Fears in Sudan as army and paramilitary force face off

Army says the mobilisation of the powerful paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, represents a ‘clear violation of law’.

Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) soldiers greet people as they secure a site where Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the military council and head of RSF, attends a meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces deployed in Khartoum [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

The Sudanese army says a paramilitary group headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has mobilised its forces in the capital, Khartoum, and other cities, a move that raises the prospect of confrontation with the armed forces.

The army said in a statement on Thursday that members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were also moving into the northern city of Marawi in a “clear violation of law” that risked creating more tensions as Sudan goes through what it described as a “dangerous juncture”.

The RSF said in a statement on Twitter that it deploys across the country as part of its duties and that its operations in Marawi were part of “national forces operating within the framework of the law and in full coordination with the leadership of the armed forces”.

The RSF, which operates under a special law and has its own chain of command, is a powerful former militia that has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, especially during the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.

Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, climbed Sudan’s political ladder by serving under former leader Omar al-Bashir, under whom the forces were recognised in 2017. Al-Bashir was removed after a mass protest movement against him in 2019.

Hemeti is now deputy leader of Sudan’s ruling council, which took power after a coup by the army and RSF in late 2021. However, he has recently pulled away from the military and found common ground with a civilian political alliance.

Reporting from Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan said tensions between the army and RSF have been rising for months over the integration of the RSF into the military.

“The army wants the integration of the RSF into it within a two-year transitional period. The RSF wants to fall under civilian leadership,” she said, adding that the army wants RSF forces and officers to be assessed before they are integrated.

Morgan said political parties have warned against developments that could lead to political turmoil.

“We are talking about two armed groups,” she said. “These tensions, should they escalate, could lead to a full-on war between the two sides, pushing the country into a civil war – something many political parties have been warning against.”

Claims and counterclaims

A military source told Al Jazeera Arabic that Sudan’s army has demanded the RSF’s withdrawal from Marawi within 24 hours.

Social media users shared videos that purported to show RSF movements towards Marawi while other footage showed the arrival of reinforcements from the Sudanese army on Wednesday evening.

Another source told Al Jazeera Arabic that state authorities in Marawi reported the deployment of about 100 military vehicles belonging to the RSF near Marawi Airport without any prior coordination with them.

In its Twitter statement, the RSF called on the Sudanese people and media to avoid misinformation aimed at spreading discord and undermining the security and stability of the country.

Groups of army supporters demonstrated in front of an army garrison in Marawi on Wednesday night, chanting slogans in its support, according to Al Jazeera Arabic.

A video shared on social media showed a division commander in the Sudanese army addressing the protesters to reassure them that the situation was under control.

Kholood Khair – founder of Confluence Advisory, a Khartoum-based think tank – told Al Jazeera that while the army has previously deployed the RSF, “the difference now is that the heads of these two organisations are at loggerheads, and the RSF is manoeuvring itself in one of Sudan’s most strategic sites, which is the Merowe Dam.”

Worsening relations

The two armed bodies have been vying for supremacy as the army tries to establish its authority over all the country’s military forces and the RSF works to maintain its independence since al-Bashir’s overthrow.

After the coup of 2021, civilians demonstrated against military rule and for the creation of a civilian-led transition and democratic elections.

But relations between the military and the RSF have worsened, delaying the implementation of an agreement reached in December to resolve the impasse with civilian leadership.

In March, Sudan’s political factions announced that they had agreed to form a new transitional government in April, which would see a representative from both the army and the RSF sit alongside civilians to draft a new constitution.

According to the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, the largest civilian group to sign on to December’s agreement, the dispute between the army and the RSF focuses on military reform and the incorporation of the RSF into the armed forces.

Central to Hemeti’s disagreement with the military is his reluctance to set a clear deadline to bring his forces into the army, which is one of the clauses of the December agreement, according to military sources.

This has delayed the signing of a final settlement with political forces for a two-year civilian-led transition to elections.

A week ahead of the planned signing, it was postponed for the second time, sparking a renewal of mass protests on April 5. No new date for the signing has been given.

Two senior military officials told The Associated Press news agency last week that both armed factions had agreed to form a six-member joint command to oversee the integration process, but they disagreed about who would have oversight over it.

In recent weeks, both forces have amassed troops and weapons in and around Khartoum. The army has greatly ramped up its presence in the city centre, parking armoured vehicles at nearly all junctions leading to the presidential palace.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies