Aerial view of Darfur CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The war in Sudan is a zero-sum game for both parties, says Sharif Harir. He predicts a protracted stalemate, with little hope for a negotiated solution.

Sharif Harir is watching the war unfold in what was once his home country from afar. He worries about the safety of family and friends in Darfur and Khartoum, but he is not surprised by the events that are now taking place.

-For anyone who has followed the National Islamic Front and Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship of 30 years, this should come as no surprise. There was never any doubt that the inbuilt tension between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) would lead to war, he says.

After protesters successfully managed to oust al-Bashir in 2019, several factions scrambled to be part of the power distribution negotiations. Many civil society actors warned about the risk of including the military in the negotiations, but to no avail. The military came to play a crucial role in the negotiations where the coalition of civil society actors, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), never managed to speak with a unified voice. And, for reasons we will get back to, in Sudan the military had come to include both the SAF and the paramilitary RSF – to the eyes of an outsider two factions seemingly similar in the sense that they both wear uniforms and perform military operations, one traditionally on behalf of the other, to the insiders two clearly distinct groups battling for power.

-The whole project of trying to integrate the RSF in the SAF was doomed to fail. What I could not foresee was the brutality. But the clash itself, yes.


Sharif Harir can see no immediate solution to the ongoing war.

A history of marginalization and violence
Yet, there has been no lack of brutality and violence throughout history, and Harir has seen both before. After getting his PhD in social anthropology from the University of Bergen and many years as a senior researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, he left for Sudan to start a political movement showing resistance to the regime in Khartoum.

Ever since Sudan gained independence from British colonial rule in 1956, an elite consisting mainly of people who claim Arab origin has ruled the country from the capital Khartoum. The regions have been economically and socially marginalized, and many have felt that the rulers in the capital have worked to quench Sudan’s cultural diversity. And in many ways, this marginalization of the regions and their attempts to stand up to the regime in Khartoum is inextricably linked – and central to understanding -  to the events that are unfolding in Sudan right now.

The regions have been economically and socially marginalized, and many have felt that the rulers in the capital have worked to quench Sudan’s cultural diversity.

Later Darfur became one of the epicentres of resistance to the regime in Khartoum, and it is this fight Harir returned from Bergen to Sudan to join in 1997. The uprising in conflict is also where we find the origins of the RSF.

-The Sudanese army was not able to defeat the rebels in Darfur on their own and recruited people from Arab nomadic tribes to join the attempt to quell the uprising. They were recruited to fight a proxy war for al-Bashir, says Harir.

The fighters from the Arab nomadic tribes came to be called the Janjaweed by the populace, and were given free hands in Darfur. The result was widespread looting, rapes, indiscriminate killings and human rights violations. Whole villages were burned. And Hemedti, who is now the leader of the RSF, was one of the Janjaweed fighters.

The people of Darfur were caught between a rock and a hard place. The stories that came out of the region were ones of brute violence.

-Armies have to adhere to certain rules. The Janjaweed were recruited to do the things the army can’t do, says Harir.

That being said, the Janjaweed were not alone in committing human rights violations. The Sudanese army was also fighting its own people with all means. And the generals who are now fighting for power over the Sudanese state both have blood on their hands. In fact, general Burhan, now commander in chief of the SAF, was the one al-Bashir entrusted to train the Janjaweed.

-At some point, Burhan was the patron and Hemedti his client, says Harir.

And the generals who are now fighting for power over the Sudanese state both have blood on their hands.

Former and new allies
So how did the two former allies, Burhan and Hemedti, end up fighting each other?

While Burhan climbed the ranks in the army, Hemedti built both his reputation and his paramilitary army. He even became the now toppled president Omar al-Bashir’s private protection force, as al-Bashir, while leaning on the army, at the same time feared that the would commit a coup against him. And through the close ties to the rich and powerful, Hemedti became even richer. He is heavily involved in gold mining, of which a great deal of the actual gold that is mined ends up in Dubai. His links to the Gulf states secures steady funding of his ventures. Hemedti has been and is recruiting tens of thousands of Sudanese and others as RSF soldiers and sending them to beef up the war efforts led by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in Yemen under the codename ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ in exchange for millions of dollars and armament which further strengthen both his financial and military might.

