Sudan: Awaiting A Miracle
Khartoum is a ghost town after being subjected to airstrikes, gunfire and artillery
Sudan has had more than a dozen coups and coup attempts since it gained independence in 1958. Now once again the Sudanese are caught in the midst of an internal armed conflict that suddenly started on April 15 and has already left more than 250 dead and thousands injured.
The capital Khartoum is a ghost town after being subjected to airstrikes, gunfire and artillery. Many hospitals have been forced to shut down. Armed groups of varying affiliation have looted houses and businesses.
With airlines not functioning the large population of expatriates has had to experience the traumas also. While local staffers for a number of international organisations, including the World Food Program, are among the dead. Foreigners have been targets, too, a United States’ diplomatic convoy came under fire last week and a leading European Union humanitarian official was shot and seriously injured.
Citizens have been fleeing to South Sudan, which became independent in 2011 after two protracted conflicts, or across the border to Chad which is already hosting around 400,000 Sudanese refuges with the United Nations, and is reportedly expecting another 100,000. The International Crisis Group has cautioned that if the fighting was not ended it could morph into a civil war that could destabilise neighbouring Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan.
A 72-hour cease fire for Eid-ul-Fitr has been held, though earlier ceasefires, including one engineered by the UN, were broken just as they were announced.
The protagonists in the current spate of fighting are two former allies, Army Chief General Al-Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under the nearly 30-year rule of former strong man Omar al-Bashir, and General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, the head of the Rapid Support Forces which has about 100,000 members.
In 2019, following major public protests the two, despite Dagalo being a Bashir loyalist, had jointly ousted the strongman. The civilian Forces for Freedom and Change, which led the civilian movement challenging al-Bashir’s regime had reached an accommodation with the Generals who maintained that they were committed to restoring democracy.
But in 2021 they pushed aside the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and al Burhan took over as the acting Head of State. Dagalo, from Darfur’s camel-herding Arab Rizeigat people, assumed responsibility as his number two.
The beginning of the rivalry between the two Generals, which has culminated in the current spate of armed conflict, lay in the Framework Agreement which effectively elevated Dagalo to equal status with Al Burhan rather than leaving him as Burhan’s deputy. This Framework Agreement’s roots lay in a reconciliation agreement and security sector reform plan formulated by the United States and the UN mission in Sudan.
Immediately after the coup in 2021 the United States and the UN revitalised the plan which created a competition between Dagalo and Burhan and encouraged them to build up their respective forces. The security sector reform envisioned a merger of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) with the regular army, something which was not acceptable to Dagalo.
Meanwhile, senior Sudanese military officials had grown to despise the RSF because, irrespective of ideological leanings, they feared that Hemedti could reduce their power and status if he were to strengthen his position.
In terms of comparative strength on the present battlefield al Burhan has the more formidable force while Dagalo lacks airpower. But the RSF is known to be more battle tested, agile and mobile and well versed in urban warfare.
The RSF was created in 2013 and evolved from the so-called Janjaweed militias, which were accused of war crimes in the Darfur region. Omar Bashir had used the RSF to assist the army in a brutal crackdown of an uprising in Darfur by non-Arab rebel groups, which were protesting the neglect and exploitation of Darfur by the powers in Khartoum. The crackdown was marked by widespread human rights abuses. In 2017, a law legitimising the RSF as an independent security force was passed.
Dagalo has also launched a public relations campaign to project himself as a benevolent leader using Twitter, Facebook and Public Relations companies. In 2019, he turned to the Canadian lobbying firm Dickens and Madson, run by an ex-Israeli spy Ari Ben-Menashe.
In December 2021, the RSF received human rights training from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), generating a backlash from analysts and activists. Hafiz Mohamed, Director of Justice Africa, a research institute in Sudan that campaigns for human rights was reported to have said that the RSF promised to pay top dollar to human rights activists who would work with Dagalo.
Both Generals have their international patrons. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have significant influence with Sudan’s various military and paramilitary groups but also divergent interests. While calling for an end to the fighting Saudi Arabia and the UAE are beholden to Dagalo who sent his soldiers to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. In Dubai, Dagalo had secured a lucrative emporium for the Sudanese gold concessions that he controlled.
Egypt has been close to the Sudanese army with the two armies regularly conducting war games and joint naval exercises at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Egypt is most interested in protecting its interests in a dispute over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Dam.
Dagalo has had the support of General Haftar in Libya. He was said to have previously sent his RSF forces to Libya to fight on behalf of Haftar, along with Wagner mercenaries. Recent reports suggest that the RSF received tankers of fuel and at least one shipment of military supplies from one of Haftar’s son.
This development was said to have caused some concern within Haftar’s Libyan National Army, as it could jeopardise its relations with Egypt, a longtime backer of both Haftar and the Sudanese military chief al- Burhan.
But the country that is most concerned about the outcome of the conflict is Russia. Moscow was planning a Russian naval base on the Red Sea at Port Sudan. Reports also said Moscow had an interest in gold concessions.
Wagner, the Russian mercenary company, was said to have been present in Sudan since 2017 according to Suliman Baldo, founder of Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker. The group had originally come to provide military training and dealt with both the military and the RSF.
Dagalo had visited Moscow on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine and, back in Sudan, had called for stronger bilateral ties between the two countries and specifically the development of the Russian naval base in Port Sudan. The RSF had provided security for a Sudanese company connected to Wagner boss Prigozhin who had garnered gold mining concessions and government approval for a gold processing facility in central Sudan.
In 2020, the US government imposed sanctions on two companies based in Sudan, M Invest and its subsidiary Meroe Gold, which ran the gold processing facility. While the RSF has denied having any dealings with Wagner a Libyan militia with close ties to Wagner was said to have sent supplies to the Dagalo’s forces.
Moscow therefore needed to be careful about its positioning. If it did not get involved and Sudan collapsed following the current conflict, Russia would lose, as it also would if it backed the wrong General.
Meanwhile, the United States had sent its special forces to evacuate its personnel.The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had deployed a team of disaster response experts to coordinate the humanitarian response with international partners. It would initially operate out of Kenya
Countries which had utilised the 72-hour Eid ceasefire to take out their nationals and other expatriates included the United Kingdom, Turkey, France, India, Spain, Egypt,Greece Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and some others. Several nations, including Canada, France, Poland, Switzerland and the US, had halted their embassy operations for the time being.
There has been some comment that the African Union might be best placed to mediate. But the bloodlust that seems to mark the current spate of fighting makes it difficult to visualise the two Generals sitting across a table and talking peace. Looks as if only a miracle will restore Khartoum to its earlier self, a humming capital city.