Clashes Kill Dozens in Sudan, Prelude to Civil War, Again?
When Sudan is in the international news, it’s not because the country has opened a new theme park or hosted an international sporting event. Since the 1990s, Sudan has made news typically because of terrorism (hosting Osama bin Ladin), genocide, and coups. And clashes between the two leading forces in the country has the world paying attention to Sudan right now. The situation is somewhere between a coup and a nascent civil war.
Yesterday, the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, which is an evolution of the Janjaweed militia responsible for the Darfur genocide (and led by Sudan’s Vice President Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti), launched attacks against the military led by President Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The trigger appears to be increasing disagreement over the integration of RSF into the Sudanese military as part of the latest attempt to transition to democracy.
The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, which is collating casualties, said 45 of those civilians were killed in the capital city of Khartoum and 29 others were killed in the provinces, with the town of Nyala recording the most fatalities. Separately, three Sudanese staffers with the World Food Program were killed Saturday elsewhere in the western region of Darfur, and a U.N. document mentioned two deaths in the city of Bahri.
According to Euronews:
Heavy fighting involving armoured vehicles, truck-mounted machine guns and warplanes raged Sunday in the capital of Khartoum, the adjoining city of Omdurman and in flashpoints across the country. The rival forces are believed to have tens of thousands of fighters each in the capital alone.
The US ambassador to Sudan, John Godfrey, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that he had taken shelter with his embassy staff.
“Escalation of tensions within the military component to direct fighting is extremely dangerous,” Godfrey wrote. “I urgently call on senior military leaders to stop the fighting.”
The president and vice president have served under a power sharing agreement since they orchestrated a 2021 coup. They overthrew the transitional government that stood up after a protest movement finally ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. He originally took power by coup in 1989.
According to a Congressional Research Service report in 2019, things were initially looking up after Bashir’s departure.
Bashir’s ouster drew cautious optimism initially, as the [Transitional Military Council] released hundreds of political prisoners. Political space in Khartoum opened, and authorities allowed the press to operate more freely. Foreign correspondents were granted visas. Hopes for a quick transfer of power to civilians dimmed, however, when talks stalled between the TMC and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition of pro-democracy elements that signed the [Declaration of Freedom and Change]. The protesters maintained their vigil in Khartoum for almost two months, until June 3, when security forces violently dispersed them in an incident that was extensively documented on mobile phone cameras.
By the end of the summer of 2019, Sudan had formed a fragile transitional government under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The plan was to navigate the country to elections in 2023. Hamdok survived assassination and coup attempts but stepped down in January 2022.
That led to the power sharing arrangement that has now broken down. And not surprisingly, there are various outside interests aligned with the warring factions and concerns about spillover, according to the Post.
Hemedti has close ties with Russia, whose mercenary Wagner group reportedly supports his gold-mining interests, while Burhan is backed by neighboring Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation. Instability in Sudan has also frequently bled over into its fragile neighbors; to its west, Chad has already announced it closed the border between the two nations.
Sudan’s history follows a familiar colonial/post-colonial pattern in the Middle East and North Africa region. The nation spent the first half of the 20th Century under British-Egyptian rule. It gained independence in 1956 and that unleashed decades of coups and civil wars between the predominantly Arab Muslim population in the north and the predominantly Christian-Animist African population in the south (which as of 2011 is the independent nation of South Sudan).
Amid all that, the regime in Khartoum responded to an uprising in the western Darfur region in 2003 by unleashing the Janjaweed militia, which led to genocide and an international spotlight on the country.
In late 2007, the United Nations launched a new peacekeeping mission in Darfur to replace the small African Union-led force that had struggled to prevent ongoing violence. That was the story I traveled to Sudan to cover in November 2007.
It was only my second international reporting trip, and I was in way over my head in terms of navigating the crushing bureaucracy of a regime that didn’t like the media or America. Plus, I was unprepared for the slick pro-government PR campaign and the fact that you couldn’t use credit cards in the country. You can read more about that fiasco in my book this summer.
What I saw in my brief time on the ground in 2007 was a population fatigued from decades of civil war and brutal Islamist rule that just wanted to be able to live and work without fear of violence or running afoul of the regime. There were some agitating for reform and democracy, but the regime had too much power and control then for any movement to take root.
It was an eye-opening experience to spend time with Sudanese people who were kind, generous, and pro-American (in that they wanted more help from America and wanted the United States to pressure the regime to stop being violent and oppressive) and to engage with government and security officials who were not good people and frankly lying, conniving, and just kind of gross.
In the years after my visit, the government and the rebel movement in Darfur more or less made peace, and the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on genocide charges.
In November 2010, three years after my visit to Khartoum and Darfur, I traveled to South Sudan to report on the preparations for its independence referendum, which was one of the provisions agreed to after the most recent round of civil war that ended in 2005.
Several things were immediately clear in South Sudan. One, there was no question the territory was going to vote near unanimously for independence given the decades of civil war and resultant animosities. Two, within probably a year of gaining independence, South Sudan would turn on itself as the lack of a common enemy would result in the major tribes in South Sudan fighting with each other in a competition for power in the new state. Three, South Sudan was going to be one of the most poor, fragile, and violent nations in the world shortly after gaining independence, and the international community was not the least bit prepared and positioned to head it off, or at least try to minimize it.
All that came to pass, and hundreds of thousands were killed, and millions fled. South Sudan has been under a tenuous peace since 2018 and remains one of the most fragile countries in the world.
Sudan fared better in the years after South Sudan gained independence, but that’s a low bar to cross.
However, the country is entering another new and uncertain chapter. The international community is of course calling for restraint and dialogue.
This is very much a developing and ongoing situation that could easily escalate into a civil war between a militia numbering somewhere around 70,000 and a military of more than 200,000.
One thing to watch for is who takes the lead in mediating and what that says about who carries the most sway in the country. China, Russia, Egypt, Qatar, the United States, and others have interests and influence to varying degrees. And just as different countries have aligned behind opposing groups in Libya, Syria, and Mali, countries are weighing their interests in Sudan. Whether that makes things better or worse remains to be seen.
In the meantime, the following is another deleted book scene for paid subscribers. It details the epic battle I fought with my hotel in Khartoum in 2007 when they tried to hit me with a surprise tax when I checked out.
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