Eventually, Hemedti became just as powerful as Burhan. The underdog was even getting the upper hand. And then he decided that he wanted to aim for president. Harir grants neither of the warring parties any honour. One thing is for certain, according to Harir - and that is that we cannot leave the fate of Sudan in the hands of these two generals. They will come to no peaceful solution.

-While Hemedti and the RSF are trying to portray themselves as defenders of democracy and advocates for civilian rule, everyone knows that is just charades. They have had their chance to choose democracy and civilian rule, and clearly showed that they are not interested. Still, Hemedti claims that the only way out is to capture Burhan and put him before court. Burhan on the other hand, argues that the only solution is to capture Hemedti and have him court martialed. They are both playing a zero-sum game. Neither of them will cave in until they have power.

Enemy #1
Harir predicts a prolonged conflict that in the worst-case scenario develops into a civil war that engulfs the entire country. For now, the Eastern parts of the country are relatively sheltered from fighting. And in some parts of the country that have suffered violent clashes, civil society actors have come together in the communities, risking their lives in the process but eventually succeeding in negotiating local ceasefires.

According to Harir, the Sudanese people are used to fending for themselves. A long history of violence committed both by the SAF and the RSF has proved that they have no one else to turn to. The atrocities committed by both warring factions throughout history are undeniable. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted the Sudan government for Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity on the background of actions committed by both SAF and the Janjaweed (RSF) in Darfur during their 2003 Counterinsurgency Operations. So clearly, the Sudanese neither trust nor support any of them.

The atrocities committed by both warring factions throughout history are undeniable.

Still, there seems to be a pragmatism developing in the way the people deal with the current war.

-The RSF does not have any support in the population. The RSF has recruited broadly from countries like Mali and even as far away as Mauritania. A widely shared perception among the Sudanese is that this is an army consisting very much of foreign elements. So the support the RSF gets is mainly from foreign fortune seekers. Add that to the atrocities the RSF have subjected the Sudanese people to, and it becomes very clear why they have no support. The sentiment seems to be that people are siding with the SAF. At least it is an army consisting of Sudanese soldiers. Yet, this doesn’t mean that they have their support. The army is also guilty of terrible human rights violations against the Sudanese people and has no appeal to them at all. This is really a matter of being forced to choose between enemy #1 and enemy #2.  And at the moment, the RSF is enemy #1, says Harir.

But, he stresses, the time will also come to defeat enemy #2. And this fight will be in the hands of the Sudanese people fighting to reach their ultimate goal: Democracy and civilian rule.

Africa’s battle
Despite the long-lasting struggle for democracy in Sudan, Harir has not given up hope that the country will eventually have a civilian government elected by the people. Change takes time. You simply have to look at Sudan’s neighbourhood, says Harir.

-Africa is the land of military coups and dictators, and the fight for democracy is a common struggle for African people. Throughout the continent, people have fought for democracy for decades, and history shows that as long as the struggle is unified, the will of the people will prevail. Look at what happened in South Africa. The struggle against apartheid was so unified that with the pressure from the international community, De Klerk had no choice but to abolish apartheid.

His message is loud and clear: You can kill people, but you cannot kill our aspirations and hope.

Follow the money trail
Hope may need a little help though, and Harir will be the first to admit that a fight for democracy is hard to win without support from the rich and powerful, in this case the international community. Despite the international community’s credibility taking a blow due to the insistence that the FFC negotiate with the military actors, it is still crucial that a unified UN demands that the fighting comes to an end.

And any new ceasefire has to be more than just a simple measure to put in place for the international community to clear its conscience.  So far, the ceasefires agreed upon by the warring factions have not been worth the paper they have been written on. Harir asks the international community to go out of their comfort zone.

-The SAF is a state actor, and the UN has tools to deal with state actors. As far as Hemedti and the RSF are concerned, it is imperative that the international community follows and blocks the money trail. His money largely goes through the United Arab Emirates, and it is these money that finance his weapons. A refusal to block the money contributes to feed the war.