Sudan, a country in the North east of Africa is a complex combination of several factors. It is rich in resources and yet a low income country, as classified by the UN. Tribal chauvinism, ethnic conflict, multiple insurgencies, a military foothold and sporadic attempts, though unsuccessful, towards transitioning to a democracy, are Sudan’s other defining features.
On 15 April this year, Sudan made headlines. Heavy fighting broke out in the capital city Khartoum between the two rival factions of the military, the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by Lt Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Going back in time, much before it achieved independence in 1956, Sudan was a vassal of empires comprising the Ottoman and the British.
After achieving independence, Sudan’s troubles did not cease, it was subjected to a different set of masters. Spanning a time frame of six to seven decades, the military has played a pre-dominant role.
The conflict can be traced to the staunch opposition to the one man strong rule of President Omar al-Bashir who assumed power in 1989 and remained in the saddle for three long decades. His tenure was marred by human rights abuses, corruption and undermining institutions like the judiciary, resulting in the forceful and ever growing demand for holding democratic elections.
Ultimately, a countrywide uprising against him led to his ouster by the two military generals in 2019 and led to the formation of the Transitional Military Council in August of the same year.
This was a sort of hybrid government, a power-sharing body of military officers and civilians under the Prime Ministership of Abdalla Hamdok which would eventually make way for holding elections at the end of 2023. The interim arrangement could not deliver and the army dispensed with the civilian-led transitional government in October 2021 and assumed complete control.
The country had a new de facto leader in General Burhan and Dagalo, his partner in the military coup, became his deputy or second-in-command. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, popularly called Hemeti, and the RSF, are a legacy of the Bashir era.
This parallel force, the RSF, was created to surmount any kind of opposition to Bashir’s regime, in regions like Darfur by filling it with Islamists and regime loyalists and getting rid of professionals.
However, over time, the mandate of RSF grew substantially in size and capability and in 2017, Hemeti used his men to take control of the gold mines in the Darfur region. Soon after the 2021 coup, a power struggle between two generals arose that derailed the plan to transition to a democracy. Ironically, both the Generals claimed that they were trying to bring back Sudan to some kind of civilian rule with an elected government.
Tensions between the two armies of Sudan have been escalating over a number of issues ranging from security sector reforms to control of resources and RSF integration into the Sudanese Armed Forces. A major grievance of General Dagalo is amalgamating the RSF into the Sudanese army.
The time frame to carry out this integration has been a thorny issue. General Burhan wants it to be completed in two years, whereas General Dagalo is looking at a period of ten years to carry out this integration.
Dissolving the RSF would mean losing control over his army, the militias and all the wealth and power that he has gained with their support. Besides, General Burhan has alliances with radical Islamic groups and is being led by them.
This is also a major area of disagreement. Ironically, both generals have worked together for several years and even coordinated the counter insurgency campaign in Darfur and Yemen.
The battle between the two generals for grabbing political power and acquiring control of resources has cost the nation heavy. In addition to oil exports, Sudan is rich in minerals and ninety tons of gold on the global market comes from Sudan. This struggle for political and economic supremacy has resulted in a multi- pronged crisis. To start with, the humanitarian crisis has assumed large proportions. The ongoing military clashes have seriously impacted basic services like food, water, medicine and transport.
Hospitals are shut, the medical system is on the verge of collapse. Markets, banks and pharmacies are being looted and people’s lives are at stake. At this juncture, to say that Sudan is sliding towards a civil war is debatable.
Likewise, how ethnicity plays out in the current conflict is also difficult to say, although there have been instances in El Geneina, West Darfur, where deadly ethnic clashes took place and 96 people lost their lives. The year 2003 and the civil war in western Sudan, Darfur, are etched in memory. The Arab militia, Janjaweed had targeted the tribes of African descent.
The operation led by General Dagalo and the ensuing genocide that followed, led to worldwide condemnation. Since 15 April, mounting international pressure has led to a ceasefire a few times but it has not been observed diligently. In the midst of hardship and sporadic violence in the cease fire period, people have crossed borders to reach Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Chad. An estimate is that close to 600 people have lost their lives and 334,000 people have been displaced.
There aren’t enough resources to grapple with the ongoing refugees crisis. Adding to the woes mentioned above, Sudan’s neighbourhood is deeply divided and the US has appealed to the neighboring countries not to intervene militarily in Sudan. According to Khalid Medani, Associate Professor of Political Science and Islamic Studies and Chairman of African Studies Programme at McGill University, Egypt has a strong influence in Sudan and finds a reliable ally in Gen Burhan and his army, especially as far as the economy and strategic resources are concerned. UAE has interests in gold trade and is inclined towards General Dagalo and the RSF. Both sides came together while dealing with the war in Yemen, when Dagalo sent his men to fight alongside the Saudiled coalition.
This also helped the General to forge close ties with the gulf powers. Besides, General Dagalo has another strong ally in Russia. The Wagner paramilitary group of Russia has been involved in illegal gold mining, all with the support of the General.
Bakry Elljack Elmedni, a Professor of Public Policy at Long Island University, Brooklyn, has pointed out that whatever happens in Sudan is not solely a Sudanese issue. It will have a ripple effect and will destabilize the region. South Sudan, Chad, Libya, Ethiopia have complicated and connected issues with Sudan. The humanitarian crisis in Sudan will lead to depletion of resources, food insecurity and ill health in the region.
The troika of heads of states of Kenya, Djoubti and South Sudan have made consistent efforts towards trying to convince the two leaders to halt the fighting and return to civilian rule. Consistent pressure is being put by the UN on both the armies to cease hostilities and begin a dialogue. The African Union is trying to bring about mediation between the two warring armies.
Neighborhood apart, the international community cannot sit on the fence and be a silent spectator. A strong message has to be delivered. To what extent imposing sanctions and diplomatic isolation would work, is difficult to say, but it can be considered.
Creating an international coalition and resorting to coordinated diplomatic effort is an important step in the right direction, especially when a humanitarian catastrophe is already looming large and accountability for the destruction and deaths is nowhere in sight. International evacuation efforts by US, UK, Saudi Arabia and others are very much in progress.
By launching Operation Kaveri, India is making consistent efforts to bring back all its citizens from this conflict zone. If good sense prevails over the two Generals and they make way for a civilian- led elected government in Sudan, it has to be free from the clutches of the military, otherwise it would end up as a puppet government. Realizing the long cherished goals of the Sudanese people, ‘Freedom, Peace and Justice’ cannot be written off, like a distant dream.
(The writer is Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi)