Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A destroyed vehicle is seen in southern in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 20. The latest attempt at a cease-fire between the rival Sudanese forces faltered as gunfire rattled the capital of Khartoum.Marwan Ali/The Associated Press

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Overcoming the Oppressors.

The continuing vicious conflict between Sudan’s army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), originally a subordinate paramilitary group, is a contest over power and licence to plunder. Though it is deadlier and affects a larger area, it is nevertheless reminiscent of the battles over turf and territory between rival criminal gangs in Haiti and antagonistic drug trafficking cartels in Mexico. But in its Sudanese context, it also echoes Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subjugate Ukraine to boost a dictator’s ambitions for total loyalty and imperial grandeur – which is only appropriate, given Mr. Putin’s role in the affair.

The struggle in Sudan arose out of a deadly jockeying between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the national army and Sudan’s nominal head of state, and his No. 2, Lieutenant-General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known by the mononym Hemeti), who commands the RSF. In 2019, they worked together to oust then-president Omar al-Bashir, a despot who had ruled Sudan for three decades, and who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, Sudan’s westernmost province.

Since then, Gen. Burhan and Hemeti have been locked in an uneasy alliance, initially governing together with civilians who nominally ran the country but were constrained by the generals. By 2021, they had pushed the civilian government aside, grabbing full power despite massive protests in the capital of Khartoum.

But that partnership has dissolved. Hemeti has said that Gen. Burhan must be captured or “die like a dog,” while Gen. Burhan has called Hemeti a “criminal.” Gen. Burhan has also insisted that the RSF be merged into the regular armed forces and come under his command, which would leave Hemeti without a separate hegemonic instrument.

Already, this fraternal struggle has cost more than 330 lives and caused around 3,000 casualties. Hospitals have been invaded by militants and diplomats robbed and harassed. Armed men from both factions roam the streets of Khartoum and other major cities. A ceasefire brokered on Tuesday never held, and fierce shelling continued Wednesday until another ceasefire temporarily halted firefights. But heavy battling has since resumed.

Hemeti has long sought to dominate Sudanese politics, getting his start as head of the vicious Arab Janjaweed marauding mercenaries who perpetrated genocidal attacks against Africans in Darfur from 2003 to 2006. About 300,000 Darfuri Africans lost their lives; three million were internally displaced. Mr. Bashir presided over the slaughter, but it was Hemeti’s legions that did the damage directly.

Ever since those terrible days, Hemeti has accumulated stature, power and wealth. He has sold security services to other countries, with the RSF operating as a guard force in the Yemeni war under the auspices of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He also visited Moscow as Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, and profits from gold mines run by Russians; last year he allied himself to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group of mercenaries, which is prospecting for gold in Darfur. Hemeti has also maintained a Bashir-era deal with Moscow to build a major naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, putting him in league with Mr. Putin’s African expansionism.

Egypt, meanwhile, is backing Gen. Burhan, whose army has its own extensive and shady business empire, with its tentacles deep into most of the country’s economically productive sectors. Cairo apparently prefers a despot from the regular armed forces rather than an ambitious upstart like Hemeti, and may use its military might to sally up the Nile to Gen. Burhan’s defence.

The Arab League, Egypt, the UAE, the United States and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a multicountry organization for the Horn of Africa, are all trying to mediate between Gen. Burhan and Hemeti. But whether mediators can arrange a permanent and sustainable truce and simultaneously restore viable civilian rule is questionable, unless the two generals can be induced to return their troops to the sidelines. Even then, peace in Sudan – and the possibility of societal uplift and economic advance – will remain in doubt until the RSF is dissolved and Hemeti demoted.

Finally, it will be important for mediators to remove the Russians, inherent destabilizers now allied to Sudan’s least progressive contender. The prospective Russian naval base needs to be scuttled and the Wagner Group’s prospectors removed.

It is time for all army forces to return to their barracks and for civilians to resume ruling. But to keep the armies in check, a new civilian government will need outside developmental assistance and – just possibly – external military help to keep Sudan’s soldiers from shooting at each other.

Sudan is being dragged to the brink of civil war by a power struggle between two men – a career soldier and a former warlord – who rose to power under former autocratic leader Omar al-Bashir.


Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles