People walk past a military vehicle in Khartoum on April 15, amid reported clashes in the city. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The recent tensions between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary, that led to gunfire and explosions in some parts of Sudan on Friday, stem from a disagreement over how the Rapid Support Forces or RSF should be integrated into the military — a key condition of an unsigned transition deal for Sudan.

The army-RSF rivalry, however, dates back to the rule of President Omar Al Bashir, who was ousted in 2019.

Created in 2013, the RSF emerged from the Janjaweed militia that Al Bashir unleashed against non-Arab ethnic minorities in the western Darfur region a decade earlier, drawing accusations of war crimes.

Although both the army and the RSF together carried out a coup in October 2021 that upended Sudan’s transition to democracy, friction between them became increasingly visible in recent months, with conflicting public statements, heavy military presence in Khartoum and parallel foreign trips by military and RSF leaders.

The RSF said on Wednesday that its presence in northern Sudan and elsewhere is aimed at “achieving security and stability and fighting human trafficking and illegal migration.”

The wealthy paramilitary force is estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters.

According to Kholood Khair, founder and director of Confluence Advisory, a think tank in Khartoum, tensions between the army and the RSF are at an all-time high and Thursday’s military’s statement just fell “short of accusing the RSF of committing an act of rebellion.”

What’s power-sharing plan?

The escalation also comes as Sudan’s army and civilian politicians discuss a potential power-sharing plan that would curb the military’s dominance of the economy and provide a path toward democratic elections following the coup.

Rapid Support Forces chief Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo in a file photo. Image Credit: Reuters
At a glance
* The Rapid Support Forces is commanded by General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, who currently holds the position of deputy head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council. Analysts estimate the force numbers about 100,000, with bases and deployments across the country.
* It evolved from so-called Janjaweed militias that fought in the early 2000s conflict in Darfur, where they were used by the Omar Al Bashir regime to help the army put down a rebellion. At least 2.5 million people were displaced and 300,000 killed in the conflict in total, and the Janjaweed are accused of widespread human rights abuses.
* Over time the forces grew, and were used as border guards in particular to clamp down on irregular migration. In tandem, Dagalo’s business interests grew with help from Al Bashir, and his family expanded holdings in gold mining, livestock and infrastructure.
* Beginning in 2015, the RSF, along with Sudan’s army, began sending troops to fight in the war in Yemen.
* In 2017, a law legitimising the RSF as an independent security force was passed. Military sources said that the army’s leadership had long expressed concern about the development of Dagalo’s forces and rejected their inclusion within its ranks.
* In April 2019, the RSF participated in a military coup that ousted Al Bashir. Later that year Dagalo signed a power-sharing agreement that made him deputy of a ruling council headed by army general Abdul Fattah Al Burhan.
* The RSF participated in a Oct 2021 coup that halted the transition to elections. Dagalo has since said he regrets the coup and has expressed approval of a new deal to restore full civilian government.

A plan to integrate the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces led by Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo into the regular army led by Abdul Fattah Al Burhan is one of the key points of contention, analysts have said.

Eleventh-hour haggling within the security forces over the details have twice forced postponement of the signing of an agreement with civilian factions setting out a roadmap for the transition.

Why is recruitment drive?

In recent weeks, as negotiations toward a deal backed by the international community gained momentum, both the RSF and national army began heavily recruiting in Darfur, according to people in the region.

“There is wide recruitment by the Sudanese Armed Forces as well as the RSF and other militias,” said Adam Rigal, a spokesperson for the internally displaced in Darfur.

“We know a lot of people that have been recruited, trained in Darfur and then sent to Khartoum for advanced training.”

The army and RSF didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

What’s the cornerstone of the accord?

The head of the RSF, =Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, disagrees over the command structure proposed as part of the new deal as well as the time line for his forces to be integrated into the national army, a cornerstone of the accord, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Hemedti had put himself at the forefront of a planned transition toward democracy, unsettling fellow military rulers and triggering a mobilisation of troops in the capital Khartoum.

The rift between the forces came to the surface on Thursday, when the army said that recent movements, particularly in Merowe, by the RSF had taken place without coordination and were illegal.

The RSF said in a statement actions by the leadership of the armed forces and “some officers” were an attack on its forces and were intended to create instability.

2019 coup a mistake?

In recent months, Dagalo has said the 2021 coup was a “mistake” that failed to bring about change in Sudan and reinvigorated remnants of Al Bashir’s regime, which was ousted by the army in 2019 following month of mass protests.

Al Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose the ranks under Al Bashir’s three-decade rule, maintained that the coup was “necessary” to bring more groups into the political process.

A successfully implemented Sudanese power-sharing deal may restore billions of dollars of Western aid frozen because of a military coup in 2021, helping the beleaguered economy. It

may also accelerate large-scale investment by Gulf Arab nations, including in ports and agriculture.

The 2021 coup removed a Western-backed, power-sharing administration and dashed Sudanese aspirations for democratic rule after three decades of autocracy and repression under Al Bashir.

A months-long popular uprising forced the military’s overthrow of Al Bashir in April 2019. Since then, the former president, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide in the Darfur conflict, has been imprisoned in Khartoum.