Sudan’s ongoing war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces has killed thousands and displaced millions. The current crisis follows years of political upheaval across the country. In late 2018 and 2019, mass protests calling for democratic rule led to the collapse of the President al-Bashir’s thirty-year regime. By the summer of 2019, different factions of a military-civilian interim government had agreed to embark on a transition to democracy, but in October 2021, the commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces—with the aid of the Rapid Support Forces—took control of the nation in a military coup. Since April, a conflict between the two generals and former allies has descended into what many observers have called a civil war.
Magdi el Gizouli is a scholar of the Sudan whose main interests involve political economy and intellectual history. He writes for the Rift Valley Institute and his blog Still Sudan. In the following interview, Magdi el Gizouli discusses the ongoing war and the long history of “accumulation by militia” in Sudan. Looking back at the country’s role in the war in Yemen and the policies of the transitional government, he links Sudan’s militarization to its place on the periphery of the global economy.
An interview with Magdi el Gizouli
Adam Benjamin: What are the origins of your scholarship on Sudan?
Magdi El gizouli: Intellectually, I belong to the tradition of the Sudanese communist movement. Most of what the Communist Party produced in the 1960s and ‘70s was about ways of explaining Sudan’s political evolution. There were many politically minded pamphlets and books, with a predominance of historical narration, things that sound very biographical, autobiographical, and heavily contested.
There’s a large body of work on political economy that came from a sort of academic left in Sudan in the 1970s and ‘80s, though some of these authors were not necessarily aligned with the Communist Party. That sequence of work stopped somewhere in the late ‘80s. Since then, there has been very little investigation, for instance, of the emergence of oil in Sudan, the types of insurgencies that evolved in the last twenty or twenty-five years. The whole Marxist approach to the world became a sort of memory in Sudan’s intellectual history. My own interests come from trying to understand how the current situation came about, including the predicament of people like myself who are spread around the world, in cycles of migration and expatriate labor. I also sought to understand the longevity of President al-Bashir, who ruled from 1989 to 2019. I’m still baffled by how he was one of the longest rulers in Sudan since the exit of the Turkish Ottomans. Now, I’m interested in the aftermath we’re living through.
AB: Can you describe the context of the most recent and ongoing iteration of the conflict?
Meg: The current war is described in some influential circles, especially in the media, as a war between two generals leading two military formations. The first is the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the state army that goes back 100 years, when the British established a standing army in Sudan. The second is the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which emerged from an insurgency and counterinsurgency campaign against the Khartoum government, which was, as many authors have noted, counterinsurgency on the cheap. The RSF initially recruited fighters from the pastoral belts in North Darfur and set them against Darfurian insurgents and their communities but has since developed into the war machine it is today with battle experience in Sudan, Yemen, the Central African Republic, Libya and Chad. Today, it has the contours of a civil war. People of many social backgrounds are being mobilized, willingly or unwillingly drawn into it. There are not many choices left when a war plays out in a capital city. In any case, describing it as a war between two generals might not give a true sense of its depth and spread.
The proximate reasons for the war, however, do lie in the barracks, in a dispute over command and control. Two leaders—the RSF’s Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (General Hemditi) and the SAF’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—were capable of working together, including in the coup of October 25, 2021. They sidelined politicians who had taken over the reins in the transitional government following the collapse of President al-Bashir’s regime in 2019.
But al-Burhan and Hemditi’s ability to work together was undermined by the fact that they were resourced by two competing networks, each tied up to a different regional power bloc. The conflict seemed for many observers, including myself, almost inevitable. The first rumblings of this war go back to the formalization of the RSF as a separate fighting force independent of the SAF chain of command in 2013. These rumblings became considerably louder with the ouster of President al-Bashir when the RSF leader was officiated as the effective deputy head of state. He probably soon recognized that the offices of the Republican Palace on the bank of the Nile could easily become luxury observer balconies, and that the arteries of power flow out of the SAF headquarters.
AB: What do you mean by competing networks?
MEG: Talking about regions invites a racialized logic which simplifies but does not clarify. It is true that recruitment to the RSF ranks is predominantly from Darfur and Kordofan, and senior officer ranks are populated by people from riverine Sudan. The two fighting forces share in the common resource of the pool of young people who have lost out in the rural economy, a surplus workforce. How do two brothers end up fighting in two different camps? This occurs not for ideological reasons, but because of the contingencies of a militarized job market and regional networks of power, commodities, and weapons.
