Sudan’s Collapse: Generals and the Destruction of a Nation

The war has forced more than 10 million people from their homes, destroyed agricultural infrastructure, and collapsed the country's economy.

To understand the current war in Sudan and the catastrophic role played by Generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohammed Daggalo, it is essential to explore the historical and political backdrop that set the stage for this conflict. Since gaining independence, modern Sudan has faced ongoing conflict and instability.

This includes two of Africa’s longest civil wars, as well as conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement led to South Sudan’s secession from Sudan in 2011, making it Africa’s 54th independent state. Beyond internal strife, Sudan’s post-colonial era was also defined by Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship.

Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Hemedti) in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. [Photo: Getty Image]

Omar al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup d’état. As president, Omar al-Bashir was at the helm during much of Sudan’s civil strife, the secession of South Sudan, and the conflict in Darfur. The Darfur War began in 2003 and was later condemned as a genocide by the International Criminal Court, targeting non-Arab groups such as Darfurians, Zagawa, and Masalit in Western Sudan.

Simultaneously, Omar al-Bashir’s regime was marked by oppression. For example, he enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia law, utilized private militias for combat, and deployed morality police to uphold his edicts. In the last decade of his rule, Omar al-Bashir faced growing popular protests demanding democracy, access to basic services, and a new system of governance.

This unrest culminated in a coup in April 2019, orchestrated by the Sudanese Armed Forces under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces led by General Mohammed Daggalo, who will henceforth be referred to as “Hemedti.” General Hemedti was born around 1974 into the Ma’ariya branch of the Razagat tribe in Sudan’s Darfur region. Growing up, Hemedti had minimal formal education, leaving school in the third grade to become a camel trader.

According to popular accounts, Hemedti was driven to join the Darfur conflict after an attack on his trade caravan resulted in the death of 60 family members and the theft of his camels. During this conflict, Hemedti joined the Janjaweed, a coalition of Arab tribal militias mainly from the camel-trading tribes active in Darfur and parts of Chad. His rise through the ranks attracted the attention of President Omar al-Bashir, who was enlisting Janjaweed fighters to suppress non-Arab groups revolting against his rule in Darfur beginning in 2003.

Hemedti quickly rose through the ranks of the Janjaweed. In 2013, the Janjaweed, previously loosely coordinated, was formally organized into the Rapid Support Forces with the backing of President Omar al-Bashir and under the leadership of General Hemedti. The existence of such a powerful force outside the regular army was viewed as a potentially significant source of instability for Sudan, a prediction that has since proven true.

During this period, Hemedti gained further legitimacy and considerable autonomy as Omar al-Bashir, impressed by the imposing militia leader, began to depend on him and his fighters to eliminate his adversaries in Darfur and other parts of Sudan. Hemedti was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and granted significant freedom, allowing him to seize profitable gold mines in Darfur from a rival tribal leader, dramatically increasing his wealth.

Since then, General Hemedti has established the RSF as a powerful force that has intervened in conflicts in Yemen and Libya. Little known before 2019, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the current ruler of Sudan, was born on July 11, 1960, in Gandhatu, Sudan. He received his education locally before joining the military at a very young age.

Rising through the ranks, al-Burhan served as a senior commander in the early 2000s, stationed in the Darfur region to combat rebel forces. During this period, he collaborated with Hemedti, coordinating joint operations against Darfurian fighters. In 2018, after completing military training in Jordan and Egypt, he was appointed chief of staff of the Sudanese army.

By December of that year, Omar al-Bashir’s government, which had ruled Sudan for 30 years, announced austerity measures that sparked widespread protests. On April 11, 2019, the Sudanese army took decisive action, with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan being appointed to lead the transitional military council, with General Hemedti as his vice-chair. The end of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule created a power vacuum in Sudan, providing a golden opportunity for the two generals to vie for dominance and assert their influence.

Despite Omar al-Bashir’s ouster, many protesters believed that the military and senior figures from his regime still held the reins of power. As a result, sporadic protests continued against the new government. On June 2, 2019, security forces, including General Hemedti’s RSF paramilitary force, launched a brutal attack on protesters in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, who were demanding elections.

Over a hundred protesters were killed in the violent crackdown. In an effort to quell the unrest, a sovereign council was established in August 2019. This council, composed of both military and civilian leaders, was designed to jointly govern Sudan and guide the country toward civil rule and national elections slated for 2023.

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan
General al-Burhan was appointed as the head of the council, with Hemedti still serving as his deputy. Among the civilian members, Abdallah Hamdok, an economist and development expert with experience at various multilateral organizations, was chosen to serve as prime minister. Abdallah Hamdok’s tenure as prime minister was marked by efforts to alleviate Sudan’s severe economic crisis and convey a sense of stability to the international community.

However, his efforts were cut short when the Sudanese Armed Forces and Hemedti’s RSF orchestrated a coup, suspending the constitution. Mass protests erupted in Khartoum, with demonstrators demanding a return to civilian rule. Abdallah Hamdok was briefly reinstated as prime minister in November 2021 after agreeing to cede certain powers to al-Burhan, Hemedti, and other security sector leaders.

However, he resigned in January 2022 when it became clear that Sudan’s protesters were dissatisfied with his reinstatement and that he could not control the security forces, who continued to violently suppress the demonstrations. By early 2022, General al-Burhan and Hemedti were firmly in control of the government, steering its course toward a democratic transition. Negotiations throughout the year culminated in a December 2022 agreement, setting the stage for a two-year transition to civilian leadership and national elections.

Despite the agreement, many citizens rejected the timeline and were dissatisfied with the provision allowing the security sector to retain some state powers post the transition. As the transitional government, still under General al-Burhan’s leadership, began negotiating the implementation of the transition plan, significant points of contention arose. Chief among these was the role of General Hemedti and the RSF.

