Apr 21, 2023 - World

Sudan's rival generals "hold country hostage" as battle of egos turns deadly

A photo of Sudanese Army chief Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and another photo of RSF head Hemedti.

Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan (L) and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo in September 2021. Photos: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A battle of egos and the struggle for power are at the center of the fighting in Sudan that's killed more than 400 people over the last seven days.

The big picture: Both sides said Friday they'll abide by a three-day truce. But so far the fighting has continued, and the rivalry between military chief Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) head Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo — known as Hemedti — runs so deep that the chances of either side agreeing to a permanent cease-fire without more bloodshed appear to be slim.

Catch up quick: Al-Burhan and Hemedti have now twice derailed the country's transition toward democracy.

  • First in October 2021, when the two generals united to mount a military coup and remove the civilian-led cabinet and prime minister who came to power after a popular uprising in 2019 forced out longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir.
  • Al-Burhan dissolved the fragile power-sharing government between civilian parties and the military, issued a state of emergency and said the military would rule until elections were held — polls that never came. Al-Burhan was de facto ruler and Hemedti was his deputy.
  • But it wasn't long before the two generals began to turn on each other. Tensions began to rapidly escalate as talks got underway to put the country back on the path toward democracy, according to four sources with knowledge of the negotiations.
  • A Sudanese source who was involved in the negotiations said the animosity became entrenched in recent weeks that al-Burhan and Hemedti wouldn't say hello to each other or exchange any words, including during the talks.

Behind the scenes: Those tensions exploded last week when the two generals couldn't find common ground on the last sticking point in getting a deal to reinstall a civilian government.

  • That disagreement was centered on what the military chain of command would look like in a civilian-led Sudan, a senior U.S. official and the Sudanese source told Axios.
  • While al-Burhan wanted to be the top military figure and the only one to report directly to the civilian government, Hemedti demanded to have his own direct channel to civilian leaders without having to go through the commander of the military, the senior U.S. official and another American official said.
  • The Sudanese source said that one of the ideas discussed during the negotiations was a power-sharing mechanism between the two generals that would give each veto power over decisions.

The agreement was ready for signing last week, the Sudanese source said. The "Quad for Sudan," which includes the U.S., U.K., Saudi Arabia and the UAE, "gave both sides a proposal. We were almost there."

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken called al-Burhan and urged him to resolve the final sticking point, reminding him of his commitment to return to a civilian transition, one of the U.S. officials said.
  • But by then, the talks between the two generals had fallen apart, and both sides began to prepare for an armed confrontation, a separate source with knowledge of the situation told Axios.

How it happened: Al-Burhan, who feared an attack by Hemedti, began ordering reinforcements into Khartoum early last week, that source said.

  • At the same time, Hemedti began sending his forces to the Merowe airbase north of the capital, which hosted Egyptian fighter jets and pilots he claimed were there to help al-Burhan — an allegation the military commander and Egypt denied.
  • Al-Burhan saw the movement of RSF troops to the airbase and into Khartoum as a provocation, and, on April 13, issued a strong public warning against the RSF militia. Two days later, fighting erupted in and around Khartoum, as well as other cities and towns. Once again, the country's transition to democracy had been derailed.
  • "It is really the breakdown between two men who are now holding their entire country hostage and have brought significant damage and destruction to their country because they could not agree on a chain of command," one of the U.S. officials said.

State of play: Since the fighting began, the U.S. and many of its allies and partners, including the U.K., Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Egypt, Norway, the African Union, and the UN have repeatedly called for a cease-fire.

  • Two attempts at a 24-hour humanitarian truce failed within an hour of the cease-fires coming into effect, with both al-Burhan and Hemedti blaming each other.
  • "We are not focusing on the various accusations by either side because it's a distraction," the senior U.S. official said. "The issue at hand is the role that both of these men played in derailing the transition .... There's a lot of blame to go around. But at this point, 100% of our focus is on stopping the fighting."

What's next: Following diplomatic pressure, the RSF and the military separately on Friday announced they would abide by a 72-hour cease-fire around the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr holiday, which began on Friday. The military's statement said it would begin in the evening, but it was unclear if the two sides agreed on a specific time. Fighting continued to rage in parts of Khartoum as of 7:30pm local time.

  • Blinken in a statement welcomed the cease-fire announcement, but said it is clear “that fighting is continuing and there is serious mistrust between the two forces.”
  • If implemented, a truce would allow international organizations to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance to Sudanese people who have been trapped in their homes, as well as to overwhelmed hospitals facing severe medical shortages.
  • The UN has called the humanitarian situation in Sudan "catastrophic." Many aid groups, including some UN agencies, have suspended their humanitarian operations due to the violence.
  • The U.S. and other global powers also believe a temporary cease-fire could "pave the way for a more permanent ceasefire," the State Department said.
  • "The goal right now is to bring as many voices into the conversation as possible, as many points of leverage, both from the Gulf, from Africans, from international organizations, from the U.S., to implore both of them to stop fighting, at least temporarily, so that we can get back to a negotiation that will result in civilians leading Sudan," the senior U.S. official said.

Yes, but: The Sudanese source, who knows both Burhan and Hemedti, is skeptical about the ability to convince the generals to stop the fighting before one of them declares victory.

  • "They passed the point of no return in their relationship," the source said.
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