Sudan’s brutal war has pitted the traditional urban elite that have long monopolized wealth and power in the capital Khartoum against forces from the marginalized rural periphery, analysts say.
Over the past month, two rival generals have battled for control of the northeast African country in a war that has wreaked havoc, claimed at least 1,000 lives and displaced nearly a million people.
One of them is army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a mediocre career soldier, born north of Khartoum, who ousted veteran Islamist autocrat Omar al-Bashir after mass protests and then assumed full power in a 2021 coup. .
The other is his former lieutenant, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, a former camel herder from the remote western region of Darfur, bordering Chad, who now commands the feared paramilitary Rapid Response Forces, or RSF.
Also known as “Hemeti” or “Little Mohamed,” Daglo started out in the notorious Janjaweed militia that Bashir unleashed in the early 2000s to brutally put down a rebellion by ethnic minority groups in Darfur.
In the years since, Daglo has maneuvered his way to the highest levels of power in the capital of five million, even as he has been mocked among the elite for his provincial accent and lack of formal education.
The Khartoum-focused old guard “views Hemeti as an illiterate upstart thug who was first armed to do their dirty work” in Darfur, said Alan Boswell of the International Crisis Group think tank.
Since then, however, Daglo has become a feared opponent, commanding the heavily armed RSF, which is battle-hardened from service in Yemen and Libya and financed by profits from the gold mines he controls.
– ‘New phase of fighting’ –
Sudan, a vast country of 45 million people, has a long history of inequality and conflict between ethnic minority groups in remote regions.
Since its days under British rule, “Sudanese political society has been centralized in the Nile Valley,” said Marc Lavergne, a specialist in 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 use” and the rest of the country, he told AFP.
The most remote areas experienced decades of fighting “that no government in Khartoum cared to address,” said Lavergne of France’s University of Tours, who has worked for UN and non-governmental missions in Sudan.
“But today these peripheral regions have the richest potential,” he said, referring particularly to the vast 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 an irregular militia, but 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 of the center and an emerging militarized elite from Darfur to control the state, and is a new phase in the struggle between the center and the periphery.”
– Intruder from Darfur –
Daglo has been described by his rivals as “a Darfur interloper in the more cosmopolitan Khartoum,” said Kholood Khair, founder of the think tank Confluence Advisory.
“Before the war, the RSF was gaining ground by trying to create a narrative that they were fighting for democracy and that they were doing it on behalf of all the marginalized people in Sudan,” he 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 marginalized by Khartoum,” according to Khair.
But he added that “once the war broke out, that narrative became more difficult to maintain” since “their troops are much less disciplined” than those of the regular army.
“They don’t always follow orders and have been creating a lot of havoc for the people of Khartoum,” he said, as reports of attacks on civilians, looting and home invasions have risen sharply.
The threat of deepening ethnic conflicts hangs over Sudan, a diverse country at the intersection of historic migration and trade routes with a history of slavery.
Its rulers have historically exploited economic inequalities to divide and conquer, between the center and the periphery, between the north and the south, and based on skin color.
“To this day, the Sudanese have a lexicon of skin colour” that discriminates against those with darker pigmentation, Sudan specialist Alex de Waal recently wrote in the London Review of Books.
“The darker people of the south are still routinely called abid, which means ‘slaves’.”
Skin color may not be a determining factor in today’s war. But experts warn that a protracted conflict will deepen the fissures along kinship lines and tribal affiliations on which Sudan’s many existing militias were built.
“As they lose troops, both sides will need to recruit more,” Khair said. “And the easiest way to do that in Sudan has historically been through ethnic loyalties.”