Who are the rival forces fighting for control in Sudan?

Eruption of violence has dashed hopes that military leaders would cede power to a democratic government

A prolonged confrontation could plunge Sudan into widespread conflict as it struggles with economic breakdown and tribal violence, derailing efforts to move towards elections. Photograph: Marwan Ali/AP

Chaos engulfed Sudan on Saturday as forces led by two rival generals engaged in ferocious battles for the capital, Khartoum, and other parts of the country, with both sides fighting for control of the presidential palace, the main airport and other key sites.

The eruption of violence dashed hopes that military leaders would cede power to a democratic government led by civilians. It comes four years after Sudan captured the world’s attention when protests toppled the country’s authoritarian leader, president Omar al-Bashir, offering hope to similar movements in Africa and the Arab world.

Why Sudan is important?

Africa’s third-largest country by area, Sudan, with more than 45 million people, sits at a strategic spot just south of Egypt in Africa’s northeast.

In recent years, Sudan, a member of the Arab League, has become a flashpoint in a battle for influence between Russia and Western powers, particularly the United States.


The private Russian military company Wagner has sent operatives to Sudan to prop up the military government, and also runs a major gold mining concession there. The Kremlin has pressed Sudan for permission to allow Russian warships to dock at ports on the country’s Red Sea coastline.

Sudan: At least 56 civilians killed amid clashes between army and paramilitary groupOpens in new window ]

Expressing alarm at the fighting, the US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Twitter Saturday that he was “deeply concerned” by the violence in Sudan and urged both sides to “immediately” cease hostilities and avoid further escalations.

The mayhem was a major blow to American, United Nations, African Union, Arab League and other foreign officials who had been scrambling this past week to head off the possibility of just such clashes. US officials had been pressing Sudan’s military to put the country back on the path to democracy, 18 months after generals seized power in a coup.

Sudan's military launch air strikes on paramilitary forces in bid to reassert control over the country following intense clashes over the weekend.
Who is Abdel-Fattah Burhan, Sudan’s military chief?

General Abdel-Fattah Burhan is a powerful military commander who has for years been a de facto leader of Sudan. He leads one of the two main rival factions now battling for control of the country.

Little known before 2019, Burhan rose to power in the tumultuous aftermath of the military-led coup that ousted al-Bashir, the authoritarian leader who was deposed after popular uprisings consumed the country that year.

Then the inspector general of the armed forces, Burhan had also served as a regional army commander in Darfur, in western Sudan, when 300,000 people were killed and millions of others displaced in fighting from 2003 to 2008 that drew worldwide condemnation for its humanitarian toll.

Sudan’s top army general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Burhan had been closely aligned with al-Bashir. But when al-Bashir was ousted, his defence minister, lieutenant general Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf, took over control of the country, pushing protesters to successfully demand his resignation. Burhan replaced him, becoming the most powerful leader of the country in a tenuous transitional period. While Western governments hoped Sudan would move toward democracy, Burhan instead went on to progressively tighten his grip.

After civilians and the military signed a powersharing agreement in 2019, Burhan became the chair of the Sovereignty Council, a body created to oversee the country’s transition to democratic rule. But as the date for the handover of control to civilians got closer in late 2021, Burhan proved reluctant to hand over power. On October 25th, 2021, he carried out the coup that ousted the civilian government and its prime minister.

Who is Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo?

Burhan is battling for control of Sudan with lieutenant general Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the country’s Rapid Support Forces, a powerful paramilitary group.

Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, rose to prominence as a commander of the notorious Janjaweed militias responsible for the worst atrocities of the conflict in Darfur. His success in crushing the revolt there earned him the favour of al-Bashir, who in 2013 appointed him as head of the newly created Rapid Support Forces.

Lieutenant general Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the country’s Rapid Support Forces. Photograph: AFP/Getty

In October 2021, Burhan and Dagalo united to seize power in a coup, making them effectively the leader and deputy leader of Sudan. But in recent months, they have publicly fallen out, clashing in public and quietly deploying extra troops and equipment to military camps in Khartoum and across the country.

US and other foreign officials had been leading efforts to persuade the two generals to transfer power to a civilian-led government. Instead, they are now clashing violently.

Dagalo has blamed Burhan for the violence now engulfing Sudan.

“We are sorry to be fighting our countrymen, but this criminal is the one who forced us to do it,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.