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The Dichotomy of Power: General Burhan and General Dagalo fight in Sudan’s ‘Zero-Sum Game’

In a series of articles CCN will examine the current crisis in Sudan. We begin by looking into the context of the civil war, and investigating the main players. Subsequent articles will cover the humanitarian catastrophe, war crimes and the strategic interest of global powers.

Post Colonial authoritarianism

Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, its political landscape has been largely dominated by military governance. The nation embarked on a tentative journey towards democratic governance after military leaders deposed President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, following widespread public protests. Al-Bashir, who had been in power for almost three decades and was largely ostracized by Western countries, left a complex legacy.

In August 2019, a power-sharing agreement was forged, allowing for a military-civilian partnership in governance, aiming towards eventual elections. However, this progress was disrupted by a military coup in October 2021, which reignited large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations across the country.

The balance of power in Sudan has predominantly favored the military since its independence. During the period of the 2019-2021 power-sharing government, there was a deep-seated mistrust between the military and civilian parties. While the civilian side gained legitimacy from a robust protest movement and some international support, the military found allies among rebel factions that benefited from a 2020 peace agreement and former officials from al-Bashir’s regime who re-entered civil service following the coup.

The 2021 coup restored military dominance, but it also led to challenges such as regular protests, international isolation, and escalating economic difficulties.

The Key players

Central to the ongoing conflict in Sudan are two key military figures: General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, more commonly known as Hemedti, the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). These generals, once allies who successfully orchestrated a coup, have been locked in a struggle for dominance, a conflict that is devastating Sudan.

The history between Gen. Burhan and Hemedti is extensive. They both played significant roles in the counter-insurgency operations against rebel groups in Darfur during the civil war that started in 2003. Gen. Burhan gained prominence in the military hierarchy, eventually leading the Sudanese army in the Darfur region. On the other hand, Hemedti commanded a militia group known as the Janjaweed, which was employed by the government to aggressively suppress the predominantly non-Arab rebel factions in Darfur.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, currently leading the military against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), has been a significant figure in Sudan’s military affairs for a considerable time, even before becoming widely recognized in 2019. His military career includes a crucial deployment to Darfur in the early 2000s, a period marked by intense conflict. By 2008, he had ascended to the role of a regional commander in the area.

While the International Criminal Court has accused former President Omar al-Bashir and other top Sudanese officials of genocide and crimes against humanity for the events in Darfur, al-Burhan, along with Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, head of the RSF and now his adversary, have not been charged.

Throughout the years, al-Burhan has maintained a distance from the widely reported atrocities in Darfur, where the army, supported by the RSF, quelled a rebellion. This conflict resulted in the deaths of approximately 300,000 people and displaced an estimated 2.7 million. [1]

By 2019, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan had advanced his military training with stints in Jordan and Egypt, leading to his appointment as the chief of staff of the Sudanese army in February 2018.

During the April 2019 uprising that ultimately ended Omar al-Bashir’s nearly three-decade rule, al-Burhan held the position of inspector general of the army, making him the third-highest-ranking general in Sudan at the time.

As public opposition grew against the Bashir-era defense minister who initially led the Transitional Military Council (TMC) after al-Bashir’s removal, al-Burhan was elevated to the head of the TMC. Subsequently, under international pressure, the Sovereign Council (SC) was established. This civilian-military partnership was designed to guide Sudan towards elections, replacing the TMC.

As the leader of the Sovereign Council (SC), General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan assumed the role of Sudan’s de facto head of state, initially cooperating with civilian pro-democracy groups within the nation.

However, in 2021, al-Burhan, along with his deputy, Hemedti, orchestrated a coup that effectively halted Sudan’s nascent journey towards democratic governance.

In his capacity as the de facto head of state, al-Burhan has developed stronger relations with several key regional players, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. These countries had previously backed al-Burhan and Hemedti, head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), in their decision to oust al-Bashir.

The Gulf states, in particular, have been notable for providing substantial aid to Sudan, coinciding with the deployment of Sudanese forces in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is opposed to the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.

Furthermore, al-Burhan shares a significant connection with Egypt, underscored by joint military exercises between the two countries’ armed forces and al-Burhan’s own military training alongside many Egyptian generals at Egypt’s military college.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, universally referred to as Hemedti or “little Mohammed,” reportedly began his military journey with the Sudanese Arab Janjaweed militia in Darfur, spurred by a personal tragedy that saw many of his family members killed in an armed attack. His origins trace back to the Mahariya Rizeigat Arab tribe, known for herding livestock, including camels, in Darfur and Chad. Hemedti, a tall man with youthful features reflected in his nickname, rapidly climbed the ranks within the Janjaweed during the 2003-05 war in southern Darfur, a conflict that claimed around 300,000 lives.[2]

Hemedti caught the attention of then-dictator Omar al-Bashir while commanding a brigade during this period. His role as an enforcer for al-Bashir was noteworthy, and he even led a brief rebellion against Bashir and Khartoum in 2007-08, later making a deal with the government that elevated him to the rank of general.

In 2013, Hemedti established the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), initially to combat the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North in the Nuba mountains. His formation of the RSF, which included the Janjaweed, marked the beginning of his significant rise in power in Sudan.

