The fighting that has erupted in Sudan between the country’s armed forces and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces pits the president against his vice-president in a struggle for control of Africa’s third-largest country.
Both men had emerged as leaders of the transitional government after a 2019 coup that ousted Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled over the country as a dictator for 30 years.
Now General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, president of Sudan’s military government, and his rival Lt General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, vice-president and head of the RSF, are in open warfare. Some fear the violence, which has killed at least 50 civilians in less than 48 hours, could yet descend into full-scale civil war.
“Both sides have bases across the country. Both see this fight in existential terms. This is a pure power struggle for who will control Sudan,” said Alan Boswell, head analyst for the Horn of Africa at Crisis Group, a think-tank. “This war is already dashing any hopes for the quick restoration of civilian rule.”
Hemeti’s RSF began as a fighting force, known as the Janjaweed, created by Bashir both to fight a civil uprising in Darfur in western Sudan and to protect himself.
Al-Burhan and Hemeti were formally behind a process to move Sudan towards democratic elections. Prospects for that have progressively dimmed over the past four years, particularly since Abdullah Hamdok, a civilian prime minister and part of a hybrid transitional government, resigned in 2022 following a second coup.
“The marriage of Hemeti and Burhan was always a marriage of convenience that was not likely to last,” said Chidi Odinkalu of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Now that the shooting has started, all pretence of unity has vanished. Al-Burhan’s forces are calling Hemeti a “criminal” and have put a price on his head, while the RSF commander told Al Jazeera Arabic that, when it comes to his nemesis, his forces would either “catch and bring him to justice or he will die like a dog”.
The proximate cause of violence was a tussle over the timetable by which the RSF was to be integrated into Sudan’s main armed forces, something Hemeti had strongly resisted.
Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British billionaire and head of an eponymous foundation who has backed democratic transition in his country, said neither man was willing to relinquish power and the control of lucrative resources that went with it. “Each of them has so much at stake, not just power but economically and financially,” he said.
The armed forces controlled much of the country’s businesses, Ibrahim said, while Hemeti had murky private interests, including in lucrative gold mines and the supply of mercenaries for fighting in Libya and Yemen.
If it escalates, the conflict will have broader regional repercussions.
Both Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates were big financial backers of the transitional military council, in which Hemeti was a key player, following the 2019 coup. One western diplomat said the Saudis and the UAE had been supporters of Hemeti since the 2019 coup. “They gave him a lot of cash for the past 10 years. He’s much stronger now because of them and the cash they sent to him,” he said, adding that Egypt had been a backer of al-Burhan.
Saudi and the UAE are also, along with the US and UK, part of the Quad group that has sought to support the democratic transition and facilitate talks. And both Gulf states are concerned about instability on the Red Sea — a key trade route — and fear the rise of Islamists in the region.
In public, Riyadh has called on both sides to stop fighting. The UAE has also called for de-escalation and for dialogue to end the crisis.
The struggle between two factions of the military, which has already spread around the country, “risks sucking in many outside actors and spilling across Sudan’s borders if not arrested soon”, said Crisis Group’s Boswell.
Alex de Waal, a former adviser to the African Union on Sudan, said the risks of escalation were high. The two sides were evenly matched, he said. The army had more firepower, but Hemeti’s RSF had more fighting experience and potentially more cash.
“It looks like the beginning of a civil war,” he said. “Both sides have got constituencies who are well-armed and deeply fearful of each other. There is no party in Sudan that can credibly mediate.”
Omer Digair, head of the Sudanese Congress party, one of the civilian power brokers in the negotiations to get a civilian government, said he had not given up hope for an eventual transfer to democracy.
“The priority now is to stop the clashes between the two military components and I think there is no alternative for the political process to result in the formation of a civilian government,” he said.
Ibrahim said he feared that the military, which has ruled Sudan for most of the period since independence in 1956, would never willingly relinquish power. But he agreed that the country could make little progress until democracy was established.
“I have no clue how this will end,” he said. “If it is possible, my wish is for the two military sides to be defeated. Sudan would be much better without either of them.”
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai