CAIRO (AP) — On his return home from the U.N. General Assembly this year, Sudan's top general descended an airplane stairway in the country's capital to a flurry of cameras.
Waiting to greet Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan with a smile and handshake was his deputy and paramilitary leader Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. It was a choreographed moment between Sudan’s most powerful men, a show of unity amid rumors of discord.
A year after the two generals launched a military coup that upended the country’s short-lived transition to democracy, their struggle for individual gain threatens to further destabilize the country.
‘‘While the fear of a civilian government brought Burhan and Hemedti together, there remain many divisions between them,‘’ said Amjad Farid, a Sudan analyst and former aid to the country's prime minister deposed in the coup, Abdullah Hamdok. He used Dagalo's nickname, by which he is widely known.
The coup, and disharmony between its leaders, has meant the future of Sudan's governance looks increasingly unsure. It has left a power vacuum that allowed the paramilitary force led by Dagalo, known as the Rapid Support Forces, to assume a growing role.
As the respective leaders of Sudan’s official army and largest paramilitary force, Burhan and Dagalo were meant to have overseen the democratic transition after former President Omar al-Bashir was toppled following three decades in power in a 2019 popular uprising.
But on Oct. 25 last year, weeks before Burhan was supposed to step aside as head of the transitional council, he led a military coup, unseating the civilian half of Sudan’s ruling Sovereignty Council. Dagalo backed him, his forces helping to detain dozens of civilian officials and politicians.
In the aftermath, near-weekly pro-democracy marches were ruthlessly suppressed. There has also been a resurgence of deadly tribal clashes in the country’s neglected peripheries in which hundreds of people were killed in recent months. The coup has plunged Sudan’s already inflation-riddled economy into deeper peril. International aid has dried up and bread and fuel shortages, caused in part by the war in Ukraine, have become routine.
Meanwhile, popular support for the military, the face of the coup, has dwindled. And in the absence of other options, the RSF, best known for its scorched-earth campaigns in the Darfur conflict, is seeking to portray itself as an alternative peacekeeper with deep pockets.
“Most Sudanese now believe that the military lacks the credibility or solutions to bring security and prosperity to Sudan,’’ said Suliman Baldo, an analyst and director of Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker, a think tank.
Dagalo is trying to rectify the public image of his forces. Across social media, the group now presents itself as a mediator of tribal disputes and a participant in development projects, though many Sudanese continue to fear the group for its violent tactics. Its forces have been implicated in the killing of more than 100 protesters when they cleared a sit-in in June 2019 in the capital. An investigation into the deaths has since failed to reach any conclusions.
Two Sudanese rights workers who track the paramilitary said the size of the RSF has doubled over the past three years to at least 100,000 fighters and that it has purchased high-tech weapons. The group does not publish official personnel figures. With these increased capabilities, the rights researchers say the paramilitary force has been able to cement its control over Sudan’s porous western and northern borders, allowing it to profit from the smuggling of weapons, drugs and migrants as the military’s reach contracted.
Both rights researchers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The researchers have followed the paramilitary for years and have obtained first-hand accounts from inside its ranks. Their estimates for the force's size match other analysts' approximations.
A spokesman for the RSF did not reply to a request for comment on the body's role in the transitional period and plans for the future.
There are also questions over the paramilitary group's sources of financing, in addition to the state funds it receives. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a think tank, said in a June report that the group has amassed wealth through gradual acquisition of Sudanese financial institutions and gold reserves, some under the names of Dagalo's relatives. RSF forces deployed to Yemen to fight on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition at war with the Houthi rebels, a move the force is likely to have been compensated for by at least one of the coalition's members, the United Arab Emirates.
Burhan and Dagalo are both stepping out on the international stage. They have separately conducted a series of independent diplomatic meetings, in Cairo, at the Kremlin and in Abu Dhabi, but maintain they have no interest in running in future elections.
Under immense international pressure, recent talks between the military and pro-democracy forces have made some progress. But that could be overturned at any minute, as Burhan and Dagalo maintain vague yet dominant roles.
Their separate pledges to facilitate democracy have lacked detail and often conflicted on key issues. Among the uncertainties is what powers these military leaders would retain under civilian rule, and whether the RSF will merge with Burhan’s military, a key condition of a 2020 peace agreement meant to end decades of fighting in Darfur.
The beginning of the power struggle lies in al-Bashir's legacy. Both generals were heavily involved in his Darfur military campaigns that killed some 300,000 people during the 2000s, rights groups estimate. Unlike al-Bashir, the International Criminal Court has not indicted Burhan or Dagalo for committing war crimes in that conflict.
Burhan, a seasoned military veteran of the Sudanese Armed Forces, trained as an officer in Egypt. Dagalo, a former Darfuri camel trader, led the notorious janjaweed militias, spearheading devastating offensives against Darfur’s African rebel groups in 2003. The janjaweed stand accused of mass rape and killing of civilians by the U.N. and rights groups. In an effort to contain and better utilize the fighting force, al-Bashir eventually recruited the janjaweed into the Rapid Support Forces in 2013, legitimizing them and instating Dagalo as an independent commander.
‘‘The root cause of the current conflict between Hemedti and Burhan is the independence of RSF,’’ said Farid, the former aid to Sudan's prime minister.
In recent months, in an effort to check the RSF's influence, Burhan has worked to reinstate his supporters, often Islamists who held positions under al-Bashir, in government. That's according to Baldo, the analyst, and Maher al Gokh, a former employee of Sudan's State Television who was detained in the coup but later released.
For now, a direct clash might be out of the question, because neither general can muster enough resources to rule alone.
”The survival of both groups depends on Hemedti and Burhan sticking it out together," said Baldo.
Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and an associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the two generals are engaged in “a big zero-sum game.”
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