Sudan’s third political truth is that politics has exclusively served the Khartoum elite. The capital city is a middle-income enclave among some of the poorest places on earth. Almost all infrastructure, education, public services, and wealth are concentrated in Khartoum and towns within an hour’s drive. This territory even has a name: the “Hamdi Triangle,” named after Abdel Rahim Hamdi, minister of finance in the 1990s, who argued that investment should be concentrated on this “country within a country” to reward the elite. In turn, gross inequality has been the underlying driver of repeated rebellions—in southern Sudan, Darfur, the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, and eastern Sudan, which form a vast horseshoe around the privileged core.
This third fact has now been turned on its head. Power was seized by a man from Sudan’s wild west, a skilled and ruthless practitioner of paramilitarism for rent.That’s why Hemeti’s power grab terrifies not only the civilian protesters, who hail overwhelmingly from the Khartoum middle classes, but also the army generals, who are drawn overwhelmingly from the same social class. That class also identifies as “Arab,” but they are a world away from the nomadic camel-herding tribe in which Hemeti grew up. Indeed, he shares more in common with various rebel groups.
In turn, while observers’ attention has been on the on-again-off-again negotiations between the Transitional Military Council and the Alliance for Freedom and Change, Hemeti has been discreetly contacting the rebels. Away from the spotlight, he might just cut the deal that has eluded international negotiators for so long.
The struggle in Khartoum today is not just between military rule and democracy, but over whether Sudan should be ruled by those from the historic center of power on the Nile River or by the people of the vast and underprivileged peripheries.
For now, Hemeti is using the tools he perfected in Darfur to good effect in Khartoum and with his patrons on the other side of the Red Sea. If he can do the same with Sudan’s provincial rebels, the April uprising may have ushered in a totally unexpected revolution in Sudan. People from the far peripheries will be in power for the first time. Unlike the South Sudanese, they’re not out for separation. But their power broker isn’t serving the Sudanese state—rather, he has captured the state to serve his free-floating military-business ambitions. This is both uncharted terrain for Sudan and frighteningly familiar as well.