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Vol 64 No 25

Published 14th December 2023


Preparing for an all-out fight in El Fasher

Warring generals Burhan and Hemeti are going into a battle that could end in a Libya-style national schism

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2023

After the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) took over the cities of Nyala, Zalingei, El Geneina, and El Daein over a month ago, they set the stage for a battle for El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state. If they prevail there against the Sudan Armed Forces and allies, RSF Commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' can claim to control all of the giant region (about the size of Spain).

On 26 November, Major Gen Abdel Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, Hemeti's brother, said the RSF would soon control all military facilities in Darfur but would try to avoid fighting local armed groups. The danger of a Libyan-style national schism is getting more likely, at least in the short term. 

And these victories are weakening the RSF and its commanders diplomatically and politically. Hemeti's RSF soldiers have been accused of genocide twice this year: in El Geneina (early June) and Ardamata (November). This added to his nefarious reputation rooted in the RSF's history and its origins in the Janjaweed militia (AC Vol 64 No 23, Darfuris face a global dereliction of duty).

Hemeti has also exposed his sponsors in the United Arab Emirates to diplomatic censure, just as its ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan (MBZ) is trying to expand his business and political empire in East Africa. While the UAE was hosting the COP28 climate summit, its diplomats were expelled from Sudan by SAF commander General Abdel Fattah al Burhan for shipping arms to the RSF via Chad.

Rights activists are calling for sterner measures against the UAE for its support of those genocidal campaigns. Saudi Arabia, still seen as a bona fide mediator in Sudan, isn't unhappy at this setback for a rival ambitious oil-fired Gulf monarchy.

Hemeti faces an awkward choice. Either he wins an overwhelming military victory that makes him essential to any post-war settlement or he continues to make Sudan ungovernable, claiming his cooperation is essential for its stabilisation.

The behaviour of his troops directly reflects Hemeti's leadership, whatever he might claim.

Whether or not he ordered the massacres in El Geneina and Ardamata, which may be the subject of investigation by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, RSF troops killed thousands of civilians in those cities. The soldiers' excuses – that the civilians were being armed by the SAF – looked desperate. If Hemeti didn't order the massacres, then he has lost control of the soldiers under his command.

The weakening chain of command within the RSF explains why he is hiring more recruits and negotiating deals with allied militias. The next challenge for the RSF is to build a civilian administration in the areas it controls in Darfur. The predatory attitude of some of officers doesn't encourage non-Arab civilian cadres to stay unless they get strong security guarantees.

Anarchy or admin
In early November, Hemeti's brother, Abdel Rahim, tried different tactics in Nyala to those his forces used after the mass killings in El Geneina in June. They separated the civilian administration and the military, while keeping most of the civil servants on the payroll. But the outcome was fragile at best. The net result is the RSF has to administer the cities and districts or face some of anarchy which would threaten it in different ways.

Military dominance won't translate quickly into some form of political acquiescence in Darfur. To try to prove that the RSF was not there to promote the dominance of the Rizeigat ethnic group to rule Darfur, Hemeti appointed Brigadier Gen Hassan Saleh Nahar, a Zaghawa, as commander of the East Darfur sector. Yet the region's biggest city is still considered the capital of the Rizeigat.

Will Hemeti be able to win the war? After the destruction of the bridge between Bahri and Omdurman in Khartoum by the SAF, observers claimed that RSF stay in Khartoum was strategically weakened as the logistical lines with Darfur were disrupted.

In under a week, the RSF took over the Jebel Awliya dam (less than 10 kilometres from Khartoum) and with light rehabilitation its bridge serves an alternative to the Bahri-Omdurman bridge.

By the end of November, the balance of forces in Khartoum looked to favour of RSF, as it does in Darfur. But this does not say much about RSF's ability to consolidate those tactical victories.

North and East Sudan are deeply hostile to the RSF, regardless of whatever opinion people have about Burhan and his allies – including retreads from the Islamist National Congress Party (NCP) who carelessly keep bombing the capital city (AC Vol 64 No 21, Politics in a time of war).

The pessimism in the SAF camp is rooted in its serial losses and low morale, despite having great logistical advantages. It also reflects the mood after the multiple meetings attended by Burhan in November with regional leaders, some of whom he was at loggerheads with: Kenya's William Ruto (14 November); Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed (on 15 November); Djibouti's Ismaïl Omar Guelleh and Eritrea's Issayas Aferwerki (26 November). 

Another explanation is that the United States is stepping up the pressure on Burhan. That might be encouraging him to create other negotiating fora to compete with US-Saudi Arabia track in Jeddah. That would give him with more room to manoeuvre after the SAF's recent losses (AC Vol 64 No 23, Amid regional chaos, a glimmer of hope in Jeddah and Addis).

The key question is the prospect of an all-out battle for control of El Fasher, the North Darfur capital. Around the city, several internally displaced persons camps have been built since the early 2000s. About 600,000 people are sheltered there. Western states, including the troika – the US, Britain and Norway – warned Hemeti against launching an offensive against el Fasher.

