Sudan's ongoing turf war

Violent clashes between parts of the Sudanese security forces and the ominous influence of external financiers of the paramilitary "Rapid Support Forces" (RSF) are endangering the country's democratisation process. By Samuel Ramani

By Samuel Ramani

On 14 January, heavy gunfire broke out at Sudan’s Directorate of National Intelligence in Khartoum. Sudanese officials accused former employees of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), a dissolved security organ of former President Omar al-Bashir’s government, of instigating the clashes to increase their severance compensation. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) swiftly quelled the NISS-led rebellion, but the revolt led to the resignation of Sudan’s intelligence chief General Abu Bakr Mustafa on 16 January. 

Although Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, insists that the SAF has regained complete control over the intelligence directorate, the January 14 incident highlighted deep polarisations within the Sudanese military establishment. These divisions originated during Bashir’s presidency

After seizing power through a coup d’etat in 1989, Bashir used patronage networks to splinter the Sudanese military along tribal lines and maintained power by exploiting ideological divisions between Arab nationalists and Islamists within the SAF.

Divide and rule

This divide-and-rule strategy prevented the Sudanese military from launching a coup d’etat against Bashir until Sudan’s burgeoning economic crisis and Bashir’s advanced age rendered his position untenable. The Sudanese army’s coalescence around the Burhan-led Transitional Military Council (TMC) in April 2019 was largely tactical, however, and continued demonstrations revived old schisms within the Sudanese military.

Attack on Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in Khartoum on 9 March 2020 (photo: Reuters/N. Abdalla)
Anschlagsversuch auf Sudans Ministerpräsident: Abdalla Hamdoks Fahrzeugkonvoi wurde am 9. März auf dem Weg in sein Büro in Khartum von Sprengsätzen getroffen. Der Ministerpräsident blieb unverletzt, wenige Stunden später setzte er die Regierungsgeschäfte fort. Hamdok steht im Sudan seit letztem August einer Übergangsregierung aus Militärs und Zivilisten vor. Seit seinem Amtsantritt versucht der frühere UN-Wirtschaftsexperte, die am Boden liegende Wirtschaft des Landes anzukurbeln, die Politik zu reformieren und mit den Rebellen im Westen und Süden über einen Frieden zu verhandeln.

Sudan’s intra-military divisions were laid bare after the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a much-feared Sudanese paramilitary organization, massacred 128 protesters in Khartoum on June 3. Although the April coup caused major personnel turnover in the middle and lower ranks of the SAF, which included many supporters of the anti-Bashir demonstrations, Burhan’s inner circle passively accepted the RSF’s actions on June 3 but remained willing to strike a deal with the Sudanese opposition.

On 13 June the head of the Sudanese Air Force, Lieutenant General Salah Abdel Khalig, claimed that the TMC did not wish to “rule Sudan forever,” and wanted a political transition within a few months. Khalig’s conciliatory statement contrasted with RSF chief Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo’s insistence that he would step down only “over his dead body”.

Although the SAF and RSF’s conflicting views on negotiating with the opposition were widely expected to forestall a political transition in Sudan, the July 5 power-sharing agreement caused the SAF’s accommodationist position to gain a decisive advantage.

Blocking democratic transition

The deal institutionalized the rotation of power within the sovereign council between civilian and military authorities and mandated nation-wide elections in 2022. Even though Hemeti signed Sudan’s formal transition agreement on August 17 in front of officials such as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, the RSF continues to impede Sudan’s advance towards democracy.

The RSF has disrupted Sudan’s political transition by orchestrating periodic insurrections and taking aggressive measures to bolster its institutional power. On 12 July, the RSF allegedly instigated a coup attempt, which resulted in the arrests of 12 officers and 4 soldiers.

General Jamal Omar, a senior official within the TMC, linked this coup attempt directly to anti-transition forces and claimed that “a group of people who refuse the demands of the people” threatened Sudan’s security. The RSF was also believed to have played a hand in a July 24 coup attempt, which led to the arrest of General Bakri Hassan Saleh, who served as vice president of Sudan from 2013 to 2019.

