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A civil war in the making

Rival generals clash in Sudanese power struggle

Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, speaks at a Ramadan event, in Khartoum, Sudan, in 2019. Associated Press Photo

A civil war in the making
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Sudan is clearly on the brink of civil war. Its two strongest and most influential military generals have clashed militarily to seize total control of the country after months of political tension.

This current fight represents a reoccurring pattern in many Arab Muslim countries in past decades. Most of their regimes don’t usually change, except after the death (or assassination) of a leader or a military coup.

What is happening in Sudan?

Sudan was the largest country in Africa until 2011 when its southern part seceded from the north. The northern region is associated with North African nations—like Egypt and Libya—and is predominantly Sunni Muslim with a significant influence of Arabic language and Islamic culture. South Sudan is different: religiously Christian and highly influenced by African cultures and animistic beliefs.

The current fighting is in northern Sudan. But how did we get here? In 2019, a national uprising associated with a military coup ousted Omar al-Bashir, who had served as president since 1993 after he had led a coup against his predecessor.

In toppling al-Bashir’s regime, many hoped for a civil and democratic government.

The Sudanese civilian groups’ alliance appointed Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister. But his government didn’t last long. Two years later, in October 2021, amid economic troubles and political unrest, another military coup was led by Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who became the effective leader of Sudan, although he promised to bring forward a democratic government by this month.

Sadly, Sudan has been led by military regimes for most of its modern history after its independence in 1956.

But within the military in Sudan there was a major problem inherited from the previous regime: In 2013, al-Bashir, before his ousting, had formed a powerful paramilitary force named the Rapid Support Forces. The RSF leader is Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. The main goal of the RSF was to protect al-Bashir and his regime against any possible coup, especially by the army. But with the national uprising in 2019, the RSF and the national army had to yield to the people and forsake al-Bashir.

The crux of the fight is the RSF’s integration into the military.

Hemedti is officially al-Burhan’s deputy. They have known each other for decades and served as loyal leaders under al-Bashir. While the RSF is supposedly a part—or at least a strong partner—of the army, it has its own ample resources and influence. The 2021 coup overthrowing Hamdok’s civil government was largely led by al-Burhan and Hemedti.

But there was always a problem: It was clear that Hemedti was the deputy under al-Burhan. This order of command became impossible with new developments.

In December 2022, under international pressure and civil unrest, the military vowed to hand back power to civilian groups. This was reportedly led by al-Burhan, who might have assumed that he would have a part to play in future civil democratic governments. But the situation wasn’t as clear for Hemedti and his possible role in future governments, especially as he was asked, in March, to dissolve the RSF as a distinct military entity and assimilate it into the national army within two years.

Thus, the crux of the fight is the RSF’s integration into the military.

The tension between the two rivals, al-Burhan and Hemedti, escalated heavily at the beginning of this month, as the deadline for announcing a political agreement to form a democratic government had passed with major political parties in disagreement.

Last week, troops from the two forces clashed.

Both sides accused the other of starting the fight, although many reports indicate that the RSF began moving more than 100 tanks in provocation against the national army. The tension escalated even more when al-Burhan branded the RSF as “a rebellious group.”

The struggle for power remains ongoing.

A quick look at the military power of the two groups suggests that al-Burhan will eventually win. He has more than 200,000 soldiers under his command. Hemdti only has about 90,000. The national army’s military assets—including tanks and jets—are significantly greater than what the RSF has.

While al-Burhan might eventually win, the RSF doesn’t seem to be giving in anytime soon. This is a textbook precursor of civil war.

With two rival generals adamant about maintaining power and control, there is no solution in sight. Sudan has some of the kindest people on the planet. These are the true victims of the fight for power. As of Sunday, the death toll rose to more than 60 with at least 600 injured.

Sudan has been suffering under military dictators for most of its modern history. Sadly, this isn’t going to end soon enough.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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