The failed “coup-proofing” behind the recent violence in Sudan

The failed “coup-proofing” behind the recent violence in Sudan

Fighting has erupted among the armed factions that deposed the country’s dictator and promised to make a democracy. What caused relations between the previously allied groups to fall apart? This article was originally published here in The New Yorker.

April 20, 2023 | The New Yorker | Isaac Chotiner
Isaac Chotiner
April 20, 2023
The New Yorker

Nearly four years ago, in April, 2019, protesters helped overthrow the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who had become notorious around the world for his role in perpetrating mass slaughter in the country’s Darfur region. Bashir’s downfall did not immediately lead to any democratic transformations—many protesters were later killed by the same military forces that had ousted Bashir—but by October, 2019, a civilian Prime Minister had been appointed to run the government alongside the military. Two years later, the military took full control of Sudan in a coup led by two generals who had long been key players in the nation’s politics: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who has spent his career with the Army, and Mohamed Hamdan, formerly a commander of the infamous janjaweed militia, which had terrorized Darfur’s civilians, and who’d become close to Bashir.

Over time, conflict developed between these two generals. Last week, that conflict flared, leading to clashes across the country between the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group led by Hamdan. Hundreds of civilians have died, several thousand have been wounded, and many others wonder whether a ceasefire that was announced earlier in the week will hold.

To learn more about the situation in Sudan, I spoke by phone with Mai Hassan, an associate professor of political science at MIT who has written extensively on the region. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Sudan got to this point, the role of outside countries in the conflict, and how the roots of the current fighting might lie in the genocide in Darfur.

In a broad sense, what do you think the fight between these two generals is about?

I would say that this is the result of so-called coup-proofing. Sudan is caught in what’s known as the coup-civil-war trap. We should go back to Sudan’s prior dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who had been in office from 1989 to 2019. One thing that a lot of autocrats do to prevent armed factions of the state from launching coups is to coup-proof, which means creating rival centers of power by creating an internal security apparatus. Sudan has a conventional army, the Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, which is one of the belligerents now. Back in the early two-thousands, around the war in Darfur, Bashir decided to rely on janjaweed or Arab militias to engage in scorched-earth tactics and genocide. Really horrible stuff.

After that, he incorporated some of these janjaweed militias into an official paramilitary and into the Sudanese state, and allowed them to grow. He allowed them to enrich themselves, and engaged in and actually passed through the parliament a decree allowing the Rapid Support Forces, the successors to the janjaweed, to be on an equal institutional footing as the Army. In 2013, the janjaweed were incorporated as the RSF, which began to be brought into the Sudanese state. By 2017, through an act of parliament, the leader of the RSF responded directly to the head of state. Bashir did this to coup-proof, to insure that if the SAF ever got too rebellious, or too powerful, he would have a counterweight. And, in fact, for some time, Bashir called Hamdan “my protector.”

Unfortunately for him, the coup happened anyway. In 2019, there were mass protests, which were followed by the military somewhat directly taking power.

The uprising was really propelled by civilians and civilian forces. The economy was just in shambles and honestly still is. There’s so much fighting, so much injustice, and so people mobilized out onto the streets. I was talking earlier about coup-proofing, but the situation on the ground got so bad that the SAF and the RSF ended up joining the opposition, in part because they recognized that Bashir was just untenable, and that he was no longer going to be able to secure their financial or political interests going forward. Even though they were created to be these rivalrous bodies, they ended up joining and responding to, in a sense, the will of the people and couping out Bashir.

Since then, the leaders of the RSF and the SAF, along with other élites in other security organs, negotiated with civilians to figure out the transition to what we were hoping would be democracy. Burhan, who’s in charge of the saf, was the leader of the transition. He was supposed to be the leader for the first twenty-one months and then hand over leadership to a civilian who would oversee the rest of the transition. As you can imagine, he didn’t do so willingly. In 2021, he said that he was going to take over the rest of the transition.

In that brief period between 2019 and 2021, when there was a civilian Prime Minister and there was at least a façade of democratic movement, was anything accomplished?

