Sudan Descends Into Conflict as Rival Generals Clash
The long-brewing power struggle between Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has plunged the country into civil war.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Sudan descends into violence, Libya goes after Christian missionaries, and a jailbreak in South Africa.
Warring Military Leaders Spark Chaos in Sudan
Sudan experts have long feared the eruption of violence between troops loyal to Sudan’s de facto military ruler Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, a former warlord who governs the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which grew from deadly militia operating in Darfur and were responsible for the rape and massacre of pro-democracy protesters.
As of Tuesday, the violence had killed at least 185 people. Three people in the capital Khartoum told Foreign Policy that they had been sheltering over the weekend during a blackout while sounds of gunfire and airstrikes continued in some parts of the city, including direct hits on civilian planes at the capital’s international airport. Local reports suggest clashes have spread to the nation’s borders with Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The personal rivalry hinges on a framework agreement signed Dec. 5, which called for the RSF’s absorption into the army. The Sudanese Armed Forces want the process to take two years, while the RSF wants it to take 10 years. A finalized agreement was originally scheduled to be reached by April 1, with a target of having a new civilian government in place by April 11, yet the leaders repeatedly clashed over the terms.
There were arguments over elevating Hemeti to Burhan’s equal within the army, which unnerved Islamists in Sudan, whom Burhan had begun to tactically reincorporate into the Sudanese government.
Both generals are fighting to stay in power, hiding behind a facade of pro-democracy statements, after partnering to lead Sudan’s October 2021 coup. “Hemeti believes that he can bribe the [Transitional Sovereignty Council] and buy his way into power if he supports the transition,” said Ahmed T. el-Gaili, a Sudanese lawyer. “Even in this crisis, he has been presenting himself as a victim because of his support for the transition.”
The RSF has said it was “forced to make an adequate response” after “the Sudanese Armed Forces’ unprovoked attack on our camp in Soba.” Incendiary language from both camps suggests the violence won’t end soon despite the Sudanese army’s 120,000 to 200,000 fighters vastly outnumbering the RSF’s estimated 30,000 to 100,000. Hemeti told Al Jazeera that Burhan will either be brought to justice or “die like a dog.” In turn, Burhan ordered the RSF, which he calls a “rebellious group,” to be dissolved.
Placing a unified army under civilian authority is a key demand of pro-democracy groups. But many Sudanese political observers say the process was rushed by international mediators eager to see a signed agreement, which only heightened tensions. For Sudanese pro-democracy groups, the U.S. and U.N. mediators legitimized army rule and allowed “men with guns” to negotiate the country’s democratic future. “In a post-war scenario, both of these individuals have no place in Sudan’s political or military future,” said el-Gaili.
As Colum Lynch and FP’s Robbie Gramer reported in 2021, Sudan’s generals have in the past shown little deference to the United States’ envoys, launching their military coup within hours of then-regional envoy Jeffrey Feltman’s meeting with Burhan.
Many analysts argue that the Biden administration needs a radical rethink on how to broker peace in Sudan. “These generals are not reformists who can be relied upon to usher in a civilian democratic transition,” said Kholood Khair, managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners, a Khartoum-based think tank. “They are nakedly ambitious generals who behave in bad faith, and therefore the types of approaches that are required are going to be vastly different than the ones that have been employed so far.”
Building on Ethiopia’s African Union-brokered peace deal, a breakthrough in Sudan will require the involvement of regional powers. Most Sudanese analysts agree it would mean the United States working with like-minded allies as well as Gulf powers, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which hold greater sway. Hemeti is perceived to be aligned with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while Burhan is seen as an ally of Egypt.
There are signs that this is happening. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that he had consulted the Emirati and Saudi foreign ministers, who forged a consensus that both generals should “immediately end hostilities without pre-condition,” Blinken said in a statement. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-nation regional bloc of which Sudan is a member, announced it would send the presidents of Kenya, Djibouti, and South Sudan to mediate.
“I was informed that Russia had tried to convince the Sudan armed forces to come to the negotiating table, but the Sudan armed forces had refused and so this is quite clearly a fight to the death between Burhan and Hemeti, which is quite dangerous to all,” said Khair, noting that Egypt could be drawn into the conflict, which would destabilize the region. Inflaming tensions further, the RSF released a video of captured Egyptian forces carrying out exercises in Sudan. Political observers suspect they were targeted by the RSF over Egypt’s support of Burhan and the Sudanese military.
Ultimately, it is the Sudanese public who are suffering from heavily armed political deadlock. The RSF are reportedly looting buildings. The Sudanese army continues to kill pro-democracy protesters with impunity. Prices for bread and fuel have skyrocketed. Chad—whose military government is itself hanging by a thread—has closed its border with Sudan.
International mediators need “to work firmly on making sure that the security discussions and ending the conflict does not result in compromising the aspirations of democracy of the Sudanese people,” said Hamid Khalafallah, a policy analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Khartoum. “We will never have security without democracy and we have seen that over and over again.”
Sudanese analysts warn that the country is now heading toward an all-out civil war. Burhan’s army controls around 250 vital companies in the Sudanese economy. Meanwhile, Hemeti’s wealth stems from the country’s gold mines, and he is perceived to be backed by Russia. He returned from a Moscow trip last February raising support for a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. As the situation escalates, high-level diplomacy involving key Arab states may be the only way out.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, April 19: The U.N. Security Council meets to discuss the Great Lakes region and the U.N. mission in Western Sahara.
