grip on power

Sudan: The Wagner-RSF ties that block the path to democratisation

By Amgad Fareid Eltayeb

Posted on February 2, 2023 15:55

 © Members of Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are pictured as they lead dozens of African nationals, caught as they tried to cross into Libya illegally, in front of the media a desert area called Gouz Abudloaa, about 100 kilometres north of Khartoum, on September 25, 2019. –  (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)
Members of Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are pictured as they lead dozens of African nationals, caught as they tried to cross into Libya illegally, in front of the media a desert area called Gouz Abudloaa, about 100 kilometres north of Khartoum, on September 25, 2019. – (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

On 26 January 2023, the US Department of Treasury sanctioned entities connected to the Russian Wagner group. The list includes entities in CAR and UAE. However, it ignored all subsidiaries of Wagner’s main interlocutor in the region: Sudan’s Rapid Support Force (RSF) and its leader Mohamed Hamdan Daglo AKA Hemeti.

RSF-Wagner joint mining activities reportedly helped build up gold reserves in the Russian Central Bank, which was essential for Moscow in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine. CNN reported at least 16 Russian gold-smuggling flights out of Sudan to Russia over one year. RSF-Wagner joint ‘Meroe Gold’ venture is publicly flying a Soviet Union flag in their mining site near Al-Ibaidiya area in Northern Sudan.

Furthermore, Wagner arranged Hemeti’s official visit to Moscow on the eve of the Ukraine invasion, where he publicly supported the Russian invasion saying “the whole world must recognise that [Russia] has the right to defend its people” one day before the Russian military assault.

Wagner is no stranger to Sudan

Wagner’s presence in Sudan goes beyond media reporting.

On 21 March 2022 in Khartoum, the US charge d’affaires and envoys of UK and Norway sharply condemned Wagner Group’s presence and operations (primarily disinformation and illicit gold mining) in Sudan. The US government seems to have chosen to ignore this knowledge, short-sightedly.

One reason behind this might be the recent signing of an initial Framework Political Agreement (FWA) to end Sudan’s 2021 coup, which ended Sudan’s democratic transition following the fall of the notorious Islamic regime in April 2019. RSF was a key player in the coup’s execution. As a member of the Quartet group, which includes the UK, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and the US, the latter played a major role, if not the most important role, in reaching the agreement.

However, the agreement that freed the army and RSF from having to answer to the future civilian executive authority and granted RSF autonomy from the army also started a shaky political process to get Sudan back on a transitional path to democracy and civilian rule. This led to further fragmentation among the pro-democracy forces and grass-root protest movement, of which many rejected the agreement.

The alignment of RSF and SAF leadership with the change camp after the overthrow of Bashir on 11 April 2019, was merely a survival strategy amidst the tsunami stirred by the revolutionary masses.

The essence of the dispute following the 25 October 2021 coup that resulted in fragmentation among pro-democracy forces is the variation in assessing the scale of risks to the future democracy and stability in Sudan. This disagreement pushed them into battles among themselves. Worse, the conflict has animated internal and external alliances that fundamentally contradict the goals and aspirations of the civilian democratic movement in Sudan.

Threats to Sudan’s path to democracy

Three main entities threaten the democratisation path in Sudan: the RSF, the remnants of the old regime (Islamists and their allied groups), and the current leadership of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). The three entities have common interests: to maintain their own influence, sustain their grip on power, and survive the political changes caused by the December 2018 revolution. These existential interests are more important to them than any diverse positions, alliances, or enmities that they may have.

The RSF, remnants of the old regime, and SAF leadership planned and executed the 2021 coup, which overthrew the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok and ended the civilian-military partnership-based transitional period. They were the same parties that comprised Bashir’s deposed regime. They can only be described as forces of regression, particularly after the 2021 coup.

The alignment of RSF and SAF leadership with the change in camp after the overthrow of Bashir on 11 April 2019, was merely a survival strategy amidst the tsunami stirred by the revolutionary masses. Islamists were able to flee and disappear at the time in order to regroup their ranks. The forces of regression spared no effort to sabotage the transition.

