Like most contemporary wars, Sudan’s war cannot be reduced to a contest between two sides. It is many other things, among them a gun class of constantly shifting coalitions of specialists in violence and political trading that prey on civilians. Sudan’s peripheries have long been a lawless arena of brutal exploitation of people and natural resources by a military-commercial complex. Now the whole country is their canvas.
Four months after the fighting began, neither the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) nor the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has won a decisive victory on the battlefield. That should surprise no-one. Never has a Sudanese war ended that way.
Sudan’s current war began on 15 April when the country’s most energetic and capable politician, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, tried to seize power. Despite scrupulous planning and tactical skill, the coup failed to eliminate the command of the SAF, including its chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Even if the RSF does ultimately succeed in controlling the capital, it has failed politically: RSF atrocities — looting, killings, rape — turned its battlefield advances into public relations disasters.
The fight began as a mobster shootout over which soldier-business cartel would run Sudan. But the two bosses are losing their grip. Hemedti appears to be physically incapacitated and has shown none of the populist energy that allowed him to set a political agenda. Trying to dispel rumours that he was dead or in intensive care, the RSF released a video of patched together clips, in which Hemedti stood, stiff and pallid, speaking for just 11 seconds.
Al-Burhan has emerged from his bunker and been more visible, but hardly more coherent. He is nominal head of a fractious cabal of generals and financiers, many of them old-guard Islamists from the former regime of President Omar al-Bashir.
I have been a scholar of Sudan for four decades. During 2005-06, I was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-13 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, during negotiations over the independence of South Sudan and its aftermath. My most recent book, co-authored with Willow Berridge, Justin Lynch and Raga Makawi, tells the story of the civic revolution of 2019 and why it failed.
Looking at Sudan’s war in the context of the history of the Sudanese state and its wars, it’s reverting to type. It’s not an exact replica of earlier wars but if history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. A cabal of generals and Islamist powerbrokers, who prospered under the former regime of President Omar al-Bashir, are managing to secure recognition as the government. But their state has even more limited territorial control and weaker institutions than before, while peripheral mode of paramilitary governance – exemplified by the RSF – is expanding in territory and capability.
The Sudanese state today betrays its history as a plunder state on the margins of the global order. The men contending for power are brokers in this extractive system, not statebuilders. For this reason, current efforts at finding a compromise between al-Burhan and Hemedti are no more than a square peg for a multi-sided hole.
Sudan’s political marketplace
The alliance of civilian forces along with some army generals in the SAF, and the majority of African and western nations, aspired for a transition to an institutionalised and democratic state following the overthrow of Al-Bashir. But on the eve of the August 2019 constitutional declaration, I wrote a paper whose pessimistic summary was at odds with the optimism of that moment.
It was my view that the issues under negotiation at the time did not include the real structures of power in the country. I saw the major question not as instituting democracy but whether Hemedti —- the dominant political entrepreneur —- could take power himself and secure an accommodation with the other political-military businesses or whether there would be an establishment counter-coup.
I also argued that because Hemedti’s model was not sustainable, the most likely scenario was an acceleration of the trend towards an unregulated and violent ‘political marketplace’ and ‘paramilitary governance.
In the event, Hemedti compromised with the SAF. First, he agreed to al-Burhan taking the chair of the collective presidency, known as the Sovereignty Council, and later with the coup in October 2021. Such collusion was workable as long as security sector hierarchies were left unresolved. But the politics of delay ran out of road with the provision in the December 2022 Framework Agreement that required the absorption of the RSF under SAF command. So Hemedti made his move.
Instead of capturing the state, Hemedti destroyed it. In the continuing war, battlefield losses and gains are less important than material capacity. Most important are the political funds of the bosses of each belligerent coalition. Now as earlier, the SAF has had more material overall but the RSF has more disposable political income, which matters more.
The square peg
In the early weeks of the war, American and Saudi mediators pushed a straightforward cessation of hostilities between the Sudanese forces. It was a justifiable immediate response. Four months on, it is unhelpful.
The mediation arena is now crowded. The African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development led by Kenya as well as Egypt are all heading initiatives. Each says it is coordinating with the others. Regardless of whether this is sincere or not, the outcome of formal commonality is that all will agree on the simplest possible analysis, a two-sided war.
For Egypt, the underlying issue is a collapsing or fragmenting state. Just as it correctly feared that the Kenyan-led peace talks twenty years ago would lead to the secession of southern Sudan, today it worries about a failed state with two rival governments that generates millions of refugees.
For Kenya, it’s a blocked transition to democracy. The Americans and Saudis are reviving their joint ceasefire plans, shying away from the question of how a Sudanese state can be made viable. Others, for example the United Arab Emirates, may yet propose new forums or insist on having a role.
The United Nations is missing in action.
In contrast to earlier conflicts in Sudan, national civil society and public intellectuals haven’t shaped a vision for how the country can escape from its death spiral. Nor indeed have African scholars and analysts. Sudanese political scientists have provided rich accounts of their country’s historical dysfunction. It’s time for those analyses to be revived and debated. In the vacuum, Sudan’s future is shaped by guns and money.
A barebones state
Thirty years ago, the Islamist minister of finance, Abdel Rahim Hamdi, argued that the central parts of Sudan constituted an economically viable miniature country. The towns and commercial farming schemes within a day’s drive of Khartoum became known as the “Hamdi Triangle”. This was a middle-income enclave and the locus of most infrastructure and investment. Hamdi argued that this area could prosper without having to administer the troublesome peripheries of southern Sudan, Darfur and other far-flung areas that served chiefly as labour reserves.
The fruit of this war may be a truncated semi-triangle in eastern Sudan. This would be run like the military-Islamist duopoly of the al-Bashir years, except more brutal and more venal. And, probably, more fractious. Different generals and Islamists have united around al-Burhan as their titular leader but are likely to stick together only as long as the RSF in Khartoum poses an existential threat.
The contest between Hemedti and al-Burhan remains an impasse. Early statements from American and Saudi Arabian mediators spoke of the SAF merely as a belligerent, putting it on an equal standing with the RSF. Lately, al-Burhan and his group are now widely recognised as the Government of Sudan. This is despite the fact that they don’t control the capital city. They administer only their de facto headquarters in Port Sudan and a handful of other cities.
The RSF is the revenge of the cannon fodder against Sudan’s political establishment that was ready to exploit them when it needed a dirty job done. Its leader, Hemedti, had a populist touch and made opportunistic alliances. His political fortunes rose because he had political energy and money. And because he promised an alternative to the old guard.
But Hemedti’s chameleon-like political stratagems couldn’t conceal the DNA of his political-military business. He is the son of the Janjaweed militias, infamous for their atrocities in the Darfur war of 2003-05. RSF is also a family affair, but none of Hemedti’s deputies – brothers, uncles, cousins – have the charisma and status to replace him.
If the RSF were to prevail, we should expect that the Sudanese government, or remnants thereof, would become a wholly owned subsidiary of the commercial-military-ethnic agenda of the Dagalo family and its most powerful backers.
The contradiction of paramilitary governance is its destructiveness. The RSF modus operandi is to attack and loot everything —- markets, farms, schools, hospitals —- leaving a wasteland. The militiamen drive out the locals but they can sustain themselves only by moving on to new victims. In due course they will run out of cities to pillage.
Written by Alex De Waal, Research Professor and Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.