June 2023

Talking tough

Tanya Vatsa  explores the backdrop to the brutal civil war in Sudan, assessing global responses to the conflict and urging concerted action to broker a workable solution

The utopian desire for an accountable democratic government seems to have swallowed another country in the turbulent Middle East and North African region (MENA). Sudan’s descent into brutal chaos began 20 years ago with the Darfur rebellion, under the military dictatorship of former leader Omar al-Bashir, so the civil war now ravaging Khartoum came as no surprise to global spectators. Cradled in the womb of the strategically significant Red Sea, militarily and politically volatile Sahel region and the Horn of Africa, Sudan has remained relevant for its critical location and agricultural wealth. Paradoxically, it is this very geographical aspect that adds to its political instability as it lies close to war-torn Ethiopia, Chad, Libya and South Sudan.

A military coup in 2019 overthrew the long-term despot Omar al-Bashir, cultivating hopes for a participatory democracy after years of exploitation. Yet thee hopes crashed with the next military coup under General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, which took civilians by surprise and pushed Sudan into its current economic and political turmoil. Khartoum has joined the unfortunate cohort of Arab nations which failed to institute democratic governments and are heaving through military wars with civilians caught in the cross-fire. The narrow, avaricious interests of their political elites have driven these nations into the ground, and there is a notable lack of global empathy for the plight of the people.

The seeds of discord were sown years ago and are attributable to Bashir’s divisive politics. In a bid to counter regional rebellion and generate a false sense of security in Central Sudan, Bashir created local factions and empowered them to perform military duties in their respective regions. One such faction was the Janjaweed, created and deployed in Darfur to counter the regional revolt rooted in the marginalisation of largely non-Arab locals by the Central Sudanese government. The ethnic fracture with Bashir’s Arab administration formed the crux of the issue. Under the leadership of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), the Janjaweed (Arab faction) came to be known for its atrocities in Darfur, including murders, abductions and systemic rapes. Bashir endorsed the dominance of Hemedti’s Janjaweed and its cruelty, elevating it to a semi-organised paramilitary force known as the Rapid Support Force (RSF). But the former leader made the monumental mistake of believing that his ambitiousness was unrivalled.

CRUEL REPUTATION: Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), leader of the Janjaweed

While Bashir’s rising insecurity created several military factions across the country to ensure the longevity of his rule, his generals were plotting to displace him through exploiting the brimming public disaffection. The Sudanese Army, led by Gen. al-Burhan, created an illusion of power-sharing with the civilian government representatives and ousted Bashir. At the time, riding on popular sentiment, the Army was supported by Hemedti’s RSF. However, the bonhomie did not last long and the current war is an aftermath of attempts at consolidation of power in the capital by al-Burhan and Hemedti.

Hemedti’s hegemony in Darfur remained unchallenged till the second coup in 2021, when the Sudanese Army disrupted the promised transition to a democratic civilian government. The said talks proposed the integration of the RSF into the army without specifying a timeline. To al-Burhan’s dismay, the proposal also suggested placing the RSF under civilian rather than military command. Vast fault-lines appeared between the two while they negotiated the leadership structure of the new government. Neither seemed willing to compromise power to the other.

Talks proposed the integration of the RSF into the army without specifying a timeline

Having garnered massive wealth from the export of gold from illegal mines in Darfur, Hemedti was able to command an army of war veterans. With his foothold in Darfur, a deepening rift with the army, spiralling distrust in the region and an ever-increasing thirst for power, the RSF began mobilising forces across the country. The army’s formal order that the RSF stand down served as the final nail in the coffin and the situation escalated to a ful- blown civil war.

This war zone has drawn global interest from top players including the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Quad, together with the trilateral mechanism (troika) including the United Nations, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, had attempted to broker an agreement between the warring parties. Occasional ceasefires have been endorsed and celebrated by the groupings but no significant outcome has been achieved. The Arab nations have a large stake, with Sudan being largely Islamic and hosting a 39 per cent Arab population. The West seems to be driven by the fear of Russian interest in a military base in the Red Sea. Another issue is the alleged illegal import of gold by Moscow, which is fuelling the fear of Russian support to Hemedti, threatening to create contours of division and external military backing. These allegations have, however, been denied by the Kremlin.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

The security vacuum created by Sudan’s civil war is being exploited by local tribal armed groups to assert themselves

soldiers and tanks on the streets of Khartoum
Sudan’s current bloody civil war is rooted in its recent history

Although the recent talks in Jeddah had raised hopes of fruitful outcomes, every intervention was followed by an escalation of the conflict in Sudan. The gaping hole in the process of diplomacy, whoseobjective was establishing a democratic government, was the lack of any civilian  participation. The Sudanese delegations represented the military and para-military factions and seemed present only to garner the support of larger nations. The half-hearted attempt at reconciliation is largely driven by the interests of the duo in asserting dominance and superiority in a challenging multi-polar global front by being the torch-bearers of peace in Sudan. A real solution will require more intricate diplomacy and a wider engagement for brokering a sustainable power arrangement, especially inclusive of civilian representation.

So, is there a better way forward?

Sudan’s civilians have endured consistent wars and conflicts, with Bashir’s long, tedious and tyrannical rule being the only exception for the frustrated Sudanese. The outsourcing of military activities to private parties only served to multiply the number of oppressors. The civil war has killed many people and trapped others without resources in the sweltering Sudanese heat. As witnessed in most surrounding nations, the people are paying a heavy price for the elite guard’s political and military blunders. The al-Burhan-Hemedti rivalry threatens to engulf the capital and its periphery if any of the warring factions from neighboring countries (Ethiopia or Libya) join or support the clash on either side. Another distasteful outcome is Sudan becoming another ground for a proxy war between global powers, driving their own interests and perpetuating larger feuds.

Given the current situation, the economic recession and the never-ending conflicts in Eastern Europe and the MENA region, most countries have spread their resources thinly and are on the verge of exhaustion. It is in the best interests of all parties to broker an arrangement and find a middle ground between Sudan’s two most powerful warring factions. The security vacuum created by Sudan’s civil waris being aggressively exploited by local tribal armed groups to assert themselves, thus feedinginto ethnic rifts within the country.

If the war continues to fester, Khartoum will join the lengthening list of failed states, pushing thousands towards a critical humanitarian crisis. It is time for the world to stop abandoning its people by leaving tyrants to abuse fragile security architecture. The larger message of Sudan’s failure would be yet more citizenry paying a terrible price for demanding the basic right of transparency and accountability from its governing body. If hope becomes as perilous as it has proved to be for some, humanity as a whole will be threatened.

Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti