Sudan conflict explained: the rival generals behind a deadly power struggle

Clash between leaders entrusted with managing democratic transition risks security across east Africa

The last time a military president and his vice-president fought each other in east Africa, about 400,000 people died. That was in South Sudan.

Now a bloody power struggle is destabilising its northern neighbour, Sudan, where two military rivals, both schooled in the killing fields of Darfur, are squaring off in a clash the African Union has warned “could escalate into a full-blown conflict”, threatening security across the region.

On one side is Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, president of Sudan’s military government and head of the army, who has the backing of Egypt and boasts powerful ground and air forces.

Opposing him is another member of the ruling transitional military council: Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, Sudan’s vice-president. He oversees the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), one of the region’s biggest militia groups, claims powerful Gulf backers and is suspected of having links to Russian entities profiting from shady gold exports.


The two men, who accuse each other of firing the first shot in the latest clashes, hold the fate of Sudan in their hands. “This may only end when one of them wins this fight,” said a senior western diplomat trapped in the capital Khartoum.

Both men fought in Darfur in the mid-2000s. Al-Burhan was an army commander under long-standing dictator Omar al-Bashir and Hemeti, a camel trader of Chadian origin, led the feared Janjaweed horseback militia in their combined fight against rebels in the western region.

This force was in 2013 turned into the praetorian guard of Bashir, who did not want power concentrated in the armed forces. Both men have denied committing atrocities in Darfur, where as many as 300,000 people were killed and 2.7m displaced.

Tensions inflamed

They joined forces in two recent coups; the first against Bashir in 2019, following months of street protests, and the second against former civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok in 2021 – after which they became Sudan’s de facto rulers. Both men have tens of thousands of fighters under their command, analysts estimate.

But the alliance between Burhan and Hemeti has always been tenuous. “They have shared power in government since 2019, but two armed forces inside one country was always a recipe for civil conflict,” said Ben Hunter, east Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.

A political process launched following months of protests after the coup in October 2021 led to a preliminary agreement late last year that should have ended in a deal to hold democratic elections. But the accord only served to inflame tensions between the two military leaders.

Part of the deal stated that the RSF should come under the army’s control. But the powerful militia, people inside the process said, wanted to remain an independent force. The RSF, Hemeti said, also acted as border guards clamping down on illegal migrants crossing into Libya and Egypt en route to Europe.

“By law, the Rapid Support Forces are supporting the Sudanese Armed Forces,” Hemeti told the Financial Times in late 2021. Such “support” broke down on Saturday when fighting between the two forces erupted in Khartoum, with at least 97 people killed.

Hemeti warned that there was “a campaign against the RSF from groups inside Sudan, there may be countries standing behind them ... These are the enemies of success and the enemies of democracy, they are working against Sudan.”

The strife in Sudan is already having regional implications. The RSF claimed that 30 Egyptian soldiers “surrendered” to them. Egypt’s military said they were “closely following events in Sudan in the context of the presence of Egyptian forces carrying out exercises with their Sudanese counterparts”.

A prolonged Civil War dragging in neighbours cannot be ruled out, analysts warn. Burhan was once trained in Egypt’s military college and has been supported by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Analysts and Sudanese political insiders said that relationship was forged in part over a mutual distrust for Hemeti and the RSF as a non-assimilated military group that could spell trouble for nearby nations.

“The Egyptians are behind Burhan. They did their best in the past to make sure he doesn’t collapse,” said a western official.

Hemeti has been backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and he once deployed RSF ground troops to Yemen in the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels. “They gave him a lot of cash for the past 10 years. For them, Hemeti is the strongest bet in Khartoum right now, it’s the most organised unit,” the official added.

He has also cultivated close ties to Russia. Hemeti visited Moscow just days before President Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, while Russian companies linked to the Wagner group operating in Sudan profit from illegal gold exports, according to the US Treasury department. The RSF has links to gold mines in Darfur.

Both leaders have tried to proclaim their democratic credentials. Burhan said after the last coup in October 2021 that as soon as the transition to democracy was complete, the generals would return to barracks and a vote would be held in 2023. “After that, I’ll leave and mind my own business,” he said, “I will also leave the armed forces.”

On Monday, Hemeti said that “the fight we are waging now is the price for democracy ... we are fighting for the people of Sudan to ensure democratic progress, for which they have long yearned”.

But his claim to support the democratic transition was rejected by Amjed Farid, a civilian leader and a former adviser to Hamdok.

Farid said the “all-out war” between both men “is the biggest indication and proof that the leadership of the military institutions does not care about the security of the country or the security of its citizens”. – The Financial Times Limited