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Why Militia Politics Is Preventing Democratization and Stability in Sudan

April 26, 2023
Brandon Bolte


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Brandon Bolte, 2022–23 Peace Scholar Fellow with the U.S. Institute of Peace, analyzes the Rapid Support Forces’ current assault in Khartoum, Sudan, and how militias can hurt democratization efforts.

On April 15, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) surprised many Western observers when it launched an assault against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in Khartoum. Led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemeti”), the RSF previously fought for the Sudanese regime against rebels for years. In 2019, it participated in a coup alongside General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the SAF that ousted Sudan’s long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Both generals have since been on a transitionary council meant to shape a new government before popular elections take place. In the 11 days since the violence in Khartoum began, over 400 people have been killed, thousands are trying to flee the capital, and there are signs of the conflict spreading to other parts of the country.

Transitions to democracy are usually rocky, but coups can lead to democratization when coupled with the kind of popular mobilization seen in Sudan. The irony of the current situation is that at one point the RSF was considered by al-Bashir as his “praetorian guard,” meant to deter the SAF from staging a coup. Coup-proofers aren’t usually successful coup-perpetrators. Moreover, the current rupture was caused by a disagreement between the two generals over how the RSF might be integrated into the army’s command structure. Why is the proposed merging of forces so contentious? What do we expect the long-term outcome of this conflict to be?

In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, I unpack the politics of how governments try to manage, regulate, and contain militias like the RSF. I describe how and why states and professed pro-state militias compete for power at one another’s expense. Viewed in this light, the outbreak in Khartoum is part of a predictable, if not inevitable, vicious spiral of poor militia management politics over the course of the last two decades.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.