Sudan – how did it come to this?

The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today is neither Gaza nor Ukraine.

By: /
25 March, 2024
Abdalla Hamdok a rempli les fonctions de 15e Premier ministre du Soudan à deux reprises : d’août 2019 à octobre 2021, puis de novembre 2021 à janvier 2022, moment où il a remis sa démission. Image : Wikimédia Commons, Ola A. Alsheikh Abdalla Hamdok a rempli les fonctions de 15e Premier ministre du Soudan à deux reprises : d’août 2019 à octobre 2021, puis de novembre 2021 à janvier 2022, moment où il a remis sa démission. Image : Wikimédia Commons, Ola A. Alsheikh
Nicholas Coghlan
By: Nicholas Coghlan
Former Canadian diplomat

In Sudan, eight million people have been displaced from their homes since conflict between two army factions broke out in April 2023. Of these, 1.6 million have fled to neighbouring countries. Nearly half the population – some 25 million people – are also in urgent need of humanitarian assistance; 80% of hospitals are out of commission; all schools are closed. Khartoum, the fiercely contested capital, with a population of over 6 million is in ruins. Cholera is also spreading while it is forecast that by June much of the country will be experiencing famine. In the western region of Darfur, the Janjaweed – the Devils on Horseback who brought the world the first genocide of the 21st century – ride again.

The fighting shows no sign of ebbing. The generals commanding the two factions – Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti, or “Little Mohamed”) of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) both believe they can win. Both are refusing entreaties to meet face-to-face; in early March the SAF rejected a call from the UN Security Council for a Ramadan ceasefire, evidently hoping to capitalise on recent military momentum in their favour.  

Regional Implications

Regional proliferation is also beginning. Hemedti, for example, has made effective use of his longstanding ties with the United Arab Emirates (for years the RSF supplied the Gulf state with mercenaries for the war in Yemen, and through Dubai it markets the gold from mines that it controls) to persuade the Sheikhs that if it’s a return to Islamism in Sudan that worries them most, then he’s the one to bet on. The result has been money and weapons for his cause. The arms come in overland with the help of the UAE’s client faction in Libya and – with facilitation by the Wagner organisation – through the Central African Republic; by air they are delivered through eastern Chad.

Perhaps more significantly, UAE support, which is not officially acknowledged, but is an open secret has encouraged African governments to take Hemedti seriously. When stepping off a UAE-supplied royal jet these days, he is received at Head of State level. Jarringly for many ordinary Sudanese – for he is widely perceived as guilty of genocide in Darfur – he was received in Pretoria by President Cyril Ramaphosa within hours of South Africa lodging its genocide case against Israel at The Hague. And, on the same tour, Rwandan President Paul Kagame accompanied him as he solemnly signed the Book of Remembrance at the Kigali genocide memorial. 

Hemedti’s rival, General al-Burhan, has meanwhile been forced into reactive mode. He sent his foreign minister to make diplomatic overtures to Iran, a country which was already supplying the SAF with drones. But such a rapprochement will not endear him to closer neighbours and will set alarm bells ringing in the west. Al-Burhan himself has visited Algeria to look for support. This is the home of the UN Secretary General’s recently appointed Special Envoy for Sudan, Ramtane Lamamra; he is unlikely to receive any special favours here. In pique at the reception given to Hemedti by IGAD – the region’s political grouping – al-Burhan announced he was suspending Sudan’s participation in that organisation. 

Meanwhile, Sudan’s immediate neighbours are looking on with growing concern. Al-Burhan likely has the support of Egypt – a country that considers stability upstream on the Nile to be existential – and he was given a courteous reception when he visited Cairo in February. But Egypt is so distracted by the situation in Gaza and its economy is in such a ruinous state that he will have been told not to expect any practical intervention on his behalf in the short term. Least of all if such intervention were to risk irking the UAE, with which Egypt has just signed a deal to bring in USD $35bn of Emirati investment

South Sudan, on the southern border, is just as anxious. This country, the newest and the poorest in the world, derives 98% of its revenue from oil that is pumped north through Sudan to the Red Sea. However, on 16 March 2024, Sudan formally declared Force Majeure, meaning that for the time being it was unable to deliver South Sudanese crude to market on account of security-related issues. If this interruption becomes permanent, this will be crippling to South Sudan. Making matters even more tenuous is the resumption of localised fighting in the long-restive Nuba Mountains, adjacent to the border, following years of dormancy.

Mediation has been ineffectual

In May 2023 in Jeddah, the US and Saudi Arabia brokered a set of very short-lived ceasefires, but both countries have since moved on to other priorities. IGAD held a summit meeting in January 2024 and issued calls for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire which have yet to be heeded; the organisation’s credibility and functionality are currently at a low ebb, with Ethiopia and Somalia’s relations severely strained by the former’s negotiation of a deal with the breakaway territory of Somaliland, for access to a port. 

