Rift between Sudan's army and paramilitary poses threat to security

Analysts fear alliance of convenience has runs its course as the two sides jockey for position

Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, says he wants a single army for Sudan. Reuters
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A simmering rift between Sudan’s military and the country’s most powerful paramilitary force has morphed into open rivalry that analysts fear could turn into a military confrontation with calamitous results.

They say the alliance of convenience that existed between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has served out its purpose, with both sides now jockeying for position in anticipation of a civilian-led government replacing the ruling military.

The alliance was formed shortly after the military ousted dictator Omar Al Bashir in 2019 and endured for the two years of joint civilian-military administration that succeeded his 29-year rule.

The army and RSF also collaborated to overthrow the administration’s civilian-led government in 2021 — a coup that upended Sudan’s fragile democratic transition and plunged the country into a political and economic crisis.

The army generals found a useful ally in the RSF in its post-coup tussle with pro-democracy groups campaigning to force them out of power. The RSF, for its part, took advantage of its alliance with the military to build up firepower and resources, as well as entrench its tactical deployment in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

“It’s a confrontation that no rational person wishes for because, if it happens, it will be disastrous,” a veteran Sudan expert, London-based Osman Mirghani, wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat.

“The irony is that this crisis was created and made worse by the army itself, or let us say its leadership, whether during the rule of Omar Al Bashir or at the present time.”

The trial of wills between the military and the RSF spilt over into the public sphere last week, when RSF commander Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo disavowed the 2021 coup he co-led with army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan. He branded it a mistake that served as a gateway for Al Bashir loyalists to make a comeback.

Gen Al Burhan, Sudan’s de facto ruler since the 2021 coup, stoked the dispute when he said he would not sign off on a deal to end Sudan’s political crisis unless it had clear and precise language on the integration of the RSF in the military.

Gen Dagalo says he too wants a “single army", but insists that the RSF integration could only happen as part of a comprehensive restructuring of the armed forces. It is an argument widely interpreted as a time-buying tactic given the military’s reluctance to fully heed calls by pro-democracy politicians for reforming the armed forces.

The dispute took a serious turn on Saturday when Gen Abdel Rahim Dagalo, Gen Dagalo’s elder brother and his senior lieutenant in the RSF, called for the military to hand over power to civilians without delay.

Ironically, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is Gen Al Burhan’s deputy on the ruling, military-led Sovereign Council, but his brother's call appeared to be directed at the armed forces.

The elder Gen Dagalo said the RSF would not allow or tolerate any more killing of anti-coup protesters, of whom 125 have died since the 2021 coup, nor the arrest of politicians.

He did not say what the RSF would do if the military ignored his call to step down. Nor was it clear whether he was speaking only for himself or his brother as well, although it appears likely that he cleared his comments with him given the seriousness of their implications.

Al Gameel Al Fadel, a member of Sudan's Umma Party, said the elder Dagalo's comments put the RSF on a potential collision course with the military, requiring it to act if another protester is killed or a politician is arrested or else lose face.

“The RSF was placed by him in a spot where he and the institution he belongs to must show their ability to take action with all the consequences that will follow,” said Mr Al Fadel.

Mohammed Wadaah, a senior Baath Party official, said Gen Dagalo’s comments may have ruined any chance of reconciliation between the military and the RSF. However, he was dubious about the sincerity of his vow to stop the killings and arrests.

“If the RSF has the capability to stop the killing of protesters, why had it not done this before? Do they think they can be absolved of past killings by vowing not to allow more killings to take place?”

The RSF has its roots in a feared militia called Janjaweed that fought on the side of Al Bashir’s government during the war in Darfur in the 2000s. The militiamen are suspected of committing widespread atrocities against civilians during that war.

The RSF also stands accused of being behind the deadly crackdown in June 2019 on protesters camped outside the armed forces’ headquarters in Khartoum in which dozens were killed and hundreds injured.

RSF troops, distinguished by their camouflage fatigues and British-made all-terrain vehicles, have been stationed in Khartoum since 2019, when Al Bashir allowed them to enter the city to protect his regime from street protests against his rule.

Their presence raises the potential for clashes with troops if the rift between the two sides worsens.

“For the two sides to clash would not be the end of Sudan, but it will be very costly, with many civilians losing their lives and the state becoming paralysed,” said Mohammed Adam Araby, a retired army general.

Updated: March 06, 2023, 12:34 PM