Dr. Yaniv Voller is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at Kent University, an Affiliate at Stanford University and an expert on armed groups, civil wars and separatist violence.
The recent outbreak of violence in Sudan is, more than anything, a product of the emergence of a new political order in countries coming out of protracted civil wars. We can describe this security order as a hybrid one, in which the long-established formal security institutions, chiefly the regular army, have lost much of their monopoly over violence in vast parts of the country. Instead, their responsibilities have been taken over by ad hoc militias of local ethnic groups and depend primarily on their leaders’ contacts with the political elite. This order can be described as a militiatocracy, in which armed groups in the periphery develop symbiotic relations of interdependence with the government. This symbiosis and balance of interests, nevertheless, is a delicate one and may not survive for long since the leaders of the groups in the periphery will eventually seek to reach the center and integrate into positions of power. At this point, any undermining of the delicate balance is likely to result in a civil war.
In the case of Sudan, the actor rising from the periphery is the Rapid Support Forces (Quwat al-Da‘m al-Sari‘, henceforth RSF). The RSF has its roots in the Janjaweed militias, which became infamous as the main perpetrators of the genocide of the black population of Darfur. The Janjaweed were trained, funded, and organized by the Sudanese security forces. They drew from Arab communities in Darfur, primarily the Abbala and Baggara. These Arab tribes were perceived as more loyal to the regime, having a history of competition over resources with the sedentary black tribes, such as the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit. One of the rising leaders of the Janjaweed forces was Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti. Like other militia commanders, Hemedti, a Baggara Arab from the Rizeigat tribe, was rewarded for his services by Sudan’s dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, by gaining access to mass wealth, mainly by overtaking gold mines.
With the de-escalation of fighting in Darfur, Hemedti moved to Khartoum with his forces, now renamed the RSF. There he served Bashir in fighting the president’s enemies and even sending forces to Yemen to take part in the civil war tearing the country apart. There he also earned the patronage of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
In 2019, Bashir was overthrown by mass public protests. This led to a competition between Hemedti and his RSF and Bashir’s other close ally, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). At the onset, Burhan and Hemedti established an alliance of convenience, promising to march Sudan to independence. Nevertheless, this promise had little ground. Both Burhan and Hemedti began to build their power bases in Khartoum. Unlike in past episodes of competition over power, the RSF was now in near parity with the SAF, mainly thanks to its experience in Yemen and the Saudi and Emirati support it received as part of this intervention.
In retrospect, it is safe to say that the outbreak of violence was inevitable. The trigger for the violence between both sides is not entirely clear and is now irrelevant. Both parties have prepared for this moment since April 2019. Moreover, with the entrance of the Russian Wagner Group into the conflict, in support of the RSF and Egypt’s support of the SAF, the prospects of a peaceful resolution become slimmer. In such a scenario, a new division of labor remains a remote possibility. The two most likely scenarios now are either a prolonged war until one side defeats the other or a division of Sudan in a manner reminding of Libya’s situation. In contrast to Libya’s situation, however, the RSF may find it more challenging to secure its presence in its stronghold of Darfur without massive external support due to tensions with the region’s black population.
The events of Sudan carry a warning to many other countries in which different armed groups have operated in parallel. When militias and paramilitary forces spread from their region of origin to other parts of the country, they are not likely to remain content with the arrangements made in wartime.