After joining forces to seize power, Sudan’s army chief and his deputy now battling

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, under whom Sudan has moved to cement ties with US and Israel, is locked in conflict with paramilitary chief Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo for control of country

Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks during a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum, on October 26, 2021. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP)
Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks during a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum, on October 26, 2021. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP)

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudanese army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who became the face of endless military rule in Sudan with his 2021 coup, is now locked in battle with his second-in-command.

To seize power in Sudan’s most recent coup, Burhan joined forces with Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the large and heavily armed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

They have now turned on each other.

At the time, the coup had derailed a fragile transition to civilian rule after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir, and stifled pro-democracy hopes of breaking the cycle of successive coups that has defined Sudan’s modern history.

‘A veteran soldier’

Born in 1960 in a village north of Khartoum, the mustachioed Burhan — known for his signature green beret and military uniform — remained relatively unknown for most of his career.

“He’s never been in the limelight,” an army officer, who did not want to be named, told AFP in 2019, as Burhan rose to prominence.

“He’s a high-ranking officer within the armed forces, but basically he’s a veteran soldier.”

Sudan’s Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (C) and paramilitary commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (L) lift documents alongside civilian leaders following the signing of an initial deal aimed at ending a deep crisis caused by a military coup, in the capital Khartoum, on December 5, 2022. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP)

Burhan commanded the country’s ground forces before Bashir made him inspector general of the army in February 2019, two months before the military removed Bashir from power.

In 2015, he coordinated the deployment of Sudanese troops in Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The general worked closely with the heavily armed RSF for operations in Yemen, inadvertently boosting both his and future coup partner Dagalo’s profile internationally.

It was then with Dagalo’s support that Burhan got the top job in 2019.

Following Bashir’s overthrow, Burhan was sworn in as Sudan’s interim leader on April 11, 2019.

In August that year, he was tasked with chairing the ruling Sovereign Council of military and civilian figures, steering the transition to a fully-fledged democracy.

As Sovereign Council chairman — where he began to switch out military regalia for pinstriped suits — Burhan cemented Sudan’s ties with global powers and regional players, including the United States and Israel.

Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, left, head of the military council, speaks during a military-backed rally, in Omdurman district, west of Khartoum, Sudan on June 29, 2019. (AP/Hussein Malla) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a briefing on coronavirus development at his office in Jerusalem on September 13 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Yedioth Ahronoth via AP, Pool)

In February 2020, he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda, breaking with longtime convention and to start a process of normalization of ties with Israel.

He also maintained close relationships with influential northern neighbor Egypt.

Though the general has also made several trips to rich Gulf countries — on whose largesse impoverished Sudan has often depended — experts note that his deputy-turned-rival Dagalo often beat him to each visit.

Political crisis

By October 25, 2021, all pretense of post-Bashir civilian transition was abandoned when Burhan took to national TV in the middle of the night.

In one fell swoop, he dissolved the transitional government, arrested civilian leaders and installed himself in power, with Dagalo as his right-hand man.

Spiraling political and economic turmoil proved unsustainable for Burhan, who in July of last year made a surprise vow “to make room for political and revolutionary forces and other national factions” to form a civilian government.

Sudanese greet army soldiers, loyal to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan on April 16, 2023.(AFP)

The apparent concession from the coup leader — met with skepticism from pro-democracy activists — launched a shaky-footed political process that culminated in a framework agreement, signed in December.

With experts pointing to internal pressures on Burhan to nip Dagalo’s ambitions in the bud, the army chief sought to use the political process to curtail the RSF’s autonomy.

It proved too little too late, however, when the two generals turned on each other, with an all-out conflict erupting on Saturday.

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