A brutal power struggle is under way in Sudan. On 15 April, heavy fighting erupted between different factions of the armed forces. Civilians have abruptly found themselves in war zones, especially in the capital Khartoum. The death toll is already in the hundreds, and thousands are injured. A refugee crisis is developing as civilians rush to escape the fighting. Civil war is now a serious threat, especially given the different regional and ethnic powerbases of the different factions, posing the disintegration of Sudan, as has happened elsewhere in the region, for example in Libya and Syria.
The ruling military clique’s return to settling disputes by armed conflict is the sharpest manifestation yet of reaction against the Sudanese revolution, which has ebbed and flowed since December 2018. The central demand of the revolution is to replace military dictatorship with democracy and civilian rule. Across Sudanese society there is a determination to end the brutality and arbitrariness of military rule, and bring peace and stability to daily life. For the working class and poor especially, the demand for the military to exit the government completely, and for ‘democracy’, is part of the struggle to forge a weapon that the majority can wield to end poverty, create jobs, raise wages, and develop services, health, and education.
The conflict signals an increased confidence to resist the demands of the revolution across the different factions of the ruling clique, even as they face the possibility of annihilation at each other’s hands. This is a symptom of a revolution that reached an impasse and has been retreating. Despite the determination and heroism, especially of the youth in the neighbourhood ‘Resistance Committees’, the grip of the ruling class on the state, military and economy has not been smashed. Instead, it has repeatedly been given the space to regroup.
Orchestrating the unfolding barbarity on one side is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and head of the governing council. On the other, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti, or “little Mohammed”), leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and deputy head of the government. The conflict has already taken on an existential character for these two warlords. Al-Burhan has ordered the RSF to dissolve, while Hemedti has denounced al-Burhan as a criminal who must be brought to justice or “die like a dog”. They are compelled to fight to the end now that battle has begun. One must deliver a blow severe enough to eliminate the other as a rival, or face elimination himself.
Both al-Burhan and Hemedti are creations of the military regime in power since 1989. Their rivalry was consciously fostered in this period. The RSF was developed out of Hemedti’s notorious Janjaweed militia as a counterweight to the ‘official’ army, the SAF, headed by al-Burhan. One could be played off against the other as the situation demanded.
In Sudan, as in many ex-colonial countries, the army, often the most cohesive social force within weak and small neocolonial ruling classes, uses force to control both the state and to dominate the capitalist economy. High military rank and the ability to unleash overwhelming force against rivals are used to build and defend business empires. Vast wealth accrues to the officer caste in Sudan through the ownership of banks, import-export companies, flour mills, and transportation and fuel companies. Largesse from these enterprises in turn buys the loyalty of the soldiers under their command. Hemedti, for example, has amassed a fortune through the seizure of gold mines. Whatever their ‘official’ standing, army and police units, special forces, intelligence agencies and irregular militias become de facto private armies owing loyalty to specific officers. This has developed so far in Sudan that different factions even have independent, and mutually exclusive, foreign policies.
All factions had been united however by the need for the military to remain in overall political control. The revolution threatened this. Until now, it had compelled al-Burhan and Hemedti to limit their rivalry and march broadly in-step with each other, manoeuvring against the revolution, at different stages, through different combinations of concessions, co-options and repression.
Under the pressure of the mass movement the two generals played key roles in April 2019 in carrying through the palace coup that removed President Omar al-Bashir, the military ruler since 1989. Their hopes that this would appease the mass movement and demobilise it did not materialise. After brutal repression also failed, the regime realised that, for the time being at least, it was impossible to rule in the old way (see here). A ‘power-sharing’ government was formed in August 2019 between the military and sections of the revolutionary movement, though not without questioning from its more radical wing (see here). Al-Burhan and Hemedti sat as chair and vice-chair of a new governing council, alongside a civilian prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok. In October 2021 al-Burhan and Hemedti cooperated in a coup that removed Hamdok (see here). However, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the prime minister, mass protests forced the generals to retreat again, at least partially. Hamdok was reinstated, albeit with severely curtailed powers. The continuation of protests then forced Hamdok to resign in January 2022, leaving al-Burhan and Hemedti at the head of a de facto military junta.