After months of internal wrangling, the US has appointed a Special Envoy for Sudan, Tom Perriello. He is well-respected, but unless he is empowered to engage the UAE on robust terms, which is unlikely given the US’s need for Emirati cooperation on so many other files, he will make little headway. 

How did it come to this?

The ultimate explanation for the catastrophe in Sudan lies in the country’s challenging geography and the attempts of a succession of highly centralised governments based in the Nile Valley to out-source the suppression of rebellion on the periphery.

As soon as Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, restiveness in the remote and marginalised south was addressed by the centre’s manipulation of old grievances between the two dominant tribes in that region: Dinka and Nuer. Although both these tribes had good reason to be dissatisfied with the state of development in the south and with their lack of a voice in government, Khartoum was able to co-opt Nuer leaders and persuade them that their real enemies in the struggle for recognition were the Dinka. On any given day in the long civil war, much of the fighting was southerner on southerner. The government’s bluff was eventually called when the Dinka and Nuer came together in 2005, and independence was sealed by a referendum in 2011. The settlement came at the cost of 2.5m lives; the ethnic divisions exacerbated by nearly half a century of war continue to imperil the survival of South Sudan.

More recently a similar strategy was deployed to counter rebellion by disenfranchised African tribes in the western region of Darfur (which had been an independent sultanate until 1916). This time, ethnic nomadic Arabs were armed and encouraged to take on their traditional enemy, the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit. The result was the Darfur genocide; 200,000 people died between 2002 and 2005. The principal culprits were the Janjaweed of the Rizeigat tribe.

Omar al-Bashir, the general who had seized power in Khartoum in a coup in 1989, would later be indicted by the International Criminal Court as the mastermind of this genocide. But in the meantime, he was so appreciative of the Janjaweed that in 2013 he formalised them into a well-armed fighting militia in parallel to the regular army: the RSF. At its head he placed a Rizeigat fighter who had already distinguished himself as a mid-level genocidaire: Hemedti. The thought was that the RSF would not only be useful for further duties in border areas, but as a counterbalance to restive officers in the regular army.

As it turned out, al-Bashir was right to worry about the loyalty of the army, now commanded by al-Burhan. But he was wrong to think he could count on the RSF to save him. In April 2019, both generals, in response to persistent anti-government demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of civilians (the Sudanese Revolution) and growing economic chaos, jointly turned on al-Bashir. They arrested him and (with reluctance) agreed to share power with civilians in a government that would hopefully oversee a transition to democracy. 

Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attends the 12th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2009. A decade later he was deposed and arrested. Image/Wikimedia Commons Jesse B. Awalt.

The arrangement didn’t last long. The well-meaning but politically clumsy civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – an international civil servant whose last job had been with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – struggled to enact tough economic reforms. He also began to lose the support of his fractious civilian alliance (the Forces for Freedom and Change – FFC) and of both branches of the military, who saw their control over numerous commercial enterprises threatened by civilian encroachment. In addition, the US failed Hamdok by insisting on a $335m USD indemnity payment to the families of those killed in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden, as a condition for lifting severe sanctions. In October 2021 Hemedti and al-Burhan decided they had had enough: they deposed Hamdok and took control themselves. To its discredit, the international community barely blinked at the military coup.

In April 2023, the two generals fell out. Ostensibly, the fight was and is over who should be in charge. At a secondary level, it pits the outside (the Rizeigat-based RSF) against the center (the Nubian tribes of the Nile Valley who comprise much of the SAF). And lately, as the parties become more desperate and compete ever more energetically for civilian support, this is becoming a true civil war.

What can be done to stop the fighting?

In the short term, the best that can be hoped for is to mobilise aid, find more creative ways to deliver it and seek to breathe life into any promising ceasefire or peace initiative that may emerge. At this moment, even to engineer a face-to-face meeting between Hemedti and al-Burhan and a minimal agreement on humanitarian access would be a big win for a mediator. 

In the medium-term, greater US focus and more helpful UAE engagement, coupled with arms embargoes and targeted sanctions, will be key if the conflict is to be stabilised and contained. But a depressing truth must be faced. With the pieces now on the chessboard, it is very difficult to see how things might be taken forward from such a point of stabilisation and the dreams of ordinary Sudanese realised: civilian-led democracy, economic stability and an army under unified command. 

There is one glimmer of hope, but it is a faint one. Abdalla Hamdok is still on the scene. 

Things didn’t go well for him during his time as PM. But Hamdok is nothing if not dogged. He is currently cobbling together his old supporters again, rebranding the FFC as Taqaddam (”Forwards”) and doing the rounds in regional capitals, seeking support as a Third Way. 

