April 15th, 2023, was the date of an event that was shocking but sadly not surprising. Gunfire erupted between two factions of the Sudanese military: the Army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). So, how did we get here?
We have to go back to April 2019 to properly assess the events of April 2023. That was when former President Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup and then arrested after an extended period of protests. Bashir would be tried and convicted on charges of corruption and illegitimate possession of foreign currency in December 2019. He would not face charges for the crackdown against the protests.
After his ouster, the military set up a transitional council that was supposed to pave the way towards elections and a subsequent return to civilian government. The first attempt at a transition towards a civilian-led government would itself be ousted by the military in October 2021 and would lead to the arrest of then Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
The military would resume power again, with two leaders emerging as players for power in the country. Sadly, both of them are generals. They are Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who would lead a Transitional Council, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, who is the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and deputy head of the ruling Sovereign Council. These two men would have a tenuous relationship at best, and it would have an impact on governance in Sudan.
What are the major differences between the Army and the RSF? The RSF actually was established by the Bashir regime during the Darfur conflict, comprising Arab militias known as the Janjaweed. However, there are allegations that units of the RSF deployed into Libya in 2020 to support forces led by General Khalifa Haftar. The RSF would also be deployed to Yemen to assist the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis as well. Hemeti would also boast that his forces prevented a coup attempt against the Central African Republic earlier this year. Another relationship that needs to be examined is the RSF’s ties with Russia. Hemeti visited Moscow on the evening that Moscow renewed its assault on Ukraine and is a vocal proponent of allowing the Russian Navy to construct a base on the Red Sea.
General Burhan also has a support system. One of Burhan’s main supporters has been Egypt. That could explain why the RSF reportedly took some Egyptian soldiers hostage during the initial hours of conflict. Another base of support for Burhan is supposed to be the Gulf States, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There is another supporter of General Burhan that will come as a surprise to many. In February 2023, Burhan met with a delegation from Israel as well. Burhan signed onto the Abraham Accords as well, so that brings up the question of whether this incident is designed to weaken those accords.
So why did the fighting break out? It appears that we have two leaders in the Sudanese military who view their “colleague” as a direct threat to their power. Neither individual comes across or should be respected as a democratic idealist. This situation is best described by an African proverb: “When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In this case, the grass is a metaphor for the Sudanese people. Deadlines to foster a transition to civilian rule were missed twice in April 2023. The die was cast to lead up to the violence on April 15.
What does this mean for the region? It appears that the countries that will be most impacted by this event are the Central African Republic, Libya, and to a lesser extent, South Sudan. If the RSF is defeated, will they swell the ranks of Wagner?