Clashes in Khartoum
Sudan is on the Edge of Civil War
“When people were saying that the whole state had been overturned by the quarrel which broke out afterwards between Caesar and Pompey, Cato pointed out that they were wrong; they were merely putting the blame on to what had happened last; the first disaster and the worst had been, not the quarrel and split between Caesar and Pompey, but the friendship and harmony that had existed between them.” - Plutarch [Pompey, 47]
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A note to readers: I will be on vacation next week, so the podcast for this article will come out a week late, and normal articles will resume the first week of May.
Fierce fighting broke out in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on the morning of Saturday, April 15th. The Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Sudan’s de facto President, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary led by the de facto Vice President, Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo, known as Hemedti, had turned on each other. The men had taken power together after a 2021 coup which overthrew Sudan’s Transitional Authority Council, put in place after a 2019 coup overthrew the long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir following widespread protests. The ostensible cause of the fighting is Burhan trying to integrate the RSF paramilitary into the regular army, something pushed for by outside powers who had reluctantly accepted the military government. However, the talks broke down and shooting started. The real victims are the citizens of Khartoum trapped in the city which is paralyzed by fighting. The battle has shut down the airport, making it hard for foreigners and diplomats to leave, while delegations cannot enter the country to negotiate a ceasefire. Egyptian soldiers operating in the country were captured early in the fighting, the head of the EU’s humanitarian mission to Sudan was shot in the chaos, and a US diplomatic convoy came under attack on Monday; this a major international incident. On top of that, Russia was in the process of finalizing an agreement to build a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea Coast. Most of the world does not appear to have taken sides, yet, but Daglo is praising the “support” of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and claiming he is working towards democracy. The conditions are that of an old-fashioned civil war: two men with large armies battling for control of the country. It it sad, but typical, that Sudan should explode in violence right as the Middle East is becoming more peaceful. The broader Sahel region, which Sudan forms the eastern end of, is already extremely violent and unstable, and this new round of violence could easily spread outwards from Sudan. If this power struggle is not resolved soon, this expansive, impoverished, nation risks becoming a proxy battleground between many outside powers.
Sudan is a very ancient land, its northern regions having been on the edge of Mediterranean civilization since early antiquity. However, the conditions leading to the current violence trace back to the early 2000s when Hemedti rose to prominence fighting with what were known as “Janjaweed” militias in the Darfur region, in what was internationally condemned as a genocide against the tribal peoples of the area. The state also experienced frequent conflict between the desert northern region primarily inhabited by Sudanese Arabs and the fertile southern region inhabited by sub-Saharan ethnic groups. Following a peace agreement, South Sudan voted for independence in 2011, taking with it a large portion of Sudan’s oil revenue, though also removing a major cause of conflict within the state. Even reduced in size, Sudan remains Africa’s 3rd largest country. The loss of oil revenue was partially replaced by an artisanal gold mining boom across the Sahel region, driven in large part by the new availability of inexpensive metal detectors, as was explained in a fascinating piece on the Chartbook substack:
Hemedti is an interesting figure, entirely worthy of biography. His life is described in an article from The Guardian titled, “Mohamed Hamdan Daglo: the feared ex-warlord taking on Sudan’s army.” Hemedti dropped out of third grade to become a camel trader before joining the Janjaweed militias after dozens of his clansmen were killed in an attack. He caught the notice of the dictator Omar al-Bashir and for a time acted as an enforcer for the military leader. However, in 2007-2008 he led an insurrection against Bashir, but then became a general as part of a peace agreement. An incredible opportunist, in 2013 he formed the Rapid Support Forces out of the Janjaweed militias and used them in Sudan’s persistent internal conflicts. He seized gold mining interests from rivals in Darfur, and described his holdings to the BBC as follows, “I’m not the first man to have goldmines. It’s true, we have goldmines and there’s nothing preventing us from working in gold.” He then hired his fighters out as mercenaries to the United Arab Emirates to fight against the Houthi tribal militias in Yemen. Further, while being paid by the EU to stop migrants from moving through Sudan and into Libya- a major migration route- it is widely considered that he was actually involved in human trafficking. An expert on Sudan, Alex de Waal, described Hemedti’s career as, “an object lesson in political entrepreneurship by a specialist in violence.” He is a classic and remarkable example of a “grasper,” a lower class person who rises to prominence by identifying and seizing every chance.
