What is happening in Sudan? Why two generals are fighting for dominance

The one-time partners in a marriage of convenience are now locked in a winner-takes-all fight

The two generals Abdel Fattah Al Burhan (right) and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. AFP
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Sudan’s latest bout of civil strife is a result of a fight over the principle of one nation, one army. It is a battle between two generals vying for dominance at a time when the nation is striving to shift to democratic rule.

Curiously, the two generals — army chief and military ruler Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and commander of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — have been loosely allied since 2019.

The army and the RSF jointly removed Omar Al Bashir from power in 2019 during a popular uprising against the dictator’s 29-year rule.

Since the coup, Gen Dagalo has served as deputy chairman of the ruling military-led Sovereign Council, chaired by Gen Al Burhan.

They again joined forces and staged a 2021 coup that toppled a civilian-led government, upending Sudan’s democratic transition and plunging the Afro-Arab nation of 44 million into political and economic crises.

Why are they fighting?

At the heart of their differences now is the RSF’s full integration into the armed forces, which Gen Al Burhan has recently taken to insisting on as a precondition for signing a deal to end Sudan’s political crisis.

Gen Dagalo has voiced his support for the principle of “one army” but has never clearly stated his willingness to accept the assimilation of his heavily armed and combat-seasoned paramilitary into the armed forces.

For months, the two generals have rejected speculation on their differences, dismissing rumours from groups they say are seeking to drive a wedge between them that could end up destroying Sudan.

The sense that the two men were at odds emerged late last year, when Gen Dagalo, better known by the nickname Hemedti, said the coup in October 2021 had been a mistake that served as a gateway for Al Bashir loyalists to make a political comeback.

Gen Al Burhan tersely dismissed the charge, telling a TV interviewer that Gen Dagalo was entitled to his opinion.

Hundreds dead as Khartoum violence escalates

Hundreds dead as Khartoum violence escalates

The scope of their differences, however, was made clearer when Gen Dagalo last month accused Gen Al Burhan and others of clinging to power. The military last week issued a statement saying recent RSF mobilisation posed a security threat and could lead to clashes with the army.

Two days later, the two sides were fighting each other on the streets of Khartoum and a string of other cities across Sudan. They are using tanks, rocket launchers, artillery and, from the army’s side, fighter jets.

Caught in the crossfire, nearly 100 civilians have been killed and hundreds more injured.

The fighting is playing out in the wider context of months-long, internationally sponsored efforts to end Sudan’s political crisis. The deal’s blueprint provides for the military to quit politics, the RSF to be integrated into the armed forces and for a civilian prime minister to steer the country for two years until elections are held.

Gen Dagalo and the RSF

Gen Dagalo, a close ally of Russia who has strong links to several regional powerhouses, has recently been promoting himself as an advocate of democratic rule while casting his rivals in the military as a power-hungry bunch clinging to power.

He has portrayed the fight against the army as an endeavour to place Sudan on the way to democratic rule and accused Gen Al Burhan of being a “radical Islamist”.

But his bid to reinvent himself as pro-democratic has been met with scepticism, with most Sudanese seeing him and Gen Al Burhan as enemies of the people who are bent on restoring dictatorship.

A member of Darfur's camel-herding Arab Rizeigat tribe, Gen Dagalo made his name as a leader of the feared Janjaweed militia that fought on the government’s side in Darfur’s civil war in the 2000s.

Gen Al Bashir legalised the militia and gave it its present name in 2013. In 2017, the Sudanese Parliament passed a law making it part of the armed forces, albeit with a large degree of autonomy.

In the face of protests in 2018 and 2019 against his rule, Gen Al Bashir ordered the RSF to come to Khartoum to protect his regime.

Gen Dagalo, however, arrived in the capital with his men but, sensing that the regime was likely to collapse, decided not to take part in suppressing the uprising, leaving that task to security forces.

He hoped his decision would win him the support of the protesters and the pro-democracy movement at large. But that act of political opportunism did not stop protesters from continuing to demand that the RSF be part of a single national army.

Their position was soon validated.

In June 2019, RSF members were widely suspected of leading the violent break-up of a sit-in protest outside the armed forces headquarters, killing at least 100 and committing well-documented sexual assaults on protesters.

Who is Gen Al Burhan?

A career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under Al Bashir, Gen Al Burhan was born in 1960 in a village north of Khartoum. He remained relatively obscure for most of his career.

He commanded Sudan’s ground forces before Al Bashir appointed him inspector general of the army in February 2019, two months before the military removed the former dictator from power.

In 2015, he co-ordinated the deployment of Sudanese troops in Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. There, he worked closely with the RSF, inadvertently boosting his and his future enemy’s regional profile.

His first stint as chairman of the ruling Sovereign Council began in August 2019 when the transitional military-civilian administration he toppled in 2021 first took office. It was at that point that he started to swap his military fatigues for business suits and took up the role of the nation's de facto leader.

What next?

Gen Al Burhan has been the subject of intensifying speculation about his political ambitions and how close his links are to militants loyal to Al Bashir.

That he has political ambitions is a widely held belief in a country that generally distrusts military generals.

Gen Al Burhan is the latest in a long line of army officers who have seized or attempted to grab power in Sudan since independence.

His commitment to democratic rule, which he has profusely expressed in recent months, is questionable given the coup he co-led with Gen Dagalo 18 months ago.

Seeing in the fighting a chance to settle the score once and for all and emerge as the nation’s supreme soldier, Gen Al Burhan says he would not parley with the RSF and wants it dissolved. The RSF, he said repeatedly, was in mutiny.

Updated: April 18, 2023, 9:12 AM