The catastrophe in Sudan is threatening to devolve into a full-blown civil war, inviting countries like Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia to take sides. Some experts say, however, that the solution lies not with global outside powers but within Africa itself.
“African nations should step in,” Godwin Toko, a lawyer and activist with the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, in Kampala, Uganda, told PassBlue.
Sudan’s military ruler and head of the army, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the country’s deputy and head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan (known as Hemedti), started a rivalry fight in Sudan’s capital Khartoum and the Darfur region on April 15. Since then, nearly 1,000 people have been killed and 1 million more displaced, according to the United Nations. The UN Population Fund has said more than 219,000 pregnant women in Khartoum alone have been denied medical care. Unicef said the war has forced more than 450,000 children to flee their homes.
A seven-day cease-fire to allow more humanitarian aid into the country, brokered by the Saudis and the US, was agreed to by the two fighting factions, taking effect on Monday. The UN, which has relocated most of its operations to the city of Port Sudan, has conceded that it didn’t see the eruption in violence coming. On May 22, the African Union commissioner for political affairs, peace and security, Bankole Adeoye, told the UN Security Council that the AU has developed a “de-escalation” plan backing, among other goals, the cease-fire and coordinating “international action to avoid duplication of mediation efforts.” The three African elected Council members — Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique — endorsed the plan in Monday’s session.
Earlier in May, an African Union statement reiterated the need for “enhanced collaboration and complementarity of efforts in the Sudan peace process by the international community.” Volker Perthes, the UN envoy for Sudan, said on Monday that stopping the “senseless violence” in Sudan through any “coordinated plan” should involve its neighbors and the region.
The story of the current crisis began about four years ago, when the two Sudanese generals came together to overthrow Sudan’s military head of state, Omar al-Bashir, even though they were part of his government and had played significant roles in helping al-Bashir carry out atrocities in western Darfur. General Hamdan got his start as a commander of the Janjaweed, a militia accused of some of the most horrific war crimes carried out in Darfur, such as torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes. According to a report by CNN, al-Bashir used both Generals Burhan and Hamdan to suppress pro-democracy protesters in 2019 before the two later jointly overthrew him.
The International Criminal Court eventually charged al-Bashir with genocide, but Generals Burhan and Hamdan went on to take influential positions in the transitional government backed by the international community — the West. The involvement of other nations has only emboldened the rival military leaders, dampening chances of true democracy emerging.
In December 2020, the US, to show support of Sudan’s transitional government and its apparent move then toward democracy, removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, opening the way for a pariah country of 45 million people to get access to international loans to boost its economy. But today, this step, taken when Mike Pompeo was US secretary of state, looks like a silver-platter endorsement of two military leaders who could be prosecuted for various human-right violations.
Amgad Fareid, a human-rights activist, said in a blog post that the insistence of the international community on forming a government at all costs legitimized the generals as reformed advocates of democracy. “It is a fight between two partners in one crime, [the] 25 October 2021 coup, over the spoils of their crime. This is a war between two evils who both don’t have the interest of this country in their hearts,” Fareid wrote.
Cameron Hudson, an analyst and consultant on African peace, security and governance issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, blamed the US for allowing the old soldiers to reinvent themselves. “There were two opportunities to take these guys off of the political stage,” Hudson told CNN, referring to the atrocities by both generals to which the West turned a blind eye. “We didn’t do that. Those were our first two mistakes.”
The best way forward for the people of Sudan — the true casualties of this emergency — would be for the two generals to return to their barracks and allow the democratization process to progress, Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden, told PassBlue. But that is unlikely to happen at this stage.
“The international community appears highly divided, and that we see in the UN Security Council; also in each and every international forum,” he added. “There is less likelihood of a uniformed position by the international community on Sudan. Thus, the international community must come together and put their diplomatic and economic resources [together] to stop the ongoing war between the two generals.”
Last week, the US and Saudi Arabia began further coordinating negotiations between the two parties, leading to the new cease-fire, beginning May 22. An earlier effort to pause fighting, starting on April 24, was helped along by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. But despite the two generals sending envoys to the Saudi city of Jeddah for talks to firm up that deal and getting more aid into Sudan, fighting raged on, leaving life-saving goods stuck at ports.
The UN has nevertheless gotten some humanitarian essentials into the country despite the random violence, including in Khartoum. The organization and its partners announced recently that it needed $2.6 billion to help millions of people in the country and hundreds of thousands of others — mostly women and children — escaping to such neighbors as Chad and South Sudan.
But Swain warned that if the two generals are not cut down to size, the crisis could bloom into a full civil war. He also isn’t optimistic about the US or the European Union responding as promptly to this disaster as they did in handing power to a transitional government that legitimized the generals.
“The West basically does not think the conflict in Sudan is going to directly affect its own security and stability as the conflict in Ukraine does,” he said. In contrast, the US and EU, with exceptions like Hungary, fully back Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s aggression.
Anthony Agbegbedia, an expert in peace and conflict studies at Afe Babalola University in Nigeria, said the Sudanese fight was internal, so it should be settled within the country. He lauded the African Union for promptly warning against external interference, which might further inflame the violence. (Negotiations to end the recent war in Ethiopia were convened by the African Union.)
But beyond rhetoric, the main African regional bodies must take a more active role in stifling the flow of arms into the fight and supersede countries with personal interests that might escalate matters, he added. Reports say that Russia has continued to lend military might and weapons to the RSF while it plunders the country’s gold to fortify itself against sanctions aimed at stopping its war in Ukraine.
One way to end the crisis would be for the generals to abide by the country’s constitution, which recognizes only the Sudanese military force led by General al-Burhan. One stumbling block is that the RSF, led by Hamdan with civilian support, wants to be integrated into the Sudanese army.
At the @UN Security Council meeting on #Sudan, I reiterated #IGAD’s unwavering commitment to continue working closely with the #UN, @_AfricanUnion & international actors towards achieving permanent ceasefire.
I underscored the need for coordinated & streamlined efforts to silence… pic.twitter.com/G4WJbwE0mz
— Dr Workneh Gebeyehu (@DrWorkneh) May 22, 2023
Godwin Toko, the Ugandan lawyer and activist, said that overall, Africa needs to be more ambitious in resolving conflicts on the continent, and that Sudan must look inward while also consulting its fellow Africans to find a suitable solution. Although not diminishing the Western influence in various trouble zones throughout Africa, he said that continuing to blame outsiders is “a convenient excuse” that does not reflect well on Africa or its 54 independent countries.
“We cannot continue to look towards the rest of the world,” Toko told PassBlue, adding that the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) should use their strong economic muscle to rally the continent in addressing the challenge.
“African nations should step in with the option of . . . a cease-fire and nudge the warring factions into dialogue,” he said. “If done concertedly, this is achievable as Sudan needs the rest of the continent and whichever political factions reigns supreme will need it [too].”
This article has been updated to correct that Jeddah is not the capital of Saudi Arabia.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.
For the crisis in Sudan, it is essential that African nations take a leading role in resolving the conflict, ensuring accountability through fair investigations, and fostering inclusive dialogue. External involvement should align with Sudanese interests, focusing on support rather than imposition. A sustainable ceasefire and African unity are crucial for long-term stability. By prioritizing regional leadership and collaboration, Sudan can move towards a peaceful resolution that serves the interests of its people and the broader African region.