EDITORIAL: In Sudan, external entities may be the problem or solution
EDITORIAL: Sudan’s week-long war, so far, may have been caused by an internal squabble between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. But outsiders may fuel, or tame it. It depends on how it pans out.
In the days after the RSF clashed with the army, the concern for the region; from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, African Union and the Arab League, as well as the UN, has been a ceasefire to allow evacuation.
The US, for instance, has indicated there could be as many as 20,000 Americans in Sudan, mostly in the capital Khartoum. Other countries in the neighbourhood including Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt and Uganda, have interests in Khartoum: they have significant populations there, and Sudan was doing some form of business with them.
A war in Sudan puts additional, unexpected, costs on these countries to conduct rescue missions. It also curtails trade that was building.
That doesn’t mean everyone is concerned with Sudan’s welfare, however. The gulf between the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces means outsiders, too, get a chance to exploit the country’s resources by taking sides. It all boils down to how these warring factions are structured.
Led by Mohamed Hamdan Daglo Hemedti, the RSF are an offshoot of the Janjaweed, the feared militia that helped Omar al-Bashir put down a rebellion in Darfur from 2003 to 2009. For that brutality, Bashir is indicted at the International Criminal Court for war crimes. Hemedti and his boss in the Sovereign Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan agreed to refuse to hand him over to the ICC. But they are now fighting over supremacy in Sudan.
It appears Bashir’s longhand of oppression could help either side, even though the two generals conspired to oust him back in April 2019. They also agreed to oust the transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in October 2021.
Suliman Baldo, an analyst on Sudan, told Al-Jazeera on Saturday that the coup in 2021 helped isolate Sudan from the world, delaying the economic support it needed to rebuild a tattered economy.
“Sadly, the coup d’état occurred when Sudan was about to reap the benefits of the reforms. Burhan and the military did not even pretend to be for the economy and the people of Sudan,” Baldo said.
“It is a man-made problem we are seeing in Sudan, that of mismanagement of resources.”
That isolation may have hurt Sudan as a state. But it helped Hemedti grow his networks. Burhan was already the definitive representative of Sudan in its stalled transition, and hence he enjoyed some close contact with countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the US.
But Bashir’s legacy was always going to aid either side.
“The roots of this severe and mounting crisis lie in the late years of former President Omar al-Bashir’s disastrous 30-year reign,” said a bulletin from the International Crisis Group on Friday.
“Distrustful of the army, traditionally Sudan’s strongest institution and one with a history of staging coups, Bashir fragmented the security forces into competing centres of power, so that none could unseat him.”
That enabled Hemedti to build the RSF from a counter-insurgency militia accused of atrocities to paramilitary forces that acted as border guards and anti-coup watchers. But Bashir forgot that it was not him they were acting for, so they also built networks beyond Sudan, benefiting from ties with Russia and the United Arab Emirates. These ties were evident on Thursday after the Egyptian government used the United Arab Emirates as interlocutors to help free up detained Egyptian soldiers in Meroe, under the RSF. After the troops were freed, the RSF also issued a statement thanking the “brotherly country and people of Egypt” for always standing by Sudan’s welfare. The Egyptian troops had incidentally been in Sudan on a joint operation, part of a Bashir-era military agreement signed when he was in power.
That may help Hemedti. But outsiders want something in return. Sudan’s gold mines in Darfur, largely under the control of Hemdti’s forces are the stuff foreigners could kill for. Since he became the presumptive powerful money, Hemedti’s gold sales have made him one of the wealthiest men in Sudan. Even the Rapid Support Forces, who act independently of the military, are said to be able to sustain their operations without the need to get to government coffers.
In the post-Darfur era, Hemedti’s contacts in the UAE have also helped him get funding. Before the clashes this week, this worked fine with Burhan as it also ensured that a civilian-led government, which both opposed, could remain distant for a while.
But Hemedti has been smart too. In spite of his limited education and background as a camel trader, he has used foreigners to shape his communication or propaganda. His Twitter and Facebook pages are managed by consultants in the UAE. A source told Garowe Online he pays hefty fees to consultants to help him shape how he communicates. Since the war, he has consistently posted videos of celebrating forces in the streets, and acted as a saviour for the civilians, even when it is clear they are in danger now because of the war he began.
On Saturday, he tweeted: “[I] Discussed the current crisis with UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. [We] Focused on the humanitarian truce, safe passages, and protecting humanitarian workers. Grateful for his dedication to Sudan's stability and eager for UN increased support.”
Earlier in the week, he accused Burhan of atrocities and told Al-Jazeera Arabic that he will bring him to justice once RSF defeats the army. That may sound like a pot calling the kettle black. But it was highly deliberate.
In February, Hemedti saw a loophole in the transition and sided with the civilians. They doubt his authenticity, however, given his past atrocities.
In early April, a planned final agreement for the transition from the military government to civilian rule was postponed to allow the military leaders to resolve their differences over the integration and reform processes to form a single army. That didn’t happen as Hemedti held on to the autonomy of the 70,000 fighters in RSF.
“We cannot have two armies in the country,” said Brig-Gen Nabil Abdallah, Spokesman of the Army.
Hemedti, by then, had metamorphosed into the lead campaigner of the return to civilian rule.
“In courting the civilian elites, Hemedti exploited the fact that many of them – much as they distrust the RSF – view the army as their historical enemy, a redoubt of Bashir sympathisers including Islamists who had staffed the former president’s bureaucracy,” said the International Crisis Group in the bulletin.
As it is, all actors may need to act with urgency, including the African Union. But it will require those with direct influence on the warring parties to prevent a full-blown war.
The problem though is that the desire to push for peace will hinge on whether external parties will benefit from a tranquil Sudan.