NAIROBI, Kenya – Speaking of peace, Sudanese generals were preparing for war.
In the days before Sudan plunged into a cataclysmic conflict, its two most powerful generals came close to closing a deal that American and British brokers hoped would defuse their explosive rivalry and even bring this vast African nation to democracy.
The stakes were high.
Since 2019, when a popular revolution toppled Sudan’s 30-year-old dictator, the transition to democracy has been blocked by this pair of ruthless and bickering generals.
Now, a single problem was holding up a deal for the handover of power.
The foreign envoys held lengthy meetings with the two generals – the army chief, general Abdel-Fattah Burhan, and the paramilitary chief, lieutenant general Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo – to try to reach an agreement. Promises were made and concessions obtained. They also dined at the home of a high-ranking general.
But in the streets, the rival military machines were preparing for the fight.
At night, troops quietly poured into rival military camps in the capital Khartoum, tagging each other like opposing players on a soccer field.
Paramilitary fighters surrounded a base that housed warplanes from Egypt, a powerful neighbor that had allied itself with the Sudanese military.
And when the first shots rang out on Saturday morning, the fiction of the dialogue was triggered. smithereen Immediately.
Now fighting is raging in Khartoum and across Sudan, already claiming hundreds of lives and opening an unstable and unpredictable chapter for Africa’s third largest country.
A fresh barrage of blasts rocked the main airport on Wednesday, with residents saying they were low on food, as fears grew that regional powers would become embroiled in the conflict.
The violence has provoked debates and recriminations on how this situation has come about.
Some in Sudan and in Washington wonder whether the foreign powers that have tried to facilitate the ousting of the generals – the United States and Britain, but also the United Nations and also the African and Arab governments guilty of the disaster.
They say that since the generals seized power in a coup 18 months ago, foreign officials have caved in to their intransigence and threats, sidelining the beleaguered forces. pro-democratic from Sudanese.
“The generals were not held accountable,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst.
“The kidnappings, the disappearances, the show trials, the illegal detentions: the internationals have turned a blind eye to it all for the sake of a political process that has now gone terribly wrong.”
Though starkly different, the two generals have marched in unison for years.
Burhan, 62, is a four-star general, trained in Egypt and Jordan, who led troops in Sudan’s tough counterinsurgency campaigns in the south and west of the country.
Born in a small town on the banks of the Nile, he embodies the officer class of the Arab tribes along the river which have dominated Sudan since its independence in 1956.
Dagalo, popularly known as Hemeti, is 40 years old and a camel trader became a militia commander with a reputation for ruthlessness who has steadily amassed wealth and influence.
The two generals forged their careers in the early 2000s in the violent crucible of Darfurthe western region where a tribal rebellion had broken out.
Presidentand Omar al Bashir, The then autocratic ruler of the Sudan, sent Burhan to help put down the revolt.
He chose Dagalus, then head of the infamous militia janjaweed, to help in the fight.
Dagalo did his job so well that al-Bashir adopted him as his personal tutor, jokingly referring to the commander as “my protector” and making him head of the newly formed rapid support forces.
Dagalo got rich thanks to profitable gold mining concessions and his commission for sending thousands of troops to fight in Yemen, where the UAE paid handsomely for his services.
Backed by the European Union, his troops have prevented migrants from crossing Sudan’s long borders, despite Dagalo himself being suspected of profiting from human trafficking.
His career, according to Sudanese expert Alex de Waal, has become “a concrete lesson in political entrepreneurship from a specialist in violence”.
The two generals turned on al-Bashir in April 2019, as protesters clamored for their ousting in a revolution that inspired intoxicating hopes of democracy.
But two months later, the generals sent their soldiers to evict the remaining protesters, killing at least 120 in a grisly sign that the military would not hand over power as easily as al-Bashir.
That message rang even louder in October 2021, when the two generals joined forces to seize power, ousting the country’s civilian prime minister.
The blow shocked the American envoy, Jeffrey Feltmannthat he had met Burhan and Dagalo only hours before and had been assured that they would not seize power.
But their deception cost them little.
Soon, instead of being ostracized, the generals were courted by Western officials who hoped to remove them from power.
The sanctions the US had quietly threatened to impose on Dagalus, targeting his financial interests in the Persian Gulf, were never imposed, said a former US official familiar with those talks who, like other officials in this article , spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about delicate politics.
Some began to treat generals like statesmen.
In February, the director of the World Food Program, former South Carolina governor David Beasley, caused quiet consternation among Western embassies in Sudan when he attended two consecutive public ceremonies as a guest.
First, Burhan awarded him Sudan’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of the Two Niles; the following evening he was the smiling guest of honor at a dinner organized by Dagalo.
But then the generals started arguing.
Dagalus was concerned that the army was being infiltrated by Islamists, including former loyalists to al-Bashir’s regime, his staunch enemies.
Military intelligence, controlled by Burhan, has begun informing foreign officials that his rival had secretly attempted to import armed drones from Turkey to bolster its military strength.
Their rivalry also reflected deep institutional frictions.
The regular soldiers despised Dagalus and his paramilitaries as a motley crew:
“a bunch of acrobatic pranksters, not the army proper,” as one Western ambassador put it.
For their part, the Rapid Support Forces resented the perceived discrimination and believed it was their turn to hold on to power in Khartoum.
“They had a victim mentality,” said Mohamed Hashim, a reporter who interviewed leaders of the rapid support forces for the Sudanese state broadcaster.
“People discriminated against them, ridiculed them, told them they weren’t Sudanese.”
Dagalus began positioning himself as a future leader: traveling the country, distributing gifts to friendly tribal leaders, presenting himself as an advocate for the outcasts.
He allied with political parties, supported elections and suppressed any mention of his Janjaweed background or the role his troops played in the June 2019 Khartoum massacre.
In December, the National Human Rights Commission of Sudan declared Dagalo “Person of the Year”, prompting ridicule from many citizens.
In the same month, under pressure from Western, African and Arab countries, the generals agreed to hand power back to a civilian-led government by the end of the month.
But first they had to agree on key issues, especially how quickly their forces would merge into a single army, a process in which Dagalus had the most to lose, as the Strength From Quick support they would really dissolve.
Army chiefs pushed for the job to be done in two years. Dagalo said it would take a decade.
At one point, according to a senior Western official, Dagalo was barred from a key meeting led by Burhan at the presidential palace.
He only entered “after standing outside, literally knocking on the door,” the official said.
Egypt entered the fray on the side of the army.
Critics feared the talks were stale or too frantic.
Negotiators said it was Sudan’s best chance for a long-awaited transition to democracy.
“They were the ones with the power and the weapons,” the senior Western official said, referring to the generals.
“We were trying to build a political way to make it easier for you to get out.”
According to a senior UN official, “we worked with the tools that were on the table.”
Tensions skyrocketed last Wednesday when Rapid Support Forces troops surrounded a military base in Merowe, 200 miles north of Khartoum, where Egypt stationed several warplanes, a sure sign war was coming. .
But even then, foreign officials hoped the two generals would reconcile and hand over power peacefully.
Talks to integrate their forces had boiled down to one last major point, the negotiators said:
the command structure of the army during a period of transition.
Friday, Volker Perthes, United Nations envoy Sudan, dined at the home of Lieutenant General Shams al-Deen al-Kabashi, deputy chief of the army, for iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
There were no indications of imminent war, according to UN officials.
Hours later, in the pre-dawn darkness, the first shots rang out in Khartoum.
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Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.