Hemedti’s ascent under Bashir came with considerable benefits. He gained control of gold mines in Darfur from a rival tribal leader, a move that significantly contributed to his wealth. Hemedti himself acknowledged his involvement in gold mining, once stating to the BBC, “I’m not the first man to have goldmines… It’s true, we have goldmines and there’s nothing preventing us from working in gold.” [guardian]

Described by Alex de Waal as adopting “a model of state mercenarism,” Hemedti expanded his influence by recruiting fighters from Darfur to serve as mercenaries in Yemen following the Saudi-Emirati intervention in 2015, further boosting his revenue streams. [3]

During the 2019 revolution against Bashir, Hemedti initially seemed undecided about using his forces against mass demonstrations in Khartoum and other cities. However, on 11 April 2019, sensing a shift in the political landscape, he joined forces with army head Burhan to depose Bashir, ostensibly aligning with the push for a democratic transition.

However, events in June that year painted a different picture when his troops were accused of massacring 100 protesters and committing acts of rape, though Hemedti denied ordering these actions. With both Burhan and Hemedti holding significant roles in the Transitional Military Council and its successor, the sovereign council, the path towards democratizing Sudan faced many challenges.

In 2021, in a move that seemed inevitable to many observers, Burhan and the army, allied with Hemedti and his RSF, executed a coup. Hemedti rationalized the takeover as a means to “correct the course of the people’s revolution” and bring stability. However, many have long suspected that his true intention post-Bashir was to secure a position of unrivaled power in Sudan.

The Power struggle

In a significant development in December 2022, an agreement was reached involving the army, the RSF, and Sudan’s civilian pro-democracy groups. According to this framework, the army consented to return to its barracks, and it was agreed that the RSF would be integrated into the army’s structure, uniting both forces under the command of the army. This agreement was seen as a step towards easing tensions and consolidating military power.

As the deadline approached for finalizing a subsequent agreement to implement the December framework between the army, the RSF, and Sudan’s civilian pro-democracy groups, shifts in alliances and an increasingly tense public discourse were evident. This recent surge in violence has significantly dimmed the optimism for a return to civilian governance in Sudan.

Under mounting pressure from international entities, civil movements, and armed factions, the SAF ultimately publicly committed to transitioning power to a civilian government by 2023. Nevertheless, this period was marked by growing tensions between al-Burhan and the RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, primarily over the proposal to assimilate the RSF into the Sudanese military within a two-year timeframe.

This tension escalated dramatically on April 15, when the RSF initiated assaults against SAF positions in Khartoum and other regions across Sudan. This outbreak of violence ignited a continuing and intense conflict.

On April 15, hostilities escalated as the RSF launched assaults on Sudanese Armed Forces positions in Khartoum and across Sudan, igniting a prolonged and violent conflict that persists to this day.

Current Situation:

Recently, the RSF has intensified its military presence throughout Sudan, fortifying its control in the Darfur region and extending its reach eastward towards the capital, Khartoum.

While SAF maintains control over the eastern and northern parts of Sudan, the loss of Wad Madani in central el-Gezira state represents a significant setback. This takeover by the RSF has resulted in the displacement of approximately 300,000 people. In response to the escalating conflict, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced the temporary suspension of food aid in parts of el-Gezira, impacting the support provided to over 800,000 individuals in the region.[4]

Wad Madani had served as a crucial hub for numerous humanitarian organizations and a refuge for thousands displaced from Khartoum, which continues to be engulfed in conflict.

Despite the RSF’s declaration of “liberating” the city and their assurances of public safety, there remains a deep-seated fear among the populace of potential reprisals by the RSF, a group notorious for its history of human rights violations, massacres, and mass sexual assaults, especially in the Darfur region.

In June, reports by Middle East Eye (MEE) revealed the RSF’s involvement in grave atrocities in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state, where approximately 1,500 people lost their lives over a span of just two months.

Further, in November, MEE reported the massacre of at least 1,300 individuals, predominantly civilians from the Massalit tribe, in Ardamata, West Darfur. Over three days, the RSF and its allied Arab militias engaged in a spree of killings, sexual violence against women, looting, and arson.

These incidents contribute to an escalating humanitarian crisis, described by William Spindler, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, as a “deepening forced displacement crisis.”

The UN has characterized Sudan’s healthcare system as being “stretched to the limit,” with more than 70 percent of hospitals in conflict-impacted zones non-operational and facilities in unaffected areas overwhelmed by the influx of displaced individuals. [5]

Adel Abdel Ghafar, the director of the Foreign Policy and Security Program at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, commented in an Al Jazeera interview: “Both [Hemedti] and Burhan have calculated that the leadership contest is now a zero-sum game and thus have moved on each other, and unfortunately, the Sudanese people must stand on the sidelines as both military leaders fight it out till the bitter end.” [4].

Tariq Kurd was born and grew up in Hertfordshire. His family is originally from Halabja, Kurdistan but due to periodic migration currently reside across the Baluchistan region.
He has a BA Hons. in History from the Open University. Besides English, Tariq can speak Baluchi and Brahvi, he is also conversant in Persian and Pashto.
His has an eclectic range of interests including military and tribal history. Tariq lives in London and is currently studying Islamic apologetics through the Sapience Institute.