The violence that has exploded in Sudan as the country’s two top generals grapple for power has unfolded at a terrifying, breakneck speed.
But, by many accounts, the clash was long in the making — the culmination of years spent by the international community legitimizing the two military rivals as political actors, entrusting them with getting a democratic transition across the line in spite of many signals they had no intention of doing so.
Now, the two men, who started their careers in the killing fields of Darfur, the western region where a tribal rebellion erupted in the early 2000s, have pitted their forces against each other and appear intent on ripping Sudan apart. The African Union has warned that the clash “could escalate into a full-blown conflict,” roiling stability in the wider region.
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s military ruler and head of the army, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as Hemedti), the country’s deputy and head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, had shared power since carrying out a coup in 2021, when together they pushed civilians from a transitional government. That alliance, forged on a mutual disdain for the Sudanese people’s democratic ambitions, has crumbled into what now resembles a fight to the death.
In the weeks before the conflict broke out, the two generals flirted with a deal that was aimed at mollifying their remaining disputes — largely security sector reform and the integration of the RSF into the army — and moving the country toward a long-awaited, civilian-led democracy. They met with foreign mediators and made pledges to hand over power. Meanwhile, in the capital Khartoum, personnel carriers and tanks were seen rolling down the streets, fortifying and reinforcing both sides.
“The fact that these forces were poised and at the ready to descend into this level of violence so swiftly should come as no surprise to anyone,” said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst, now an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that the foreign powers involved in the negotiations — the United States and Britain, as well as the United Nations, and African and Arab governments — had made a serious miscalculation to believe that both generals were willing parties on the verge of an agreement.
Hudson, who served as chief of staff to successive US special envoys for Sudan during South Sudan’s secession and the Darfur genocide, said: “Those of us who have been watching this play out from the outside and certainly those of us who have any history in dealing with and negotiating with the Sudan Armed Forces or the RSF know that they these guys have a very long history of saying one thing and doing the other.”
The generals have claimed they had no choice but to take up arms against the other, sending mortars and artillery shells raining down on Khartoum and mounting gun battles in wealthy neighborhoods of the city center. As the conflict stretches into a second week, spreading across the country, foreign governments — including those that had been involved in the fraught peace process — are pulling out their citizens, while many Sudanese people remain trapped in their homes without electricity, food or water, desperately seeking a way to escape. More than 400 have been killed and thousands injured in the fighting.
Within hours of the attacks commencing on April 15, Hemedti gave an interview to Al Jazeera TV railing against his bedfellow-turned-rival, branding Burhan a “criminal” who had “destroyed Sudan,” and threatening him with arrest. “We know where you are hiding and we will get to you and hand you over to justice, or you die just like any other dog,” he said, before claiming that the RSF was carrying out the “sovereignty of the people.”
When reached by phone, Burhan told CNN that Hemedti had “mutinied” and, if captured, would be tried in a court of law. “This is an attempted coup and rebellion against the state,” he said.
The exchange underscored just how little progress had been made since 2019, when a popular uprising led to the removal of longtime Sudanese dictator President Omar al-Bashir. Four years on, he has been replaced by two military leaders who rose through the ranks under his corrupt and brutal 30-year rule, now in a battle with one another for supremacy.
“It is a fight between two partners in one crime, [the] 25 October 2021 coup, over the spoils of their crime. This is a war between two evils who both don’t have the interest of this country in their hearts,” Amgad Fareid, a former adviser to the ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, said in a recent blog post. He added that the international community helped to create the current situation unfolding in Sudan, by continuing to push for the formation of a government at any cost — lending legitimacy to Hemedti and Burhani as political actors even as they sought to thwart the process and avoid genuine reforms.
“Just as the army leadership is not sincere in its call for the security sector reform process, neither is Hemediti … in his statements of support for civil transition and democratic transformation in Sudan. Hemedti uses this discourse as a bloody shirt to maintain his influence and military forces for future use,” Fareid said.
From a subclan of the Mahariya Rizeigat tribe, nomadic people that herded camels in Darfur, Hemedti got his start as a commander of the Janjaweed. The militia, known as the “devils on horseback,” was drawn from majority Sudanese-Arab tribes, drafted to fight non-Arab Darfuri rebels who took up arms against the Sudanese government. The forces stand accused of some of the most horrific atrocities carried out in Darfur, including torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes, according to the Human Rights Watch. The conflict, which started in 2003, left millions displaced and more than 300,000 dead.
