Prof. Marc Lavergne, Emeritus Head Researcher, National Center for Scientific Research, Arab and Mediterranean Studies Dept, University of Tours (France)
Sudan’s brutal war has pitted the traditional urban elite that has long monopolised wealth and power in the capital Khartoum against forces from the marginalised rural periphery, analysts say.
For the past month, two rival generals have fought for control of the northeast African country in a war that has spread chaos, claimed at least 1,000 lives and displaced nearly a million people.
One of them is army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a lacklustre career soldier, born north of Khartoum, who toppled the veteran Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir after mass protests and then assumed full powers in a 2021 coup.
The other is his former deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, a one-time camel herder from the remote western Darfur region bordering Chad, who now commands the feared paramilitary Rapid Response Forces, or RSF.
Also known as “Hemeti” or “little Mohamed”, Daglo got his start in the notorious Janjaweed militia that Bashir unleashed in the early 2000s to brutally quash a rebellion by ethnic minority groups in Darfur.
In the years since, Daglo has manoeuvred his way into the top echelons of power in the capital of five million people, even as he has been mocked among its elite for his provincial accent and lack of formal education.
The Khartoum-centred old guard “view Hemeti as an illiterate upstart thug whom they first armed to do their dirty work” in Darfur, said Alan Boswell of think tank the International Crisis Group.
However, since then, Daglo has become a feared opponent, commanding the heavily armed RSF which is battle-hardened by service in Yemen and Libya and financed with profits from gold mines he controls.
– ‘New phase of struggle’ –
Sudan, a vast country of 45 million people, has a long history of inequality and strife involving ethnic minority groups in remote regions.
Since its days under British rule, “Sudanese political society has been centralised in the Nile Valley,” said Marc Lavergne, a specialist on the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.
Even after independence in 1956, “there has been this dichotomy between the Nile Valley, Khartoum, the parts that the British could make use of,” and the rest of the country, he told AFP.
The more remote areas experienced decades of struggle “that no Khartoum government cared to address”, said Lavergne of France’s University of Tours who has worked for UN and non-government missions in Sudan.
“But today these peripheral regions hold the richest potential,” he said, referring particularly to large gold deposits in Darfur and elsewhere, from which Daglo has built a military and economic empire.
A Rift Valley Institute report judged that, as a result, “the RSF is no longer a rag-tag militia but rather a well-trained and effective fighting force that can rival” the Sudanese Armed Forces.
“The current conflict represents a battle between the established military-political elite from the centre and an emerging militarised elite from Darfur to control the state, and is a new phase in the struggle between centre and periphery.”
– Intruder from Darfur –
Daglo has been depicted by his rivals as “an intruder from Darfur in more cosmopolitan Khartoum”, said Kholood Khair, founder of the think tank Confluence Advisory.
“Before the war, the RSF were getting some traction in trying to create a narrative that they were fighting for democracy, and that they were doing so on behalf of all the marginalised people of Sudan,” she told AFP.
As he built his force, Daglo became “one of the best employers in the country”, recruiting fighters from areas “that had historically been marginalised by Khartoum,” according to Khair.
But she added that, “once the war broke out, that narrative became more difficult to keep up” as “his troops are far less disciplined” than those of the regular army.
“They do not always follow orders and have been creating a lot of havoc for the people of Khartoum,” she said, as reports of assaults against civilians, looting and home invasions have risen sharply.
The threat of deepening ethnic strife looms over Sudan, a diverse country at the intersection of historical migration and trade routes with a history of slavery.
Its rulers have historically exploited economic inequalities to divide and conquer, between the core and the periphery, between north and south, and based on skin colour.
“To this day, Sudanese have a lexicon of skin colour” that discriminates against those with darker pigmentation, Sudan specialist Alex de Waal wrote recently in the London Review of Books.
“The darkest people of the south (are) still routinely called abid, meaning ‘slaves’.”
Skin colour may not be a defining factor in the current war. But experts warn that a prolonged conflict will deepen fissures along the kinship lines and tribal affiliations on which Sudan’s many existing militias were formed.
“Both sides will, as they lose troops, need to recruit more,” said Khair. “And the easiest way to do that in Sudan has historically been through ethnic allegiances.”