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Riders on the storm: Rebels, soldiers, and paramilitaries in Sudan’s margins

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By Dr. Dan Watson

This is the first in a series of three analysis features covering unrest in Sudan, and the repercussions of this unrest for the wider region. Sudan is grappling with the legacies of decades of violence and quasi-military rule under the deposed President Omar al-Bashir, which has disproportionately affected marginalized areas of the country. This first piece explores recent patterns and trends in violence in such areas, focusing in particular on insecurity in Darfur and the “Two Areas” following the coup that ousted Bashir in April 2019, as a number of rebel groups prepare to sign peace agreements with the government. The second piece moves from the margins to the center, and analyzes unrest and political developments in the heartland of political power in the central areas of Sudan. In addition to assessing protest dynamics and suppression, the piece considers the implications of the arrival of paramilitary factions from Sudan’s semi-periphery of Arab-identified groups in the crucible of power in the country, notably the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group under the leadership of Lt. Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a ‘Hemedti’).The final piece pans further back to situate these developments in Sudan within the Horn of Africa, and considers the effects of involvement by external powers, and in particular from the Gulf states.

After a tumultuous 18 months, Sudan is on the edge of another reorganization of power. Rebel groups from the marginalized regions of Darfur and the “Two Areas” of Blue Nile and South Kordofan are preparing to enter the transitional power-sharing government. They will join the ranks of military and paramilitary elites, operating alongside a fractious civilian coalition, who are governing an increasingly unstable country. The interaction between the military establishment, paramilitary elites from Sudan’s semi-periphery, and rebel elites from the periphery will have a decisive influence on the outcome of Sudan’s revolution, though perhaps not in the way that protesters who led the uprising would have hoped for.

Although often presented as a “transition” from military authoritarianism to civilian democracy, this historical moment is better understood as a reckoning for Sudan, in which elites from the core, the periphery, and the semi-periphery reorient themselves around the wreckage of a state that has long relied on pitting the population against one another in order to maintain its rule. The outcome of this reckoning is uncertain, and complicated by a multiplicity of vested interests, rebel groups, and paramilitary factions, with consequences for the Horn of Africa and potentially beyond.

Despite recent fighting along the Ethiopian border and clashes in Kassala and Red Sea states to the north-east, battles and violence against civilian events continue to be concentrated in Sudan’s southern and western peripheries. With the exception of intense violence in Khartoum on 3 July 2019 and in Port Sudan in late August 2019, events in Darfur and South Kordofan also continue to be the most lethal in Sudan.

However, the character and dynamics of that violence has shifted to the extent that current peace negotiations will have little effect on levels of violence, other than to potentially raise them. The first part of this analysis outlines patterns of violence in Sudan’s margins since Bashir was overthrown, noting how violence has become increasingly concentrated and urbanized, pitting (mostly) irregular forces from marginalized non-Arab groups against irregular and paramilitary forces of the semi-periphery. Such violence may be increasing as a result of fear and competition between the periphery and the semi-periphery as they seek to establish their place in the politico-military order being forged in Khartoum.

The second part unpacks the trajectories of Sudan’s various rebel groups, noting the decline of all rebel movements who are engaged in serious and sustained negotiations with the government, and the relative strength of those either tangentially engaged in the peace process, or refusing to participate. The weakness and desperation of most rebel groups currently precludes their involvement in the deadly contests described in the first section, meaning that the peace process is unlikely to resolve such violence. However, were these rebel groups to be emboldened by the peace process, then an intensification of urbanized clashes cannot be ruled out, as could violence relating to rebel integration into security structures.

In the final part of this analysis, the functions of the peace process and the motivations of its mediators are considered, establishing that the process is an essentially conservative reordering of power designed to uphold a system already dominated by Sudan’s various security organs. Given that most peripheral rebel groups exhibit characteristics which are not compatible with the ideals of democracy and equality that animated protests in December 2018, but which are instead complementary to the goals and behavior of Sudan’s military establishment and new paramilitary elite, there are good reasons to be cautious about the type of peace the agreements will attempt to embed. Current signs suggest that a reactionary rather than revolutionary peace is the most likely outcome of this process.