The conflict in Sudan proves why Africa must reject all forms of military parallelism

The convenience of pairing Special Rapid Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force in Sudan, alongside the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) for the sake of "peace and stability" has proven not to be such a great idea after all. 

The RSF is the remnants of the Janjaweed, a paramilitary force responsible for the mass killing and displacement of thousands of people in Darfur, a province west of Sudan.

Both organisations received support from the then-president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al Bashir. Al Bashir is currently facing several charges, including five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes three counts of genocide allegedly committed at least between 2003 and 2008 in Darfur, Sudan.

The Janjaweed, which was led by General Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, dissipated after regional and international condemnation of mass killings and displacement of thousands of people in Darfur. Hemedti re-emerged later in 2013 as the leader of the RSF. 

2019 coup 

Under al Bashir, the RSF was granted powers to do as they pleased in the country. It turned its military capabilities into business, exporting its military services in return for money. 

Beginning in 2015, the RSF, along with Sudan's army, began sending troops to fight in the war in Yemen alongside Saudi and Emirati troops, allowing Hemedti to forge ties with the Gulf powers. RSF made a tremendous amount of money for its leader, Hemedti and his family. 

Notwithstanding the relationship Hemedti enjoyed with al Bashir, he joined forces with SAF in a coup in 2019 to topple al Bashir. After the coup, the RSF was responsible for providing security to some key places and infrastructure in Sudan, including the presidential palace in Khartoum.

Hemedti became a deputy head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, an interim structure meant to lead all parties after the coup to a civilian government. There has always been scepticism and mistrust of RSF and Hemedti in Sudan. However, RSF's involvement in the coup helped, to an extent, to alter certain attitudes in its favour.

In 2021 hundreds of protestors were killed by RSF following protests against the Transitional Sovereignty Council's slow progress to civilian rule. RSF was accused of throwing some of the dead bodies of protestors into the Nile River.

According to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors (CCSD), following the protests, "sixty people were reported to have been killed in the military crackdown in the capital Khartoum, before scores of bodies were found dumped in the river by the paramilitary RSF".

Attitudes towards the RSF hardened after the protests. Some Sudanese started calling for Hemedti to be reported to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Then tensions between the head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, General Abdelfattah al Burhan and Hemedti began deteriorating.

Impatience with lack of civilian rule 

Realising the general public’s impatience with council's lack of progress towards the transfer of power to civilian rule, Hemedti started accusing al Burhan of hindering progress to civilian rule. 

Analysts argue that Hemedti is trying to whitewash the reputation of his paramilitary force, which began as brutal militias implicated in atrocities in the Darfur conflict

Al Burhan, on the other hand, argued that before power can be transferred to civilian rule, the RSF must be integrated into the SAF. Hemedti has been resisting the integration of his forces into the army for various reasons. 

Firstly this integration could weaken his leverage and power in the politics of Sudan, making him vulnerable. Secondly, Hemedti built the RSF.

"It is his asset and the most powerful tool, not only to keep him in power but to continue generating resources for him and his family", argues Ahmed Vall, a senior political analyst.

Hemedti is also likely to be arrested if he forsakes his powers in RSF. He stands accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur and mass killing of protestors in Khartoum in 2021.

Lessons for Africa  

There are lessons for other countries to be learned from the conflict in Sudan. Africa must reject all forms of military parallelism if it is to achieve long-lasting peace and stability. The inclusion of RSF into the Transitional Sovereignty Council might have achieved some semblance of peace in Sudan in the short term, however, it is proving to be a disaster in hindsight.  

There are other countries in Africa that need to take heed from the experiences in Sudan.

Ethiopia has several regional forces that are armed and often act independently from the national army. Weeks ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced plans to integrate Amhara forces into the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). The announcement was rejected by regional generals in Amhara followed by violent protests.

The Amhara generals vowed not to allow the integration of their forces into police and national army in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was engaged in a civil war with a paramilitary wing of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray from 2022 to 2022. The war left scores of casualties and millions displaced.  

Zimbabwe had similar experiences.

The Zimbabwe War Veterans intensified the expulsion of white farmers from their properties in 2008, with the support of President Robert Mugabe and his government. 

Politicians and cronies of Mugabe in Zimbabwe became owners of farms overnight. Today, most of those farms that were taken lie derelict. The war veterans, although weakened and rendered irrelevant in mainstream politics, remain a possible source of instability in Zimbabwe. 

South Africa is also not immune from the trappings of military parallelism. The existence of UMkhonto wesize Military Veteran’s Association (MKMVA), an organ of the governing African National Congress (ANC) must not be taken for granted.

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