Battling for control: General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, pictured in 2019. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
As Sudan’s generals feed the meatgrinder, jeopardising their country’s future and displacing thousands of civilians, questions need to be asked over why the warning signs were missed.
In recent months, tensions between General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a militia-turned-paramilitary group led by Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemmeti’ Dagalo – finally spilled over into open warfare. Greater in scale and intensity than many predicted, analogies have already been drawn to the ‘chaotic free-for-all’ in Libya or the systemic collapse of Somalia. At once a regional crisis and humanitarian tragedy, the violence reflects – as Alex de Waal argues – a ‘revolution no one wanted’: the convulsions of a rapacious, kleptocratic logic coming full circle. At the same time, it exposes chronic failures among international donors, from poor assumptions to inadequate capacity and a lack of strategic vision. As efforts continue to find a ceasefire that sticks, it is therefore essential to understand the genesis of the conflict and why the diplomatic community got it so wrong.
The immediate trigger stems from negotiations over a civilian transition after more than two years of coup governance. Having subscribed to the UN-backed Framework Agreement in December 2022, the RSF, military and Forces of Freedom and Change Central Council (FFC-CC) – an umbrella for around 40 civil society groups – launched ‘Phase II’ a month later, focusing on regime accountability and security sector reform (SSR). From the outset, analysts raised concerns over a truncated process primarily designed for foreign consumption. Keen to stave off complete economic collapse, donors, international organisations and Sudanese politicians pushed a suite of proposals lacking popular buy-in or support from neighbourhood resistance-committees. Crucially, they also neglected internal politics within SAF itself, opting to recognise the RSF as a ‘regular entity affiliated with the armed forces but under the direct command of a civilian head of state, rather than the army chief’. Benefitting Hemmeti – who could conceivably retain an independent powerbase – the arrangement was criticised by Sudan’s top brass as a vehicle for extending paramilitary influence, likely at the expense of the country’s regular forces.
The final straw may have involved pathways and timeframes for integration – Hemmeti demanded 10 years to Al-Burhan’s two, and the dismissal of 800 SAF officers – but both parties were already conducting large-scale recruitment drives across Darfur. Reports of army officials dispensing cash to Rizeigat and Al-Ta’aisha – core RSF constituencies – were accompanied by leaks from Military Intelligence accusing the group of importing armed drones via Turkey. Rumours spread of provincial bosses and Border Guard militia receiving salaries, promotions and the promise of plum jobs abroad. Hemmeti in turn cast Al-Burhan as a ‘radical Islamist’, re-emphasising claims that the October coup was a ‘mistake’ and ‘gateway for the return of the former regime [fronted by the National Congress Party, NCP]’. With Al-Burhan already ‘backtracking on previous statements’ over the terms of transition, these narratives chimed with many in the FFC-CC who saw SAF as a redoubt for NCP loyalism. In response, military spokesmen and media outlets maintained they could not ‘make an agreement…[with] two armies in the country’. As tensions ratcheted up, talks broke down: neither outfit attended the final workshop on SSR and – beneath a professed commitment to peaceful mediation – both reinforced their positions across the capital.
Who fired first is unclear but on 13 April, RSF troops surrounded an airbase housing Egyptian MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum fighter-jets in the northern town of Merowe. Two days later, clashes broke out across major cities, with ‘tanks driving through the streets of central Khartoum’ and heavy gunfire reported outside the state broadcaster, Republican Palace, Ministry of Defence, and international airport. Susceptible to aerial strafing and rocket fire, militiamen occupied hospitals and residential neighbourhoods, converting apartments into make-shift strongholds and taking the families of army personnel hostage. In response, Special Forces raided large RSF camp-complexes in Soba and Tiba as infantry and Central Reserve Police (CRP) attempted to reclaim bridges, highways and strategic districts such as Al-Bagair industrial zone. Even when combined with air-support, these efforts nonetheless found little traction. By early June, the RSF held much of Bahri, downtown Khartoum, and pockets of Omdurman. Having overrun multiple SAF bases, including the sprawling Yarmouk weapons factory, the group was able to encircle further hold-outs – the Shajara Armoured Corps and Corps of Engineers – until they were eventually forced back by a short-lived counteroffensive. Although the frontlines remain fluid, the army is now ‘heavily outnumbered’ across the capital, with Sudan War Monitor reporting the loss of CRP’s local headquarters alongside ‘dozens of Shareef-2 armoured vehicles, huge amounts of ammunition, and more than 100 pickup trucks’.