The RSF has insisted that rogue elements within the Sudanese military instigated these coup attempts, and RSF forces joined their SAF counterparts in repressing the January 14 mutiny. Nevertheless, supporters of Sudan’s political transition remain wary of the RSF’s destabilizing conduct.

Access to economic resources

In addition to undercutting Sudan’s democracy through insurrection, the RSF has expanded its access to economic resources that could guarantee its long-term institutional strength. Although Hemeti publicly criticized the kleptocratic practices of Bashir’s inner circle, the RSF chief struck a deal with Bashir in late 2018 that allowed Hemeti to expropriate $30 million worth of gold via his family firm Algunade.

RSF forces also guard gold mines in Darfur and South Kordofan and have preserved control over Darfur’s economic resources by destroying forty-five villages and perpetrating extra-judicial killings. The RSF has also reportedly gained access to millions of euros in European Union financial assistance to Sudan, which European policymakers provided to prevent an influx of Sudanese refugees from entering Europe via North Africa.

Although Sudan’s transition received widespread international praise, including from the Sudanese revolution’s most strident opponents, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia, external powers continue to support the RSF’s efforts to de-rail Sudan’s democratic transition.

The RSF actively participates in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, and in July 2019 1,000 RSF forces deployed to Libya in support of UAE-aligned Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli. These military campaigns provided Hemeti’s inner circle with much-needed hard currency, and Dubai-based financial institutions act as safe havens for the RSF’s illicit gold revenues.

Russiaʹs sinister role

Although Russia has established positive relations with Sudan’s transitional government and sought to repair the reputational damage caused by its deployment of private military contractors on Bashir’s behalf, Russia’s opposition to a UN peacekeeping presence in Darfur indirectly strengthens the RSF’s influence in that region.

Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar (photo: picture-alliance/Balkis Press)
Dem „Haudegen der Cyrenaika“, Khalifa Haftar, treu ergeben: Im Juli 2019 wurden 1.000 RSF-Milizionäre nach Libyen entsandt, um die Offensive des mit den VAE verbündeten Befehlshabers der Libyschen Nationalen Armee (LNA), Khalifa Haftar, gegen Tripolis zu unterstützen. Diese Militäraktionen verschafften Hemeti und seiner Gefolgschaft die dringend benötigten finanziellen Mittel, wobei in Dubai ansässige Finanzinstitutionen als sicherer Hafen für die illegalen Goldeinnahmen der RSF dienen.

In spite of continued external support for Hemeti, the RSF’s challenge to Sudan’s democratic transition could face some fresh obstacles in the coming months. Sudan’s decision to reduce its military presence in Yemen from 15,000 to as few as 657 troops by 14 January diminishes one of the RSF’s most important revenue streams.

Episodes of dissent, such as recurrent protests outside the UAE embassy in Khartoum, against Sudan’s participation in foreign military campaigns, could result in further drawdowns of the RSF’s presence in Libya and Yemen. Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North leader Malik Agar’s decision to make overtures to Khartoum to end the South Kordofan conflict could allow the SAF to gain greater influence and resist RSF hegemony.

If Sudan is removed as a U.S. state sponsor of terrorism and accompanying sanctions are lifted, Khartoum could gain financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund. This could increase public confidence in Sudan’s civilian government, as it would facilitate economic reforms and convince the RSF’s external sponsors to shore up Sudan’s legitimate institutions.

Even though Sudan has made encouraging progress towards a democratic transition that would implore the Sudanese military to return to the barracks, an ongoing turf war between the RSF and SAF imperils Sudan’s political future.

The viability of Sudan’s political transition will depend on Khartoum’s ability to quell civil conflicts, curry U.S. support for economic reforms, and restrict the malign influence of the RSF’s external sponsors.   

Samuel Ramani

© sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2020

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.