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Civil war, human crisis loom in Sudan

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Picture: RSF via AFP – In this image taken from video footage released by the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) this week, fighters wave assault rifles as they cross a street in the East Nile district of greater Khartoum. Witnesses have reported fresh air strikes and paramilitaries claimed to have seized a major oil refinery and power plant.

By Ishaan Tharoor

Chaos, lawlessness and fear grip much of Sudan. It has been a week since the tension between the country’s two most prominent generals exploded into full-blown battles that have sprawled across the country of some 46 million people, turning the teeming capital, Khartoum, into a ghost town and triggering a wave of refugees fleeing for safety.

Temporary ceasefires, including one over the Eid holiday, failed to stem the conflict, which, at its root, is a contest for power between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander of the Sudanese armed forces and the de facto head of state, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, universally referred to as Hemedti, who heads the influential paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

In the shadow of their clashes, the Sudanese state is coming apart at its seams. Lacking power, water and vital supplies, or hit by heavy weapons, many hospitals have been forced to shut. Armed groups of varying affiliations have looted houses and businesses, compelling civilians who have not found a way to escape to weigh the grim choice between hunger and deprivation indoors and the security risks outside.

“Anything we hear in the news is a lie,” a Khartoum science teacher told my colleagues. “The fire is getting stronger. We can’t stay here. If you do not die from the bombs, you will die of hunger. There is nothing in the markets to eat.”

Intense urban warfare in the capital led to mortar fire landing in civilian homes and a hodgepodge of militias running rampant in various towns and neighbourhoods. Conservative estimates from the World Health Organisation (and other UN Agencies) suggest at least more than 400 people have been killed nationwide, with thousands more wounded. “Windows have been sealed against stray bullets and the stench of death,” my colleagues reported.

Local staffers for several international organisations, including the World Food Programme, are among the dead. Foreigners have been targets, too: a US diplomatic convoy came under fire last week, while a leading EU humanitarian official was shot and seriously injured. A host of foreign governments are trying to co-ordinate evacuations of their citizens from Sudan. The US, which counts some 16,000 nationals in the country, evacuated its embassy personnel and their families in the early hours of Sunday. So, too, did a host of other Western countries.

Aid agencies warn of a deepening humanitarian crisis in a country facing mounting hunger even before the fighting began. Thousands of people have trekked across the arid border with Chad; UN officials are preparing for some 100,000 Sudanese refugees to arrive in the coming days.

At the end of last week, Abdou Dieng, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Sudan, urged peace. “As we are ending the holy month of Ramadaan and celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a time of peace and reconciliation, I call on all parties to the conflict to immediately end the fighting and work towards a peaceful resolution,” he said.

Peace seems nowhere in sight. In 2021, Burhan and Hemedti worked together to bring down a weak civilian-led government, placing themselves in power, with assurances to the international community that they would shepherd through a democratic transition that had begun after the 2019 ouster of long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Instead, the two consolidated their positions, held civil society and the pro-democracy camp at arm’s length (even as they pledged in December to eventually restore civilian rule), and enriched themselves and their allies. The tension came to a head amid disagreements over how and when to integrate Hemedti’s RSF into the regular Sudanese military.

The leaders are vowing to fully defeat each other, with unprecedented scenes of violence gripping Khartoum. Even if the army does secure the capital, and Hemedti retreats to Darfur – the insurgency-hit region where Hemedti built his reputation as the leader of a vicious pro-government militia – “a civil war could well follow, with potentially destabilising impact in neighbouring Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan, which are all already scarred by conflict to varying degrees”, explained a policy memo from the International Crisis Group last week.

“Further, Sudan is riddled with countless other armed groups and communal militias, any or all of which could throw in its lot with Burhan or Hemedti, turning a two-sided war into a much more complex free-for-all, especially in the country’s peripheral areas.”

Hemedti has reportedly received aid from renegade Libyan general Khalifa Hifter, whose own campaigns have been buttressed by Sudanese fighters from Darfur and who is closely linked to Russian mercenary company Wagner, which also has operations in Sudan. According to some reports, Wagner offered to transfer heavy weapons to Hemedti’s RSF.

Russian officials have also eyed basing rights in Port Sudan, which could give the Kremlin a major naval presence in the Red Sea and, by extension, the Indian Ocean. Sudan finds itself at the centre of a regional chess game, with Russia just one of a web of outside powers vying for influence in Africa’s third-largest country.

Egypt is a staunch ally of Burhan, who attended the same military college as Egypt’s coup-plotting dictator, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. The United Arab Emirates is publicly neutral, but enlisted Hemedti’s RSF in waging its campaigns in Yemen; in Dubai, Hemedti has secured a lucrative emporium for the Sudanese gold concessions that he controls.

“Everyone wanted a chunk of Sudan and it couldn’t take all the meddling,” Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese analyst at the Rift Valley Institute, a research group, told The New York Times. “Too many competing interests and too many claims, then the fragile balance imploded, as you can see now.”

Diplomats who have navigated Sudan’s tortured politics fear an even darker turn in a nation that is no stranger to ruinous war. The experience of neighbouring South Sudan, which won independence from Khartoum after decades of conflict only to be torn apart by the rivalries of two warlords, offers a troubling, if only partial, guide. “No situation in the past has been like this. It’s a nightmare,” Endre Stiansen, the Norwegian ambassador to Sudan, told Al Jazeera, warning that outside powers may make the situation worse.

“The only way to get stability … is to have an inclusive transition towards democracy.” And yet there are reasons to be cynical about such rhetoric. “The precipitating event of the current war in Sudan was a reconciliation agreement and security sector reform plan that was pushed by the United States and the UN mission in Sudan,” wrote Justin Lynch in Foreign Policy. “Immediately after the coup (in 2021) … the United States and the UN revitalised the plan. This”, he added, simply “created a competition that incentivised (Hemedti) and Burhan to build up their forces”.

Jeffrey Feltman, a former UN official and former US envoy for the Horn of Africa, argued that the two generals could not be part of a lasting solution. “The greatest disservice that could be done to the Sudanese people, to the integrity of Sudan as a sovereign state, to the security of Sudan’s neighbours, and indeed to international peace and security, would be to allow negotiations between the belligerents to yield yet another internationally endorsed compromise predicated on power-sharing,” Feltman wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

“At least now it should be clear that Burhan and Hemedti are not reformers – and that they will never be reformed,” Feltman said.

Ishaan Tharoor is a foreign affairs columnist at The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column.

This article was first published in The Washington Post