‘Remove him’: Sudan army chief al-Burhan faces calls to go after RSF gains

After losing another big city in Sudan’s civil war, army chief al-Burhan is facing pressure from the public and some of his own generals to step down.

Sudan's Sovereign Council Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan may be more vulnerable after the fall of Wad Madani, according to two Sudanese journalists [File: Sarah Meyssonnier/Pool via Reuters]

The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has captured Sudan’s second-largest city, just a day after the army and its supporters prematurely celebrated repelling an attack.

As army soldiers retreated from Wad Madani – once a hub for hundreds of thousands of displaced people – they left civilians behind. The army has released a rare statement acknowledging that its troops withdrew too quickly and promising an investigation, yet their supporters are calling for accountability.

“On Sunday we actually celebrated with the rest of Wad Madani,” said Noon Arbab*, a young woman now searching for a way out of the city with her family. “Now I think it was all a big lie.”

“I think we should throw the army’s entire leadership away,” she added.

Countless civilians like Arbab are calling for army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to step down in the hope that a new leader can thwart the RSF’s advances.

Al-Burhan’s subordinates are also furious with the way he is fighting the war, according to sources close to security forces. But experts warn that a change of guard could lead to a power struggle – or vacuum – fracturing the Sudanese army.

“Despite the position that al-Burhan finds himself in, I think if he leaves – however that happens – it will leave an indelible mark on the Sudanese army,” said Kholood Khair, an expert on Sudan and founding director of the think tank Confluence Advisory.

Losing legitimacy

Since the RSF captured Wad Madani, many of the army’s supporters have taken to social media to call on generals to replace al-Burhan. The sentiment is widely shared among civilians who are terrified that the RSF could attack their towns and cities next.

The RSF tends to loot homes, markets and banks in every city it conquers, as well as subject women to sexual violence.

“All of the citizens want the removal of al-Burhan. He is the reason for all of the cities and provinces falling to the RSF,” said Yousif Ibrahim*. “I still don’t understand why the army just left Wad Madani. Wad Madani is where so many displaced people from Khartoum sought refuge.”

Hamid Khalafallah, a Sudanese analyst and PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, where he researches democratic transitions in Africa, said most of the army’s traditional supporters feel betrayed.

He added that his father had fled Wad Madani on Sunday, but soldiers told him to return after claiming that they defeated the RSF. The next day, his father fled again when the RSF stormed the city.

“Military troops in [nearby towns] were advising people to go back … what the military has done has led to a feeling of betrayal,” Khalafallah told Al Jazeera. “People [in this region] won’t support the RSF, but they feel lost. They don’t know who to turn to now.”

Coup d’etat? 

One week before Wad Madani fell to the RSF, a former army officer told Al Jazeera that most generals view al-Burhan as a weak leader. But he stressed that nobody was going to topple him to preserve a strong chain of command for the duration of the war.

“As soon as the war ends, Burhan is gone,” the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera.

Al-Burhan may be more vulnerable after the fall of Wad Madani, according to two Sudanese journalists who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“There has been some movement in the army, but nobody knows what exactly is going on,” one journalist, who has close contacts in security services, told Al Jazeera.

Another Sudanese journalist said army generals have not removed him because they cannot agree on who should replace him.

“They need someone with experience, charisma, and [who is] not tainted. Getting those three in one is hard,” the journalist told Al Jazeera.

Desperate attempt? 

Over the course of the war, al-Burhan has tried to brand himself as Sudan’s de facto head of state, with some success. As a result, experts say that any attempt to remove him could hurt the army’s political leverage over the RSF, which most Arab and Western states still widely view as an irregular militia.

“Even if [generals] managed to avoid a split in the army, any leadership change risks rocking the army’s foreign relations at a very delicate time or looking like an act of desperation,” said Alan Boswell, an expert on the Horn of Africa for International Crisis Group, a non-profit dedicated to ending and preventing conflict worldwide.

Khair, from Confluence Advisory, adds that al-Burhan remains the perfect scapegoat for an army on the cusp of losing complete control of Sudan.

“Al-Burhan has a lot of the public ire … and frankly there is a lot more public ire to come if things keep going the way they are going for the [military].”

Khair also said that generals loyal to former President Omar al-Bashir, and who are members of the Islamic movement in Sudan, may topple al-Burhan if the RSF conquers cities such as Atbara and Shendi.

Both River Nile cities are home to military and political elites who have ruled Sudan since it acquired independence in 1956.

“Al-Burhan is the perfect fall guy … but now is not the time to get rid of him,” Khair told Al Jazeera. “Army officers may wait until the RSF takes a place like Shendi and sacrifice him then.”

“My sense is that his days are numbered.”

* Some names have been changed to protect individuals from reprisal.

Source: Al Jazeera