The battle for Nyala—Sudan’s second largest city and the capital of South Darfur state—was a turning point in the current war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Nyala, in south Darfur, 2016. Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

When the SAF’s garrison in Nyala fell to the RSF on October 26, 2023, it prefigured the Sudanese army’s collapse of across Darfur. The next four weeks witnessed the fall of SAF garrisons in Zalingei, El Geneina and El Daein—the capitals of Central, West and East Darfur states.

For the warring armies, Nyala is a strategically positioned city. South Darfur state holds a significant share of Sudan’s livestock and accounts for about a third of the region’s production of grain and ground-nuts and more than half of its sesame.[1] About 120 miles to the city’s southwest, the Sungo gold mine, operated by the RSF, supplies gold across the border to the Central African Republic, where it then makes its way to Russian and Gulf markets. Arms flow into South Darfur from Central African Republic, some reportedly supplied to the RSF by the United Arab Emirates. In turn, the Gulf state is the main market for the RSF’s gold as well as its mercenary services.

The city itself lies along trade routes that link Khartoum to north and west Africa. Its souq—located near the SAF garrison—reflects its status as an Afro-cosmopolitan hub and regional center of trade. In addition to local livestock and agricultural products, merchants sell cars and electronics from Libya, cosmetics from Chad, textiles from Nigeria and medicine from Khartoum.

Before the twenty-first century, Nyala was a place of social mixing. Clubs and educational institutions brought people together across social divides. They used Arabic as a lingua franca. But this cohesion began to fray with Darfur’s wars of the mid-1990s to 2000s. Newcomers, many of them farmers, sought refuge in Nyala, having been displaced from their lands by so-called Arab militias—pastoralists armed by the state under the regime of former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir’s Arabization policies deliberately pitted these pastoralist groups, who spoke a Chadian or Baggara dialect of Arabic, against speakers of the indigenous, Nilo-Saharan languages of Darfur, who were mostly settled people. The displaced in Nyala identified as non-Arabs, as Africans or Black. They settled in displacement camps or neighborhood enclaves, where they increasingly avoided Arabic in favor of Fur and other local languages.

Nyala’s social divisions were a microcosm of the crisis in Darfur, even before the recent battle for the city that killed hundreds and displaced thousands.

As the war has unfolded, the city continues to be on the front lines of Darfur’s evolving culture wars. The struggle for the city reflects the pitched battled between warring parties to control military, civil administration and economic life in the region.


South Darfur State and the Origins of the RSF


The RSF has its roots in the south in the dirty wars of the 1990s, when Sudanese intelligence—facing an insurgency—outsourced fighting to predominantly pastoralist militias.

These so-called Arab militias (at the time known as Hagana or Al Fersan) were recruited from herding communities increasingly susceptible to Omar al-Bashir’s Arab supremacist ideologies as the climate crisis shriveled their pastures. Beginning in 2003, these militias formed into the Janjaweed, used to fight al-Bashir’s counterinsurgency.

RSF commander Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (known by the nickname Hemedti) was one of these recruits. He comes from Umm al-Qura’ in Mershing locality, which sits about 50 miles to the north of Nyala. His origins are controversial, but one account holds that he belonged to a sub-group of the Mahariya group of Rizeigat camel-pastoralists, who began migrating from Chad to Darfur in the early twentieth century. During the droughts of the 1980s, they settled around an old Fur village called Dogi, near Mershing, on the southern slopes of South Darfur. They renamed it Umm al-Qura’ (“the mother of villages”), an Arabic name for Mecca.

When the Native Administration swore allegiance to the RSF in July of 2023, it was an unprecedented shift.
Hemedti’s rumored origins among the Mahariya Rizeigat camel-pastoralists have helped the RSF gain influence over other pastoralists in the region, also part of the Rizeigat. The Rizeigat are among the largest groups in East Darfur and part of a wider confederation of Sahelian herders sharing a common Arabic dialect, which sets them apart from urban Arabic speakers.

Some of these groups had kept their distance in previous rounds of conflict in Darfur. Thus, when the Native Administration swore allegiance to the RSF in July of 2023, it was an unprecedented shift.

