The Sudanese army’s infantry battalions have hardly been present on the streets of Khartoum during the two months-long conflict that has raged in the country, leaving much of the capital under the control of the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
This is despite the fact that the army is made up of about 200,000 soldiers, roughly twice the size of the RSF.
Yet the army is heavily outnumbered on the streets of Khartoum, as well as the two cities across the River Nile – Bahri and Omdurman.
RSF fighters were initially moving the three cities in their armed pick-up vehicles, but they now mostly do so in ordinary cars.
Huge numbers of people have complained on social media about the RSF stealing their cars from their homes. The suspicion is that the RSF is using them to avoid being hit by air strikes.
With its airpower being its greatest strength, the military has been constantly carrying out strikes to weaken the RSF. Although they are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians, they have not prevented the paramilitaries from advancing in Khartoum, Bahri and Omdurman.
In a serious blow to the army, RSF fighters carried out an assault earlier this month on al-Yarmouk, one of Sudan’s biggest military complexes, where arms were manufactured and stored.
While a fire raged at the complex for days, the RSF declared that it had seized control of it, which was confirmed by local residents. The military, however, has not confirmed the loss of the complex.
It launched a counter-offensive, but could only manage in briefly wresting control of a vitally important bridge that linked RSF fighters in Omdurman to those in Khartoum and Bahri.
The RSF is also in control of other key sites in and around the three cities, including:
- the main oil terminal, which the paramilitaries have turned into their base
- the state media’s headquarters, giving the RSF control of its radio airwaves, although the army has managed to retain control of the TV station by broadcasting from elsewhere
- a large part of the presidential complex
- much of the international airport, which has been shut since the conflict started.
The headquarters of the spy agency was also said to have been occupied by the RSF early in the conflict, but it is unclear who is currently in control of it.
The military is known to have held on to a few key places – the most important of which are its headquarters and the airbase in Wadi Saeedna, from where its fighter jets fly to hit the RSF.
Troops have dug long and deep trenches to prevent the paramilitaries from overrunning the two locations.
“Their attempt to attack us does not have any effect now. The shells they fire fall on trees, or are cold by the time they land on our side,” an officer said.
History of racism
About two million residents, out of around 10 million, have fled the once-peaceful cities, abandoning their homes, shops and offices. Some of them have been shelled and bombed, others have been occupied and ransacked, with air-conditioners and furniture among the items carted away by the RSF.
For some, the failure of the infantry battalions to make significant battlefield gains is not surprising, as Sudan is not a democratic state with a well-trained professional army.
The army – like many other sectors of society – is still bedevilled by Sudan’s history of racism, slavery and colonialism.
It dates back more than two centuries when Ottoman and Egyptian conquerors established an army of slaves.
Recruitment from mostly poor black African communities continued under British rule, and has remained so throughout the post-independence era. Some of the soldiers are, in fact, descendants of slaves.
Under the three decades-long rule of ex-President Omar al-Bashir, black Africans were rarely accepted in Sudan’s military college, with applicants required to mention their ethnic groups.
As a result, only a few have risen to senior ranks, with the army largely under the control of generals from the Arab and Nubian elites bordering Egypt.
Soldiers earn a mere $11 (£8.5) to $16 a month, in contrast with the generals who have enriched themselves by setting up companies and factories that have given them control of 80% of the economy, according to Sudan’s short-lived civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok.
Because of their low pay, some soldiers even joined the RSF to fight – at one point, as part of the Saudi-Emirati coalition in Yemen, in exchange for vast sums of cash.
RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo became a big gold trader when his forces took over Sudan’s most lucrative gold mines in 2017, and control of the border with Chad and Libya.
Sudan’s army chief of staff did not like it – he wanted the money from the gold trade to go to strengthening the regular forces, but Bashir had confidence in the RSF, giving Hemedti the nickname “Himayti”, meaning “My Protector”.
Training camps were set up near Khartoum. Hundreds of Land Cruiser pick-up trucks were imported and fitted with machine guns.
With an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 men and more than 10,000 armed pick-up trucks, the RSF became Sudan’s de facto infantry.
Arabs from Darfur form the backbone of the RSF. They appear to believe that it is now their turn to rule – especially after their pivotal role in helping the military fight the Darfuri rebels in the 2000s.
One of the RSF’s greatest strength lies in the fact that many of its “battalions” are made up of members of the same family or ethnic group, so they fight ferociously to protect each other.
In contrast, the defence minister has been forced to call for the mobilisation of retired officers and soldiers to beat back the RSF.
His appeal was met with derision by many Sudanese, who saw it as further proof of the army’s weaknesses.
The reality is that Sudan’s army, rather than fighting wars on its own, has long relied on militias. This is something it did in the decades-long civil war, which ended with South Sudan gaining independence in 2011, and more recently in Darfur, where Arab militias were accused of committing a genocide.
Now those militias – heavily armed by the military – have come back to haunt it, plunging Sudan into its latest crisis.