NAIROBI, Kenya — As they talk peace, Sudan's generals prepare for war.
In the days before Sudan was plunged into disastrous conflict, its two most powerful generals neared a tempting agreement that American and British mediators hoped would defuse their explosive rivalry, and even steer the sprawling African nation toward democracy.
The stakes are very high. Since 2019, when a popular revolution overthrew Sudan's 30-year dictatorship, the transition to democracy has been stalled by this pair of ruthless and quarrelsome generals. Now, one problem is holding up a deal to get them to cede power.
The foreign envoy held a lengthy meeting with the two generals—the army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary leader, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan—in a bid to reach an agreement. Promises made, concessions extracted. They even had dinner at a senior general's house.
But on the streets, rival military machines are preparing for battle.
During the night, troops quietly flooded rival military camps across the capital, Khartoum, where they marked each other like opposing players on a soccer field. Paramilitary fighters surrounded the base housing warplanes from Egypt, a powerful neighbor who sided with the Sudanese Army.
And when the first shots were fired on Saturday morning, any pretense of dialogue was instantly shattered.
Now, fighting is raging in Khartoum and across Sudan, having claimed hundreds of lives and opening an unstable and unpredictable chapter for Africa's third-largest country. On Wednesday, a new series of explosions rocked the main airport and residents said they were running out of food, as fears grew that a regional power would be drawn into the conflict.
The violence has generated debate and accusations about how it happened. Some in Sudan and Washington question whether foreign powers trying to extricate the generals from power – the United States and Britain, but also the United Nations, and African and Arab governments – are also to blame for the mess.
Since the generals seized power in a coup 18 months ago, they say, foreign officials have put off their stubbornness and threats, while sidelining Sudan's beleaguered pro-democracy forces.
“The generals face no accountability,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst. “Kidnappings, disappearances, sham trials, unlawful detentions — the international community turns a blind eye to all of this for the sake of a political process that has now gone horribly wrong.”
Although very different, the two generals for years went hand in hand.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, 62, is a sober four-star general, trained in Egypt and Jordan, who has led troops in Sudanese counter-insurgency campaigns in the south and west of the country. Born in a village along the Nile River, he embodies a class of officers drawn from the river Arab tribes who have dominated Sudan since independence in 1956.
Mohamed Hamdan, known widely as Hemeti, is in his late 40s and is a camel trader turned commander of a militia with a reputation for ruthlessness who continues to gain wealth and influence.
The two generals began their careers in the early 2000s in the violent Darfur region, the western region where a tribal rebellion has erupted. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the autocratic ruler of Sudan, sent General al-Burhan to help quell the rebellion.
He chose General Hamdan, then leader of the notorious Janjaweed militia, to assist in the fight.
General Hamdan performed his job so well that Mr al-Bashir adopted him as personal enforcer, jokingly referring to the commander as “my protector” and appointing him head of the newly formed Rapid Support Force. General Hamdan made his fortune through lucrative gold mining concessions and his commissions from sending thousands of troops to fight in Yemen, where the United Arab Emirates paid handsomely for his services.
Backed by the European Union, his troops are preventing migrants from crossing Sudan's long border — although General Hamdan himself is suspected of profiting from people smuggling. His career, says Sudan expert Alex de Waal, became “an object lesson in political entrepreneurship by a specialist in violence.”
The two generals attacked al-Bashir in April 2019 when protesters demanded his removal in a revolution that inspired high hopes for democracy.
But two months later, the generals sent their soldiers to disperse the remaining protesters, killing at least 120 people in a chilling sign that the military was not going to give up power as easily as Mr al-Bashir.
That message sounded even louder in October 2021, when the two generals joined forces to seize power for themselves, overthrowing the country's civilian prime minister.
The coup surprised the American envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, who had met General al-Burhan and General Hamdan just hours earlier and was assured they would not take over.
But their deception cost them little. Soon, rather than being ostracized, the generals were approached by Western officials hoping to deprive them of power. Sanctions tacitly threatened by the United States against General Hamdan, who targeted his financial interests in the Persian Gulf, were never imposed, said a former US official familiar with the talks who like others in this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive politics.
Some began to treat generals as statesmen. In February, the head of the World Food Program, former Governor David Beasley of South Carolina, caused quiet consternation among Western embassies in Sudan when he was a guest at two successive public ceremonies. First, General al-Burhan awarded him the highest civilian award in Sudan, Two Nile Sequence; the next night, he was the smiling guest of honor at a dinner hosted by General Hamdan.
But then the generals started to fall out.
General Hamdan fears the army is infiltrated by Islamists, including former regime loyalists of al-Bashir, his archenemy.
Military Intelligence, controlled by General al-Burhan, began telling foreign officials that a rival had been trying to covertly import armed drones from Turkey to strengthen its military might.
Their rivalry also reflects deeply felt institutional friction. The regular army looked down on General Hamdan and his paramilitary as a motley crew – “a bunch of yahoos jumping off sticks, not proper military men,” as one Western ambassador put it.
For their part, the Rapid Support Force resented the perceived discrimination and believed it was their turn to hold onto power in Khartoum.
“They have a victim mentality,” said Mohamed Hashim, a journalist who interviewed leaders of the Rapid Support Force for Sudan's state broadcaster. “People discriminate against them, mock them, tell them they are not Sudanese.”
General Hamdan began to position himself as a future leader — traveling the country, distributing gifts to friendly tribal leaders, portraying himself as a warrior of the marginalized. He is allied with political parties, advocates for general elections, and curbs any mention of his Janjaweed past or the role his troops played in the Khartoum massacre of June 2019.
In December, Sudan's National Human Rights Commission declared General Hamdan “the man of the year”, drawing jeers from many citizens.
That same month, under pressure from Western, African and Arab nations, the generals agreed to hand back power to a civilian-led government as early as this month. But first they had to agree on key issues, most notably how quickly their forces would merge into a single army—a process in which General Hamdan had the most to lose, as the Rapid Support Troop would be effectively disbanded.
Army leaders pressed to finish the job in two years. General Hamdan said it would take a decade.
The tension exploded into the open. At one point, said a senior Western official, General Hamdan was prevented from attending an important meeting chaired by General al-Burhan at the presidential palace. He was admitted only “after standing outside, literally banging on the door,” the official said.
Egypt enters the battle, on the side of the army. Critics worried the talk was flawed or moving too fast. Negotiators said it was Sudan's best chance for the much-awaited transition to democracy.
“These are people with power and weapons,” the senior Western official said of the generals. “We are trying to build a political channel to relieve them.”
According to a senior United Nations official, “We work with tools that are on the table.”
Tensions escalated last Wednesday, when troops from the Rapid Support Force surrounded a military base in Meroe, 125 miles north of Khartoum, where Egypt had stationed several warplanes—a sign that war was imminent. But even so, foreign officials hoped the two generals would repair the fences and hand over power peacefully.
Talks of integrating their forces had come to one final major point, negotiators said – the army's command structure during the transition period.
On Friday, Volker Perthes, UN envoy to Sudan, dined at the home of Lieutenant General Shams al-Deen al-Kabashi, deputy army chief, for iftar, the meal that breaks the fast every day during the holy month of Ramadan. There is no hint of an impending war, UN officials say.
Hours later, in the predawn gloom, the first shots rang out across Khartoum.