Throughout these years of revolution and counter-revolution, the desperate manoeuvring of al-Burhan, Hemedti and the regime has taken place under the pressure of wave after wave of heroic and determined mass struggle. The generals have proved utterly incapable of fooling the masses who stand firm against military dictatorship and the different fig-leaves used to disguise it. The CWI has analysed each phase of the revolution as it has unfolded through 2018-21 (see here).
Evolution of the movement
In the earliest phase of the revolution the figure of al-Bashir stood as a lightning rod for the different grievances of every section of society. An extremely broad multi-class opposition coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), developed around the call for his removal. However, once this was achieved disagreements inevitably appeared over the way forward. These deepened massively after the 2021 coup, and the movement split, broadly, into ‘pro-coup’ and ‘anti-coup’ wings, i.e. those willing to cooperate with the military and those not.
After accepting the invitation to return as a stooge prime minister, Hamdok positioned himself decisively as a ‘pro-coup’ figure. That he was forced to resign just months later under the pressure of mass protests, showed that the ‘anti-coup’ wing was ascendant, and decisively so. The military’s anti-democratic manoeuvres could still be blocked despite the ranks of defectors and collaborators growing.
Denied their fig leaf, the regime ratcheted-up repression against the revolution. Simultaneously, the imperialist powers, especially the US, but also the UK and EU, alongside regional powers (and dictatorships) such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates increased their diplomatic interventions. Pressure was applied on both the regime and sections of the ‘anti-coup’ movement to work together. That it was necessary for these powers to condemn the coup – at least publicly – and posture in favour of civilian rule was another nod to the power of the revolution. However, the starting point for their interventions is a fundamentally anti-democratic one – the revolution must negotiate with the military regime and a place for it, and its leaders, whose hands are dripping with blood, must be found in a future ‘democratic’ Sudan.
Simultaneously with these ‘official’ interventions, a complex web of more opaque networks further complicates the situation. For example, Russia’s Wagner Group is active in Sudan, collaborating with Hemedti in particular to secure an independent source of gold for the Putin regime and its war in Ukraine in the face of Western sanctions. The Observer newspaper has revealed the role of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar in supporting the RSF, detachments of which have fought in the Yemeni civil war.
Unfortunately, these interventions and influences, combined with the lack of a clear way forward from the ‘anti-coup’ forces, including from its more consciously anti-military and radical organisations, have had an effect in deepening divisions in the movement. In July 2022 al-Burhan felt confident enough to announce plans to open military-led negotiations on a new ‘national accord’ to plan a return to civilian rule. A few weeks later, Hemedti announced his support for the process. This consolidated a split in the FFC, which has divided, again broadly, into ‘anti-accord’ and ‘pro-accord’ wings. The latter signed a ‘framework agreement’ with the military in December. It appears as though the ‘pro-accord’ FFC forces are dominated by elements whose support for the revolution was always opportunistic – for example different armed rebel groups and decades-old political parties so ineffectual they had largely been accommodated by the military dictatorship.
A split of this character is not a setback. It should be seized on to clarify and consolidate the genuine anti-military and pro-democracy forces as a more conscious revolutionary wing around a programme that can unite all those exploited by the military regime. But this will not be the end of the road that needs to be travelled to build a force capable of overthrowing the military and transforming Sudan. At a certain stage, a class differentiation is posed within the revolutionary wing. Even after the departure of the ‘pro-accord’ forces, it is still, fundamentally, a multi-class movement. United action against military rule is possible but conflicts will develop, especially over the future political and economic order of a post-revolutionary Sudan. This will pose further splits with pro-capitalist forces that are inevitable and necessary. Socialists, genuine Marxists, worker activists and revolutionary youth must prepare for this by developing a programme that welds the democratic demands of the movement together with a programme to realise the aspirations of the working-class and poor masses for a fundamental transformation of their living standards. For the youth especially, from whatever class background, a conscious choice must be made now to stand on the side of the working-class and poor masses and for the socialist transformation of Sudan.
