The forgotten war in Sudan

Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui
Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

There will be no end to the conflict in Sudan until the warring parties jettison their narrow interests and external actors help to bring political stability to the country, writes Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui

 

Memory and attention spans today tend to be short or very short, and even if this is not the case, people are often on the look-out for something new and larger to attract their interest. This fact – that people’s psychological and emotional focus does not remain fixed on a single event for long – is reflected in world politics today.

Up until a few years ago, it was the memory of the Covid-19 pandemic that held people’s attention before this was usurped by images of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and then the Russia-Ukraine war. These in turn have now been overshaded by the war in Gaza, which is now shaping the emotional trajectory of the public.

It has been more than a year since Sudan became trapped in a vortex of armed conflict after the head of the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) declared war on the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). Since the conflict broke out in April 2023, a country of 48 million people has already seen the deaths of around 15,000 people.

One third of the population is already dependent on external humanitarian aid, and the military situation is likely to lead to a further hunger crisis. Banks are being robbed every day across the country, and shops are being looted because the conflict has caused widespread economic disruption. Millions of people have been tapped in the crossfire and are finding it impossible to get food, water, medicine, and other essentials. Many women have been the victims of horrific sexual violence at the hands of the fighters.

The ongoing clashes between the RSF and SAF have forced 9.2 million people to flee their homes, including 2.1 million who have crossed to neighbouring countries such as Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Egypt. There is a high probability of seeing another refugee crisis reaching Europe, which has already been discussing tightening laws to contain immigration, a key issue in last week’s elections to the European Parliament.

Civil conflict is not unknown to Sudan, but this one is different because it was triggered at a time when the nation seemed to be close to political stability after years of unrest in the wake of the ouster of former president Omar Al-Bashir in 2019. Such hopes diminished after war broke out between Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, president of the Sovereign Council of Sudan and a veteran of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), the self-proclaimed leader of Sudan and head of the militia-turned armed group the Rapid Support Forces.

Dagalo had earlier agreed to be the deputy of Al-Burhan, and both men had been working within a transitional political framework with a view to establishing more inclusive politics in Sudan. But political differences emerged, and they started drifting away from each other, eventually becoming bitter rivals.

The origin of the current conflict lies in Dagalo’s refusal to put the RSF under the supervision of the SAF. This emerged when he expressed his unwillingness to disband the RSF and merge it with the SAF, even though this had been earlier agreed. The disagreement deepened and finally ushered in fresh violence. No sovereign state can agree to having two parallel military or security apparatuses. Al-Burhan offered Dagalo two years to surrender his forces to the SAF, but the latter demanded ten years instead, which was clearly unacceptable.

Through the expansion of the conflict Dagalo is eyeing control of the capital city Khartoum and capturing the army headquarters to claim the leadership of the war-torn country. His belligerent actions have embroiled the country further in war, and Sudan will not have peace until the RSF acquires legitimacy, something that is possible only after its merger with the SAF.

Al-Burhan has already dissolved the RSF and classified its members as rebels and the RSF’s action last April as a coup attempt. Today, the RSF is acting like a state within the state. Dagalo has become one of the wealthiest men in Sudan as a result of seizing the country’s gold mines and control of other natural resources. The US has recently sanctioned mining companies doing business with the RSF.

Over the year since the conflict started, all peace efforts have failed. In May 2023, peace talks brokered jointly by the US and Saudi Arabia failed, and further talks held in October failed to bring a desirable outcome. The UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Sudan in Ramadan this year, but this also led nowhere.

The dynamics at play in Sudan today seem to mirror situations that have shaped other conflicts in recent years. The Sudanese crisis has been fuelled by interventions by large, medium-sized, and small powers in the region, which have been pushing the country more towards destruction than peace. Some of these interventions have been propelled by the fear of spillover effects from the conflict. Dagalo is seeking help from regional powers to establish himself as the legitimate ruler of Sudan, and he has reportedly close links with Russian Wagner Group militias.

The crisis in Sudan is not only about the suffering and plight of the people of Sudan, but it is also about the possibility of its spreading outside the confines of Sudan and destabilising the surrounding region. Egypt cannot evade the danger emerging from the conflict next door. Sudan could be hit by famine if the war continues, and if this happens more people will flee. Egypt, sharing a border 1,276 km with Sudan, would be their first destination, representing a major challenge for Egypt’s security and economy.

There have been reports that around 500,000 people have already entered Egypt from Sudan since the fighting began last year. Egypt is already hosting nine million refugees, including four million from Sudan. Its vulnerability could increase if the conflict spreads, and this could pose a threat to Egypt against the background of already mounting challenges as a result of the war in Gaza.

The ongoing conflict in Sudan has also deprived Egypt of the possibility of holding further talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with Sudan as one of the stakeholders along with Ethiopia. The current conflict in Sudan has all the features of a protracted war. There can be no end to it until the warring sides jettison their narrow interests and external actors start to offer solutions that can bring political stability to war-torn Sudan.

 

The writer holds a PhD in international politics and is associated with a Delhi-based foreign policy think tank.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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