The former PM is proudly anti-Islamist, which means that in now-polarised Sudan, some of his allies are closer than is desirable to the RSF. Hamdok needs to allay suspicions of partiality to Hemedti, broaden and deepen his former support base and take into account, in particular, the dozens of politically elusive Resistance Committees that were key to the success of the Revolution. For his own sake he should – in light of dramatically deepened suspicion of American motives in the Muslim world since October 7, 2023 – keep the west at a polite arm’s length. This is a tall order. But few would seriously argue that Hamdok is not preferrable to the other two leadership options currently on offer. 

In the faint hope that he or some other credible civilian force should gain traction in Sudan, the international community should meanwhile prepare for an eventual second attempt at a transition to democracy by learning the lessons of 2019-21. This time emergency economic support must be ready and available when it’s needed – and it will be, in spades. And, unlike in 2021, the international community must be clear-eyed and sanction the generals and their cohorts when they break their word; their record shows they surely will.  

What about a role for Canada?

Has Canada anything to contribute to resolution of this disastrous situation, other than increasing our funding for much-tried UN and non-governmental aid agencies? 

Two years ago, Ottawa announced that it was developing a new Foreign Policy Engagement Plan for Africa. In view of the fact that Sudan represents the greatest security and humanitarian challenge on the continent today, this crisis should be a litmus test of how serious we are. But a year on from April 2023, signs of Canadian interest – let alone commitment – are disappointingly few and far between and the details of the plan itself have yet to be announced.   

Like our diplomatic peers, Canada evacuated its embassy in Khartoum, along with hundreds of nationals, in April 2023. This operation was well-executed by our Department of National Defence in a challenging context. But unlike our peers, we did not leave a senior official in place in the region (in Nairobi or Addis Ababa, for example) to provide advice and reporting to HQ, to liaise with like-minded countries and interact with senior officials from IGAD, the AU and the UN and to identify how our humanitarian and development resources can best be used. Until and unless this omission is rectified, we are in no position to consider playing even a second-fiddle role in bringing the fighting to an end. 

Corporal Josh Windsor, a member of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, offers bottles of water to evacuees from Sudan boarding a reception bus in Djibouti during Operation SAVANNE23 in April 2023. Meanwhile, in the background, evacuees are processed before boarding a reception bus by Global Affairs Canada employees leading the whole-of-government evacuation effort. Photo from Imaging Services, Canadian Armed Forces: Master Corporal Bryan Carter. 

Meanwhile, neither Prime Minister Trudeau nor Foreign Minister Joly have spoken publicly about Sudan since May 2023. There is no public record of their having discussed the situation with peers since that time either. For example, Minister Joly met her Emirati counterpart in March 2024 and Sudan was not mentioned. 

What about sanctions? The EU, the US and the UK have all imposed punitive measures, notably targeting the complex economic networks upon which the RSF (and to a lesser extent the SAF) depend on to finance the war. It is legitimate to question how effective such sanctions are but one thing is clear: Ottawa clearly believes that they can in principle be effective. As of early March 2024, there were 4265 persons and/or entities on our Autonomous Sanctions List from sixteen countries.  Sudan is not one of those countries.

There is one area in which Canada has taken a small but positive step. Starting in early 2024, a “humanitarian gateway” was opened, which may eventually allow up to 3,250 Sudanese relatives of Canadians and/or Permanent Residents into Canada via a specially designed fast track. However, according to Statistics Canada there are only 15,000 to 20,000 persons of Sudanese origin resident in Canada, of whom maybe one quarter will be adults qualified to sponsor refugees. There will scarcely be a flood of refugees coming through this gateway.

Canadian involvement in Sudan reaches as far back as 1884: the first casualties to be recorded in the Book of Remembrance in Ottawa’s Peace Tower are Voyageurs from the British-led Nile campaign of 1884-5. That was a campaign of raw colonialism that should not be celebrated today. But we can be much prouder of the supportive role two successive Canadian peace envoys – Senators Lois Wilson and Mobina Jaffer – played 110 years later in resolving Sudan’s civil war; in Canada’s role as Co-Chair of the international coalition supporting IGAD at that critical time; in despatching peacekeepers to Darfur as the genocide took hold; and in over twenty years’ of creative support to grassroots humanitarian, women’s and peacebuilding groups in Sudan since we formally opened our diplomatic presence in 2000.

We’ve said we want to get serious about Africa, that we want to engage. Canada can’t and shouldn’t seek to lead some headline-making peace initiative in Sudan. But we can and should get back in the game as the middle power that we claim to be. Our past record indicates we can do it; the humanitarian, political and security considerations that are now at stake suggest that we must do it.

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