Why Militia Politics Is Preventing Democratization and Stability in Sudan

The flag of Sudan.

Guest post by Brandon Bolte

On April 15, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) surprised many Western observers when it launched an assault against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in Khartoum. Led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemeti”), the RSF previously fought for the Sudanese regime against rebels for years. In 2019, it participated in a coup alongside General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the SAF that ousted Sudan’s long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Both generals have since been on a transitionary council meant to shape a new government before popular elections take place. In the 11 days since the violence in Khartoum began, over 400 people have been killed, thousands are trying to flee the capital, and there are signs of the conflict spreading to other parts of the country.

Transitions to democracy are usually rocky, but coups can lead to democratization when coupled with the kind of popular mobilization seen in Sudan. The irony of the current situation is that at one point the RSF was considered by al-Bashir as his “praetorian guard,” meant to deter the SAF from staging a coup. Coup-proofers aren’t usually successful coup-perpetrators. Moreover, the current rupture was caused by a disagreement between the two generals over how the RSF might be integrated into the army’s command structure. Why is the proposed merging of forces so contentious? What do we expect the long-term outcome of this conflict to be?

In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, I unpack the politics of how governments try to manage, regulate, and contain militias like the RSF. I describe how and why states and professed pro-state militias compete for power at one another’s expense. Viewed in this light, the outbreak in Khartoum is part of a predictable, if not inevitable, vicious spiral of poor militia management politics over the course of the last two decades.

Pro-government militias are commonly defined as organized armed groups allied with the state but are not formally part of the official security forces. These groups range from well-equipped paramilitaries designed to supplement the regular army to localized civil defense forces meant to hold territory and extract local information about insurgents. Sometimes they are tasked with carrying out human rights violations like mass killings or genocide, allowing the government to evade accountability. Professionalized militias are also used by certain types of dictators to counterbalance the official military in order to prevent coups d’état.

The challenge for governments employing militias is that militias themselves are perfectly aware the state could eliminate them once they are no longer needed. This is why governments often keep their auxiliaries contained in some way, by actively monitoring them or restricting their capabilities. Otherwise, these militias could switch sides in a conflict, restart a war, be more difficult to disintegrate or integrate, or otherwise undermine the state’s long-term ability to govern.

Weak states facing capable rebellions, however, are usually unable to regulate and contain their militias. Instead, they have to focus on short-term threats from insurgents, allowing militia allies to have free reign. The consequence is that militia groups have incentives to take advantage of these windows of opportunity to “bargain” with the state for resources that they can eventually use to stave off their own future demise.

The RSF is a reorganization of disparate Arab militias called the Janjaweed, which were remobilized from scattered murahileen groups after a coalition of rebel groups shocked Khartoum by seizing an air force base in 2003. The SAF and Janjaweed militias then perpetrated a genocidal campaign in Darfur, leading to over 200,000 deaths.

Over time, the combination of weak state capacity and a significant rebel threat drove al-Bashir’s regime to become dependent on militias for survival. Militia leaders knew this and pursued their own interests unabated. Many leaders profited from looting and extortion during the war, so when the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed in 2006 with a provision to disarm the Janjaweed, many, including Hemeti’s faction, revolted against the state. Eventually, Khartoum weakened Hemeti enough to force him to negotiate. There the government again co-opted Hemeti by providing his militia more weaponry, financial rewards, and eventually legitimacy by reorganizing it into the RSF. Al-Bashir soon brought the RSF out from under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services, ensuring the group’s independence from the constraints of the state.

In the end, al-Bashir’s failure to contain these militias was part of a vicious cycle of his own doing. His growing dependency on militias like the RSF afforded Hemeti multiple windows of opportunity to increase his own capabilities, which he then used to resist his group’s demobilization. Now, even integration is worth resisting for Hemeti, since it would effectively represent the dissolution of his autonomy and influence.

A durable resolution can only occur if the RSF loses its bargaining power. This may require immediate international commitments by Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to stop supplying weapons to the RSF and/or the SAF suppressing Hemeti’s forces to a point where the latter has incentives to negotiate but not retreat to remobilize for large-scale war. Unlike the immediate post-DPA period, however, appeasement cannot come in the form of greater autonomy, resources, and capabilities if the end goal is political stability. Al-Burhan knows this, and given the SAF’s own involvement in repression and mass killing, the military will resist appeasing Hemeti in an effort to signal to the pro-democracy movement a desire to turn a new leaf.

The problem is that the RSF is situated with considerable bargaining leverage and has every incentive to use force to preserve the status quo. “Power is as power does.” Temporary ceasefire efforts notwithstanding, until the RSF is demobilized or neutralized, Sudan’s pro-democracy advocates will be sidelined while military strongmen violently compete to fill the void in Khartoum.

Brandon Bolte is a 2022–23 Peace Scholar Fellow with the US Institute of Peace and a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Penn State University. He will start as an assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield in the fall. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Institute of Peace.

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