Further afield, fighting may be primarily concentrated in Darfur, but incidents continue across White Nile, Blue Nile, and North Kordofan, together with rising tensions in Gedaref and eastern border-towns. Over 3,000 civilians have been killed, with others running low on basic necessities while stuck in ‘40-degree Celsius heat without electricity or […] water’. Many describe shortages of food and medical supplies as looters and shelling push neglected infrastructure to the point of collapse: at least a third of Sudan’s health facilities are no longer functioning. Resistance committees appear to be ‘repurpos[ing] themselves as emergency networks for community information [and] protection’, but as the only source of ‘civic governance’ available they are over-stretched, under-resourced and dangerously exposed. Humanitarian offices have likewise been plundered and markets burned, cutting off displaced populations in Darfur as up to 90,000 people – mostly women and children – flee across the border. UN Refugee Agency officials anticipate a further 270,000 refugees may try to reach Chad and South Sudan. In the north, more than 110,000 have already arrived in Egypt.
Successive ceasefires have yielded little, with a 72-hour truce negotiated by the US and Saudi Arabia on 24 April only offering a brief window to evacuate foreign nationals and doing little to alleviate the suffering of Sudanese themselves. Over nine subsequent deals have since folded, including a 10-day agreement brokered at Jeddah which suffered repeated violations and collapsed in the lead up to a new SAF offensive in June.
At the same time, Western diplomats recall being ‘blind-sided’ by the violence, admissions congruent with helicopters taking off from the US embassy and confused instructions relayed by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Ten days prior to the conflict, officials were allegedly expressing ‘cautious optimism’ about the transition process. Even Volker Perthes, UN special representative to Sudan, claimed ‘we did not have any early warning’, despite attending iftar at the home of Lieutenant-General Shams Al-Kabashi, the army’s deputy commander, hours before gunfire broke out.
The violence exposes chronic failures among international donors, from poor assumptions to inadequate capacity and a lack of strategic vision
Crucially, however, such narratives overlook well-known realities of the country’s history and political economy: conditions reproducing and institutionalising violence, and fixing the likes of Hemmeti and Al-Burhan – two kingpins of ‘kleptocratic cartels’ – in a long-running rivalry. The signs were there.
New Faces, Old Problems
Many of these dynamics trace back to the colonial anatomy of the Sudanese state. As Joshua Craze summarises: ‘postcolonial strife followed the lineaments of colonial rule, with a riparian elite in Khartoum and its satellite cities, dominated by a few families, fighting against the multi-ethnic peripheries of the country, which they exploited for labour and resources’. The same recipe has been recycled by every government since independence, turning ‘rural surpluses into foreign exchange that pays for the basic food and energy needs of urban consumers’ across Sudan’s metropolitan core, the so-called Hamdi Triangle. Reliant on local strongmen to maintain control, these processes militarised countryside production and ‘pastoral livelihoods’, reducing outlying regions like Darfur to ‘conflict gig econom[ies], with armed units up for hire on a case-by-case basis’. Although pre-dating his regime, former President Omar Al-Bashir expanded this model to cover the import of wheat, petroleum and luxury goods, outsourcing state functions and deputising militias as a ‘key technique for rural governance and resource extraction’. Dubbed ‘counter-insurgency on the cheap’, his policies licensed a raft of surrogates including the Janjaweed – a mix of Abbala herdsmen, Chadian exiles, and the sundry remnants of Muammar Qadhafi’s Islamic Legion – to attack civilians and rebels alike, sequencing cluster bombings by the Sudanese Air Force with mass killings and ethnic cleansing.
Unsurprisingly, the approach proved destabilising over time. Militia recruitment grew tenfold between 2003 and 2013, saturating the market with new start-ups. As land, loot and largesse ran dry, local commanders increasingly turned on both the government and one another, a problem exacerbated by the discovery of gold seams in Darfur. Musa Hilal, head of the Border Intelligence Brigade, for instance, was able to carve out a personal fiefdom across Jebel Amer, converting a 400-strong network of mines into a ‘gigantic ATM’ worth around $54 million per year. Low on cash after losing South Sudan’s oilfields and needing to regain some grip over the rural economy, Bashir overruled his army chief of staff in 2013, regularising Fut-8 Battalion – a Mahariya outfit led by Hilal’s rival Hemmeti – as a ‘super-paramilitary’ under the authority of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and later himself. Repackaged and expanded as the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, the group seized checkpoints and contraband routes across the interior, enforcing a series of disarmament campaigns to arrest Hilal and capture much of the country’s gold trade. At the same time, the 2017 budget insulated RSF funding from SAF, preserving a discrete chain of command and positioning Hemmeti as a counterweight to the military.
