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Sudan: The Most Vicious of Fights – Between Two Former Close Allies

Simon Speakman Cordall reports on the origins of the conflict and the stake neighbouring countries have in it

People fleeing from Sudan arrive at a bus station in Aswan, Egypt, in April 2023. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

SudanThe Most Vicious of Fights – Between Two Former Close Allies

Simon Speakman Cordall reports on the origins of the conflict and the stake neighbouring countries have in it

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There are power cuts in Sudan. Communication with those outside of the country is difficult. The electricity supplies, which sustain healthcare, operations and the necessities of life in a combat zone, are unreliable, if they exist at all. 

In London, the first trickles of British evacuees are beginning to arrive at Stansted airport.  

One woman described to the BBC how she had seen burned houses and cars throughout her journey to the airport, just outside the capital, Khartoum. Others had seen dead bodies, she said. Another, Tariq, who told reporters how the building next to his own had been shelled, added “we don’t know who’s going to make it out. We are very lucky, but not everyone is as lucky as us”.

Within Khartoum, thousands have already made the decision to flee, running the gauntlet of rival factions as they escape on buses overloaded with luggage. Despite the precarious ceasefire, sporadic airstrikes and street battles remain relatively commonplace. 

Testimony released by Medecin Sans Frontier (MSF) last Thursday paints an unflinching portrait of life in Sudan.

“There is currently heavy fighting in El Fasher,” the capital of the Darfur region in northern Sudan, Cyrus Paye, a project coordinator wrote. “We are still hearing gunfire from our compound as I speak. It is very unsafe because of the shooting and the shelling – there have been large numbers of civilian casualties.”

At the time of his statement, medics at the hospital Paye was stationed at had treated 279 wounded patients. Of those, 44 had died. 

The conflict engulfing Sudan is among that most vicious of all fights, those between two former close allies, Dr Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese analyst and researcher on the Horn of Africa affairs says.

Before the country crashed into open warfare in mid-April, the careers of both Sudan’s military ruler, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), had been as close to the other as to be almost indistinguishable. 

‘Anywhere But Here’

Both had been allies during the counter-insurgency against Darfuri rebels in 2003, with Burhan serving as a regular army officer, while Hemedti led one of the militias within the irregular Arab forces, known collectively as the Janjaweed, now held responsible for first genocide of the 21st Century, with ethnic cleansing and mass rape used as a weapons of war. 

Since then, Burhan rose through the relatively ordered ranks of the army, while Hemedti parlayed his way through the more chaotic rungs of the militias. 

In 2019, both emerged as leaders of the civilian transition, before proving instrumental in the 2021 coup, from which Bourhan emerged as the de facto leader of Sudan, retaining Hemedti as his deputy.

That, in these circumstances, the ceasefire is holding at all appears remarkable. However, despite their claims of absolute power, any truce without mediation could prove close to impossible. At stake, for both, is the country’s gold reserves, minerals, taxation revenues and for both, following their past action in Darfur, “their own necks”, Dr Mashamoun says.

“Both are at risk of their own internal coups,” he says of both Burhan and Hemedti’s hold on power, “with both the RSF and the army capable of accusing their leader and, as we’ve seen before, attempting to depose them.”

Alan Boswell of the International Crisis Group has observed that “what happens in Sudan will not stay in Sudan” and that “Chad and South Sudan look most immediately at risk of potential spill-over. But the longer (the fighting) drags on the more likely it is we see major external intervention”.

According to the International Rescue Committee, as of last week, some 15,000 refugees had already arrived in Chad, many with little or nothing to their name. Similar numbers of desperate people are likely already on route to other perilous and ill-equipped neighbouring countries. 

Should the fighting escalate, or continue for much longer, those numbers will soar. 

In the recent past, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all looked to invest in Africa’s third-largest country – giving each a stake in how the conflict develops. However, it is probably Egypt – which is closest to the country and its military – that has the most to gain or lose. 

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Cairo’s support for Sudan, and its backing of military leader, General Burhan, serves both as a bulwark against Egypt’s regional rival, Ethiopia, as well as simply making sense to a north African country long used to military rule. 

The similarities don’t end there. Both countries have experienced revolution and rely upon the waters of the Nile, threatened by Ethiopia’s immense dam, to water both their fields and their people. 

However, limiting Egypt’s freedom to act is both its own desperate economic situation, allied to the support offered Cairo by the RSF’s ally, the United Arab Emirates, which regards the militia group as a longstanding ally in resisting the kind of political Islam the UAE has long pushed back against.

The role of Libya’s eastern warlord, Khalifa Haftar, also serves to muddy the water. On the one hand, Haftar has been known to back Hemedti and the RSF, with each going so far as to exchange fighters and, we’re told, collaborating over highly lucrative smuggling routes. However – and this is the kicker – Haftar also relies upon the support of Egypt, which, in its turn, is reliant upon the UAE. 

The other significant presence on the ground is that of the Russian mercenary force, Wagner. Reliant upon a healthy partnership with whoever holds power in Khartoum, Wagner has been active in guarding the goldmines in both Sudan and the neighbouring Central African Republic, mining Africa’s gold and, since the conflict broke out in Ukraine, using it to circumvent Western sanctions. 

Also in the mix is the Russian state itself, currently developing plans to establish a naval base at Port Sudan – the fall-back departure point for UK nationals fleeing the conflict – capable of supporting some 300 troops and four ships. The port also gives Moscow access to the busy energy trading route to Europe. 

The fighting needs to end, Dr Mashamoun says, because “people are tired. They’re tired of the fighting, the generals and even the civilian politicians. Nobody wants to see escalation. They just want to go about their business.”

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