Cry, the beloved country: Lament for Sudan
by Paul FitzPatrick
Clearly, I am not an expert on Sudan. I have compiled this report by reading a variety of international sources and talking to country experts and Sudanese refugees. I write in a spirit of solidarity with their suffering. Public coverage in the UK seems to miss important aspects of the conflict.
It’s spread, everywhere. From Meroe in the north, to Kassala in the east, to Darfur in the west, to Kordofan in the south. And in the centre, Khartoum. The city which has avoided the violence of Darfur for twenty years. Few reflect that other Sudanese have suffered this for years.
Since the 2021 coup against President Omar al-Bashir, who himself came to power in a coup in 1989, Sudan has been run by a council of generals, led by the two military men at the centre of the current dispute: Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the armed forces and in effect the country's president; and his deputy and leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, whose forces are now estimated at 100,000 and formalised under legislation passed by parliament.
The RSF is led by Darfurian Arabs known as Janjaweed. The term refers to the armed groups of Arabs from Darfur and Kordofan in western Sudan. Drawn from the far west of the country’s periphery, they have, according to Alex de Waal, in a mere decade become the dominant power in Khartoum. And Hemedti has become the face of Sudan’s violent, political marketplace.
Hemedti rose to power as an enforcer for former president Omar-al Bashir and became rich from the gold trade. He and Burhan, a career army officer, both commanded men in Darfur where as many as 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million displaced in a conflict that escalated in 2003 and continues to this day despite several peace deals.
Assuming the top two positions on Sudan's ruling council after Bashir's 2019 overthrow during a protest movement, they mostly presented a united front in a power sharing arrangement with the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a political coalition which arose from the uprising.
In October 2021, the two men staged a coup. Hemedti, however, quickly came to see that takeover as a mistake which enabled Bashir loyalists to regain some influence. The coup led to weekly street protests and cut short a tentative opening of Sudan's stagnant economy.
As Hemedti bet on an internationally-backed framework agreement for a civilian government, apparently eyeing a future political role for himself, ties grew strained over the chain of command in the new transition agreement and plans to integrate the RSF into the regular army. Hemedti insisted the integration of the RSF should be stretched over 10 years, while General Shams El Din Kabbashi, Burhan's hardline deputy within the army, wanted just two years. Both sides claimed the narrative of 'I'm the only one protecting the democratic transition'".
A week before the fighting, on April 8, Burhan and Hemedti met for the last time at a farm on the outskirts of Khartoum. At this encounter, Burhan asked for the withdrawal of RSF forces from al-Fasher, a city in Hemedti's stronghold of Darfur in Western Sudan, and a halt to flows of RSF troops into Khartoum, which had been taking place for weeks. Hemedti in turn asked that forces from Burhan's close ally Egypt be withdrawn from the Merowe air base, fearing they could be used against him. Despite these talks, Burhan's air force was studying where the RSF was gathered. The RSF, meanwhile, had been locating more and more gunmen at Soba and other camps across Khartoum.
On Saturday, April 15, the first volleys of the war woke RSF troops stationed at Soba. Cannons were positioned in the vicinity and around Hemedti's home in Khartoum. Both sides blamed the other for sparking the ensuing violence and attempting a power grab.
During a temporary truce, thousands of Khartoum residents and foreign visitors were able to flee. The current situation is unclear: according to the South Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the SAF and the RSF have agreed to a seven-day ceasefire from 4 to 11 May.
Other actors in the conflict
British media report the conflict in terms of a power struggle between these two men: but there are others involved, most notably the Russian state and its proxy the Wagner group, variously described as a private military company (PMC), a network of mercenaries, or a de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since 2017, Russian and international sources have published images that appear to locate Russian mercenaries inside Sudan. These are said to show them acting in various roles, including training Sudanese soldiers or allegedly helping the security forces crack down on protests.
Wagner is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur and tycoon from Putin’s native St. Petersburg. Putin gave Prigozhin an award for his service to the state in 2014. Prigozhin and his Concord group of companies were indicted by the US in 2018 for interfering in the 2016 American presidential election.
In mid-2020, the US Treasury accused Prigozhin of undermining democracy in Sudan and exploiting its minerals, and extended an asset freeze to Meroe Gold, a company which it said “serves as a cover” for Wagner forces operating in Sudan. US citizens and entities were also prohibited from entering into any transactions with them.
The European Union sanctioned Wagner in December for allegedly deploying private military operatives to conflict zones to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law.
Across Africa, unstable regimes have sought assistance from Wagner to prop up their governments. Last year, the UK and 14 other governments said they'd witnessed the deployment of Wagner mercenaries to gold-rich Mali to support its military rulers -- an allegation the junta subsequently denied. Its contract soldiers have also backed the government of Central African Republic, one of Africa’s biggest diamond producers, and military commander Khalifa Haftar in an internal power struggle in OPEC member Libya.
Wagner’s secretive and expanding business dealings in Africa show the limitations of Western nations' attempts to censure it and other Russian firms after President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine. The company’s presence in Sudan also ups the ante in a proxy battle between Russia, which has been seeking to forge close ties with Sudan’s military regime, and the US and European Union, which have been pushing for a return to civilian rule.
Transparency International ranks Sudan among the world's 20 most corrupt countries. Finance Minister Gibril Ibrahim last year estimated that only a fifth of the country’s gold output passed through official channels: official bullion output was about 100 metric tons in 2019 and 21.7 tons were exported, central bank data show, leaving more than $4 billion of gold unaccounted for. Gold has not contributed to improving Sudan’s economy.
The Russian war in Ukraine is extremely expensive, and gold from Sudan has been helping to pay for it.
Meanwhile, asked if the British government would look at safe routes for refugees from Sudan, Suella Braverman said: "We have no plans to do that."