Army vs. Paramilitaries: Why the conflict in Sudan is escalating


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Status: 04/17/2023 01:36 am

Violence has shaken Sudan since the weekend. Who is fighting who? What role do the paramilitaries of the “Rapid Support Forces” play? What do the struggles mean for the future of the country?

Von Anna Osius, ARD-Studio Cairo

Gunshots ring out in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Low-flying aircraft thunder over residential areas. Fierce fighting broke out between the military and paramilitary forces throughout the weekend. “The fighting is now going on almost continuously,” reports Christine Röhrs, who heads the office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Sudan.

“We hear all sorts of artillery and then try to understand from this soundtrack if it could get dangerously close,” she says over the phone. There is no information for civilians, except: “Keep your head down and don’t go to the window while two groups armed to the teeth use residential areas for urban warfare.”

The background to the fighting is a conflict that has been smoldering for a long time between two major power structures in the country: the army against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF for short. In between the civilians, some in dire need. “Pupils and teachers are trapped in schools and journalists are trapped in offices,” says Röhrs. People are sometimes without electricity at more than 40 degrees. “And the shops cannot open to sell water or medicine. There seems to be no sense of responsibility for the suffering of the civilians.”

Power struggle between two men

The reason for the violence is a power struggle between two men: on the one hand the current ruler of Sudan and supreme commander of the army, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on the other hand his current deputy, militia leader General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemeti.

Blood is on both men’s hands, says Amani al-Taweel of the Ahram Research Institute in Cairo. “The RSF burned down thousands of villages in the Darfur conflict. They raped the women and committed gross human rights abuses. Both men are responsible for this. And in the 2019 revolution, they killed demonstrators.”

Since long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was deposed in 2019, many people in Sudan have been demanding free elections. But a year and a half ago, the military, together with the paramilitary RSF, overthrew the interim government and General Burhan seized power. Due to international pressure, he promised to clear the way for a civilian government. However, the planned interim agreement did not come into force. And the current development means “that this political process of the last few months is hanging by a thread or has already collapsed,” says Röhrs.

An essential part of the negotiations was the incorporation of the paramilitary RSF into the national army. But apparently Burhan’s deputy Hemeti had little interest in that. And so the situation escalated.

Hemeti’s rise through allies and gold mines

The originally uneducated camel trader and militia leader Hemeti has managed to rise to become one of the most powerful men in Sudan. Once supported by long-term dictator al-Bashir, made wealthy by controlling gold mines, Hemeti built up a considerable force of his own with the RSF – according to reports almost as strong as the Sudanese army.

Hemeti maintains international contacts and is supported by the United Arab Emirates, among others. “Hemeti’s ambitions for power are limitless and extend to wanting to take over the presidency in Sudan,” said al-Taweel.

It is unclear which side fired the first shot at the weekend. But now Sudan is in danger of sinking into renewed violence. “I believe that the revolution fell when the first bullet was fired. The crisis is very big and could lead to a civil war that could destroy the state of Sudan,” says al-Taweel. “That will happen if the voices of de-escalation are not heard.”

A de-escalation that the civilians in particular urgently need. According to the UN, around 16 million people in Sudan are already dependent on humanitarian aid. That’s about a third of the population. According to aid organizations, millions of civilians are at acute risk of starvation. The World Food Program of the United Nations announced that it had to stop its aid because of the fighting. Three staff members were killed in the fighting trying to distribute relief supplies.

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