On January 14, heavy gunfire broke out at Sudan’s Directorate of National Intelligence in Khartoum. Sudanese officials accused former employees of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), a dissolved security organ of former President Omar al-Bashir’s government, of instigating the clashes to increase their severance compensation. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) swiftly quelled the NISS-led rebellion, but the revolt led to the resignation of Sudan’s intelligence chief General Abu Bakr Mustafa on January 16. 

Although Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, insists that the SAF has regained complete control over the intelligence directorate, the January 14 incident highlighted deep polarizations within the Sudanese military establishment. These divisions originated during Bashir’s presidency. After seizing power through a coup d’etat in 1989, Bashir used patronage networks to splinter the Sudanese military along tribal lines and maintained power by exploiting ideological divisions between Arab nationalists and Islamists within the SAF. This divide-and-rule strategy prevented the Sudanese military from launching a coup d’etat against Bashir until Sudan’s burgeoning economic crisis and Bashir’s advanced age rendered his position untenable. The Sudanese army’s coalescence around the Burhan-led Transitional Military Council (TMC) in April 2019 was largely tactical, however, and continued demonstrations revived old schisms within the Sudanese military.

Sudan’s intra-military divisions were laid bare after the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a much-feared Sudanese paramilitary organization, massacred 128 protesters in Khartoum on June 3. Although the April coup caused major personnel turnover in the middle and lower ranks of the SAF, which included many supporters of the anti-Bashir demonstrations, Burhan’s inner circle passively accepted the RSF’s actions on June 3 but remained willing to strike a deal with the Sudanese opposition. On June 13, the head of the Sudanese Air Force, Lieutenant General Salah Abdel Khalig, claimed that the TMC did not wish to “rule Sudan forever,” and wanted a political transition within a few months. Khalig’s conciliatory statement contrasted with RSF chief Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo’s insistence that he would step down only “over his dead body.”

Although the SAF and RSF’s conflicting views on negotiating with the opposition were widely expected to forestall a political transition in Sudan, the July 5 power-sharing agreement caused the SAF’s accommodationist position to gain a decisive advantage. This deal institutionalized the rotation of power within the sovereign council between civilian and military authorities and mandated nation-wide elections in 2022. Even though Hemedti signed Sudan’s formal transition agreement on August 17 in front of officials such as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, the RSF continues to impede Sudan’s advance towards democracy.

The RSF has disrupted Sudan’s political transition by orchestrating periodic insurrections and taking aggressive measures to bolster its institutional power. On July 12, the RSF allegedly instigated a coup attempt, which resulted in the arrests of 12 officers and 4 soldiers. General Jamal Omar, a senior official within the TMC, linked this coup attempt directly to anti-transition forces and claimed that “a group of people who refuse the demands of the people” threatened Sudan’s security. The RSF was also believed to have played a hand in a July 24 coup attempt, which led to the arrest of General Bakri Hassan Saleh, who served as vice president of Sudan from 2013 to 2019. The RSF has insisted that rogue elements within the Sudanese military instigated these coup attempts, and RSF forces joined their SAF counterparts in repressing the January 14 mutiny. Nevertheless, supporters of Sudan’s political transition remain wary of the RSF’s destabilizing conduct.

In addition to undercutting Sudan’s democracy through insurrection, the RSF has expanded its access to economic resources that could guarantee its long-term institutional strength. Although Hemedti publicly criticized the kleptocratic practices of Bashir’s inner circle, the RSF chief struck a deal with Bashir in late 2018 that allowed Hemedti to expropriate $30 million worth of gold via his family firm Algunade. RSF forces also guard gold mines in Darfur and South Kordofan and have preserved control over Darfur’s economic resources by destroying forty-five villages and perpetrating extra-judicial killings. The RSF has also reportedly gained access to millions of euros in European Union financial assistance to Sudan, which European policymakers provided to prevent an influx of Sudanese refugees from entering Europe via North Africa.

Although Sudan’s transition received widespread international praise, including from the Sudanese revolution’s most strident opponents, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Russia, external powers continue to support the RSF’s efforts to derail Sudan’s democratic transition. The RSF actively participates in the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, and in July 2019 1,000 RSF forces deployed to Libya in support of UAE-aligned Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli. These military campaigns provided Hemedti’s inner circle with much-needed hard currency, and Dubai-based financial institutions act as safe havens for the RSF’s illicit gold revenues. Although Russia has established positive relations with Sudan’s transitional government and sought to repair the reputational damage caused by its deployment of private military contractors on Bashir’s behalf, Russia’s opposition to a UN peacekeeping presence in Darfur indirectly strengthens the RSF’s influence in that region.

In spite of continued external support for Hemedti, the RSF’s challenge to Sudan’s democratic transition could face some fresh obstacles in the coming months. Sudan’s decision to reduce its military presence in Yemen from 15,000 to as few as 657 troops by January 14 diminishes one of the RSF’s most important revenue streams. Episodes of dissent, such as recurrent protests outside the UAE embassy in Khartoum, against Sudan’s participation in foreign military campaigns, could result in further drawdowns of the RSF’s presence in Libya and Yemen. Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North leader Malik Agar’s decision to make overtures to Khartoum to end the South Kordofan conflict could allow the SAF to gain greater influence and resist RSF hegemony. If Sudan is removed as a U.S. state sponsor of terrorism and accompanying sanctions are lifted, Khartoum could gain financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund. This could increase public confidence in Sudan’s civilian government, as it would facilitate economic reforms and convince the RSF’s external sponsors to shore up Sudan’s legitimate institutions.

Even though Sudan has made encouraging progress towards a democratic transition that would implore the Sudanese military to return to the barracks, an ongoing turf war between the RSF and SAF imperils Sudan’s political future. The viability of Sudan’s political transition will depend on Khartoum’s ability to quell civil conflicts, curry U.S. support for economic reforms, and restrict the malign influence of the RSF’s external sponsors.   

Samuel Ramani is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Follow him on Twitter @samramani2.