Sudan’s years-long power struggle explained

A look at the awkward relationship between Sudan’s military and the Rapid Support Force.

Smoke rises above buildings in Khartoum on April 15, 2023, amid reported clashes in the city. - The Sudanese army said on April 15 that paramilitaries attacked its bases in Khartoum and elsewhere, shortly after the paramilitary said their camps were attacked by the regular army. (Photo by - / AFP)
Smoke rises above buildings in Khartoum on Saturday [AFP]

Battles raged between the Sudanese army and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on Saturday.

Here’s an overview of Sudan’s power struggle over the past few years:

Who has been in charge in Sudan?

Sudan began its halting transition towards democracy after military generals removed strongman President Omar al-Bashir amid a popular uprising in April 2019. Al-Bashir, long shunned by the West, had presided over the country for nearly 30 years.

Under an August 2019 agreement, the military agreed to share power with civilians ahead of elections. That arrangement was abruptly halted by a coup in October 2021 that triggered new mass pro-democracy rallies across Sudan.

Where does the balance of power lie?

The military has been a dominant force in Sudan since its independence in 1956. During the 2019-2021 power-sharing arrangement, distrust between it and the civilian parties ran deep.

The civilian side drew legitimacy from a resilient protest movement and support from parts of the international community.

The military had backing from rebel factions that benefitted from a 2020 peace deal and from veterans of al-Bashir’s government who returned to the civil service following the coup.

The coup put the army back in charge but it faced weekly demonstrations, renewed isolation and deepening economic woes.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the paramilitary RSF and deputy leader of Sudan’s ruling council since 2019, has gotten behind the plan for a new transition, bringing tensions with ruling council head and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to the surface.

What are the faultlines?

A central cause of tension since the uprising is a civilian demand to gain oversight of the military and to see the integration of the powerful RSF into the regular army.

Civilians have also called for the handover of lucrative military holdings in agriculture, trade and other industries, a crucial source of power for the army.

Another point of contention is the pursuit of justice over allegations of war crimes by the military and its allies in the conflict in Darfur from 2003. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking trials for al-Bashir and other Sudanese suspects.

Justice is also being sought over the killings of pro-democracy protesters on June 3, 2019, in which military forces are implicated. Activists and civilian groups have been angered by delays to an official investigation. In addition, they want justice for at least 125 people killed by security forces in protests since the coup.

What about the economy?

A worsening economic crisis that sent the currency plunging and created frequent shortages of bread and fuel was a key trigger for al-Bashir’s downfall.

The 2019-2021 transitional government implemented abrupt reforms monitored by the International Monetary Fund in a successful bid for debt relief and to attract foreign financing.

But billions of dollars in international support and debt relief were frozen after the 2021 coup, halting development projects, straining the national budget and worsening an already dire humanitarian situation.

What’s the regional picture?

Sudan is in a volatile region, bordering the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Its strategic location and agricultural wealth have attracted regional power plays, complicating the chances of a successful transition.

Several of Sudan’s neighbours, including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, have been affected by political upheavals and conflict.

Sudan’s relationship with Ethiopia in particular has been strained over disputed farmland along their border, the conflict in the Tigray region that drove tens of thousands of refugees into Sudan and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Egypt, which has deep historical ties with Sudan and a close relationship with its military, has pursued an alternative track with groups that supported the coup.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States form the “Quad”, which has sponsored mediation in Sudan along with the African Union and the United Nations. Western powers fear the potential for a Russian base on the Red Sea, which Sudanese military leaders have expressed openness to.

Source: Reuters