At the time of writing, the UN Special Representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes, has spoken with the two rival parties in Sudan and neither one has any intention of backing down. He spoke to Al Jazeera News earlier today at 7pm. At that time, the number of fatalities reported by doctors on the ground were 185, with more than 1,800 (civilians and military), injured. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the situation in Sudan was already ‘catastrophic’ and is now ‘precarious’, i.e. dangerously insecure and unstable. This is now day 3 of the conflict which started over the weekend.
To put things into perspective, Sudan is Africa’s third largest country with a population of 45 million. When you look at it compared to the size of Ukraine, it’s way bigger. Try it for yourself on www.thetruesize.com. Speaking of Ukraine, Russia is no stranger to Sudan. Sudan’s long standing leader, Omar al-Bashir, ousted in 2019 by the two warring Generals who came together then but now hate each other, struck up alliances with Russia in 2017. Bashir recruited Wagner mercenaries to help out his struggle regime. Bashir offered Putin lucrative access to Port Sudan on the eastern coast, the Red Sea; and Wagner were lured in by the prospect of the money the could make from Sudan’s gold mines.
‘On one side is a militia, and on the other side is a general who has turned the army into a militia to help him stay in power’.
(Declan Walsh, NYT, 15.4.23)
Each party blames the other but there’s no good side, according to retired Army Commander Richard Kemp in today’s Telegraph. Of concern will be the deluge of refugees that neighbouring countries such as Chad, Eritrea and South Sudan could be flooded with if the conflict continues.
Already in Darfur, a region of West Sudan half the size of Spain, age old ethnic differences are resurfacing when it still hasn’t quite recovered from the genocide under Bashir. Refugees from the Darfur conflict ended up mainly in Chad, which shares a 600 mile border with Sudan: mainly Darfur. They said they will be closing their border until further notice, (Walsh, NYT, 14.4.23).
In fact, Sudan borders on seven countries. It also has a long coastline on the Red Sea (where Russia were interested in having a Naval Base), through which much of Europe’s oil passes, (FT. 17.4.23).
Chief Africa correspondent for the New York Times, Declan Walsh, gives a good background in an article he wrote shortly before the conflict erupted. Four years ago, he writes, ‘protesters massed at the military’s gates to demand the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the widely detested ruler of three decades’, (NYT, 6.4.23). Bashir went to prison and a transition government was put in place, headed by PM Abdalla Hamdok. Hamdok resigned in January 2022 after the two Generals who helped oust Bashir decided to take power themselves: one as President and one as Vice President. Nice.
‘The marriage of Hemedti and Burhan was always a marriage of convenience that was not likely to last’.
(Chidi Odinkalu, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University, quoted in the FT)
Sudan was supposed to hand back power to civilian leaders this month: this week, in fact. Under the western backed deal signed in December last year, General al-Burhan and General Hamdan (‘Hemedti’), had agreed to return power to a civilian led government, thereby reversing the October 2021 coup that resulted in the transitional PM, Abdalla Hamdok, resigning in January 2022. The handover required a merging of forces on both sides: the state army and the RSF. This wasn’t a friendly conversation and Hamdan seemed quite keen to promote himself from Vice President to President and forget any hand over, whilst at the same time selling his boss down the river. Now, according to the Financial Times, both see this as a right in existential terms and a power struggle for who will control Sudan. Each one has also much at stake, not just power, but economically and financially, (FT, 17.4.23).
‘Sudan may be Africa’s third largest country, but it’s clearly not big enough for both of them’.
(The FT’s Editorial Board, 17.4.23).