The agreement called for the integration of the RSF into Sudan’s official armed forces and also stipulated that both the SAF and the RSF would come under civilian leadership. However, one of the deal’s major weaknesses was the absence of a specific deadline for the RSF’s integration into the SAF. General al-Burhan advocated for a two-year process while General Hemedti suggested a 10-year timeline.

By early 2023, the leaders had missed a crucial deadline to finalize the conditions for the agreement’s implementation, highlighting the ongoing tensions regarding the RSF’s role, its relationship with the SAF, and the future of both forces under an elected government. Some observers say that the call to integrate the RSF into the SAF would have helped General al-Burhan avoid a challenge to his authority by stripping General Hemedti of his own power. As the months went by, the power struggle between al-Burhan’s SAF and Hemedti’s RSF continued to impede the country’s transition efforts.

By early April 2023, SAF forces were stationed along the streets of Khartoum while RSF soldiers were deployed throughout Sudan. On April 15, a series of explosions rocked Khartoum accompanied by heavy gunfire. Both SAF and RSF leadership accused each other of initiating the conflict.

Though it remains unclear who fired the first shot, what ensued was an undeniable catastrophe for the entire nation. This situation was unprecedented. Historically, Sudanese governments had waged war against rebels in the country’s peripheries since independence in 1956, but never before had such intense fighting engulfed Khartoum or other parts of the central riverine region.

Hemedti’s RSF, trained extensively in street fighting, leveraged their mobility and agility in urban warfare around the capital. In response, General al-Burhan utilized the SAF’s aerial bombardment, drone attacks, and artillery to target RSF hiding places among the civilian population and disrupt their supply lines from Darfur. As the year progressed, the battle for the capital escalated into a nationwide civil war with various factions aligning with one side or the other in a country already flooded with weapons.

For much of the conflict, Hemedti’s RSF outperformed the army, seizing control of most of Khartoum in the early days and maintaining momentum as the SAF struggled to mount an effective counter-offensive. After solidifying its control over Greater Khartoum in the war’s early months, including the strategic seizure of Sudan’s main oil refinery, the RSF shifted its focus in October and November. They conquered most of Darfur, the western region where they initially emerged from the remnants of the Janjaweed.

The RSF also launched new offensives in the Kordofan region and surprised many Sudanese with a December attack southeast of Khartoum, capturing Wad Medani, the capital of the breadbasket Gezira State. Many residents of Khartoum had fled to Wad Medani and Army Stronghold when the war began. By the end of 2023, some Sudanese speculated whether the RSF would continue eastward to challenge the army’s new stronghold in Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

This speculation underscored a critical aspect of the conflict, which is the role of external support and financial resources. Both sides in the Sudanese war have foreign allies for support and their own deep financial resources to keep the fight ongoing. The RSF is financed by Hemedti’s extensive gold smuggling operations spanning decades, while the SAF benefits from its deep entrenchment in Sudan’s economy, ranging from agriculture to oil.

The SAF controls most of the agricultural lands in the east, as well as the crucial oil terminal in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Sudan’s ongoing conflict has also attracted foreign interests, turning the country into a battleground for international agendas, with some even calling it a proxy war. Egypt and Saudi Arabia support the SAF, while General al-Bahan has also sought to bolster his forces by strengthening ties with Iran.

Conversely, the United Arab Emirates has faced widespread accusations of supplying arms and resources to the RSF. Emirati officials have consistently denied these claims, asserting that the country does not provide any weapons to the RSF. They argue that the Sudanese government’s allegations are part of a deceptive media disinformation campaign orchestrated by the SAF.

Additionally, Russia appears to be hedging its bets by supporting both sides. Wagner mercenaries had been active in Sudan for years, primarily backing the RSF. Following the outbreak of hostilities between the SAF and the RSF, the Wagner group was accused of supplying the RSF with surface-to-air missiles from its bases in Libya and the Central African Republic.

However, the government in Moscow has recently adopted a more balanced approach, aiming to secure a naval facility in Port Sudan where General al-Bahan’s government has retreated, in exchange for providing arms to the SAF. Meanwhile, peace talks in Sudan have repeatedly failed due to deep-seated mistrust between the SAF and the RSF, continued external support for both sides, and disagreements over power-sharing and military integration timelines.

The current epicenter of the Sudan War is al-Fasha, the capital of North Darfur and the last SAF stronghold in the region. Once home to three million people, al-Fasha has been besieged by the RSF, despite SAF support from local militias. This siege of al-Fasha by the RSF has resulted in hundreds of casualties, overwhelmed hospitals, and blocked food supplies.

Sitting under a tree with little food and water, exposed to the fierce heat and seasonal rains of Sudan’s northern Darfur, Amna and Makbula say they have nowhere to go. They fled their homes in the city of al-Fasha, where fighting rages in what’s being described as one of the biggest battles since the conflict began 14 months ago. “We were very scared. There was heavy shelling and gunfire, so we left our house and went to another neighborhood. We finally managed to leave al-Fasha as a group of 21 people. We have missing families whose fate we don’t know. We have no idea if they are dead or alive.”

If the RSF captures al-Fasha, they will control nearly a third of Sudan, including its western borders with Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, as well as Khartoum. In this current war in Sudan, no reliable death toll is available, but it is widely believed that tens of thousands of people have been killed. As we speak, Sudan has become the world’s largest displacement crisis.

The war has forced more than 10 million people from their homes, destroyed agricultural infrastructure, and collapsed the country’s economy. The United Nations and humanitarian organizations are sounding the alarm about an impending famine, predicting that Sudan will face the world’s largest hunger crisis.