Hemedti initially supported Bashir when protests broke out in 2019, but sensed another opportunity and joined with his now-rival Burhan to overthrow the government. Though Hemedti has never been the formal leader of Sudan, he accrued large amounts of power in the period between the coups. Hemedti and the fighters associated with him have been accused of widespread atrocities dating back to the beginning of the conflict in Darfur 20 years ago. He now portrays himself as a beacon of secular liberal democracy against a man he accuses of being a radical Islamist; it needs to be noted that in 2021 the Associated Press described Burhan as being, “a rare non-Islamist among the top generals during al-Bashir’s military-Islamist regime.” There is no evidence that Burhan has since become an Islamist, but Hemedti clearly knows the sort of things to say, the question is if anyone could possibly be stupid enough to believe him.
Not exactly credible coming from a warlord human trafficker who has done two coups, but he makes it clear who he wants to align with. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not commented on Daglo’s characterization of their conversation. Blinken has only said that he spoke to both parties and made generic statements about the need for a ceasefire, democracy, and allowing humanitarian assistance.
In the other corner is General Burhan, leading the Sudanese Armed Forces. Burhan is a much less colorful character than his rival. He also got his start in the Darfur conflict. Unlike many Sudanese leaders, neither Hemedti or Burhan have been charged with atrocities in the International Criminal Court. However, the militias associated with Hemedti have been accused of quite a lot, whereas Burhan remains clean by the standards of Sudanese war leaders. Burhan said to the BBC, “I am not responsible for any bad actions in Darfur... As far as I’m concerned, I was fighting an enemy just as all regular forces do.” As with the RSF, Sudan’s regular army sent troops to Yemen to act as mercenaries for the Saudi-led coalition. Burhan was not particularly prominent until the 2019 coup. He had the fortune to have been promoted to the Army Chief of Staff in 2018, which put him in a position to turn on the beleaguered Bashir regime when protests broke out, but at the same time he had not become a hated figure associated with the abuses of that regime. Being in charge of the military has given Burhan vast economic power within the country, as the military controls much of Sudan’s economy. Most notably, he controls the Military Industry Corporation, one of the largest state-owned corporations in Sudan and quite literally the “means of production” for most military gear within the country. Overall, Sudan’s army is larger and has better equipment, while RSF soldiers have more experience from being used to put down unrest all over the country.
Sudan’s two coups fall into a pattern we have seen across the Sahel, where coup leaders initially place a sort of transitional government in power, and then the putschists again overthrow that government and take full power. The government after the fall of Bashir has been quite similar to the 2nd Triumvirate in Ancient Rome, with civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok playing the role of Lepidus, who was removed from power by Octavian Caesar and Marc Antony before they turned on each other. The scholar Chidi Odinkalu of Tufts University told the Financial Times, “The marriage of Hemedti and Burhan was always a marriage of convenience that was not likely to last.” Indeed, Khartoum was never going to be big enough for the two of them, despite that Khartoum is enormous. These two men commanding separate armies made conflict nearly unavoidable. Burhan tried to integrate the RSF into the armed forces to avoid this circumstance. However, the RSF would only agree to integrate in 10 years, whereas the Burhan wanted integration in 2 years. The former would clearly mean integration was never happening, whereas the latter would have started it right away.
During the week of Sunday, April 9th, both generals met with a variety of foreign mediators who were seeking to prevent violence. One diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told New Lines Magazine, “This [current] crisis is the making of the international community with all their stupid [calls] that a ‘swift deal is needed.’” Many diplomats were on vacation for the Easter holiday when the fighting broke out, though it’s unclear if that impacted the decision to start fighting. On Thursday, the RSF moved men to an airbase housing Egyptian and Sudanese military planes. The military saw this as a pre-emptive attack. Then, on Saturday, April 15th, the fighting started. This is the second time in recent history something like this happened to American diplomats in Sudan: in 2021 both generals met with American envoy Jeffrey Feltman and assured him they would not launch a coup, which they then launched mere hours later.
