Sudan's Army-RSF clashes explained
Updated 21:35, 17-Apr-2023
Li Ruikang
Army soldiers deploy in Khartoum amid reported clashes in the city, April 15, 2023. /CFP
Army soldiers deploy in Khartoum amid reported clashes in the city, April 15, 2023. /CFP

Army soldiers deploy in Khartoum amid reported clashes in the city, April 15, 2023. /CFP

Cities across Sudan have been plunged into violence after fighting broke out between the military and the government's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on Saturday.

Here's an overview of the contexts under which the clashes erupted.

Post-al-Bashir Sudan

Sudan has been ruled by a transitional government mandated to transform the country into a democracy since military generals removed longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 amidst a popular uprising.

However, tensions between the military and civilian groups have characterized much of the post-al-Bashir period, leading to another military takeover in October 2021 that ousted the civilian leader from a power-sharing government. It left a political vacuum to be filled through recent talks.

Who are the RSF?

The RSF, said to be 100,000 strong, is headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti in Sudan. Hemedti rose from humble beginnings to become a rebel before eventually switching sides and amassing substantial wealth with help from al-Bashir to build a business empire across several sectors.

The RSF evolved from so-called Janjaweed militia used by al-Bashir's government to quell a rebellion in the Darfur region in the 2000s, and it was later used to muffle irregular migration and formally became an independent security force in 2017. It participated in both the 2019 and 2021 military takeovers.

Both the military and the RSF have sent troops to support the Saudi Arabia-led coalition's war in Yemen, which allowed Hemedti to develop ties with the Gulf states.

The group was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. It has also been accused of participating in killing dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators before a peace deal was signed in 2019. Hemedti once apologized for crimes by the state against the Sudanese people. He did not elaborate.

Tensions with the military

The RSF's growing size has long been a source of concern for the military leadership, who, along with civilian representatives, have called for the group's integration into the regular armed forces. This issue has practically protracted the signing of an internationally backed deal, originally scheduled for April 1, that was supposed to move the country closer to democracy. 

Relations between the two forces have sharply deteriorated after Hemedti broke ranks with his military colleagues and joined forces with a civilian political alliance in the recent negotiations, which allows him to retain considerable influence even after the democratic transition.

The main point of contention at the negotiating table was over the interim leadership of the military before the RSF's integration. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army chief, wants the current leadership to remain in charge, while Hemedti insists on installing the incoming civilian head of state into the army's governing council. Both were sticking with their positions despite mediation attempts by Sudan's political figures.

Last month, while in talks with Sudan's political parties and the military, the RSF began redeploying units in Khartoum and elsewhere, moves which prompted the army to raise its alert. 

After fighting which both forces accuse one another of starting, the RSF on Saturday claimed to have taken over the presidential palace and other key sites in Khartoum as well as the northern city of Merowe, El Fasher and West Darfur state, assertions which were rejected by the military.

The fighting, if widened, risks plunging the country into a prolonged turmoil as it already grapples with economic collapse and violence.

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