There is an old trading network in north and central Sudan, making up Sudan’s bourgeois. Through trade, they have relationships of accumulation with the external world that rely on systems of rural extraction around agricultural commodities within Sudan. These center around forest commodities like gum arabic, agricultural products like sesame, grain from the plains of Central Sudan, and livestock. These systems of trade and extraction from the rural countryside have a long history. The establishment in Sudan grew out of the world of itinerant traders from the riverine heartland known as the jellaba who feature strongly in this history as major protagonists.
AB: You describe the system in your article “Creatures of the Deposed” as a sort of accumulation via rural militia. What is the rural militia’s relevance to the situation?
MEG: The rural militia has many iterations, including the slave army that Zubayr Pasha recruited in the 1870s to topple the Darfur Sultanate. The British also recruited militias in the Nuba Mountains and relied on them to get ahead of militant resistance. In a way even the Sudanese army, initially the Sudanese battalions in the Egyptian army, began as a sort of militia. Regimentation was no easy task and hasn’t yet succeeded. The history of the Sudanese army is in many ways the history of rebellions against its authority from within its ranks and from without. There were militias raised in the 1980s, after the big famine of the Sahel, as part of the war against the SPLA in southern Sudan, which became a ravaging force in border zones between northern and southern Sudan.
The most successful version of the rural militia is the RSF, because the interests of that particular militia coincided with regional interests that didn’t exist in the 1980s or even before. Besides fighting an internal war in the desert zones and clay plains of Darfur, this particularly successful militia had the opportunity to fight a petrodollar funded war in Yemen. Some elements of that happened in the Libyan-Chadian war in 1980, but not with that scale, level of armament, or experience in fighting. The RSF had been fighting in Yemen for a few years before the al-Bashir government was toppled. This created an opportunity where there were independent relations between the RSF leadership and their employers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, independent of the formal channels of the Sudanese Armed Forces. It became a sort of expatriate private security firm that young people looked to as a way of improving their livelihoods.
The war in Yemen was a doorway to these aspirations. Sudan had suffered the big post oil slump after the secession of South Sudan. There was a big deficit in the balance of payments and foreign exchange. There was a massive inflationary wave, and people needed to supplant their wages. One way of supplanting the wage of soldiers was to give them the opportunity to fight an external war, with foreign patrons.
In that vein, UAE-based companies were recruiting fighters in Khartoum through employment agencies. People thought they were being recruited to work in supermarkets in the UAE, and they ended up in training camps in Libya. This caused a public outrage—a democratic outrage. People marched in the capital and attacked the UAE. This was the democratic blossoming of the 2018-19 revolution which ultimately facilitated the end of the al-Bashir regime.
In one way, the crisis of the RSF began when the war in Yemen cooled down. Thousands of fighters came back to Sudan from Yemen, and they needed income, employment, and some level of insurance. These were all young people who still had years of fighting careers ahead of them. The RSF had to manage its cash economy in terms of its investments, and it needed to find a purpose for these fighters. Any other corporation would start shedding off workers, but it’s very hard to shed off soldiers. There were two ways ahead for the RSF. Either it would dismantle itself in some way, which wouldn’t align with the interests of its leader Mohamed Hamdan or his Gulf patrons, or it would expand. But there was nowhere to expand except by capturing the state. The RSF commanded a significant portion of Sudan’s newfound gold, a new commodity that the old trading system was not capable of absorbing because it was geographically spread in a way that taxing it property and managing its labor force and its export routes or smuggling routes would require a widely spread mobile armed force with a stake in the commodity. The RSF was that armed force.
AB: So the relationship with commodities is malicious?
MEG: Yes, absolutely. These gold mines were spread all across the country, and since as early as 2016, the RSF served as a privatized army to provide security along transit routes, to transport equipment, and to smuggle gold out of the country. It was involved in running a parallel export system of gold to its benefactors in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is effectively the sole recipient of Sudanese gold abroad—it has an almost complete monopoly over its gold exports. At the time, Sudan was under sanctions. After Khartoum’s readiness to sign the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020, the United States started lifting the sanctions. But the UAE’s monopoly and facilitation of gold exports from Sudan precedes the signing.
The RSF discovered other networks as well: if you have a well-functioning smuggling network around gold, the same network could function for other items, including narcotics. In a sense, the RSF was functioning like a big mafia. This explains its penetration into urban neighborhoods, because many people became tied up in the RSF system through the narcotics market. The RSF could still funnel narcotics—just as it did with gold—through Port Sudan or the Khartoum airport, because in a way, it was part of the state.
The RSF works in the countryside through its investment in debts—a market in debts, people-selling by index. The RSF was heavily involved in those sorts of Ponzi schemes, in places like Nyala, al-Fasher and later on in Khartoum. The collapse of oil and the devaluation of the Sudanese currency by the interim government led to a big inflation wave after 2019, facilitating this market of debts for a vast tract of impoverished people. The RSF was a lending agency that could trap people into debts, even lending people to serve traders’ prison sentences, and that’s how it managed to enter rural trading networks beyond northern Darfur.