Short of liquidity, Bashir’s ‘transactional machine’ became steadily dependent on this security-centric oligopoly, with the RSF and army exploiting new sources of (post-oil) political finance: minerals, crops, land and mercenaries. While outwardly ‘collusive’, competition between the two – baked into the system from the start – became increasingly tense. Much of SAF’s rank and file grumbled over disparities in pay and equipment. Their commanders – the product of ethnic stacking from Sudan’s northern clans – not only saw Hemmeti’s men as a ‘bunch of jumped-up yahoos from the sticks’ but a direct threat to riverain rule. With control over ‘import companies, flour mills, and transportation hubs’, high-value commodity chains, and ‘vertically integrated monopolies’, the RSF’s commercial networks gradually resembled an ‘enclave economy’. In Darfur, RSF goods stocked shelves as militiamen assumed ‘social provision and insurance functions’, supervising harvests and organising healthcare. Through Al Gunade, the family conglomerate, Hemmeti’s relatives also ran a complex web of businesses stretching from construction to tourism and car rentals. Despite trying to dilute the RSF’s Darfuri Arab complexion and embed over 500 army officers across its leadership, there was little Khartoum’s elite could do to stop the Dagalos from building up their own ‘state within a state’.
As a result, any collaboration between these securocrats remained circumstantial. Temporary alignment against the president in 2019 was driven by a shared desire to preserve the pathology, structure and cronyism of the regime – ‘Bashirism without Bashir’ – from the upheaval of popular revolution. Expedited by personal ties between Al-Burhan and Hemmeti after deployments in Yemen, the RSF and SAF likewise undermined civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, boxing out his Anti-Corruption Committee and inventing bureaucratic vehicles – the Council of Transitional Partners and the Joint Defence and Security Council – to diminish his clout. The coup in October 2021 was much the same story, with ‘Potemkin protests’ offering a pretext for Sudanese security services to seize power and protect their financial empires.
Tensions were never far from the surface, however. Both continually competed for leverage, cannibalising Bashir’s corporate assets alongside those of rump agencies such as the NISS (re-labelled the General Intelligence Service). Sporadic shootouts between RSF and local army units raised concerns of possible escalation, and in May 2020, Hemmeti blamed unknown forces for attempting to ‘draw the RSF into a civil war through a collusion with the military’. Five months later, his involvement in the Juba Peace Agreement – a payroll peace with rebel groups across Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile – exacerbated fears of a rural coalition taking over in Khartoum. Having flatly rejected any plan to turn his militia into a subsidiary of SAF, Hemmeti poached army officers with promotions and higher wages. Crucially, he also attempted to drum up support at home and abroad: ‘doling out’ resources to farmers; launching a ‘charm offensive’ in the Sahel; and leading a bilateral delegation to Russia. In turn, Al-Burhan lumbered his deputy with the Higher Committee for Economic Emergencies – a thankless task given Sudan’s rampant inflation - and leant on Bashir’s old Islamist circles to offset the lack of any ‘real social base’ or private cash-flow. Subscribing to a socially conservative (and ethnicised) brand of authoritarian politics, these NCP functionaries not only sought to limit civilian oversight but block the RSF from becoming an ‘alternative power centre’.
With a coup unable to ‘serve two masters’ in the absence of a higher-level broker (Bashir) or shared threat (Hamdok), the generals were trading insults, packing ministries and currying foreign favour months after seizing power. Parallel tracks of shuttle diplomacy saw separate delegations visiting the same capitals days apart, and the RSF mimicking SAF’s humanitarian efforts following February’s earthquake in Turkey. While economic malaise eventually compelled Al-Burhan and Hemmeti to approve the Framework Agreement in the hope of accessing international development funds, ‘rival camps of soldiers’ were already starting to amass across Khartoum. As negotiations over Phase II deteriorated, personal relations between the Sudanese strongmen broke down completely, with Hemmeti ‘stand[ing] outside, literally banging on the door’ to gain admission to the presidential palace, and the air force quietly scoping out potential targets.
