Once they were allies. Now they are sworn enemies. For about a week now, de facto President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohammed “Hemedti” Hamdan Daglo, leader of the powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF), have been fighting each other like nothing Sudan has ever seen before.

The country’s democratic movement looks on helplessly as democracy recedes ever further into the distance. The UN representative in Sudan, Volker Perthes, was also unable to mediate. An overview of the key players.

De facto President and Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan

He achieved international prominence as a result of the fall of long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Since taking office, al-Burhan has ruled with iron frustration. In cooperation with the RSF, he had protests against him suppressed, sometimes bloodily. According to Human Rights Watch, the violence culminated in the “Khartoum Massacre” in June 2019, in which at least 87 people were killed, according to official figures. Observers assume significantly more deaths.

The Sudanese people nevertheless fought for a power-sharing between the military and the civilian government. In 2021, Al-Burhan took most of them back in another coup.

Al-Burhan has served in the Sudanese army for decades. He made his career in the Darfur region in western Sudan, which has been contested for more than 20 years. There, as regional commander, Al-Burhan led a merciless regiment against rebellious minorities. “Both Al-Burhan and his rival Hemedti are deeply involved in ethnic cleansing in Darfur,” said Ben Hunter, East Africa analyst at British security consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. When he took office in 2019, Al-Burhan was inspector general of the army.

RSF leader Mohammed “Hemedti” Hamdan Daglo

Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, known as “Hemedti”, is Al-Burhan’s political deputy and leader of the powerful RSF. Next to the armed forces, the RSF is the largest military apparatus in the country. Hemedti’s power also has its roots in the conflict region of Darfur. “Hemedti was a young aspiring leader of an Arab militia, often colloquially known as the Janjaweed. The Sudanese government sponsored these militias with weapons and counterinsurgency equipment,” said Gerrit Kurtz, a Sudan expert at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, a German research institute for security policy.

From 2013, Hemedti took over the leadership of the RSF, which was formed from former militias in Darfur. Human Rights Watch blames him and his militia for mass rapes and war crimes.

However, observers also regard Hemedti as a skilled opportunist. Hemedti initiated his break with Al-Burhan months ago when he presented himself as a defender of the country’s democratic forces. He accused al-Burhan of not wanting to relinquish power. Even before the fall of dictator Al-Bashir, Hemedti had switched sides in good time.

Volker Perthes, UN Special Representative in Sudan

Since the outbreak of violence in Sudan, the UN envoy, Volker Perthes, has been trying to keep the small successes in Sudan’s democratization alive. As head of the UN mission in Sudan, the man from Duisburg has been the chief international mediator between the many political actors on the road to democracy since February 2021. In Germany, the political scientist was known as the long-standing head of the Science and Politics Foundation. Perthes had previously also advised the UN representative in Syria in a senior position.

In Sudan, Perthes faced a Herculean task when he took office. Since taking power in 2019, the generals had shown little willingness to give up their power. Nevertheless, Perthes brought Al-Burhan and Hemedti to the negotiating table. An agreement between the military and parts of the democratic movement concluded in December 2022 could have been the cornerstone for change. However, the RSF and the army would have had to be united for this.

“The United Nations and the West were wrong in believing that either the army or the RSF would voluntarily relinquish power,” said East Africa analyst Hunter. After neither Hemedti nor Al-Burhan had had to answer for their crimes so far, they were all the more certain of their position of power.

Ex-Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the Democratic Movement

When the military had to partially hand over power to a civilian government in 2019 after the ongoing protests in Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok was seen as a democratic hope in the country for a good two years. Hamdok became prime minister in August 2019 and, according to experts, was considered a consensus candidate in the democratic movement. Hamdok had worked for international organizations such as the UN Economic Commission for Africa for decades. Above all, he never allowed himself to be co-opted by the dictator Al-Bashir.

However, even Hamdok was unable to get the desperately poor Sudan back on its feet economically. “Hamdok is trying to set up a new political initiative to end the war, but he basically no longer plays a role in politics in Sudan,” says Sudan expert Kurtz.

Since the end of Hamdok’s term in early 2022, the democratic movement has fragmented into different blocs. Some flatly refused to negotiate with the military. After another coup, parts of the movement called for the generals to be prosecuted. Another part accepted Perthe’s offer to renegotiate a transfer of power with Al-Burhan and Hermedti. This should at least preserve the last hope of democratization.