Is it too late to banish the specter of civil war in Sudan?
Here we are again, with yet another state in the Arab and African arenas erupting in flames. At root, the Sudan conflict is prosaically simple — two figures are willing to burn their nation to the ground through their all-consuming desire to be president, as if the right to govern could be claimed by force rather than by the popular will.
Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemedti, is thought to have begun his career as a camel rustler before distinguishing himself with the Janjaweed militia in Darfur, carrying out genocidal campaigns along with systematic rape, looting and livestock raiding. An estimated 300,000 people were slaughtered and 2.5 million displaced during the still-unresolved Darfur conflict.
I encountered Hemedti when I traveled as a journalist with the entourage of the loathsome dictator Omar Bashir when he was president. I recall a short, ineloquent and unimpressive figure, literally in Bashir’s shadow. Having stabbed his mentor Bashir in the back, Hemedti’s forces were responsible in 2019 for an appalling massacre on the streets Khartoum of several hundred civilian protesters who were tortured, raped, murdered and tossed in the Nile —prefiguring the savagery of recent days.
Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan was a career military officer who was a regional army commander in Darfur before ascending to the highest ranks of the military. When Hemedti and Burhan colluded in their 2021 coup against the civilian leadership, the entire nation rose in anger against them and largely thwarted their ambitions. Now Burhan and Hemedti are waging war against each other. After days of fighting, both sides boast partial control of key institutions such as the presidential palace and Khartoum airport.
The perennial outsider whose tribe is from outside Sudan, Hemedti and his Rapid Support Forces appear to have relished laying waste to prosperous central districts of Sudan’s cosmopolitan capital. In the past few years there has been modest economic progress, with inflation reined in, trade deficit reductions, and progress toward debt forgiveness. But each successive military intervention undermined these advances. The latest developments will torpedo the economy completely, torching districts that are traditional motors of the national economy.
Burhan’s army has control of the skies and heavier weaponry, but Hemedti’s battle-hardened forces have recent experience of no-holds-barred conflict, with many having been mercenaries in Libya and Yemen. How many farcical failed ceasefires must we go through to demonstrate that neither side cares anything about the population they aspire to rule?
With streets littered with rotting corpses, citizens are making terrifying decisions about whether to hunker down or flee, with food and water becoming increasingly difficult to access. Sudan already had Africa’s second-largest displaced population, with over a million civilians forcibly displaced. Even before the latest fighting, the UN predicted that 16 million Sudanese would require humanitarian assistance in 2023.
To prevent Sudan also plunging into outright anarchy, Arab states must assertively act to halt the carnage.
In a few brief years, Hemedti’s RSF was allowed to mushroom from about 4,000 to 100,000 men. The ease with which he was permitted to build up such a massive personal force is a salutary lesson to other states where overmighty paramilitary forces threaten to outgun the army and constitute a state within a state. I’m particularly thinking of Lebanon and Iraq, where military figures have previously warned me that regular armies may ultimately be compelled to confront groups such as Hezbollah and Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. The cowardly failure to rein in such paramilitary behemoths when they were smaller and less well armed condemns entire nations to embroilment in conflict.
This conflict in Sudan is rapidly becoming internationalized. Russia’s mercenary Wagner group has a long-standing relationship with Hemedti’s RSF, colluding to loot vast quantities of Sudan’s gold reserves. US officials warn that Wagner has rushed to offer weapons to Hemedti, who was also reported to have taken delivery of fuel and weapons from the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. Egyptian troops in Sudan were abducted by the RSF and then released, with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi having provided support to Burhan in the past. Hemedti has sought to draw on past associations with various Arab leaders, but many of them appear to prefer a scenario in which the regular army rapidly prevails and restores order.
Given the ferocity of the fighting and mass dispersal of communities in Darfur, this conflict risks spilling over into already unstable states such as Chad and Libya. Africa’s entire Sahel region is a patchwork of conflicts — including Somalia, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, the Lake Chad region, Burkina Faso and Mali.
To prevent Sudan also plunging into outright anarchy, Arab states must assertively act to halt the carnage. Let’s not have another scenario like Syria, where Arab states are pushed to the sidelines while a host of second-rate powers make the crisis infinitely worse. The international community must do more than simply airlifting nationals. That such measures are being taken indicates that diplomats see this as a long-term conflict rather than a brief and resolvable flare-up.
If both parties are resolved upon fighting to the death, perhaps the least-worst solution is decisively shifting the fight in favor of a swift restoration of order by the national army. Beyond this, Sudanese citizens unambiguously desire a return to civilian governance, with a stark absence of popular support for military leaders on either side. The 2019 Sudanese popular revolution must be carried through to its logical conclusion, ensuring the supremacy of a civilian governing system based on free elections and without a role for anybody wearing military fatigues other than to defend the constitution.
Sudan, with its gold, oil and other natural resources, shouldn’t be an impoverished, dysfunctional nation. The rich agricultural lands to Sudan’s south make the country an essential conduit for the Middle East’s food supplies. But successive leaderships squandered the country’s wealth through systematic corruption and destructive wars.
A more resilient nation, and broader region, must emerge from this catastrophe. African and Arab neighbors, along with the international community, must do all in their power to halt the carnage.
Sudan lies at the gateway between the Arab and African worlds — shoring up Sudanese stability and popular governance is crucial for the wellbeing of both.
• Baria Alamuddin