The systems of kleptocracy, elitism and exploitation long defining Sudan’s political economy have become self-defeating
Against this backdrop, the conflict’s intensity – when it finally erupted – was almost inevitable. Hemmeti has staked his ‘first and only shot at rule’ on the outcome, turning the fight into one of survival, a zero-sum logic reflected in the promise his former boss would either be brought to justice or ‘die like a dog’, and corroborated by gunmen storming Al-Burhan’s residence ‘deep within army headquarters’ during the first hours of fighting. Several prominent Islamists have since been arrested such as Bashir’s former Vice-President Al-Haj Adam Youssef and NCP leader Anas Omar, alongside numerous military personnel including the Inspector-General of the Army. With SAF in turn branding the RSF a ‘rebellious group’, freezing its bank accounts, and firing Hemmeti as vice-chair of the Sovereign Council, there is little room left for de-escalation.
Given this context, why were so many of the warning signs missed? Part of the issue stems from a chronic lack of resourcing and capacity among international donors. For all the US’s political heft, for instance, reports describe a ‘deeply flawed…policy process’, involving an over-stretched embassy ‘out of its depth’ and bereft of funding, manpower and institutional memory. Washington had no ambassadorial presence for three years after Bashir’s fall, with deliberations confined to a handful of officials displaying little understanding of, or access to, the Sudanese ‘street’. The UK, meanwhile, faced successive aid cuts (a 97.5% reduction in 2022–23 alone) and ministerial turnover, sapping its ability to forward-plan and coordinate with multilateral partners. Despite repeated calls from specialists, the embassy also lacked ‘expertise, resourcing and training' around mass atrocity prevention, with no alarm system, risk assessment process or central guidance ‘on how to prepare for increasingly likely scenarios that could lead to violence’.
Nor was there necessarily a coherent strategic vision, with foreign diplomats criticised for recycling tropes about ‘elections, rule of law, and financial reform’ without explaining how these aspirations could actually be delivered. Technical fixes became a presumed precondition for democratic change, imposing a linearity that rarely accounted for the messy realities of local agency, patrimonial pathologies, or state capture of the political economy. Legitimacy and popularity were likewise difficult to reconcile with pre-packaged neo-liberal prescriptions, leading to discrepancies between external expectations and public demand. Although officials expressed concern from the beginning, effecting genuine change across the donor system – even on the back of evidence-based research – was compared to redirecting a ‘supertanker’: lumbering and unresponsive.
Perhaps most importantly, a concurrent and somewhat contradictory preoccupation with ‘stability’ continued to shape international policymaking. Analysts reveal how conservative sensibilities not only tempered donor appetite for collaboration with resistance committees but re-cast Sudan’s security services as necessary partners in transition. As one stakeholder recalled to the New York Times: ‘American diplomats “made the mistake of coddling the generals, accepting their irrational demands and treating them as natural political actors […] this fed their lust for power and illusions of legitimacy.”’ Flaws in such logic were repeatedly exposed, notably after Al-Burhan assured Jeffrey Feltman (US Special Envoy to the Horn) of his commitment to democratisation hours before launching the October coup. Similarly, at least one memo from the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs mapped the possibility of conflict between the RSF and SAF in early 2022, though the draft was apparently ‘heavily edited, watered down’ and shelved. Instead, analogous assumptions shaped negotiations over the Framework Agreement, with (nominal) buy-in from Hemmeti and the army prioritised above the empowerment of civilian leaders. With pro-democracy activists gradually cut out of the process, Western proponents were left pushing a political agreement that was not only ‘never going to hold’ but had itself become a ‘pressure cooker’ – the deleterious product of ‘diplomats [in Sudan] and headquarters think[ing] one dimensionally’. As Feltman concluded: ‘we reflexively appeased and accommodated the two warlords. We considered ourselves pragmatic. Hindsight suggests wishful thinking to be a more accurate description’.
Clearly, the crisis is far more than a turf war between rival generals. Referring to the perennial prioritisation of Greater Khartoum by those in power back in 2015, de Waal wrote: ‘throughout the twists and turns of political financing, repression and liberalisation, austerity and boom, there has been sufficient cohesion and agreement on political rules…[so] that government – in the broadest sense – has survived’. Eight years on, these conventions have all but collapsed. Violence previously exported to far-flung peripheries now engulfs the capital, upending – as Craze puts it – the ‘geographically inflected class relations associated with Bashir’. As a result, the systems of kleptocracy, elitism and exploitation long defining Sudan’s political economy have become self-defeating, encapsulated by rural militia – the so-called ‘creatures of the deposed’ – (literally) besieging their former master in the streets of Omdurman. Having failed to anticipate this ‘revolution’, the international community cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.
Terrorism and Conflict