The Native Administration is a colonial-era political unit comprised of traditional leadership from seven cattle-pastoralist groups that was resurrected by al-Bashir in the 1990s. When the current war had first reached Nyala, it initially helped broker a political agreement that included a ceasefire and a division of the city into SAF and RSF areas of control. The agreement envisaged the eventual transfer of control to whichever party won the battle for Khartoum. Their decision to ally with the RSF in July not only undermined this ceasefire and partition agreement, it also deepened the polarization between groups identified as Arab and those regarded as African.

The Native Administration promised to supply Hemedti with recruits. These armed irregulars—most of whom are identified as Arabs—have given the RSF a decisive military advantage in Darfur.


Ruling and Dividing


The RSF’s narrow ethnic base may give it a military advantage, but it has not helped the militia when it comes to governance.

The RSF controlled most of the city well before the fall of the SAF garrison. To date, however, it has not established government units capable of maintaining order, civil protection or even collecting taxes. In the first week of the war, Hemedti’s forces looted the state ministries, removing everything from desks to chairs to computers, which stripped the RSF of the capacity to tax Nyala’s market. The RSF, instead, finances its operations by sheep-stealing, checkpoint extortion and illicit trade. Rather than managing a treasury, its gold and other businesses are controlled by Hemedti’s family. Its looters convert stolen goods into cash in the markets of Darfur and the countries bordering it.

The existing governor of South Darfur state, Musa Mahdi Ishaq (from the Habbaniya cattle-pastoralist group) fled Nyala at the start of the war. Although the RSF guaranteed civilian administration in the city, it did not replace the governor. Instead, the RSF commander in Nyala, Major-General Ahmed Barakatallah, assumed control (he remained in charge until his recent replacement by Salah al-Fouthi). Barakatallah is a maternal cousin of Hemedti. Not formally educated, he has risen through the ranks due to his family ties and his fighting experience.

Barakatallah has eschewed the city’s courts and other apparatuses of civil administration. For example, early in the conflict, the Native Administration raised the case of a youth squad selling drugs and guns around the livestock market. They were mostly from pastoralist communities in Niger and Chad and appeared to be seasoned fighters. Barakatallah dismissed the Native Administration’s concerns, noting that the troublemakers were not real RSF but mere pastoralists. He claimed he was trying to deal with them but was reluctant to resolve disputes through judicial decisions, courts or armed confrontation.

The Native Administration, composed of Arab tribes, has been unable to influence a change in Nyala’s governance, in part because their alliance with the RSF has narrowed their base of popular support from tribes who identify as African. When they pledged allegiance to the RSF in July, they asked Hussein Goudat, the deputy commander of the SAF’s division in Nyala, to defect with his troops to the RSF. In return, he would replace Barakatallah as the RSF commander in Nyala. Goudat, who is from the Misseriya pastoralist group, neighbors to the Rizeigat, rejected the offer. He insisted that he was a man of the state, that his tribe is the army and that he would only leave in a coffin.

Across the country, Hemedti has tried to position himself as a force for change. He has even attracted elements from the Forces for Freedom and Change—Khartoum politicians who led the civil-military government that took over after the 2019 ouster of al-Bashir. But the RSF’s weak administrative capacities and lack of financial institutions make it difficult for them to manage payroll or prevent their forces from looting, blackmailing and engaging in gender-based and sexual violence, a practice which compounds the difficulties of political support in places like Nyala.

Their perceptions are part of a broader and deeper set of fears about the RSF and its allied Arab militias, now spread across Nyala’s urban neighborhoods…
Moreover, the RSF’s legacy of genocide and human rights violations further undermines its ability to build civil support. In areas under its influence, the culture clash is escalating. Some observers, including Abdu Elaziz Juma, a former representative of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, reduce what they call the RSF’s “booty culture” to its fighters’ pastoralist backgrounds or their crude Arab supremacism. Their perceptions are part of a broader and deeper set of fears about the RSF and its allied Arab militias, now spread across Nyala’s urban neighborhoods whose pluralism and complexity they do not understand or respect. Many in Nyala believe RSF units in Darfur are less politically aware than those in Khartoum.