That’s a really complicated question. I think there was a lot of hope at the beginning for Abdalla Hamdok, the civilian Prime Minister. His government tried to tackle the largest issues from Bashir’s dictatorship and tried to dismantle lots of the elements of the state. It engaged in civil-service reform. It had this asset-recovery program to try to reclaim assets that the Islamists had taken from the state. But it wasn’t strong enough to really see those through.

What has changed since the military took full control almost two years ago? How does Sudan function differently, either from the transitional time or from Bashir’s time?

Both of my parents came back from Khartoum just a month ago. The economic crisis seems to be getting worse and worse and worse. Part of this is because, since the 2021 coup, a lot of Western countries have pulled aid as a way to get the belligerents back to the negotiating table, and to try to force democratization upon these unwilling parties. Another thing that I’m seeing is that there’s a growing disconnect between the “street”—informal resistance committees that are mobilizing their own neighborhoods, that are really agitating against the regime—and the more coördinated, or formal, opposition. You’re seeing a growing divide there. It’s really unfortunate.

Can you talk more about this divide?

If the West is calling on or forcing people to the bargaining table with a military regime, the people that it’s going to ask first are the civilian opposition: formal political parties, formal women’s groups, formal civil-society groups. But those groups seem to be getting more and more disconnected from the opinions on the ground. During the uprising, in particular, a lot of informal resistance committees, what are called neighborhood resistance committees, had formed and emerged organically to lead mobilization, in part because formal civil-society groups were so repressed, because it was so easy to find them, because it was so easy to infiltrate them.

But a lot of these groups that emerged organically eschewed verticality—having a leader and then a vice-leader and all that. Instead, it’s much more agile, much more horizontal, which was really, really great for mobilization, as you can imagine. But then how do you negotiate with something like that? Who’s the leader who can represent the interests of all of these local resistance committees?

How would you define the relationship between Burhan and Hamdan? How has it changed during the past two years?

The coup happened in October, 2021. In August, 2022, Hamdan, who is known as Hemedti, went on television. He went on some kind of big public platform and said that the coup was a mistake. Reading between the lines, a lot of people were saying that Hemedti realized that Burhan is being run by the Islamists, and the Islamists don’t want Hemedti in power. They really want to kick him out. You could see this growing tension between them. And, in October, 2021, when Burhan and Hemedti no longer had shared interests—the civilian forces were out, Bashir was out—the split between them started to emerge.

There’s another tension between these two: the city and armed forces really looked down upon the RSF. The SAF is a trained, conventional army. A lot of its leaders went to war colleges in Egypt, whereas the RSF grew out of a militia. Just for professionalism reasons, a lot of the SAF looks down on the RSF. At the same time, much of the SAF rank and file are resentful of the RSF, which has a lot of equipment and a lot of funding. There’s tension there, too.

I’ve read about class tension there, with the armed forces looking down on the R.S.F. Is that true? Moreover, do either Hamdan or Burhan have any sort of popular support, and is this division reflected in that support?

Burhan and other top military brass definitely looked down on Hemedti and the RSF, precisely because the SAF is supposed to use this trained, conventional force, professional soldiers, whereas the RSF is not. There was this big show of support, a big rally in support of the SAF, in an area where Burhan has co-ethnic support. Hemedti comes from the Darfur area and has lots of co-ethnic support out west, in Darfur.

Burhan and Bashir are both riverine Arabs, and there’s this animosity toward these ethnic groups that have long run Sudan. Hemedti is from the west, which has been long neglected. He has support from his ethnic groups out west, but I also think other ethnic groups across the country see Hemedti as an outsider who might actually have a shot at running the country. I could imagine a situation in which, if they have to choose between these two belligerents for ethnic reasons, they might support Hemedti.

You mentioned that there are some accusations by Hemedti that Islamists have infiltrated the Sudanese government. My understanding is that there just isn’t that much of an actual ideological battle at play here between these two groups. Is that your understanding, too?

There’s an Islamist movement in Sudan that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s the National Islamic Front. Bashir’s party, the National Congress Party, is emblematic of that. But, broadly, it’s not about ideological differences.