From the massacre of the sit-in dispersal on 3 June 2019, and throughout the aborted transitional period until they culminated their quest with the coup. On all of these occasions, and still today, the determination of the Sudanese people ultimately prevailed. Even so, the political setback of the 2021 coup seems to have blurred this conviction among the political groups that make up the mosaic of revolutionary forces.

Biggest threat

The Forces for Freedom and Change’s Central Council (FFC-CC) — or rather, the group of individuals directing its decisions — viewed Islamists as the biggest threat to Sudan’s transitional path.

This view is based on recent events and political and ideological divides that have traditionally defined Sudanese politics. Islamist groups wield significant power over the current SAF leadership, as the Islamist-Army alliance has ruled the country since the 1989 coup, long before the RSF emerged in 2013, whose influence grew over time to become an influential actor. This analysis pushed FFC-CC towards an unexpected and contradictory alliance with the third party in the power equation, the RSF.

The FFC-CC created an intimate political alliance with the RSF, which Islamists consider their main nemesis. This alliance was groomed by ethnic political brokers within the FFC, who do not consider the supremacy of the “political militia system” problematic as long as it serves their political interests. During the aborted transition, such brokers exchanged political favours and services with the RSF, strengthening their ties. The intimacy of this alliance delivered the FWA on 5 December 2022.

The FFC-CC and RSF alliance, which has grown rapidly, became more apparent with Hemeti’s automatic support for all steps taken by FFC-CC, such as his public support for the Sudanese Bar Association’s draft constitution (even before reviewing it, according to his own admission), and his repeated statements about his commitment to the FWA as the only choice for a political settlement.

Even his reconciliatory statements, which contradict his forces’ actions on the ground (particularly in fueling inter-communal violence in Darfur, which the FFC-CC stopped mentioning after signing the FWA), on the grounds that “lip service costs nothing”.

FFC-CC and RSF alliance

The FFC-CC recently strengthened this alliance by attracting close-to-RSF groups that worked with the Bashir regime until its demise (such as the Mohammed Al-Hassan and Ibrahim Al-Mirghani Group, Bashir’s assistant and his minister of telecommunications).

This group is linked with Taha Osman Al-Hussein, the former office manager of Bashir – who is considered the godfather of the RSF and the greatest patron of the Emirati interests in Sudan since Bashir’s era – and has been the conduit for this relationship.

In return, Taha Al-Hussein is reintroduced to the Sudanese political scene and valued for his internal knowledge of the Islamists and therefore his capacity to fight them. In this quid pro quo, he is becoming the informal advisor to the political process, whose goal has changed from ending the 2021 coup and resuming the transitional path to combating the Islamists, whom the Sudanese people have already defeated and overthrown in 2019.

In exchange for the RSF’s political support, the FFC-CC supported Hemeti’s whitewashing campaign. This support from the FFC-CC included political and media advice and drafting talking points for public speeches (including the one Hemeti read in the signing ceremony of the FWA).

‘Champion of the year for Human Rights’

Awarding Hemeti the Champion of the Year for Human Rights by the Sudanese Human Rights Commission, one day after signing the framework agreement, was the pinnacle of the campaign to recast the RSF as a pro-democracy partner. It is worth mentioning that the commissioner who awarded Hemeti this title was appointed by the FFC cabinet prior to the coup.

The FFC-CC and RSF alliance’s rationale of preventing Islamists from returning to power has significant, even catastrophic, holes. First, the 12-plus months following the Burhan/Hemeti coup provided ample time for the Islamists to return to the state apparatus and finance centres that they experienced during their 30 years of rule. This happened in the first weeks following the coup. The justification of avoiding retrenchment under the old regime would have been reasonable if it had been put forward in the first period after the coup; it does not hold more than 14 months later.

The use of state administrative authority or the military apparatus to settle political disputes will not help achieve these reforms toward long-term, guanine democratic civilian rule.

Secondly, relying on the alliance with the RSF to confront the Islamists is like shooting yourself in the head to treat a headache. Sudan’s December revolution crushed the Islamists and their regime. Events pushed the regression forces to adopt a democratic, civilian-led transitional route, although temporarily. Turning back the clock should not be acceptable. The state apparatus and political system need principled, comprehensive, and fundamental reforms after Bashir’s tyranny corrupted them.