In an often-cited interview from the scrubland of southern Darfur in 2008, Hemedti, a turban drawn around his face and dressed in fatigues, told CNN’s Nima Elbagir, then a reporter for Britain’s Channel 4, that Bashir had personally asked him to lead the campaign against the insurgency. But he denied any involvement in attacks on civilians and said he’d refused government orders to do so. Unlike Sudan’s former dictator, Hemedti has not faced charges from the International Criminal Court.
His brutality on the battlefield won him the loyalty of Bashir, who reportedly used to call him “Hamayti” — my protector. In the face of international outcry over the Janjaweed’s actions in Darfur, Bashir formalized them into the Border Intelligence Units. In 2013, he established the Rapid Support Forces by decree and appointed Hemedti lead it, increasingly relying upon the paramilitary group as a praetorian guard.
When tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Khartoum in early 2019, Bashir enlisted Burhan’s armed forces and Hemedti’s paramilitary troops to quash the uprising. But the pair seized the opportunity to turn on Bashir instead, joining forces to depose him.
Just two months later, as young demonstrators staged a peaceful sit-in in front of the army headquarters calling for a swift transition to civilian rule, Hemedti’s forces mounted a bloody crackdown. In a tragedy that left at least 118 dead, the RSF allegedly burned tents, raped female protesters and dumped bodies into the River Nile. Eyewitnesses said some were chanting: “You used to chant the whole country is Darfur. Now we brought Darfur to you, to Khartoum.”
Hemedti has denied being involved in the violence, and sanctions that were called for by some members of the US Congress targeting his financial interests never came to pass. Later that summer, he was appointed deputy head of the Transitional Sovereign Council that ruled Sudan in partnership with civilian leadership. Burhan was appointed as its head.
The general’s shared sense of impunity was underlined in October 2021, when they staged a coup, arresting Hamdok and his cabinet. Jeffrey Feltman, who was the first US special envoy for the Horn of Africa at the time, said that the series of events came as a shock. Just five hours earlier, he and his team had met with the prime minister, as well as Hemedti and Burhan, who said that they would agree to a plan renewing a civilian-military partnership.
“Their action demonstrated that they never intended to reciprocate. Since then, history has repeated itself again and again: SAF and RSF leadership have made commitments only to subsequently break them,” Feltman said in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post.
Whether the framework agreement for the creation of a civilian government in early April would have been credible — either for Sudan’s protest movements or its people — is an open question. But what is clear, is that the international community made a mistake in trusting that Burhan and Hemedti were interested in reform, Feltman said.
“We avoided exacting consequences for repeated acts of impunity that might have otherwise forced a change in calculus. Instead, we reflexively appeased and accommodated the two warlords. We considered ourselves pragmatic. Hindsight suggests wishful thinking to be a more accurate description.”
The violence has sparked finger-pointing and soul-searching in Washington, with Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blaming the Biden administration for failing to hold Sudan’s military to account for abuses.
“The events of the last few days in Sudan, like in 2019 and 2021, reflect a clear pattern of behavior where strongmen try to rule the country through violence. Unfortunately, the international community and regional actors fell prey, again, to trusting junta Generals Burhan and Hemedti when they said they would hand power to civilians,” Risch said in a statement, calling on the administration to sanction the generals.
In the years since Sudan’s revolution, the RSF has grown rapidly into the tens of thousands, and with it Hemedti’s influence has widened at home and abroad. He has deployed his forces to fight in Yemen with the Saudi-led coalition. He’s also accumulated huge amounts of personal wealth, seizing key gold mines in Darfur, and partnering with the Russians. As Sudan expert Alex de Waal put it in 2019, Hemedti has become the face of the country’s “violent, political marketplace,” building a paramilitary force stronger than the army.
“Over the last few years, we have watched Hemedti try to reinvent himself through public relations campaigns, through his social media profile. He has this whole bloody history … But he doesn’t have any mark on his kind of permanent record,” Hudson said, suggesting that the US should have sanctioned him and the RSF after the violent crackdown in June 2019.
He added that the US should have sanctioned Burhan too, after the coup. Instead, the four-star general and Hemedti were able to go on to cast themselves as partners of Sudan’s civilian parties and cultivate an image of themselves as reputable political players.
“There were two opportunities to take these guys off of the political stage. We didn’t do that. Those were our first two mistakes,” Hudson said, explaining that the third was coming up with a political framework agreement last year that gave them equal standing to civilians.
“By not punishing them, we have de-facto legitimized them and made them political actors when they should not have been.”
CNN’s Nima Elbagir and Tamara Qiblawi contributed to this report.