President Fattah al-Burhan has been accused of building a wall around his headquarters to isolate himself from the country and, according to Hemedti’s brother, (who happens to be Deputy in Command of the RSF paramilitary forces), doesn’t care if the rest of the country burns outside of that wall. Meanwhile, Hemedti said on Twitter that his rival and President is a ‘radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air’. Not only that but the name calling continued in an interview with Al Jazeera, in which he called al-Burhan a ‘liar’ who would be ‘brought to justice like a dog’. Nice words from someone who became a big wig under Bashir for his participation in the Darfur genocide. The RSF was created in 2013 by then President Omar al-Bashir to crush the rebellion in Darfur, because the state army weren’t able to mount a counter insurgency and fight the rebels alone. The Darfur genocide started because of the central government’s political marginalisation of non-Arab ethnic minorities in, (Guardian, 17.4.23). The main component of Bashir’s power back then was the National Congress Party and what one might call a ‘military commercial complex of different plutocrats and kleptocrats around the military and the state’, (Newshour, BBC World Service, 17.4.23). While the Islamist movement itself has been dismantled, many of those Islamists who clustered around Bashir are still there. They are now aligning with Burhan and hoping that he prevails and is able to establish his own military authoritarian government: if he comes out of this on top, (Alex de Waal for BBC World Service, 17.4.23).
The RSF were also involved in the killings of pro-democracy protesters in Khartoum on 3rd June 2019 under Bashir; and again in protests in the October 2021 coup – protests that triggered a new campaign of pro-democracy rallies across Sudan, (Reuters, 17.4.23).
For Burhan’s part, he has now declared Hemedti and his RSF militia as a rebel group and ordered its dissolution.
Egypt have sided with General Burhan and the state army. Over the weekend, the RSF detained Egyptian soldiers at Marawi/Merowe Airbase, north of Khartoum; roughly 250 miles from the border with Egypt. They had been stationed there for joint exercises with General Burhan’s state army. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have allies on both sides, albeit that it was RSF mercenaries who aided both countries fight the Iran sponsored Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Now of concern is that Sudan ‘has become a flashpoint in the wider global rivalry between the West and Russia’, (Walsh, NYT, 15.4.23). Be careful of this as though there are links, the association carries risks of escalation if carried too far. I quite liked one of the comments beneath the FT Editorial Board’s article in today’s FT View: ‘Why would they agree to a ceasefire? The whole point is that there can be only one guy in charge and they will fight until one is. The other will seek refuge in Moscow, pockets full of gold and diamonds’.
A great source for me is the BBC World Service Newshour. I often find that radio reaches depths that are harder to cover on TV. You can listen on BBC Sounds World Service play back if you download the app. They’re also featured on Apple Pod Casts.
‘Sudan’s Warring Generals must pull back from the Brink’, the FT’s Editorial Board, 17.4.23:
The New York Times on the conflict, 17.4.23. Good for background on General Fattah al-Burhan, who served as a regional Army Commander in Darfur, Western Sudan, during the 2003-2008 war that killed 300,000 and displaced millions. It details General Mohamed Hamdan, ‘Hemedti’, and his RSF militia. It also explains the 2019 Power Sharing Agreement after Bashir was ousted.
‘Two Generals Took Over a Country. Will They Deliver Democracy or War?’, Declan Walsh for the New York Times, 6.4.23:
‘Rival Generals Unleash Fighting in Sudan, Dashing Dreams of Democracy’, Declan Walsh, New York Times, 15.4.23:
Reuters today, 17.4.23:
Reuters on the background behind the current conflict, 15.4.23:
The Guardian’s background on one of the belligerents, Hemedti, in the Sudan crisis, 17.4.23:
Both sides reject cease fire as fighting escalates, The Guardian, 17.4.23:
Wagner’s role in Sudan, Al Jazeera, 17.4.23:
Lavrov visits Sudan, Al Jazeera, 9.2.23:
The Daily Mail on Wagner and Russia in Sudan, 17.4.23:
Richard Kemp for the Telegraph on Wagner’s involvement in Sudan, 19.4.23:
An excellent article from 9th September 2020 by 2 academics, Edward Thomas and Alex de Waal, for the BBC. It gives a really useful timeline:
The Horn is a podcast affiliated with Crisis Group, that focuses on Africa:
Feature image: Omer Erdem/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Map of Sudan
African Union Map 2019
A Horn pod cast from 2nd February 2023 between presenter Alan Boswell and Gama Kunda Komey, a former peace adviser to Sudan’s last Prime Minister. It’s free to listen to and is a good source on Africa full stop:
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