Bank and IMF from providing debt relief for the country. Even as the new civilian government struggled to stabilize the economy and fund subsidies on basic needs after 2019, the Trump administration didn’t hurry to lift this terrorism designation. Similarly, European states have pledged millions of Euros in aid but not delivered on their promises. Sudan, while stabilized, has simply not been a high priority for the global powers.
However, Arab regional powers, long interested in increasing influence in Sudan, have taken their opportunity to do so. The Sunni Islamist-oriented regimes of Turkey and Qatar had been al-Bashir allies. Their rivals Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE were eager to replace their influence. Egypt has strong ties to Burhan, while the UAE has become huge sponsor for Hemedti, a partnership that grew during the RSF cooperation with the UAE military in the Yemeni Civil War.
Despite their nominal alliance with the United States, this authoritarian “Arab Troika” has thus repeatedly undermined its diplomatic goals of supporting the transition to civilian government, uninterested in empowering a representative government in their neighborhood. While they have made pledges for support to Sudanese government programs, they too have not followed through, all while passing millions of dollars to their generals of choice through secret channels. The Sudanese Army and RSF have used this “dark money” to secure their control over parastatal corporations that dominate the fuel and wheat market, further reducing their dependence on the civilian government—and heightening the stakes of their rivalry.
The Tragedy of the Paramilitary Strategy
Understandably, the rise of Hemedti has led reporters to re-examine the origin of the Janjaweed in Darfur. Adam Mohammed explains that their rise has deeper roots than the conflicts of the 2000s, stemming from ecological change, and its complex interplay with war, economic policy, and nationalist ideology. The Janjaweed was composed of nomadic and semi-settled Arabic-speaking cattle and camel pastoralists, called the Baggara, in the Sahel grasslands just south of the Sahara. In the eighteenth century, they arrived in their current range, spanning modern day Chad, Libya, and Sudan, and intermarried with some of the non-Arab populations living there. Even during the intensification of agricultural settlement in Darfur in the early twentieth century, Mohammed notes that Arabic-speaking nomads and the non-Arab Fur-speaking farmers co-operated successfully.
This changed markedly during the 1970s, when a new climatic pattern of drought settled in the Sahel. This led to upheavals across northern Africa. Indeed, it was Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi that first organized Sudanese Arabs to fight against the government forces of Chad in its civil war in the 1980s. After their defeat, the flood of firearms that returned across the border with these tribes heightened violent clashes over the control of land and water between Arab pastoralists and Fur farmers in Sudan. This sparked a cycle of reprisals: Khartoum first canceled all forms of autonomous local government in Darfur, then revoked customary land ownership, reverting tribal farming claims to government ownership. When this fostered Fur cooperation in the 1990s with the ongoing rebellion in what is today South Sudan, the government began to directly fund and supply the Arab militias to fight back.
Why did the Sudanese government choose to empower these militias and stoke ethnic warfare, rather than intervening with formal state military forces? Ariel I. Ahram uses the War in Darfur as a lens to examine the paradoxical expansion of paramilitary activity in the twenty-first century. For states strapped for resources, or facing internal revolts, paramilitaries save money and can get results owing to “their decentralized command structure, ability to use and apply local knowledge of conditions, and ability to innovate faster than the bureaucracy-bound regular army.” Moreover, with stricter scrutiny of human rights abuses in the present day, states can (sometimes) deflect criticism of atrocities committed by militias they do not directly control.
And yet, the long-term impact of paramilitary activity is rarely positive for either states or the populations they hope to control. In effect, it denies what Max Weber identifies as the first principle of sovereignty—that a state holds a monopoly of legitimate violence over a specific territory. Sudan has certainly struggled to maintain its sovereignty over its vast and heterogeneous territories, conceding the secession of South Sudan by popular referendum in 2011. For decades, keeping the fighting “decentralized” meant the civil wars remained somewhat remote from the political and social elite in the Nile valley. But by empowering militias to the point they rivaled its own military, Sudan’s decades-long civil war has finally come “home” to Khartoum, with tragic consequences.