I want to ask you about the role that outside powers have played and are continuing to play in this situation. It’s confusing because Egypt seems to be supporting the formal Sudanese military, and the Egyptian government is not kind to Islamists.

In Middle Eastern politics, the line in the sand is very clearly between Islamists and secularists, often represented by the military. I’ve always wondered why that wasn’t the case in Sudan, and why the Egyptian Army, which is supposedly very, very anti-Muslim Brotherhood, is supportive of the SAF. Part of it is just camaraderie—they know them, they trust them, there are soldiers who trained in Egypt, and they run joint military exercises. The deeper issue is probably Realpolitik—that Egypt cares a lot about who is running its southern border. Egypt doesn’t want a democracy in the country. It’s always seen Sudan as a little sibling. Obviously, it cares a whole lot about the Nile, its lifeblood. It’s probably some amalgamation of it thinking that the SAF could probably do a better job of insuring that democracy doesn’t come, and securing Egypt’s real interests.

I really think that this is a domestic conflict. It’s just a question of how regional players are lining up behind each side. If this conflict were to become international, Egypt is a clear state party that might enter. Hemedti has a lot of backing from the UAE and to some extent Saudi Arabia, in part because he sold the RSF troops as mercenaries to fight the wars in Libya and in Yemen.

If this conflict gets any larger, we might see a situation in which Chad or the Central African Republic want to secure interests of co-ethnics. There’s also Ethiopia, and I can imagine a situation where, if Egypt does get involved, Ethiopia would want to be on the opposite side.

There have been some stories about mercenaries from the Wagner Group being involved in Sudan. Is that a big part of what’s going on here? Regardless, what role do they play, and why are they there?

Wagner’s in Sudan. It jointly operates some gold mines. [On Telegram, Wagner wrote that its forces have not been in Sudan for more than two years.] At one point, Sudan was Africa’s third-largest producer of gold. I don’t think Wagner and Putin really care about what happens in Sudan—they just want to be allied with whoever’s going to run it. Sudan has a whole host of resources that, given all these Western sanctions, I’m sure Russia would love. If it’s clear that one side is going to win, maybe they’d enter, but I don’t think this is their fight, per se.

What role have the United States and Britain played, and how sincerely have they or can they push for some sort of reassertion of civilian control?

In a sense, what sparked the conflict, which started on Saturday, the most proximate cause, was the security-sector reform. Since the coup in October, 2021, Western powers, with the US and the UN definitely at the forefront, have been pushing for Burhan and Hemedti to come back to the table and to find a new transitional agreement to put Sudan back on this path of democratization. They had signed a framework agreement for a new transitional agreement, but they hadn’t nailed down everything. The biggest sticking point was security-sector reform. The West was really pushing for security-sector reform, but Burhan and Hemedti weren’t anywhere close to agreeing on it. Burhan wanted integration to be quick and for the RSF to be completely integrated with the national forces within two years.

Hemedti was, like, “No, no, no, we need way longer for this to happen. This process is going to take at least ten years.” The West was pushing them to come to an agreement so quickly. Not nailing down the specifics of what this reform would look like or actually involving a lot of civilian groups in the process was one of the reasons, in my view, that we got this outbreak of violence, even if, probably, we were going to get here regardless.

What are you hoping to see now?

It would be really great if both sides could respect the ceasefires that their leaders claim to be agreeing to. Are these leaders agreeing to a ceasefire and then just disavowing it for strategic reasons? Are they agreeing to it, and they just don’t have control over their troops? I don’t know. Either way, it’s worrying.

In the more medium term, I’m thinking about how we can avoid spiralling. I’ve been hearing that Western countries have been talking with lots of regional neighbors to prevent them from entering the war. I think that’s really great. But more needs to be done with a lot of these tribal leaders. Sudan has had so many wars, so many civil conflicts. There are arms all over the country, and lots of ethnic groups have bones to pick with the SAF, or with the RSF, or with the central Sudanese state, in general. I think what’s really necessary is for mediation to happen with leaders of different tribal ethnic groups across the country to persuade them not to enter this war and to just ostracize Burhan and Hemedti. Say, “This is their conflict, and let it die out.” But it will be a while before it dies out.