Sudan’s warring generals: rival strongmen signal fight to the end

Former allies depict each other as ‘criminals’ in separate interviews

Sudan’s battling generals branded each other “criminals” responsible for civilian deaths, as they escalated a war of words that suggested there was little room for compromise in their fight for Africa’s third-largest country.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Sudan’s vice-president and commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, cast his rival as the leader of a “radical Islamist gang” seeking to entrench a military dictatorship, as he accused the country’s armed forces of targeting hospitals and non-military targets.

“We’re ready for him to hit us, but not the civilians,” Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, told the Financial Times from Khartoum. “We ask God that we gain control and arrest him to hand him over to justice.”

Asked if his forces would prevail, Hemeti replied: “We have the readiness, and now we’re in the battlefield. The battlefield will define everything.”

In a separate interview, his opponent Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the country’s de facto president, accused RSF forces of indiscriminate violence.

“A large part of [Hemeti’s] forces is out of control,” he said, adding that they were responsible for widespread looting in Khartoum and the western Darfur region.

Burhan blamed Hemeti for sparking a diplomatic incident by “kidnapping” a group of Egyptian soldiers, whom he said had been in Sudan on official business as part of joint armed forces training. He also said they had killed staff from the World Food Programme and attacked a US Embassy convoy, claims that could not be independently verified.

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Hemeti insisted it was Burhan who had “spread fear among the people, guests and diplomats”.

“This is an existential conflict for both these generals,” said Kholood Khair, a Khartoum-based analyst who saw little prospect for international efforts to halt the conflict. “They will want to see it through to the end.”

Chidi Odinkalu of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said neither man would stop short of outright victory. “One of those two people will not continue in power.”

Since fighting erupted on Saturday, attempts at calling a ceasefire to bring in humanitarian aid have failed with each side accusing the other of bad faith. At least 270 people have been killed and 2,600 injured, according to Sudan’s ministry of health. A new 24-hour truce was proposed late on Wednesday, although sporadic fighting continued on Thursday.

Burhan and Hemeti are one-time allies who joined forces in 2019 to oust Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

Since then — and especially after a 2021 putsch they led to remove prime minister Abdalla Hamdok — they have formed an uneasy alliance, with both participating in on-off negotiations with civilian leaders ostensibly aimed at steering the country towards democracy.

“The army and the RSF were equally complicit in the country’s most recent political crime: the 2021 coup,” said Amjed Farid, a former Hamdok adviser. “Their current conflict is a battle over the spoils.”

A rift began to look inevitable in recent months as Burhan looked to absorb the RSF into the regular armed forces as part of the civilian deal, a move that threatened to neutralise Hemeti’s independent power base.

Hemeti said that he was not opposed in principle to folding the RSF into the regular armed forces. “The RSF has a specific role and the RSF has not declined the merger,” he said, accusing Burhan of being unwilling to implement the so-called framework agreement that was due to pave the way to civilian rule.

While Burhan said Hemeti was attempting “a power grab”, the paramilitary leader said he remained open to halting hostilities. “We’ve no objection to stopping the fight,” he said. “However Burhan will not stop.”

Despite their military backgrounds and resort to violent struggle, both men have sought to present themselves as democrats, insisting that the transition to civilian rule can be put back on track once they have gained victory.

Burhan said people supported the army over the RSF and that, once Hemeti had been defeated, the transition to democracy could resume. “The army is committed to completing the political process according to the framework agreement and transferring power to a civilian-led government,” he said.

Hemeti, who has also lent rhetorical support for a transfer of power to civilians, accused Burhan of being aligned with radical Islamists bent on restoring a Bashir-style dictatorship. “Burhan and his gang of Islamists came into power and are not willing to let go,” he said.

Fierce fighting continued on Wednesday at the international airport in Khartoum, which is the centre of command for both sides, and where several civilian aircraft have been reduced to smouldering ruins. “No side has control over it,” said Burhan.

Hemeti acknowledged that Burhan’s forces had the advantage of air power — the RSF has no jets — as well as heavy artillery, but insisted the two were evenly matched on the battlefield.

He also dismissed western speculation that mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group might be roped into the fight on his side, calling such concerns a “phobia”. Although Wagner helped train the RSF through the Sudanese Armed Forces before 2019, he said, he had cut dealings since the US Treasury branded the group a criminal organisation this year.

“I used to have a good relationship with them, but once they were sanctioned, I have personally told Burhan to deal only with the Russian Federation,” he said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023