NAIROBI, Kenya — As they talked peace, Sudan’s generals prepared for war.
In the days before Sudan tumbled into a catastrophic conflict, its two most powerful generals came tantalizingly close to a deal that American and British mediators hoped would defuse their explosive rivalry, and even steer the vast African nation to democracy.
The stakes were soaringly high. Since 2019, when a popular revolution toppled Sudan’s dictator of 30 years, a transition to democracy had been stalled by this pair of ruthless, squabbling generals. Now, a single issue was holding up an agreement to get them to hand over power.
Foreign envoys held long meetings with the two generals — the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary leader, Lt. Gen Mohamed Hamdan — in an effort to get an agreement. Promises were made, concessions extracted. They even dined at the home of a senior general.
But on the streets, the rival military machines were tooling up for a fight.
At night, troops flooded quietly into rival military camps across the capital, Khartoum, where they marked each other like opposing players on a soccer field. Paramilitary fighters surrounded a base that housed warplanes from Egypt, a powerful neighbor that had sided with the Sudanese Army.
And when the first gunshots rang out on Saturday morning, the pretense of dialogue was instantly shattered.
Now, fighting rages in Khartoum and across Sudan, already taking hundreds of lives and opening a volatile and unpredictable chapter for Africa’s third-largest country. On Wednesday, a fresh barrage of explosions rocked the main airport and residents said they were running out of food, as fears grew that regional powers will be drawn into the conflict.
The violence has led to debate and recriminations about how it came to this. Some in Sudan and Washington are questioning whether the foreign powers that tried to ease the generals out of 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 had deferred to their intransigence and threats, all the while sidelining Sudan’s beleaguered pro-democracy forces.
“The generals faced no accountability,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst. “The abductions, disappearances, sham trials, unlawful detentions — the internationals turned a blind eye to all of that for the sake of a political process that has now gone horribly wrong.”
Although strikingly different, the two generals for years marched in lock step.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, 62, is a staid four-star general, trained in Egypt and Jordan, who has commanded troops in Sudan’s grinding counterinsurgency campaigns in the south and west of the country. Born in a village along the Nile, he embodies the officer class drawn from the riverine Arab tribes that have dominated Sudan since independence in 1956.
Mohamed Hamdan, widely known as Hemeti, is in his late 40s and is a camel trader turned militia commander with a reputation for ruthlessness who steadily acquired riches and influence.
The two generals forged their careers in the early 2000s in the violent crucible of Darfur, the western region where a tribal rebellion had erupted. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, then Sudan’s autocratic ruler, sent General al-Burhan to help crush the uprising.
He chose General Hamdan, then a leader of the notorious Janjaweed militia, to help with the fight.
General Hamdan did the job so well that Mr. al-Bashir adopted him as a personal enforcer, jokingly referring to the commander as “my protector” and appointing him as head of the newly formed Rapid Support Forces. General Hamdan grew rich through lucrative gold mining concessions and his commission 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 prevented migrants from crossing Sudan’s long borders — even though General Hamdan was himself suspected of profiting from people smuggling. His career, the Sudan expert Alex de Waal said, became “an object lesson in political entrepreneurship by a specialist in violence.”
The two generals turned on Mr. al-Bashir in April 2019 as protesters clamored for his ouster in a revolution that inspired heady hopes for democracy.
But two months later, the generals sent their soldiers to clear out the remaining protesters, killing at least 120 people in a grisly sign that the military was not going to cede power as easily as Mr. al-Bashir.
That message rang even louder in October 2021, when the two generals joined forces to seize power for themselves, ousting the country’s civilian prime minister.
The coup came as a rude surprise to an American envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, who had met with General al-Burhan and General Hamdan only hours earlier and been assured they would not take over.
But their deception cost them little. Soon, instead of being ostracized, the generals were being courted by Western officials who hoped to pry them from power. Sanctions that the United States had quietly threatened to impose on General Hamdan, targeting his financial interests in the Persian Gulf, were never imposed, said a former U.S. official with knowledge of those talks who like other officials in this article spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive politics.
Some began to treat the generals as statesmen. In February, the head of the World Food Program, former Gov. David Beasley of South Carolina, caused quiet consternation among Western embassies in Sudan when he was a guest at two consecutive public ceremonies. First, General al-Burhan bestowed on him Sudan’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Two Niles; the next night, he was the smiling guest of honor at a dinner hosted by General Hamdan.
But then the generals began to fall out.
General Hamdan worried that the army was being infiltrated by Islamists, including former loyalists of the al-Bashir regime, his sworn enemies.
Military Intelligence, controlled by General al-Burhan, began to tell foreign officials that his rival had tried to secretly import armed drones from Turkey to bolster his military force.
Their rivalry also reflected deeply felt institutional frictions. Regular soldiers looked down on General Hamdan and his paramilitaries as a motley crew — “a bunch of jumped-up yahoos from the sticks, not proper military men,” as one Western ambassador put it.
For their part, the Rapid Support Forces resented the perceived discrimination and believed it was their turn to hold power in Khartoum.
“They had a victim mentality,” said Mohamed Hashim, a journalist who interviewed Rapid Support Forces leaders for Sudan’s state broadcaster. “People discriminated against them, ridiculed them, told 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 champion of the marginalized. He allied with political parties, advocated elections and bridled at 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 as its “person of the year,” drawing a derisive reaction from many citizens.
That same month, under pressure from Western, African and Arab countries, 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, notably how quickly their forces would merge into a single army — a process in which General Hamdan had the most to lose, because the Rapid Support Forces would effectively be disbanded.
Army leaders pressed to get the job done in two years. General Hamdan said it would take a decade.
Tensions burst into the open. At one point, a senior Western official said, General Hamdan was barred from a key meeting led by General al-Burhan at the presidential palace. He gained admission only “after standing outside, literally banging on the door,” the official said.
Egypt entered the fray, on the side of the army. Critics worried the talks were flawed or going too fast. Negotiators said it was Sudan’s best chance for the much-awaited transition to democracy.
“They were the guys with the power and the guns,” the senior Western official said of the generals. “We were trying to construct a political path to ease them out.”
According to a senior United Nations official, “We worked with the tools that were on the table.”
Those tensions spiked last Wednesday, when troops from the Rapid Support Forces surrounded a military base in Meroe, 125 miles north of Khartoum, where Egypt has stationed several warplanes — a flashing sign that war was looming. Yet, even then, foreign officials hoped the two generals would mend fences and surrender power peacefully.
The talks to integrate their forces had come down to one final major point, negotiators said — the army’s command structure during a transitional period.
On Friday, Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy to Sudan, dined at the home of Lt. Gen Shams al-Deen al-Kabashi, the army’s deputy leader, for iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. There was no hint of a coming war, U.N. officials said.
Hours later, in the predawn gloom, the first shots sounded across Khartoum.