The RSF operates detention centers in Nyala, believed to be located in municipal buildings—places like the malaria hospital near the airport, the Daman Hotel and within the education and agriculture ministry buildings and the government health insurance office. Fighters detain those suspected of being SAF soldiers as well as those who are not carrying their identity papers (which identify individuals as soldiers or civilians). Although unconfirmed, it is rumored that those inflicting torture are not professionals, but they administer severe beatings. They have also carried out executions with no clear process or regulatory framework. In the street outside of my brother’s house, the RSF shot and killed an SAF soldier who was surrendering. The victim was neither an officer nor was he associated with the National Congress Party of former dictator Omar al-Bashir (although banned in 2019, the party is regarded as the SAF’s main political backer).


Nyala’s Political Alternatives


In Nyala, as is the case elsewhere in Darfur, the destruction of civil politics over the last two to three decades is reaching a culmination point of sorts. Beyond the Native Administration, other forces, armed movements and political parties are being drawn into the battle between the two generals and thus into Darfur’s militarized politics and culture wars.

In contrast to the RSF’s narrowing base, the SAF has attempted to improvise an alliance across multiple ethnic groups (including members of Hemedti’s Rizeigat)—and even between factions that previously fought one another.

One of these factions is the old guard of the Sudanese intelligence. The SAF has recruited Musa Hilal from a northern section of the Rizeigat group. Hilal led the government’s counter-insurgency in Darfur two decades ago. At the time, he was responsible for arming the Janjaweed. But the SAF has also courted the leaders of the rebel movements that the Janjaweed militias were created to fight: the different factions of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), drawn mostly from the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups.

From their emergence in the 1990s, the SLA and JEM presented a political vision in which justice, equality and liberation would be achieved through insurgency. When they were defeated by the RSF in 2016, many JEM and SLA fighters and leaders ended up as mercenaries in Libya. They only managed to return to Sudan after the 2018–2019 revolution toppled al-Bashir. After his ouster, their leadership joined the military-backed government in 2021, sharing power with the RSF and SAF. When Sudan’s two big armies turned against each other in April of 2023, the former rebels tried to keep their tiny forces out of the conflict. But by November, most of them had declared their support for the SAF.

Absent from the warring sides are Nyala’s resistance committees: youth-led, decentralized and democratic neighborhood associations that were active during the revolution.
Absent from the warring sides are Nyala’s resistance committees: youth-led, decentralized and democratic neighborhood associations that were active during the revolution. They explicitly rejected the notion that militias could provide a shortcut to democracy. They organized public services in a city where education and health care had been turned into commodities, cleaning hospitals, arranging treatment days and raising community awareness on health and education. They trained activists in Nyala’s neighborhoods and its university, using a strategy of social support to buttress their political message around the need for a democratic transition.

When the RSF and the SAF joined forces with JEM and factions of the SLA in October of 2021 to abort the democratic transition and remilitarize politics, Nyala’s resistance committees responded to the coup with alacrity. They organized massive demonstrations on the city streets and outside the state parliament, demanding that the military return to the barracks.

But the war that began in April of 2023 created a new set of daunting challenges. The resistance committees, notable for their non-violent rejection of militarized politics, have found the new level of violence difficult to counter. Their weaknesses became apparent: lacking experienced tacticians and negotiators, they were outperformed by the patriarchs of the Native Administration when temporary truces were still possible. Largely opposed to the SAF, the RSF and the war, the resistance committees have not been able to muster the political guile needed to deal with the two armies.

Nyala’s resistance committees have faced internal conflicts too. Some members are linked to political parties and stick to party lines from Khartoum rather than local decisions. But they are still not militarized and have avoided being drawn into Nyala’s culture wars. Indeed, unlike other political forces in Darfur, their internal divisions are political, rather than ethnic, and their commitment to peace is unwavering.

Across Sudan, like in Nyala, the resistance committees remain the political actors with popular support. They offer an alternative to the militarized politics that have engulfed the country and the wider region.


[Raduan Abdallah M. Ali is an academic, political analyst and peacebuilding activist currently based in Juba, South Sudan.]


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This article appears in MER issue 310 “The Struggle for Sudan.”




[1]Special Report – 2022 FAO Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission (CFSAM) to the Republic of Sudan,” FAO, March 20, 2023.

How to cite this article:

Raduan Abdallah M. Ali "Dispatch from Nyala, Sudan’s Second City," Middle East Report 310 (Spring 2024).

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