Diplomatic initiatives led by Western actors have counter-productively entrenched the anti-democratic forces now fighting for control in Sudan. To drive real change, the West needs to empower Sudan’s democratic movement and undermine the power of armed factions.
On 15 April 2023, the Sudanese people woke up to find themselves embroiled in a debilitating civil war. The violence so far has been extreme. People are being killed in their homes by indiscriminate fire; rape is common, and most of the Capital Khartoum’s hospitals are not operational. There is even a shortage of body bags to remove the thousands of dead bodies rotting in the streets.
This war is not like those that have ravaged the nation for decades previously. Khartoum, the nation’s economic, political, and administrative centre, was once off-limits. Now it is the centre of a battle so fierce it could lead to the total collapse of the Sudanese state, the ramifications of which will be a catastrophe. The potential for the conflict to engulf substantial parts of Africa and the Middle East is high, placing the global international order under even greater strain.
There is no easy end to this war
The war is an existential struggle between two generals over who will control Sudan. These are general Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, de facto president and commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” is the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
There is no easy end to their struggle for power; neither is there a clear path to victory on the battlefield. While the 200,000-strong SAF outnumbers and outguns the RSF’s 100,000 fighters, it has failed to marshal this advantage effectively. The RSF are well equipped, manoeuvrable, and battle-hardened by decades of fighting in Darfur and Yemen. They have also received training and logistical support from Russia’s Wagner Group.
There is no path to peace found in current US-Saudi Arabian attempts to broker negotiations. There is no compromise that would leave the two sides better off if they stopped fighting. Even if a peace deal were brokered, it would leave Sudan in the exact same deadlock that resulted in this war.
The failure of Western diplomacy
The push by Western governments and their regional allies to create stability in Sudan following the 2019 revolution that overthrew Islamist dictator and war criminal Omar Al-Bashir ultimately undermined any possibility of peace, democracy, and stability by empowering the armed factions now fighting in Khartoum.
In November 2022, a coalition of states and entities including the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the United Nations brought Al-Burhan and Hemedti alongside a few opportunistic civilian political parties together to broker the “Framework Agreement.” The Framework aimed to both appease all armed factions and to provide a pathway for the return to civilian-led government. These two aims were contradictory: in order to achieve the first aim, the second had to be jettisoned. The Framework failed to address the role of armed factions in a future democratic state. While it mentioned the need for security sector reform, including integrating paramilitary groups such as the RSF into the SAF and placing the SAF under civilian control, it provided no details, plans or mechanisms for this to take place. Instead, the armed factions were given the autonomy to make these changes as they saw fit over an unspecified timeframe. The generals felt neither incentivised nor coerced to hand power over to a civilian-led government. This legitimated and entrenched military rule by allowing armed factions to claim they were integral to the transition and a source of political stability while they waited out civilian pressure from protests and strikes.
This perverse state of affairs reached its fatal conclusion when Hemedti, facing a threat to his power from the integration of the armed forces, which would give full control of Sudan’s political affairs to his opponent, decided to resolve the contradictions of the Framework on the battlefield.
While armed factions were appeased, the demands of Sudan’s democratic movement were side-lined by the negotiations and the Framework failed to gain the political support of the Sudanese people. The movement, organised into networks of local Resistance Committees, is the only major social force in Sudan that is national in scope, inclusive of all ethnic and regional groups, and pushing for desperately needed social, economic, and political reforms. The Resistance Committees have proven their resilience and coordination against every adversary and were also responsible for bringing down the Al-Bashir regime. Today, they are the only organisations coordinating and delivering emergency aid on the bloodstained streets of Sudan.
The Resistance Committees were excluded from negotiations because of their uncompromising refusal to share power with the military and for their commitment to judicial accountability which sought to hold military leaders responsible for human rights crimes. In a context where Western governments were prioritising an agreement between armed factions, these demands were considered a barrier to broader compromises. Time has proven that what was perceived as intransigent opposition to pragmatic diplomatic solutions was actually based on a sophisticated understanding by the people of Sudan that there could be no stability, peace or democracy without the capitulation of the armed factions.
The reliance of Western governments on their regional partners as brokers also played a role. These regional powers, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have close relationships with Sudan’s armed factions, to whom they provided diplomatic support in order to preserve their political and economic interests in Sudan. They also helped lift US State Sponsor of Terror sanctions from Sudan, which allowed greater military exports to Sudan, including from Australia, and strengthened the armed forces against the Resistance Committees.
This is not a mistake the West can afford to make twice. The Resistance Committee’s demands must be incorporated into any political arrangement as the sole legitimate guarantor of democracy in Sudan. Any proposed solution that does not address root causes of this war, and the historical grievances between different social groups, will not bring stability to Sudan.
Western governments, including Australia, must take every possible measure to provide the Resistance Committees with the resources they need to address critical shortages of food and medical supplies.
Finally, Western governments need to target, via sanctions, the financial assets and trade goods of the SAF and RSF, particularly in the gold trade, to weaken their access to the funds that fuel their war machines. This may include pressuring regional partners who have economic relationships with Sudanese armed factions.
Threat of a catastrophe in East and North Africa
Sudan is the geostrategic heart that connects the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and the Red Sea Basin. Its security is deeply connected with them all and all its neighbours are already deeply troubled by overlapping crises, including famine and the constant threat of violent extremist groups. They are highly vulnerable to being destabilised by cross border conflict. For example, the tribes that fill the ranks of the RSF have familial linkages in Chad, Libya, Niger, and Mali. Even if they were defeated, the resulting influx of their fighters into these countries would inflame existing conflicts. Intense fighting has already taken place this week near the Sudan-Chad border.
In the long term, the collapse of Sudan would create new uncertainties for regional and international order. At any moment, Egypt and Ethiopia could choose to resolve their conflict over water resources in Sudanese territory. Nations, extremist groups, or criminal organisations could use Sudan’s 750 kms of Red Sea shoreline to disrupt the vital sea lane that connects Europe and Asia. Russia has already attempted in recent years to set up a naval base there.
To avoid this impending disaster, Western governments, including Australia, need to adopt a coherent strategy on Sudan that empowers Sudan’s democratic movement and targets the sources of weapons and funds that fuel its armed factions. The Resistance Committees are the only organised group that can provide a comprehensive political solution in Sudan and should not be side-lined by international diplomatic negotiations again.
Amad Mohamed is a young leader of the Australian-Sudanese diaspora. He works as a Senior Policy Officer for a Canberra-based organisation. Previously, he had worked in the private sector and for a Middle Eastern diplomatic mission on international and bilateral diplomacy, trade and investment, and defence relations.
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