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How the world backed two generals, and put Sudan on the path to war

Sudan has known just 17 years of peace in its nearly 70 years of independence

Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg

By Simon Marks and Mohammed Alamin

A fortnight into the conflict tearing Sudan apart — and in the middle of a 72-hour ceasefire — heavily-armed militiamen in Khartoum vowed to defeat the army as they inspected vehicles entering a densely-populated central area of the capital city. Moments later, a missile detonated nearby, narrowly missing them. Just north of the checkpoint in the affluent Riyadh district, residents waited for hours in bread lines. The few shops still open had hiked prices more than most people can afford. “We can’t bear living like this,” Ahmed Abdul Aziz, a supermarket owner said late Wednesday. “I’m afraid that soon we might run out of everything.”
Sudan has known just 17 years of peace in its nearly 70 years of independence, but Khartoum hasn’t seen fighting like this for decades. Across the sprawling desert conurbation of 5 million people, residents are hunkering down in their homes in soaring temperatures and have not slept properly for days amid incessant gunfire and looting. Hostilities have flared across about half of the country’s 18 states and hundreds of people have died. The risk is a protracted civil war that spills across borders into Chad, the Central African Republic, Egypt and South Sudan.

For many Sudanese, the power struggle that sparked the hostilities between the country’s two most powerful generals was inevitable. Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the paramilitary leader known as Hemedti, rose to prominence together after ousting dictator Omar al-Bashir in the popular revolution of 2019. The pair then consolidated their positions in a second coup in 2021. They drifted apart over how to merge their forces, promising to pave the way for civilian rule, but instead struggling to stop the economy from free-falling and a hunger crisis from worsening.

If Sudan’s democratic transition unraveled because of the hubris and competition of the two generals, what set it on a path that could lead to civil war were years of foreign entanglements that enriched and propped them up, according to interviews with dozens of officials, diplomats and observers. Egypt backs Burhan, while Russia and a powerful Libyan militia leader are close to Hemedti. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have eyes on Sudan’s arable land and have supported both generals. China’s focus is on sea, oil and huge mineral wealth. Israel has a foot in both camps.

“The role of the international community — the Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians — has politically propelled and financially enriched both Burhan and Hemedti through gold deals, intelligence deals and giving them money to send soldiers abroad,” said Kholood Khair, a political analyst in Sudan who fled Khartoum and partly blames this fight for resources for the conflict. “Had they been not so supported prior to this by these countries they would not be in a position to inflict so much damage.” 

‘Negotiating with the men with guns’ 
For western diplomats, the depth of the rift between the generals was clear in February when a delegation representing the US, UK and European Union entered the presidential palace for a high stakes meeting with the two men, and an official loyal to Burhan told them not to shake hands with Hemedti, according to three people present. The group knew the pair didn’t see eye-to-eye but were stunned by such a break with protocol in a formal setting. Under pressure to go along with it, they did as they were told and greeted the paramilitary leader once talks ended.

Tensions between Burhan and Hemedti “have wafted and waned” over the years and “there have been a number of occasions when senior foreign officials had to step in and de-escalate,” said EJ Hogendoorn, who served as senior adviser to the US Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan until February when his posting ended. 

“We always knew it was risky to allow these two rival militaries to continue” to operate, Hogendoorn said, adding that when both generals arrested senior members of the government following the 2021 coup, US officials floated the idea of sanctioning them or restricting their access to lucrative parts of the economy, like the gold sector. But many in Washington feared doing so could provoke the very violence playing out today, he said.

When asked for comment, a senior Biden administration official said it was too soon for the US to regret its engagement with the generals because talks had been underway about transitioning to a civilian government. Ultimately, the fault was with the two men who failed to make the right compromises for the future of their nation, the official said.

But the result of not acting was that the generals felt emboldened while the mandate of then-Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok was weakened, according to two current senior western diplomats and a former senior US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The entire approach on Sudan was misguided from the outset, said several senior western officials who traveled to the capital for meetings with Burhan and Hemedti in recent years.

The US along with the UK, France, Germany and others tried to provide life support to Sudan’s transition to democracy at a donors’ conference in Paris in May 2021, raising nearly $2 billion in pledges and investments. It was too little too late.

“There’s a number of different travesties along the way,” said Hafsa Halawa, a Dubai-based non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute think tank. “What we have seen is basically the West seeking to take the easy option, which was to negotiate with the men with guns.”

No end to the violence
At least 499 people have been killed and 4,700 wounded since fighting began, according to the World Health Organization. Some 20,000 Sudanese who fled the country are sheltering in Chad. Nearly every hospital in Khartoum has been shuttered, with some being used as military camps. Fighting is currently focused on the capital, and the white 19th century palace where the Feb. 8 delegation — Peter Lord, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Africa, Annette Weber, the EU’s special envoy to the region, and Bob Fairweather, her British counterpart — met the generals. The palace has become the symbol of victory the two men most covet.

There have been four attempts at a ceasefire, including one during Eid al-Fitr, the holiest holiday for Muslims, but all have failed to bring calm. A short lull last weekend, and again this week, allowed diplomats, United Nations officials and some foreign nationals to be evacuated. Foreign officials fear that a 72-hour ceasefire that ended on Thursday was just a way to remove more people from the country so that the generals can finally go full out against each other. 

In the weeks leading up to the war, Burhan and Hemedti talked about how to integrate the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group into the Sudanese National Army over several dinners and afternoon teas, according to five Western diplomats involved in the talks. But as disagreements emerged over the chain of command, they began preparing for war, amassing troops and heavy weaponry in Khartoum. 


Some of those munitions are linked to the efforts made by foreign powers to secure influence in Sudan. Egypt has conducted joint military exercises with its army in recent years. Officials from Israel’s Mossad intelligence service have held numerous meetings both in Sudan and in Israel with Hemedti, people with knowledge of the trips said. Hemedti traveled to Moscow soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. The Kremlin-linked Wagner Group has also been active in the country – initially supporting the Bashir regime and then through its ties to a gold processing facility outside the city of Atbara. China has built a port on the much-coveted Red Sea coast.

But it is the UAE and Saudi Arabia that have the strongest influence in Sudan. Prior to the 2021 coup they provided billions of dollars in budgetary support. They hired its soldiers to fight with the Saudi-led coalition against an Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen, and through their largesse the RSF developed into one of Africa’s biggest armies, with an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 fighters. This helped Hemedti grow in stature, and meant that some foreign countries began to view him less as a battle-hardened mercenary from the drought-stricken Darfur plains and more as a seasoned general in an air-conditioned office and tailored suits, diplomats — both former and present — said.

“The only way to reach Khartoum is to go through Jeddah,” said Chad Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo, of the Saudi Arabian port city. He added that his country’s president, Mahamat Idriss Deby, had hosted the generals for an unsuccessful mediation in March. 

Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic mission was the first to be granted safe passage out of Khartoum when the clashes broke out, with naval operations picking up more than 150 people, including foreign diplomats and officials. When asked for comment, a Saudi official said the country had lobbied for stability and supported Sudan financially because it wanted peace in the Red Sea region. The official didn’t think the conflict would end quickly, saying it would likely go on for months, if not years. 

For ordinary Sudanese, the results of the power play have been devastating. Abdelhmeed Mhjoub Ahmed, a 36-year-old driver, said he had no option but to stay in Khartoum as his country implodes. “It is so bad right now, no hospitals are operating, there are no services, no bread, no food,” he said. “The international community is not doing anything right now — they are just trying to leave.”

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First Published: Apr 28 2023 | 11:23 AM IST

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