The outbreak of fighting between the forces of al-Burhan and Hemedti coincided with the deadline for the finalisation of the ‘national accord’. The ‘framework agreement’ had proposed the absorption of the RSF into the SAF within two years. Hemedti agreed to this in principle but proposed eleven years. The disagreement over the timetable arises from the two generals’ calculations on the manoeuvres each must make to emerge at the head of the future combined force – and be the real power behind any future nominally ‘civilian’ government. Al-Burhan is leaning on the ‘pro-accord’ organisations, and those imperialist and regional powers sponsoring the process, to corner Hemedti. If the absorption happens quickly while he is secure at the head of the SAF, Hemedti’s powerbase can be weakened, forcing him into a permanently subordinate role.
Unfortunately for al-Burhan, and tragically for the people of Sudan, Hemedti is too sly to fall into the trap. With the stalling of the revolution he felt sufficiently free to move against al-Burhan and settle their power struggle by force. However, a revolution in an impasse, even a revolution in retreat, is not a revolution defeated. In fact, no decisive defeat has been inflicted on the masses throughout the now years-long revolutionary process. Reflecting the deep roots the revolution has sunk, even now, al-Burhan and Hemedti both feel it necessary to appeal to its democratic goals to justify their counter-revolutionary barbarism.
For now the generals are refusing to bow to pressure from imperialist and regional powers for a ceasefire. Most pro-democracy organisations, across the political spectrum, have also called for an immediate ceasefire. The revolution must find a way to intervene in the situation and impose the democratic wish of the people for peace.
The eruption of open warfare is of course extremely unfavourable terrain for the continuation of revolutionary work. Activists will be risking their lives to undertake it. The Economist has quoted Ahmed Ismat, a spokesperson for Resistance Committees in south Khartoum, as saying: “We don’t back either side… Any war means the end of the revolution.” It is correct not to take the side of either general and it is understandable that the initial response of activists and revolutionaries can be shock and even despair. But Ismat is not correct about the relationship between war and revolution.
The outbreak of armed conflict now is not something that stands separately to the revolutionary process under way in Sudan since 2018. The revolution upturned Sudanese society. The overthrow of al-Bashir created a power vacuum both within society and within the ruling class. An inchoate dual power in the form of the revolutionary movement has checked the ability of the ruling class to restore political and social equilibrium on their own terms. It likewise forced the generals to postpone the question of who would succeed al-Bashir as strongman, not least because the survival of the regime itself was in doubt. But it has survived. The revolution failed to decisively place itself in the power vacuum. Revolutionaries do not have the luxury of closing their eyes to the fact that this conflict is ultimately the product of an incomplete revolution.
Matters are now being settled by the gun. The cover of the conflict will be used by the ruling class to settle scores with the revolution. The eventual victor will likely move to snuff it out once and for all. A generation of revolutionaries is in danger of being drowned in blood. This is what is posed if the revolutionary masses do not assert themselves as a decisive factor in bringing an end to the conflict. It is true that war can cut across and derail revolutions. But war can also act as a midwife to revolution. This is the perspective that the revolutionary masses must base themselves upon.
A road must be opened to the rank and file of the military on both sides. There must be an appeal not to be used as the pawns of the counter-revolutionary generals against the people of Sudan. Instead, the rank-and-file should follow the example of the Resistance Committees and form their own rank-and-file organisations around a programme to defend the revolution by arresting the senior officers, locking down the military bases and caching all weapons. The power over the question of war and peace can be placed under the democratic control of the revolutionary people.
Such a campaign must unfold simultaneously with the creation by the Resistance Committees of neighbourhood defence organisations to protect working-class and poor neighbourhoods, both from being turned into battlefields, and from military incursions that use the cover of the conflict to settle scores with activists. The question of which forms of mass action – strikes, marches and so on – could be effective in imposing a ceasefire must be discussed.
The revolutionary movement must prepare itself to emerge, through the splits and ruptures that have engulfed the military regime, as the decisive power in Sudan. A revolutionary government of the workers, the poor and all those oppressed by landlordism and capitalism could then impose peace, convene a revolutionary constituent assembly, possibly in the form of a conference of Resistance Committees and other popular mass organisations, to build genuinely democratic institutions, and, through the adoption of a socialist programme for the economy, transform the living standards of the masses. Ultimately this poses the need to develop the Sudanese revolution into a consciously socialist revolution that can destroy the capitalist social relations upon which the competition of the generals ultimately rests.