There is much danger in the Sudan crisis but also an opportunity

The proliferation of militias has long undermined the Sudanese state. The ongoing fighting could put an end to it.

Sudanese greet army soldiers, loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan
Sudanese greet soldiers loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan on April 16, 2023 [AFP]

The eruption of fighting in the Sudanese capital on Saturday brought to Khartoum’s seven million people the realities of Sudan’s multiple conflicts. Many of its residents are themselves displaced by war and perhaps had hoped they had left those nightmares behind in the states they hail from.

The packed metropolis is on the verge of a colossal humanitarian disaster, especially as its already weakened health system is coming to a standstill, water and electricity are cut ,and food is increasingly hard to come by.

This crisis is the culmination of a process of state disintegration that intensified in the last years of former President Omar al-Bashir’s regime and worsened during the chaos that followed his 2019 ouster.

Since independence, Sudan has faced a series of rebellions and civil wars, during which the state and society began to disintegrate. Conflicts escalated tribal and ethnic tensions as political leaders took the road of least resistance, projecting political differences into tribal polarisation, militarising competition over resources, and awakening old feuds and rivalries.

Meanwhile, militias allied with Khartoum proliferated. This anomaly in the state’s military affairs culminated in the creation of a monster in the shape of the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a predatory “family business” that has become a major player in national and even regional politics.

The RSF’s roots go back to 2003 when its current leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, was recruited by his kinsman Musa Hilal as a commander in a tribal militia enlisted by al-Bashir’s regime to fight the rebellion in Darfur.

He distinguished himself as a ruthless commander and became a rival to his benefactor, Hilal. When the latter broke up with the regime in 2013, al-Bashir issued a decree, forming the RSF from the tribal militias that fought in Darfur and appointing Hemedti as its leader.

In 2015, the RSF made up the largest contingent within the Sudanese forces that joined Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

The liaison officer who coordinated these forces was a certain General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who had been working closely with Hemedti in Darfur for years and who today is the chief of staff of the Sudanese army. The two men became close to Saudi and Emirati leaders, and Hemedti made a fortune from his militias fighting in Yemen.

In 2017, a law was passed making the RSF a formal component of the military but under the direct command of the president. Al-Bashir also gave the force bases in Khartoum since he had become mistrustful of the military, where dissent against his corrupt policies was on the rise. From then on, Hemedti began to amass more power and wealth, becoming by many counts the richest man in Sudan.

This integration of a notorious militia into the higher echelons of power compromised the integrity of the state itself, exacerbating the destabilisation dynamics that have buffeted the state for decades. This in turn solidified the prominence of non-state military actors who challenged and diluted state authority.

If one were to espouse German sociologist Max Weber’s definition of the state as an entity that successfully “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”, then the Sudanese state appears to have had a perennial deficit in stateness.

The fall of al-Bashir exacerbated the problem rather than eased it. The mistrust between the civilian revolutionary forces of the military led many to bank on the RSF and its slippery commander as an ally.

The Draft Constitutional Declaration of August 2019 created the Transitional Sovereignty Council, which took over ruling the country. Hemedti was appointed its deputy head, thus assuming powers equivalent to a vice president’s. This only further fed his ambitions.

Hemedti started pushing the RSF further towards parity (and rivalry) with the army. As a result, the militia grew to nearly 100,000 heavily armed troops (from 5,000 in 2013) with multiple bases all over Khartoum and a presence in 17 states.

His last fatal move, the attempt to take over Merowe airport and turn it into an airbase was the next step in his plan. For years, Hemedti has been manoeuvring to duplicate the arsenal of the army. He has been sending pilots to train abroad, and seeking to acquire fighter jets. He also needed an airfield. For the Sudanese Armed Forces, that was the last straw.

For months, the top military brass kept sounding the alarm about the growth and aggressiveness of the RSF, its foreign alliances and its internal machinations. A plan put forth by the Forces of Freedom and Change, a broad political coalition of civilian and rebel groups, to restructure the armed forces was another red flag.

It exempted the RSF from any reform or subordination to the civilian government, leaving it as it is – a tribal, semi-private militia run by the Dagalo family that doubles as a business, an economic predator and a protection racket. There was no question of integrating it into the armed forces, let alone dismantling it.

It boggles the mind how the international diplomats presiding over the so-called “transition process” imagined that a democracy could be guided by a militia, which – in alliance with isolated civilian parties – was supposed to oversee judicial, military and civil service reform, produce a constitution and an electoral law, and lead the country to democracy through free and fair elections.

This paradox has its roots in a vision promoted by some political groups that political and military reform (including the subordination of the military to civilian rule) should precede democracy. Common wisdom in all such cases tends to go the other way.

A democratic government, or at least a consensual governance scheme, is supposed to precede such reforms since it gives the government the popular legitimacy needed to impose norms and make the required major changes.

Democratisation also presupposes a unified, coherent and hierarchically disciplined military. The two elements underline the principle of the legitimate monopoly of physical power. With the existence of multiple military outfits, especially when some of them are private and patrimonial, it would be meaningless to speak of civil control of the military, let alone of democracy.

If the militias have a genocidal history and current predatory practices and are steeped in corruption, one cannot even talk of the proverbial “good governance” euphemism adopted by international agencies to denote “acceptable despotism”.

In its current form, the Sudanese military has many problems. It has an authoritarian heritage, and many of its commanders have been implicated in abuses. However, it remains a professional outfit, and its officers go through rigorous education and training. The military as a body was opposed to al-Bashir’s authoritarianism, and there were even a few attempts to overthrow him.

The army as a whole endorsed the removal of al-Bashir and supported the civilian transition. Al-Burhan’s October 2021 coup had more support from Hemedti and his breakaway Freedom and Change allies than from the military itself.

By contrast, the RSF militia has a long history of direct engagement in atrocities. While it was embraced as an ally by some civilian actors, it still played the leading role in a June 3, 2019, massacre of peaceful protesters.

Its conduct in the recent conflict is revealing in the cavalier way in which it has targeted civilians and its indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. The illusions that a genocidal militia can be the force to usher in democratic change should not have been entertained in the first place and must now be abandoned.

The current clashes can pose a grave danger but also an opportunity for Sudan. The danger is that the RSF could win, or the fighting could end in a stalemate that would permit the militia to negotiate itself back into a position of power. The opportunity is that the RSF could be removed from the political scene for good, a task that could never have been achieved through negotiations, especially not by a weak and isolated “civilian” government dependent on the militia for its survival.

A unified and coherent military force could more easily be depoliticised, placed under civilian control and made into a guardian of peace and democracy.

More important, however, is the unity and coherence of the civilian democratic forces. The existence of rival military outfits tempts civilian actors to eschew the necessary compromises needed to achieve a broader consensus with rivals in the hope of an alliance with a military partner to impose their agenda.

By the same token, severe polarisation among the main civilian political actors tempts the military to play one against the other. If military unity is achieved, this could encourage civilian unity and make it easier to negotiate a transition in good faith.

Regional and international mediators must not make restoring the status quo ante as their objective but must aim to remove the RSF from Khartoum and the political process. That is the minimum that the Sudanese people deserve for their sacrifices.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.