The commodities that allowed the RSF to penetrate into the urban and rural worlds were gold, debts, narcotics, arms, and contraband cars. Cars helped attract capital from outside Sudan to tie up with the RSF system. There was a massive influx of contraband cars coming in from Libya, these were mainly stolen or hijacked in the Sahel zone. You could buy such a car at a discount price in Khartoum with the blood of the previous owner on the headrest of the seat. In the Khartoum network, they were turned into reusable capital. There was a lot of organized looting, lending, drug selling, and an illicit trade of arms. This provided a lot of people with a source of income. The RSF is a big employer. You could find a job with RSF as a soldier, but also in many other functions. This was an alternative network of opportunities away from the state system—with its degrees and paperwork—and away from the crushingly exploitative agricultural labor system.
AB: You describe a status quo with the RSF, the militia form, and these networks of merchant capital emanating from Khartoum and the Nile Valley. In other places, you’ve also written that the Sudanese revolution of 2018-19 represented a rupture with the status quo of sequential military dictators, forged out of an alliance of informal workers and radical students. In this most recent iteration of the conflict, what is the position of the Sudanese revolution, its democratic ambitions, and the neighborhood councils that it formed?
MEG: What is unfolding is, in a way, the counter-revolution. The first element was the military crushing of the sit-in in Khartoum in June 2019, which involved the RSF. Now, it’s not just one part of the city but the entire city that is being crushed. Militarized systems don’t tolerate the democratic impulse that comes from revolutionary movements.
The revolution isn’t just these few events, the revolution is that impulse. I don’t think that impulse has died. In my opinion, even the war is in part a response to the problems raised by this democratic impulse which found its expression in 2018. But the urban world that sustained that revolutionary impulse is being destroyed by war. While many observers might mock the urban revolutionaries as dreamers, they did express an emancipatory trend in society. This democratic trend came from the contradictory world of the Khartoum milieu, now turned into rubble.
I think it would be too hasty to make definitive statements on Sudan’s revolutionary movement. It’s a devastating war—the scale, scope, and depth are yet to be fully understood. But history is cunning. The challenge is how to align the urban crisis and the rural crisis in one synthetic moment. There is the fascist answer of the RSF, and then the democratic answer offered by those trying to sustain life. The RSF promises redistribution based on plundering private property; it relies on a princely figure, racist rhetoric, and a praetorian fighting force.
The left, or whatever is left of the left, has not come up with a coordinated answer. It has the practice, the experience, and the resistance committees, but it doesn’t have the machinery. Still, you can see the flourishing of regional towns as a response to the war in Khartoum, as if the capital is being exported to places like Kassala, Gedaref, and Shendy. These were small, sleepy towns for the past forty years, and now they’re becoming lively, bubbly places, of course, under extraordinary conditions and immense pressure. Still, it’s as if a new urbanity is being rediscovered outside the limitations of the capital.
AB: In another article, you point to neoliberal trade policies and austerity measures as key hindrances to the revolution and the demand for democratization. What role has neoliberalism played in the longer history of the deterioration of both the Sudanese revolution and the situation between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces?
MEG: Neoliberalism does not just have a role, it is the logic central to this entire argument. The RSF itself is a neoliberal army. It is the privatized version of an army in the third world, in a rural periphery. If Margaret Thatcher were to create an army in rural Sudan, it would be the RSF. It functions as a corporate structure; it is led by a single family and is not answerable to anybody. There is no way of controlling or challenging the demands or decisions of the RSF leader. Here, the market system creates new commodities and sells them, even when no market previously existed. The narcotics the RSF sells, crystal meth for example, are a completely novel commodity in the Sudanese market. The need for narcotics is a creation of the market system.
In that article, I was hinting at Sudan’s severe inflationary crisis. The inflationary tensions needed to be eased in order to make the revolution pay out to the people. The dividends of the revolution would serve to relax the market pressures on Sudan’s citizens through policies like free health care and free education. These objectives of the revolution were never achieved because the movement involved two major elements: laboring people from the informal sector aligned with a radical sector of students, and a leadership comprising Sudan’s expatriate classes, well-paid professionals often working abroad. The former were the foot soldiers of the revolution, but the leadership had largely neoliberal inclinations.