When fighting broke out Saturday morning both sides blamed each other. The Army said that the RSF had performed an illegal mobilization moving in on key sites in Khartoum, whereas the RSF claimed that the army was trying to seize total power. Most in the city were observing Ramadan and civilians were not prepared to stay home. The combat has been fierce, contesting airfields and key government buildings. Russian-made MiG fighter jets of the Sudanese military were flying over the city. A lot of expensive gear owned by both sides has been destroyed. One would imagine that Sudan could not possibly own that much advanced military equipment, though Alex De Waal wrote, “the Sudanese army has become akin to a vanity project. It is the proud owner of extravagant real estate in Khartoum, with impressive tanks, artillery and aircraft.” The Sudanese Armed Forces have more gear than good men.
The fighting is ongoing and has not been decisive. With the airport not functioning, foreign countries including the United States are struggling to evacuate personnel from the country.
It is not clear what role outside forces have played in this conflict or will play going forward. As part of the struggle for Africa, US Secretary of State Blinken was in Ethiopia a couple of weeks before fighting broke out. Blinken tweeted on April 11th about the need to transition to a civilian government. Some are calling the timing suspicious, but it really isn’t if you believe, as many do, that pushing the sides into rapid political negotiations is what caused violence to break out; that is to say, it may have impacted the situation, but by incompetence. There is also the issue of Sudan having approved a Russian naval base. Ariel Cohen, a hack from The Atlantic Council and the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in The Hill, blamed Russia and Wagner PMC for the “coup attempt.” He makes the following argument: “Russia’s influence in Africa remains purely disruptive and predatory. The Kremlin will use Wagner as a cudgel to secure natural resources across Africa and push the U.S. out, just as they evicted France.” This is, of course, as opposed to the stabilizing influence of France and the United States, who extract mineral resources because its a morally upstanding endeavor. There is no obvious reason why Russia should support the RSF over the government [he claims Wagner has been training the RSF.] Further, as explained above, Hemedti is pretending to be a democrat and trying to claim that the United States is on his side. Still, “a current and a former” US official as well as someone “close to the general” are claiming that Wagner has offered the RSF heavy weapons; this could be true, since Wagner is a business and Hemedti has gold.
Many regional powers have a history of supporting both men, and may be waiting to see who wins. The only groups to have truly taken a side so far appear to be be Egypt, who are supporting Burhan’s government, and the Libyan militia leader Hiftar, who is supporting Hemedti and the RSF. It should be noted that Egypt is an ally of the United States and Hiftar is an ally of Russia, so by extension perhaps this puts Russia on the side of the RSF. For now, almost every power has called for calm and ceasefire, which hasn’t been forthcoming. If the powers begin to really take sides, Sudan could rapidly turn into Syria or Libya and be even more unstable and violent for years or decades to come.
What is going on in Sudan is the oldest type of domestic conflict: two men after power and gold. Though Sudan isn’t a key country in geopolitics, it is a reliable trait of civilization that where there is gold there are men who will kill for it, and Sudan has an abundance of gold. It is one thing to fight for your business interests, but nothing is more appealing than straight gold which you don’t even have to turn into another resource to have wealth. However, as Machiavelli explained, it is not wealth which is the sinew of warfare, but men who are capable of capturing wealth. He explains that money and the strength of the location will not save you unless you have loyal troops of your own. He writes, “Good soldiers are the sinew of war and not gold, because gold is an insufficient means of finding good soldiers, but good soldiers are a more than sufficient means of finding gold” [Discourses, II.10.] Hemedti has already done this, as most of his wealth comes from using good men to seize gold mines. Further, good infantry are the heart of any effective combat force, and the RSF are better troops than the Sudanese military which was described as a “vanity project” with better equipment than men. Irregular light forces have prevailed over regular heavy troops in many conflicts, especially in this region which is ideal terrain for the venerable Toyota Hilux. The Rapid Support Forces have good prospects in this conflict.
In most ways, Hemedti isn’t a statesman, he is just an enthusiastic man with a third grade education. However, he is one of the most impressive “political entrepreneurs” and opportunists I’ve read about in the modern era. Further, anyone who is a good leader of men can learn statesmanship. It is hard to imagine that, in one way or another, Hemedti does not come out of this on his feet, be that ruling Sudan, having a gold-rich fiefdom in the west, or even as a roving warlord in regional conflicts. Alternately, his incredible fortune may draw the blade of an assassin. At the same time, I would not discount Burhan’s prospects either, as something more than fortune aided him in getting to where he is today.
Only time can tell who comes out of this with the power and the gold, but don’t let anyone convince you that this is a battle over anything else.
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