Conflict monitoring is an odd field: You try to monitor the world, and eventually specialize out of necessity. The recent descent into chaos in Sudan, Africa’s third-largest nation by size, is no different.
Beginning on April 15th, a series of armed clashes began in Khartoum, the capital of the African nation. The opposing sides are the regular Sudanese Army, and a paramilitary force called the “Rapid Support Force (RSF)“. The two forces had united in 2019 to oust Omar al-Bashir, the country’s long-time dictator, in a military coup d’etat; two years later, in 2021, the two parties staged another coup to derail Sudan’s return to a democratically elected government.
The situation has deteriorated, in barely a single week, to the point that the United States and other powers (YouTube link) are rapidly deploying forces to Camp Lemonnier, located in the state of Djibouti, on the Red Sea coast, in preparation for a possible evacuation of various embassy’s and foreign nationals – a daunting prospect, given that Khartoum’s international airport is not currently usable, and because the capital city is nearly 800 miles inland.
The source of the current “lover’s quarrel” is the Regular Army dragging its feet over formally integrating the RSF into its force structure, as well as delays in payroll to the paramilitary force, with its leadership claiming that they want to return al-Bashir to power.
Who are the RSF?
In 2003, fighting erupted in Western Sudan as non-Arab (i.e., “black African”) tribes united against the al-Bashir government’s continued campaign of oppression and discrimination against them. The result was the Darfur War (sometimes called the “Land Cruiser War” because of the extensive used of ‘technicals’), a genocidal conflict that killed hundreds of thousands, and created between two and three million refugees.
The RSF began life as the so-called “Janjaweed”, a Sudanese Arab tribal militia assembled by al-Bashir’s government to suppress the Black African inhabitants of the region. Supporting this, were the remnants of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s “Islamic Legion”, an openly racist and pan-Arab organization intended to unite the Saharan region by force.
As the Darfur war reached a stalemate (that would ultimately result in a nominal ceasefire agreement in 2020), al-Bashir’s government began using a now-experienced and capable Janjaweed – under their commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – as extra muscle throughout the region, especially in places where the dirtiest of atrocities were needed.
Oozing to life in 2013 as an outgrowth of the Janjaweed, the RSF was quickly used by al-Bashir as a kind of “expeditionary force”, sending significant numbers of troops into both Chad and Libya (in the latter case, supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar), and a stunning 40,000-strong corps-sized unit into Yemen to fight against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The main difference between the RSF and the Janjaweed, is in the level of formal support and arms provided to them by the Sudanese government, with uniform weapons and vehicles.
The RSF is not simply large, with over 100,000 men under arms, but is also highly mobile, with an estimated 10,000 ‘technical’ trucks (YouTube link)…and it has developed an impressive economic infrastructure to support itself, thanks to the business chops of its leader and his family.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti“, locally), who dropped out of primary school in 3rd grade to work to support his family, started out as a well-respected camel herder in the Darfur region. As he positioned himself as the chief commander of first the Janjaweed, and then the RSF, he used the forces loyal to him to help is company, Al Junaid, to corner the gold mining industry within Sudan, as well as a host of other industries, ultimately controlling up to 40% of Sudan’s exports.
And, like most warlords with sufficient resources, he has made life well for his loyalists in the RSF, who now follow his orders without question, helped by him polishing his speaking skills. This, along with a “charm campaign” managed by Western public relations firms to improve Hemedti’s image, has combined to form a kind of “mercenary micro-state” of a type that is highly unusual in the modern day…In many ways, the RSF is the nightmare scenario that world security analysts have been dreading since the rise of the “corporate terror group” model, when al Qaeda appeared in the late-1990’s.
In a very real sense, the leader of the regular Sudanese armed forces and Hemedti’s rival in the power struggle, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, have created a monster they can no longer control.
But, ultimately…who cares? Why should you care?
The current fighting in Sudan will almost certainly determine who will be the next ruler of the nation. As well, major powers – both global powers, and up-and-coming regional states seeking to expand their influence – are all jockeying for position, and that kind of jockeying can swiftly lead to an expanding conflict.
And all of this is happening literally on the banks of the Nile, Africa’s ancient major river system. No matter who wins this conflict, this will pose significant issues to Egypt and its population of over 100 million, already alarmed over Ethiopia’s dam building project that seriously threatens the downstream ecology and climate of the region.
Lastly, is the serious potential for major-power involvement, up to and including combat: Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary company has significant ties to the RSF, and in the region, generally. The Wagner Group has been reportedly guarding some gold mining areas for the central government since at least 2019, with speculation that Wagner-defended gold is being using used to fund Russia’s war in Ukraine. Numerous foreign corporations have major investments throughout the region, and the expansion of the “private military company” market in the last twenty-five years means that there is little incentive to not hire lots of ex-military guns to guard their investments.
And, looming over the regular Western military commands’ psyches is the shadow of 1993’s “Battle of Mogadishu”, but on a far larger scale, with far fewer advantages for the Western powers.
The future does not look sunny.