Taking cues from the UN and the IMF, their model was based on the premise that if you enact a free market system, austerity measures, and liberal market reforms, a flourishing entrepreneur-friendly environment—possibly with a nascent democratic state—might arise. This was the Western formula for democracy, and it would work if you applied it hard enough. One application of that was to push through austerity measures and currency devaluation measures, which have a history in Sudan going back to the 1970s. These measures amplified the rural-urban crisis in ways unseen before. The only remedy of the transitional government was the so-called Family Support Program, which was supposed to be a cash transfer program supported by the World Bank. It didn’t work organizationally or financially.
The first finance minister in the interim government, Ibrahim al-Badawi, said it very clearly—Sudan would need to shed its debts—or around USD70 billion—and it needed another $10 billion to get going somewhere. That was the depth of its crisis. Of course, nobody in the international community, no democracy-loving statesmen would put anything close to that on the table. Austerity prevented the funding of the democratic transition in Sudan. Once the size of the bill became clear and even before the coup d’etat of 2021, most of those who promised to support pulled back their wallets and left Sudan to its crisis.
The transitional government had two contradictory objectives: austerity and democracy. But austerity could only be enforced through military means. If you want a democracy that imposes austerity, you need to have a certain level of ideological dexterity and capability, as well as the mediation of parties like the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Sudan is very far from that. The interim government did not have the kind of ideological control required to enforce austerity via democratic means. In Sudan, the system could not withstand the pressures and demands. Eventually, it made everybody poor, and so everybody looked for a weapon as a way of making money in a poor environment.
AB: You’ve outlined the neoliberal dimension that influenced the application of this democratic impulse. What are the roles of other organizations in this process that might be operating contrary to this neoliberalism—such as communists, Islamist parties, or Sufi brotherhoods?
MEG: The postcolonial political order in Sudan has lost the ability to reproduce itself. You can see that in the deterioration of the Communist Party, but also in the deterioration of the Islamic movement. Many of the movement’s leaders are semi-functional, incapacitated by their own financial interests and private lives. You can find senior Islamist figures in the RSF today. There is no longer a coherent Islamic movement, and their splinters have little to do with Islamist ideology. You see the same problem in the communist movement. Some of the RSF’s top propagandists had a history in the communist movement and its satellite organizations.
One of the slogans of 2018-19 was that the army belongs in the barracks, and the RSF should be dissolved. As you probably know, all fantasies have a tendency to become nightmares. Now one might argue that the RSF is being dissolved by firepower, and the whole country has become a barracks. The military is everywhere. In fact, the revolutionary movement correctly named the problem of militarization. It’s playing out as a war.
It’s difficult to speculate about revolutionary events of this scale. But what I can see is that Sudan’s democratic culture is threatened by the destruction of urban life, especially in Khartoum. The city’s cultural achievements, intellectual achievements, its heritage, and its symbols are being destroyed. The city’s legacy goes back to the first demonstrations of informal laborers in the 1920s and the 1923-24 White Flag League. The city will probably reinvent itself, but in forms that I’m not sure I can predict at the moment.
AB: The situation in Sudan is not entirely unique. What does accumulation via rural militia and the status quo mean on a world scale? And what does this tell us about peripheral capitalism more broadly?
MEG: There are some scholars who focus on the question of Sudan’s mercantilism, characterizing the economy as a kind of truncated capitalism or an inefficient capitalism.
But Sudan does not have a truncated form of capitalism; instead, I’d argue that this is how it works in the periphery. When there is a dominant center that decides a country’s currency standards, determines its labor policies, and holds a monopoly on its only export, the country will remain truncated. Only war can deepen that capitalism, because the economy must perform more functions of primitive accumulation, the type of functions that come out of militarizing security incidents or turning security into a private enterprise.
One function of the RSF has been transforming the security of trade routes, agriculture, and the harvest season into marketable commodities. If you want to secure your harvest, you need to pay off the RSF to make sure that you’re protected. This is how the trade and the market system work in countries like Sudan. Safety, and even the moral economy of mutual aid, must become marketable. I think this tells you something about what happens when there’s nothing left to sell except bare labor, which, in today’s circumstances, is the militarized labor of a sixteen-year old who has to fight in Yemen to keep the family alive. This is the exploitation of labor in its militarized form. You’re turning from a productive economy that works around consumable products into a destructive economy that works around narcotics, contraband cars, and humans—soldiers for killing bodies in somebody else’s wars.
This phenomenon isn’t confined to the RSF. Maybe Sudan is something of a pioneer, but you can see similar occurrences in places like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This is a belt of countries in which integration into the mainstream is failing, so the militia form is becoming the most efficient way to keep societies functioning in a market system. These countries are blocked from integration by walls of trade, but also by seas of corpses like the Mediterranean. To my eyes, this is the world that is emerging.