The use of state administrative authority or the military apparatus to settle political disputes will not help achieve these reforms toward long-term, guanine democratic civilian rule. The recent experience of the Dismantling Committee, as well as the ease with which its work was overturned by the legal system following the coup, demonstrate this.

Establishing a healthy system for the peaceful and democratic transfer of power in the Sudan will only happen by adhering to the principles of separation of powers, the oneness of executive decision-making in the state, and the establishment of a non-partisan administrative system. The administrative power of the state cannot and should not be leveraged to impose one political direction or another. The strength of the revolution lies in its principles and people support, not in the number of guns it possesses. That indicator only assesses the power of a militia.

Can Hemeti be counted on?

What the forces of the FFC-CC are doing now is tantamount to breeding and unleashing a tiger in a house to eliminate a mouse. Before and after the FWA, Hemeti worked tirelessly to strengthen his political, economic, regional, and diplomatic power, from interventions in Chad, Niger, Mali, and the Central African Republic to public and clandestine commercial and military links with Wagner Group.

Depending on Hemeti to eliminate the Islamists is like raising a young, enthusiastic, and ambitious monster in order to eliminate an old, defeated one. Nurturing the risks of the future to eliminate the spectres of the past is a huge mistake for which we will pay for, dearly, with the future of stability in Sudan.

The FFC-CC attempts to avoid addressing these gaps and critiques by seeking to monopolise the representation of the democratic agenda in Sudan and heavily communicating this perception to international partners, particularly the Quartet.

It presents itself as the sole legitimate representative of the democratic forces in Sudan, and thus it can stamp whatever agreement it cuts as pro-democracy. International powers acquiesce in order to reach a quick solution, whatever it is and between whomever it is, regardless of its viability or potential to truly lead to stable democratic civilian rule in Sudan.

All they want is a formal government, in any form, that they can deal with to serve their interests in Sudan. The highly celebrated ongoing sham political process is nothing more than an attempt to openly reverse-engineer a pre-cooked deal via workshops that conclude a predetermined set of recommendations. One big example came in the workshop conducted earlier in January about dismantling the deep state of the deposed regime. The workshop’s debates and papers had no bearing on the final recommendations.

One topic of discussion was around a paper presented by an international expert reflecting on similar experiences and advising the adoption of due-process, legal, and judicial methods to dismantle the former political regime. However, the first final recommendation of the workshop was to dismiss the entire Supreme Court judiciary.

Power of the masses?

Using the forces of the fait accompli instead of the power of the masses will not facilitate democratic transition in Sudan, but will only lower the ceiling of this transition in favour of what was imposed by the 2021 coup by the force of arms.

The above narrative does not suggest that the tactics of negotiation or a political solution are incorrect, but points to the catastrophic political mistake of attempting to use the coup partners against each other. If the forces of democratisation choose to negotiate, they should do so from a position of strength, not weakness.

Impunity will only encourage further instability and brutality in Sudan.

Strength stems from the masses’ victory in the December 2018 revolution and their perseverance in achieving its goals thus far. The current position of weakness results from the secretive manner in which the talks took place, apart from the people. The result is legitimising the putschists’ gains from their coup.

The attempt to pit the coup partners against one another in order to ostensibly strengthen the pro-democracy camp is a wrong tactic and wrong tactics cannot lead to good results. This approach will only enable one brute to monopolise more brutality in this country. What unites the coup partners in their quest for power is more than what divides them.

Their internal battles are battles of a totalitarian nature and should not be fought by any of the pro-democracy forces. Alliances that are established with the totalitarian camp, are of a temporary nature, which Hemeti exploits to whitewash his name and rebrand himself or Burhan uses as a means to increase his popularity and present himself as an objective leader who wants a political solution and embarrasses other parties by outbidding them. Both men are only giving lip service.

Any negotiations with the putschist camp should not be vague, but specific in imposing political responsibility on perpetrators. The price of the criminal amnesty, if offered as part of transitional justice arrangements, should be political responsibility in order for it not to be full impunity. Impunity will only encourage further instability and brutality in Sudan.

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