Thursday, April 20: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hosts Namibian President Hage Geingob on a state visit.
Monday, April 24, to Thursday, April 27: The Court of Appeal in London holds a hearing on legal challenges to the U.K. government’s Rwanda asylum plan.
What We’re Watching
Burkina Faso conflict. At least 40 Burkinabe troops were killed by gunmen on Saturday near the city of Ouahigouya, in the country’s northern region. Atrocities are increasing as the country’s military leaders come under pressure to reduce jihadi attacks. In February, a video appeared on social media that appeared to show members of Burkina Faso’s security forces killing seven teenage boys. Continued violence has led to political instability. The nation’s new junta leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traore, seized power in a coup last September, eight months after a previous coup by military leader Paul-Henri Damiba.
Leaks on Russia. A leak last week of more than 100 documents containing classified U.S. intelligence could further jeopardize U.S. aid to Egypt. Cairo has denied a leaked U.S. intelligence report dated from February saying Egypt planned to produce 40,000 rockets for Russia. In the document, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is said to have instructed officials to keep the production secret “to avoid problems with the West.”
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Washington has no evidence of Egypt providing these weapons and continues to see Cairo as a “significant security partner.” The United States provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid to Egypt—the fourth-biggest beneficiary after Ukraine, Israel, and Afghanistan (according to figures that include spending prior to the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover there). But U.S. lawmakers have urged that some of that money be withheld over Egypt’s human rights record. The revelations could lead to further opposition to aid for Sisi’s administration.
Meanwhile, the leaks also revealed the depth of U.S. monitoring on Russia in Africa. One document describes a propaganda plan by Russian intelligence agencies to sway public opinion toward Moscow, including peddling conspiracy theories about U.S. biological labs.
Libya conversion arrests. Libyan security forces arrested two U.S. citizens last Thursday for allegedly trying to convert Muslim children to Christianity. Authorities have not named the two Americans, but according to local media reports, both taught at a private language school in the capital Tripoli. One of the men is accused of working on behalf of the Assemblies of God, a U.S. missionary group based in Missouri.
Two Libyans were also arrested—one woman for releasing videos on social media promoting Christianity after converting. Islam is the state religion in Libya, and while Christians are free to worship, attempting to convert Muslims to other faiths is banned, and authorities often arrest foreigners suspected of doing so.
This Week in True Crime
For almost a year, South African police were unaware that Thabo Bester, a fugitive murderer and rapist, had faked his own death in a fire and broken out of prison until an investigation by news agency GroundUp.
Bester was imprisoned in 2012 for the rape and robbery of women he met on Facebook. He killed at least one victim. The manhunt began only last month, when new DNA evidence revealed that the burnt body of a man found in Bester’s cell in May 2022 was not his. The autopsy showed that the unnamed man had died as a result of blunt trauma to the head prior to the fire. There was no security camera footage of Bester’s escape due to a power failure, an inquiry found.
Bester was rearrested last Friday in Tanzania alongside his girlfriend, celebrity doctor Nandipha Magudumana. The pair, who had carved out a luxury lifestyle, according to media reports, were caught with multiple passports by Tanzanian police while attempting to be make their way to the Kenyan border.
The story’s many twists have sparked outrage among South Africans. Under pressure, the government has taken over management of the prison in Bloemfontein from British private security firm G4S. Bester is back in prison in Pretoria, under 24-hour surveillance and guarded by “highly trained” officers, South African prisons boss Makgothi Thobakgale told a press conference in Cape Town.
Chart of the Week
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has set out a target of 2 trillion rand (about $110 billion) in new investments over the next five years to fix the nation’s energy, security, and infrastructure challenges. Mismanagement and corruption of state-owned companies Eskom and Transnet—responsible for power supply and freight logistics, respectively—have impacted infrastructure while criminals reportedly steal coal en route to Eskom plants. South Africa’s central bank estimates blackouts of up to 10 hours daily are costing the economy 899 million rand ($51 million) each day.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• The West Is Preparing for Russia’s Disintegration by Anchal Vohra
• Macron Said Out Loud What Europeans Really Think About China by Benjamin Haddad
• Crimea Has Become a Frankenstein’s Monster by Anatol Lieven
What We’re Reading
U.S. aid syndrome. Felix Kumah-Abiwu and N. Kariuki wa Githuku argue in the Elephant that Kamala Harris’s three-nation tour of Africa was a positive direction in U.S.-Africa relations under the first U.S. vice president of African and South Asian descent. But they argue that Washington needs to adjust to compete with China’s long-term commercial game plan. “The US needs to retool by designing its African policy priorities with greater emphasis on ‘commercial diplomacy,’” they wrote, adding that “the trend of the ‘more aid syndrome’” rather than “any radical pronouncement of mutually beneficial and expansive trade relations,” is a “disconcerting reminder” of how the West has historically engaged with the continent.
Jihadi survival pacts. In HumAngle, Aliyu Dahiru reviews the recent findings of a study published last month, which shows that extremists groups operating in the Sahel are increasingly negotiating contracts with civilians, often at gunpoint, in exchange for peace. These pacts force locals to adhere to insurgent groups’ interpretation of sharia law and to become informants to aid attacks on government security forces. However, by “working with these organisations, civilians run the risk of endorsing their extreme ideologies, making it more difficult to marginalise them and diminish their power over time,” Dahiru writes.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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