April 17, 2023

IntelBrief: Regional Implications of Violent Conflict Between Sudan’s Top Military Leaders

AP Photo/Marwan Ali

Bottom Line up Front

  • No matter the outcome of the major conflict between forces loyal to the two top Sudanese military leaders, a return to stability or civilian rule is unlikely in the near to medium term.
  • The conflict culminates months of tensions between Sudan’s ruling council, dominated by the influence of Sudan’s military and led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Lt. Gen. Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti”), the deputy leader of the council and commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary organization.
  • The violent power struggle comes amid maneuvering among Sudan’s neighbors, the West, and Russia, for influence and advantage in the large African country.
  • Neither the military leadership nor the civilian opposition has a clear roadmap to reverse the country’s sharp economic deterioration, but a return to civilian rule might help attract significant new aid funds.

On April 15, major combat broke out between forces loyal to the two top leaders of Sudan’s ruling “Sovereignty Council” after months of tension over an agreement to return the country to civilian rule. The battle for control of key locations in and around Khartoum, including airports, the presidential palace, and media headquarters, erupted after an April 11 deadline to finalize and begin implementing an agreed plan (“framework agreement”) to yield power to a civilian government was not met. The warring military leaders - regular armed forces leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the ruling leadership council, and the deputy council leader, Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti”), the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – each have controversial histories in and outside Sudan. Since the 2019 overthrow of the former leader, dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Hamdan has maneuvered to portray himself in a different light, attempting to use regional media outlets to change his image. However, this public relations makeover has fooled few. Hamdan’s force is a successor to the infamous “Janjaweed” militia widely accused of gross human rights abuses against civilians in Sudan’s Darfur region since 2003. Moreover, some Sudanese cite Hamdan’s forces for their alleged role in a June 2019 massacre of civilian protesters in Khartoum, where witnesses described seeing RSF-marked vehicles firing on civilians as they moved past barricades.

Hamdan’s power struggle is with the Sudanese military, headed by Burhan, who led the 2021 coup that halted a transition to civilian rule. He has been widely accused of opposing a transfer of power to civilian authorities. Burhan fears that a civilian government would seek to prosecute him and his allies for alleged corruption or other transgressions. Sudan’s main regional neighbor, Egypt, reportedly has viewed Burhan as a force for stability and Cairo has supported him militarily; RSF personnel claim to have captured pro-Burhan Egyptian troops at an airport outside Khartoum during the April 15 clashes. At least 56 persons have been killed in the fighting, and hundreds more injured, according to local medical reports. Even if Hamdan and the RSF prevail in the conflict, it is likely that a long period of instability will take hold and delay the planned transition to civilian and democratic rule. But a prolonged postponement of the transition is likely to bring about mass unrest among a population that has been promised democracy since the 2019 fall of Bashir. The military leaders who ousted Bashir in 2019 at first shared power with civilian leaders, but Burhan and his allies, which then included Hamdan at that time, seized outright power in an October 2021 coup and canceled the promised transfer of power. Public agitation for democracy produced negotiations toward an agreement under which the military would withdraw from politics and be barred from non-military businesses. The “framework agreement,” signed in December 2022, also includes an overhaul of the security apparatuses, eventually leading to a unified, professional and non-partisan national military. In accordance with the plan, political parties would name a prime minister who would form a Cabinet to lead the chaos-stricken nation through elections in two years. The plan was to begin implementation on April 11 - the fourth anniversary of Bashir’s downfall - but Burhan balked at implementing the deal, and tensions, recriminations, and threats between him and Hamdan culminated with the outbreak of fighting on April 15.

The military leadership split upends the calculations and hopes not only of the Sudanese population hoping for democracy and new infusions of foreign assistance but also of the regional and global players pursuing sometimes competing agendas in Sudan. Most of the major regional and global stakeholders favor one or more of the contending factions in Sudan. Still, many have built ties with all groups in Sudan to position themselves to benefit from any outcome. Egypt’s primary interest has been in a stable Sudan, leading it to support Burhan and the regular Sudanese military, even if doing so undermines the pro-democracy movement in Sudan. Cairo’s critics have also accused President Abdel Fattah El Sisi of allying with Burhan because the latter shares opposition to Ethiopia’s construction and unilateral control of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Egyptian officials see as a threat to Egypt’s water supply and agricultural production. Two key Persian Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are allied with Egypt on most regional issues. Both Sudan and Egypt have been members of the Saudi/Emirati-led Arab coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. However, the two Gulf powers have been shifting toward the Western position on Sudan – even joining the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway in the “Quad” and “Troika” diplomatic forums on Sudan – to support a transition to civil rule. Yet, the two Gulf states are widely believed to have used their ample disposable funds to build allies on all sides of the political spectrum in Sudan, including with Hamdan, with whom there is an ethnic component to some of the support. The UAE hopes to protect its long-term strategic interests in Sudan, including the ability to project military and economic power into Yemen and the Horn of Africa from ports and other installations there. In December 2022, coinciding with the Sudan framework agreement, the UAE and Sudan signed a $6 billion agreement for two UAE firms to build a new port on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

The interests of the United States and its European allies in Sudan have been to promote a democratic transition while also convincing Sudanese leaders not to accommodate Russia’s interests there. Moscow has sought access to Sudan’s Red Sea ports for Russian warships and its gold mines. Journalists report that personnel from Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group organization have been spearheading Russian activities in Sudan. Hamdan and his RSF paramilitary units reportedly control the majority of gold mines. The Sudanese military has been attempting to fold the RSF into its organizational structure, but Hamdan has successfully resisted, emboldened by independent financing from apparent control over Sudan’s gold mines. The UAE declared $1.77 billion worth of gold imports from Sudan in 2020 and according to some reports, as much as 90% of Sudan's gold is smuggled out of the country, often routed through UAE. Wagner Group leader Evgeny Prigozhin owns a U.S.-sanctioned cover entity, M Invest, and its subsidiary Meroe Gold, which operates in Sudan. The U.S. State Department said that it is “monitoring this issue closely, including the reported activities of Meroe Gold…and other sanctioned actors in Sudan, the region, and throughout the gold trade.” Abu Dhabi has maintained close relations with Hamdan, who also receives funding and weapons from Russia. Another reason the Sudanese military has attempted to rein in Hamdan is his linkages with elements outside of the country, including his alleged relationship with the Wagner Group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where Wagner also seeks access to natural resources.

The fighting is likely to not only postpone the implementation of the framework agreement but also likely to set back the country’s economic prospects further. After the 2021 coup, the United States, the World Bank, Germany, and other U.S. allies froze aid packages to Khartoum - collectively totaling billions of dollars, of which $700 million was to come from Washington. The release of the funds was conditioned on the restoration of civilian rule. Implementing the framework agreement was expected to unlock much of the aid funds Sudan and its people need to cope with soaring food prices, plunging values of Sudan’s currency, and electricity shortages. The United States nonetheless provided several hundred million dollars in food assistance funds to Sudan in 2022, to help address the effects of the Ukraine war on world food prices. Sudan’s population also expected that the democratic transition would lead to substantial debt forgiveness. In addition, resolving the power struggle would likely prompt Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pledge new aid donations to Khartoum. After Bashir was ousted in 2019, the two pledged $3 billion, some of which was deposited in Sudan’s Central Bank, expecting their interests to be served by building ties to the new leaders in Sudan.