Armed Forces and RSF conflict throws Sudan into chaos
Starting on April 15, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary unit heir to the Janjaweed militias, launched a series of coordinated attacks against institutional targets in several cities in Sudan, including the capital Khartoum, in an attempt to seize power through a coup d’état. The main target of the attacks are the Armed Forces and their Commander-in-Chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who concurrently holds the position of Head of State and Chairman of the Sovereign Transitional Council, the executive body that has governed the country since November 2019, following the coup that deposed President Omar al-Bashir.
At present, the outcome of the confrontation between the RSF and the Armed Forces appears uncertain, as neither has yet been able to establish effective and stable control over critical national infrastructure, institutional headquarters, major military bases, and radio and television stations. The death toll is also difficult to estimate, although, to date, some Sudanese sources speak of more than 100 dead and hundreds injured.
The RSF rebellion and the conflict with the Armed Forces threaten to further disrupt the already fragile path of transition to democracy that Sudan laboriously attempted to launch in 2019, with the deposing of al-Bashir, but which until then had yet to produce tangible results. In fact, since then, the Armed Forces and RSF have led the country through the Sovereign Transitional Council, and have failed to implement agreements with civilian oppositions, led by the Forces for Freedom and Change (FLC), regarding the transfer of power to a civilian government. In 2021 a coup by the Armed Forces, led by al-Burhan, suppressed the popular rebellion, while in December 2022, after a year of almost daily protests, the military had apparently decided to step aside by April 6 of this year.
The challenges of the Sudanese transition are multiple but they focus around two dominant issues: the military establishment’s refusal to abandon its political role in favor of the FLC and the conflict between the Armed Forces and the RSF. Both of these dynamics conceal the struggle for control of Sudanese resources and economic system. In fact, while the Armed Forces, through the articulated conglomerate of Defense industries and their subsidiaries, manage almost the entire national production and trade system (from agriculture to energy, from importing consumer goods to communications), the RSF have interests in the mining sector, especially in the extraction and sale of gold. As a result, both the RSF and the Armed Forces, whenever they have had to negotiate the cession of political power to civilian oppositions have demanded precise guarantees about maintaining control over their economic assets. Of course, the FLC never wanted to give in to such conditions, fully aware that there could be no real democratic transition until civilian control over the national economic machine was established. Relations between the Armed Forces and the RSF have also been conflictual, as the military, since the fall of al-Bashir, has had ambitions to take control of the gold mines held by the militia. This conflict has resulted in the direct clash between General al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemeti,” the powerful leader of the RSF and vice chairman of the Sovereign Transitional Council. Hemeti, the son of Rizeigat camel traders, was al-Bashir’s right-hand man as well as one of the major perpetrators of the Darfur genocide and the 2019 Khartoum massacre. He is one of the hegemonic figures in Sudan’s military, political and economic landscape, feared in the state and considered a reliable player abroad, especially in Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
In this context, the RSF rebellion was triggered by the Armed Forces’ proposal to hand over power to civilians, including control of the Military Industrial Complex, on the condition of incorporating the militias and the companies they controlled. In short, the Armed Forces would compensate for the loss of control over industries by gaining control of the mines and by dissolving the RSF. While Hemeti, although in favor, had called for a 10-year implementation period, which he considered sufficient to subvert the balance of power and, consequently, take control of Defense, al-Burhan had proposed a two-year agenda. The lack of compromise inevitably led to the rebellion of the RSF, which, despite its status as a paramilitary unit, is an organization of more than 100,000 men, well-established on the ground and well-armed and equipped. Internally, the uncertainty of developments in the RSF rebellion stems from both the military balance with the Armed Forces and the fact that civil oppositions, from labor unions to Islamist movements, have not yet taken a clear position in favor of either contenders. In fact, from their point of view, neither the Armed Forces nor the RSF are legitimate and credible interlocutors and both are obstacles to democratic transition. Similarly, the many ethnically based anti-government militias united under the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (FRS) and active in the Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile regions could steer the course of the confrontation in favor of the Armed Forces should they decide to support them against the RSF. However, such support would come on the condition of major political and economic concessions, beginning with regional autonomy and the renegotiation of the distribution of revenues derived from the exploitation of natural resources.
In the meantime, from an international perspective, the Sudanese power struggle involves direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, supporters of General al-Burhan, and Russia and the United Arab Emirates, linked to General Dagalo for reasons of economic interest. In fact, Dagalo is a major user of the so-called “Wagner package,” that is, the system of services that the Russian private military company of the same name offers to African leaders. Specifically, the RSF commander has sold rights to exploit certain gold mines in Darfur to companies close to Wagner’s owner oligarch Prigozhin, he has facilitated the influx of Russian contractors to protect sensitive sites and provide support against the most dangerous armed groups in Darfur, and he has signed additional agreements for the purchase of Russian military equipment. In return, the Wagner Group, through its contacts with Russian international criminal networks, has facilitated the smuggling of gold extracted from RSF-controlled mines, the largest buyer of which is Abu Dhabi. in addition, Dagalo is a major supporter of the construction of the Russian naval base in Port Sudan, a project initially discussed with Moscow during al-Bashir’s time but slowed down by al-Burhan due, probably, to strong U.S. pressure.
At the regional level, the confrontation between the Armed Forces and the RSFs involves the opposition between Ethiopia and Chad, close to Dagalo, and Egypt, al-Burhan’s sponsor. The polarization of alignments are created around the dossier of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and their respective interests in the water security dossier along the course of the Nile. Indeed, while Cairo, in recent years, has managed to win Khartoum’s support in an effort to slow down and reduce the dam’s filling volumes, Addis Ababa boasts a privileged relationship with the RSF and hopes, in the event of a Dagalo victory, for a change in Sudanese position. Chad, for its part, supports the paramilitary militia leader for the sake of expediency in the mining sector: in fact, Dagalo’s native tribesmen are from Chad, and the government in N’Djamena, which has already sent Rizeigat irregulars into Sudanese territory, hopes to gain the exploitation of a few gold mines in return.
At present, despite the many proposals for international mediation, there are no opportunities for negotiation between the warring parties in sight. There is a real possibility that, at least at this early stage of the fighting, the Armed Forces and the RSF will try to prevail decisively over each other. However, precisely because of the great balance between the contenders, a stalemate scenario in the medium term cannot be excluded. Should the battlefield fail to produce a winner, the Armed Forces and RSF may decide to make a momentary compromise in order to maintain the status quo and not to favor the strengthening of civilian oppositions or the ethnic-based militias of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front.
One element that could destabilize is the hypothetical growth in the involvement of external actors. Russia, the partner most interested in supporting Degalo’s victory, is in the complicated situation of being unable to commit military resources due to the weight of the conflict in Ukraine. Greater possibilities lie with Egypt, which, however, must consider the possible social and economic impacts internally of military involvement in Sudan, especially at a time of such great vulnerability and fragility.
The risk of deep destabilization in Khartoum also directly affects Italy and Europe. In fact, Sudan is the main transit country for the flow of migration and human trafficking from East Africa to Europe via Libya. Moreover, the RSF are directly involved in controlling the illegal flows, actively cooperating with local and Libyan traffickers. In such a scenario, both the Armed Forces and the RSF could use “migration extortion” against Europe, threatening an intensification of flows in case of European political activity unfavorable to either side. The use of human trafficking as an instrument of “hybrid warfare” is not new in the African scenario (in this regard, we can recall Qaddafi and post-Gaddafi Libya) and could directly affect the choices of European governments vis-à-vis the Sudanese crisis.