Clash of Generals: Future of Sudan’s political landscape, regional stability at stake
The conflict in Sudan is multi-dimensional and its resolution – rather, who ends up victorious and what concessions are made by all parties – will define the country’s political landscape likely for years to come, analysts say. The bloody feud between the two rival military factions also has repercussions beyond the borders of Sudan, as it threatens to destabilize the region.
The hostilities erupted on April 15 between Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF) under the leadership of chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under the leadership of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.
Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured, and scores fled the country since the outbreak of fighting between the two rival military factions in Sudan.
The United Nations reported that the conflict has so far killed more than 528 people and injured over 4,599.
How did we get here and what are the two Generals fighting for?
A doomed ‘marriage of convenience’
Eighteen months ago, the two Generals jointly staged a coup against then prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, which disrupted the country’s democratic transition. Under intense pressure from the international community and regional heavy weights, negotiations were initiated to course correct back to the transition to democracy.
However, in recent months, tensions began to escalate between Burhan and Hemedti during the negotiations to reach a final agreement. A major point of contention was how the RSF would be integrated into the SAF and who would have supreme control.
The intensifying tensions between the two Generals over control of the country erupted into a bloody feud, that unfolded on the streets of Khartoum and eventually spread to other areas across Sudan, with both Generals commanding tens of thousands of troops equipped with arsenals of weapons.
“The marriage of convenience between… Sudan’s two most powerful generals… built on a shared contemptuousness of Sudanese civilians’ democratic aspirations – collapsed into a winner-takes-all battle for supremacy in which civilians are the collateral damage,” wrote former US special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman.
Feltman added that “[the two Generals’] partnership was premised on undermining, delaying and ultimately derailing Sudan’s transition to democratic, civilian rule… Above all, their arrangement was based on the shared understanding that Sudan’s military would never report to civilian authorities.”
The Generals now appear to be engaging in a “fight to the death” for control of the country.
Director of communications and senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, Mohanad Hage Ali, highlighted how the struggle between Burhan and Hemedti is influenced by their backgrounds, with Hemedti from the marginalized Darfur region and Burhan from the politically dominant northern Sudan.
Political analyst specializing in the Middle East and North Africa, with a focus on Sudan, Mat Nashed pointed to the contrast in the backgrounds of Burhan and Hemedti, explaining that Burhan, a military man with possible ties to Sudan's Islamist current, attended military college and served in military intelligence in central Darfur during some of the region's worst violence in the mid-2000s. He has been implicated in past atrocities.
Nashed added that the story of Burhan and Hemedti also reflects the dynamic between the SAF and the RSF. The RSF, originating from various militias, armed and trained by ousted president Omar al-Bashir during the Darfur conflict, evolved into a force that could challenge the military's dominance, threatening its relevance, patronage networks, and economic control. Burhan faced internal military pressure to maintain the military's supremacy in the country. In contrast, Hemedti's relationship with the RSF is more top-down, with him and his family controlling its top guard and pursuing their ambitions using well-paid recruits.
Hemedti's recent pursuit of power in the capital challenged the long-standing status quo. His leverage over Burhan depends on his forces' ability to counter the SAF's superior firepower in an urban environment. A worsening humanitarian situation and international pressure benefit Hemedti, as holding ground in Khartoum increases his negotiation leverage. However, if the SAF forces him out, he could potentially mobilize Arab tribes in Darfur and beyond, threatening Sudan's unity, argues Hage Ali.
Why should the regional and international communities care?
Regional ‘domino effect’ and international players
Should the violent armed confrontation between the two Generals’ forces turn into a full-fledged civil war, the repercussions will extend far beyond Sudan’s borders to affect the wider region.
“Events in Sudan might have stirred the greater region’s hornet nest. Indeed, there is a strong likelihood that the war could have a domino effect across the already troubled Chad Basin and the Sahel,” said Folahanmi Aina, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
He explained that the conflict in Sudan could lead to the spread of small arms and light weapons among state entities in the region, potentially widening the illegal arms trade, including the creation of new smuggling corridors from Libya. In addition, the porous nature of the region's borders, as seen in countries like Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, exacerbates this issue, increasing the risk of weapons falling into the hands of violent extremists.
Furthermore, Aina added that disputed territories in the region may also facilitate the infiltration of foreign terrorist fighters, particularly considering the RSF ties to the Janjaweed, a militia that fought in the conflict in Darfur in the 2000s and is accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Janjaweed could further increase collaboration among violent extremist organizations with shared political and ideological goals.
“Left uncontained, the conflict could easily become a full-scale regional war. External state actors such as China, France, and Russia also maintain an active presence and interests in the Chad Basin and Sahel; these countries could be quickly drawn into the war, as well,” Aina said.
When assessing the international dimension of the conflict in Sudan, he explained that a key concern is the potential expansion of Russia's paramilitary Wagner Group, which has already been involved in recruiting Chadian rebels and setting up training sites in the Central African Republic. This could worsen regional tensions, particularly if the group supports rebels aiming for state capture. Alternatively, the situation may embolden autocratic rulers in the Chad Basin and Sahel, who may seek help from entities like the Wagner Group to maintain power.
He added that the conflict in Sudan involves multiple state actors, including France, which cannot afford to see Sudan collapse after shifting its focus from Mali to Niger. Chad's vulnerability and inability to counter external threats are also worrisome for France. Similarly, the US, UK, and EU have regional interests and must ensure stability to protect international trade amid growing Russian and Chinese influence.
Russia's interest in establishing a military base in Port Sudan and accusations of the Wagner Group smuggling gold from the country indicate that instability could disrupt Russia's activities and prompt deeper involvement in the region to address its economic needs, according to Aina.
What does the future hold for the civil protest movement?
Hage Ali said the conflict further debilitated the already weakened civil protest movement, and that any future settlement to resolve the conflict “may well see a power-sharing agreement between the Sudanese military, the RSF, and their civilian cronies.” Because “regardless of their statements to the contrary, Burhan and Hemedti share an interest in a weakened civilian opposition.”
And irrespective of who comes out on top, such a power-sharing settlement would “define Sudan’s political landscape”, leaving the civilian opposition in the dust.
As for the role the international community should take on to resolve the conflict, Hage Ali argues that any international political intervention should take into consideration the need to restore balance to Sudan’s political scene. This means implementing a more inclusive transition, one that empowers and widens civilian representation as a way forward. It should also pressure regional players to engage constructively in the process which would help pave the way for a more durable peace. The alternative could mean enduring instability in Sudan, which could then spread to the country’s neighbors.
Feltman contends that the international community should not endorse any power-sharing agreement between the two factions as that would be a disservice to the nation because he said history proved that neither Burhan nor Hemedti can be reformed.
He said: “The greatest disservice that could be done to the Sudanese people, to the integrity of Sudan as a sovereign state, to the security of Sudan’s neighbors, and indeed to international peace and security, would be to allow negotiations between the belligerents to yield yet another internationally endorsed compromise predicated on power-sharing. At least now it should be clear that Burhan and Hemedti are not reformers — and that they will never be reformed.”
Furthermore, he highlighted that a “cynical ceasefire based on power-sharing between warlords” will not be stable, as the Sudanese people's desire for democracy and civilian rule remains strong. Even during the time of the tenuous Burhan-Hemedti partnership, civil resistance persisted.
Feltman argued that if a civilian authority were to emerge, it might have a better chance against a potentially divided and weakened security apparatus. While this outcome may be unlikely, it is “the only glimmer of hope one can find in this awful tragedy.”