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An African soldier from the nexk down holding a machine gun and a Sudan flag.
Africa is plagued by paramilitary militias and foreign mercenary groups. Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Sudan: violence between army and militia is a symptom of an old disease that is destroying Africa

A three-day ceasefire to mark the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Fitr in Khartoum appears to be dead in the water as fighting continues in the Sudanese capital. According to the World Health Organization, more than 330 people have been killed over the past week. Now, with reports emerging that arms are being sent from Egypt and Libya, there are growing fears the situation could develop into a civil war that could draw in regional powers.

The violence represents a power struggle between the country’s military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, often referred to as Hemedti. The pair were respectively leader and deputy leader of a transitional government which was supposed to hand over to a civilian administration after the 2019 ousting of the former president, Omar al-Bashir. Instead the pair launched a military takeover in October 2021.

The RSF began as a militia movement, the Janjaweed, comprising fighters from Darfur in the west of Sudan. It was set up by al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan from 1993 until April 2019 when he was deposed by the army in 2019 after months of popular protest against his regime.

A true conflict entrepreneur, Hemedti has switched sides repeatedly. He rose to prominence fighting for al-Bashir in Darfur, then led an uprising against him in 2007 before switching sides again in a deal that made him a general. In 2013 he folded the Janjaweed into a new group, the RSF. This gave him a considerable power base which in 2019 was instrumental in ousting al-Bashir and then again in 2021, seizing power alongside the head of the army. Now the pair has fallen out.

Paramilitary power brokers

Far from being a short-term Sudanese problem, this conflict between two rival centres of military power illustrates a common long-term problem in Africa. There has been a history of authoritarian rulers setting up their own armed groups to counter possible military insurrection. And the continent has been ravaged by conflicts featuring non-state armed groups developed with the backing of international players with either commercial or political interests rivalling those of the state.

After seizing the presidency of Zaire in 1965, Mobutu Sese Seko set up a range of special paramilitary units, including the Special Presidential Division, which were loyal to him rather than the constitution and tended to be drawn from the same ethnic group. Likewise in Zimbabwe the “green bombers” acted as a virtual private army for former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe as he fought to hold on to power.

These paramilitary militias are typically used for a wide range of activities including political or party-based violence, or as a counterweight to formal armed forces if they are perceived as a potential threat.

Sudanese soldiers from the Rapid Support Forces unit with a crowd of people in Khartoum, Sudan, June 2019
Members of Sudan’s Rapid Support Force, a paramilitary group led by Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti). AP Photo/Hussein Malla

What defines these groups is the willingness to use violence as a means to a political end and loose command and control, usually tied to personal patronage or ethnic links. They tend to grow out of regional disputes. And they often show a willingness to be flexible in terms of loyalty and the pursuit of resources.

Adding mercenaries to the mix

These groups are frequently allied to other mercenary organisations that may provide fighters, training or some command and control. The arrival of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group in Mali, and South African firm Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) in Mozambique has recently shed light on a new wave of mercenary activity across the continent.

The Wagner Group has denied any involvement in events in Sudan, saying in a post on Telegram: “Due to the large number of inquiries from various foreign media about Sudan, most of which are provocative, we consider it necessary to inform everyone that Wagner staff have not been in Sudan for more than two years.”

DAG, meanwhile, describes itself on its website as having a “long history of providing bespoke solutions having undertaken security-based operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Central African Republic, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique, for a variety of high profile clients”.

A a group of men in military uniform carrying weapons.
An undated photograph issued by French military showing a group of men in military uniform, allegedly Russian mercenaries, in northern Mali. French Army via AP

Wagner has been identified as operating in a number of countries, from Mali and Libya to the Central African Republic, where it was accused by Human Rights Watch of human rights atrocities. Now it is apparently active in Sudan as well, where it has been accused of using gold from Meroe, north of Khartoum, to boost Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin who is believed to be the founder of the Wagner Group has denied the allegations: “ I have nothing to do with the Meroe Gold company, this company has never belonged to me, I do not know anything about this company.” He has also denied being associated with any entity known as the Wagner Group: “I am not aware of any evidence that the Wagner Group exists. The legend of ‘Wagner’ is only a legend.”

Pot of gold

In 2017, al-Bashir reportedly travelled to Russia to ask Putin for support. Shortly afterwards a new gold-mining company, Meroe Gold, began operating in Sudan, Africa’s third-largest gold producer. Wagner’s chief role was to protect mining interests and support the regime of al-Bashir. After al-Bashir’s ousting in 2019, Wagner’s main focus has reportedly been on Sudan’s gold mining operations.

More recently, relations appear to have developed between Wagner and the RSF, with Hemedti flying to Moscow in February 2022 to meet Vladimir Putin. Days later, according to a CNN investigation published in July, an aircraft loaded with gold flew from Sudan to Russia’s military base at Latakia in Syria. CNN estimated that around 90% of Sudan’s gold production worth an estimated US$13.4 billion (£10.8 billion) has allegedly been smuggled out this way.

This week CNN has published a report quoting “Sudanese and regional diplomatic sources” as saying that Moscow is supplying the RSF with missile technology during the current conflict – specifically surface-to-air missiles to counteract the Sudanese air force.

The creation of paramilitary forces such as the RSF usually does not end well. And the involvement of external mercenaries serving both political and commercial interests complicates things further. In Sudan it has enabled a group initially formed as auxiliaries for a previous dictatorship to become a serious player in both business and government.

Such powerful and wealthy individuals are unlikely to hand over power in a hurry. This raises urgent questions about the immediate future of Sudan and also the longer-term future of the use of fragmented security structures on the continent.

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