What Will Happen in Sudan?
The current crisis exposes the motives of the men with guns. It requires, paradoxically, the intervention of a distracted international community that has done little to support a democratic transition.
Despite an announced humanitarian ceasefire, fighting continues into a fifth day in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan. International appeals for renewed talks have so far fallen on deaf ears. The Sudan Amed Forces (SAF) controlled by the head of Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al Burhan continue to fight for control of key infrastructure with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) controlled by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as ‘Hemedti’, and officially the deputy leader of the military junta. It is to all intents and purposes a violent struggle for power between rival military chiefs.
That much is common knowledge. But it does not take place in a vacuum. Sudan presents a graphic illustration of the difficulty of reconstructing politics after an extended period of authoritarian rule, in Sudan’s case under former President Omar al Bashir; and of the difficulty of bringing influence to bear from an international community that, while none will gain from a Sudan in chaos, have very different interests.
The 2019 revolution that evicted Bashir from power was the result of popular protest, particularly led by women, which forced the military to accept a power-sharing arrangement with democratic groups. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FCC) accepted a transitional arrangement in which Abdulla Hamdok took the role of Prime Minister with Al-Burhan as President. When the time came for the two to switch positions, Burhan refused, and the democrats were evicted from power. Sudan’s transition to democracy remains unfinished.
Negotiated efforts to complete the transition resulted in a Political Framework Agreement signed on 5 December 2022, which set a timetable for a final agreement by 1 April this year. A key point of contention was the timing for integration of the RSF into the national armed forces, bringing all forces under a single command. Hemedti, whose power rests largely on his control of the RSF, wanted to postpone this for ten years, while Burhan, who saw an independent RSF as a threat to his and the Army’s own power, insisted on two. Unable to agree, and each suspicious of the others’ intentions, both sides resorted to force.
Although a 24-hour ceasefire has just been announced, power rests once more in the hands of men with guns. Physically controlling the sites of power – airport, media, government buildings, central bank – is critical. The SAF can deploy its air force and heavy armour; the RSF has a regional network, numbers and ruthlessness.
The RSF’s origins as the Janjaweed militia clearly signal its willingness to use brutal methods to achieve its goals, as it did in imposing its control over Darfur in the 2000s. It showed equally little compunction in killing civilians demonstrating peacefully in Khartoum in June 2019. Having been allowed by Bashir to build up RSF for his personal protection, Hemedti turned against him and was instrumental in his ousting from power. He seems intent on doing the same to Burhan.
Hemedti claims to be defending the civilian transition from the Army’s attempts to subvert it, and that Burhan has failed to purge the SAF of Islamist officers put in place by Bashir who are still pursuing an Islamist agenda. But Hemedti’s pose as the ally of the democratic opposition fails to carry conviction: he did not defend them in 2019 and has consistently shown no regard for anyone’s interests but his own. He remains distrusted by the Khartoum elite as an outsider from Darfur.
Both sides have been assiduously trying to build alliances inside and outside the country. Burhan appears to have retained the support of veteran Darfuri rebels – Hemedti’s rivals, Minni Minawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and Jibril Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and currently Minister of Finance. But the RSF continues to control the bulk of the gold mines in the Darfur region which provide a regular flow of cash for the RSF leader. The SAF relies on the state revenues from oil, which is severely disrupted by the fighting, and its own businesses. The fighting is not least over control of the country’s wealth.
Internationally, things are complicated. Hemedti was reportedly paid generously by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to provide RSF soldiers to fight the Houthis in Yemen, and he has recently visited both Russia and Eritrea in pursuit of weapons and allies. Burhan meanwhile, has continued to receive support from President al-Sisi in Egypt, who sees in him a fellow soldier and a bastion against other outside influences on Egypt’s southern border. For Egypt, a friendly Sudan is a vital national interest, not least in supporting them against Ethiopia in the dispute over control of the Nile waters.
Why have both the domestic movement for democratic change and external pressure to avoid conflict and secure a peaceful transition failed?
Largely it is a consequence of Bashir. Under his rule, national institutions were degraded and bent to serve the purpose of the regime alone, and he promoted conflict rather than compromise with excluded political forces in Darfur and the south. He firmly believed force was the only safe way of retaining power and supported the RSF as a way to keep both regional rebels and the SAF in check, playing one off against the other. Even from prison, his legacy continues to play out.
The democratic forces, including the FCC, the resistance committees, the professional bodies and the women’s movement, were very effective in mobilising people to protest, but less effective in creating a political leadership that would carry weight and set an agenda for the talks – partly deliberately as all such previous attempts to develop leaders in the past had been swiftly decapitated. Nevertheless, they have been unable to turn aggrieved and mobilised people into power. As PM, Hamdok valiantly tried to rally international supporters to fund his government and accelerate growth in order to help the population and build up his credibility and influence. But it all happened too slowly. The RSF and SAF continued to accumulate weapons and to brush protesters and their democratic aspirations aside. In short, the people had no army.
So, should or could the international supporters of democracy – ‘the West’ in journalistic shorthand – have done more to back the democratic transition and prevent a military struggle for power? The US and UK tried hard to achieve this by establishing the Quad with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to bring more influence to bear. But other actors were slow to support. Neither Russia nor China, the latter which has invested heavily in Sudanese oil, stand to gain from a protracted civil war, are keen to side with ‘the West’ The only beneficiary so far would appear to be President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea: the weaker everyone else in the region, the stronger he grows.
Given scepticism over the UN’s role in Sudan, dating back to the creation of South Sudan and the war in Darfur, the African Union (AU) and IGAD should have the lead roles in creating an international process and coordinating pressure. But they are weak, without the leverage to corral countries like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia or the UAE into a common position.
With the international community not yet united, the risk remains of a Syrian scenario where, when rebel forces were gaining the upper hand, outside powers (Iran and Russia in that case) intervened to tilt the battlefield decisively in the regime’s favour. Any such intervention in the Horn of Africa would be immensely destabilising not just for the region but for Africa as a whole.
So, what are the potential scenarios? At present it seems that either fighting will continue until one side achieves a decisive victory, or a painful and bloody stalemate will eventually be reached – as in Ethiopia now – which provides a basis to resume negotiation on some power-sharing arrangement, as we have also seen in South Sudan. Either could take years rather than months and will in the meantime wreck an already very fragile economy.
The one alternative hope rests with the international community. Only Sudanese can find a solution to their political conflict. But a united international community could force them to find it, as happened in Somalia in 2011. The AU needs to be supported to get the political process re-started to find a way finally to put civilian political forces in control. No easy task. But when war rages, diplomacy needs to be redoubled.
One last consideration. It is no coincidence that the countries in Africa most at risk of descending into a cycle conflict and instability are those where population pressure and the impact of climate change have made life ever more difficult for all communities. From Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad to Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, instability is growing. For unemployed young men, a Kalashnikov, a salary and a chance to reap from plunder become very attractive. Hemedti has had no trouble recruiting 100,000 to his militia. In these circumstances, only very strong governance and a strong economy will dissuade them from trying their luck, and these remain largely absent. Not just governments but societies in these countries are cracking under the strains, and this makes support from outside paradoxically both more difficult and more than ever necessary.
Especially as the number of countries in this predicament is inevitably going to grow.