Hemeti responded by saying that it was not his intention, but his brother recently contradicted him. He played up his appointment of a Zaghawa to run Eastern Darfur. The Zaghawa are a major constituency in North Darfur, in camps and in the countryside.

Juba allies
On 16 November, the main Juba Peace Agreement signatories declared that they would side with Burhan and the SAF. Some of their local commanders in Darfur insisted they would remain neutral.

At this stage the RSF leadership's main concern is less a coordinated attack by the SAF and Zaghawa armed movements than clashes between rival militia allies. These, beyond either the RSF or the SAF chain of command, could escalate out of control. It seems that if there is to be a grand battle for El Fasher, Hemeti wants it at a time of his choosing.

The Zaghawa armed groups played their cards well after the war began in April. They got some support from Burhan in Port Sudan while protecting the transport of people and commodities in Darfur at a good price.

Humanitarian aid, when available, was able to reach many cities thanks to the Zaghawa operations. Minni Arkoi Minnawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA- Minnawi), and his Jibril Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement, believe that war in El Fasher is still the most likely scenario.

Jibril Ibrahim has little to lose as JEM's military wing was significantly weakened by splits over the last three years. The most recent one was on 14 August when Jibril sacked security chief Suleiman Sandal, Secretary of Negotiations and Peace Ahmed Tugud, Vice President Issa Adam Hasabo, and Secretary of Organisation and Administration Mohamed Sharaf.

Jibril stays in Port Sudan and makes sure that his camarilla of business associates and relatives can benefit from the war. Other groups are joining the likely fray, such as Youssif Karjakola, a senior military commander and chief of staff of the SLA-Abdel Wahid al Nur, who arrived on 26 November in El Fasher to protect IDP camps.

The head of his group, Abdel Wahid, who was refugee in Paris for more than a decade before settling in South Sudan, is still reiterating the neutrality of his group in the current war.

Karjakola came with a large group of fighters. Like others, he fears that once El Fasher under Hemeti's rule, the RSF will purge the city of all other factions and seize control of all the local mines (gold is an important asset for the SLA).

Minni squandered some of his advantages and did not offer many alternatives to the Darfuris to help them avoid the escalating conflict. As he grew more important for the SAF due to the war, he saw no incentive to argue for neutrality. Now he is calling support from the Zaghawa in Chad, hoping that he can repeat his tactics and alliances of two decades ago.

Then and for years after, Chadian officers with or without the endorsement of President Idriss Déby Itno, sent convoys of military supplies to Darfur while providing sanctuary for the Zaghawa commanders.

History may not repeat itself, at least not identically. Many Chadians have been crossing the border over the last months, some belonging to the Zaghawa tribes and many to Arab groups, Tama and Wadai minorities.

There is a sense that no strategic decision has yet been made at the leadership level at least among the major ethnic groups, including the Zaghawa. Perhaps only after a major clash which threatens the Zaghawa will a military plan emerge.

Changes in Chad
Ethnic solidarity may not figure as quickly and as decisively as many predicted because of the changes over the past 20 years in Chad-Zaghawa society.

Chad's President, Idriss Déby Mahamat Itno 'Kaka', maintains close ties with the UAE, which helps the RSF to get military supplies through Amdjarass airport near the border with Sudan. Chad's security apparatus gets further Emirati military funding which it uses to reward trusted collaborators.

When the first Darfur war broke out in 2003, Chad oil revenues were slim. For the following years, they were mostly used to pay for military hardware to fight opponents of the Idriss Déby regime.

Over the last 15 years, Zaghawa became richer due to the distribution of oil revenues, the money generated by Ndjamena's involvement in the Sahel and the smuggling of goods (including Gum Arabicand gold) from Darfur to Chad.

Zaghawa groups in Chad may calculate that joining the Zaghawa armed groups in Darfur would clash with Ndjamena's policy and put at risk this prosperity. It could also trigger a longer war on Chadian territory should the RSF choose to recruit or fund armed groups to start clashes in Chad.

Social networks announced with bravado that the brother of a long-time opponent of the Déby family's rule, Yaya Dillo Djérou, had joined Minni Minnawi in Darfur. This news was meant to prove transnational Zaghawa solidarity.  But may be more of a way for opposition to Mahamat Kaka to prove its power among the Zaghawa in Chad.

Yaya Dillo is a nephew of Timan Erdimi, who is today a leading Zaghawa opponent of Mahamat Kaka's plan to stand as a presidential candidate. For Timan, the elections next year may be his last chance to be president.

He still believes that as the one who built the Zaghawa state in the 1990s under Idriss Déby, he is the most legitimate candidate for the presidential position. Seen from Ndjamena today, solidarity with Zaghawa in Darfur is understood as supporting the opposition to Mahamat Kaka. This wasn't the case in the 2000s,  when the strongest advocates of support to Zaghawa in Darfur were in Idriss Déby's inner circle. Things may change, depending on the intensity of the fight in North Darfur.

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