Sudan Again in the Crossfire
Apr 21, 2023
Do you remember Alaa Salah, the young student gaining world celebrity – even rendered the name “The Nubian Queen” – as she was broadcast dancing and singing on top of a car dressed in traditional Sudanese white? This was back in 2019, the year when the Sudanese finally took to the street and forced the removal from power of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s decades-long dictator and ICC-indictee since the years of Darfur atrocities. Alaa Salah was seen as the symbolic figure representing the will of people in the capital Khartoum and elsewhere to throw off the chains of repression and stagnation, after all the years of civil war and dictatorship.
The Sudanese revolution was halted but not entirely destroyed by military might. A protracted process of negotiations followed, with mixed progress and disappointments, between the still mighty Sudanese army and ad hoc representations of the mobilized civil society, ending up in a civil-military power sharing arrangement aimed – as a result of intense international diplomatic pressure – at leading the country towards civilian rule and democratic normalcy. The process was halted in 2021 by a coup d’etat of sorts, in which the civilian side of governance was ousted and all power was jointly grabbed by two contending arms of the Sudanese military, the regular army led by general Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and an emerging, powerful paramilitary group named Rapid Support Forces (RSF) headed by another general, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, these two leaders however justifying their power grab in terms of a commitment to lead on towards re-instating civilian rule in Sudan, by 2023.
The two generals and their teams are said to have come close to closing an agreement this spring on the modalities of such a long-wanted and long-needed transfer, including the modalities for power (and wealth) sharing between them in the context of an amalgamation of them into a unified national army – under normal civilian rule. But apparently not close enough; as from April 13 Khartoum and other Sudanese cities have been turned into a bloody battleground in open street fighting between the two former ruling partners, a new reminder of the tragic fragility of Sudan as a state, both before the partition with South Sudan and now well after.
Dividing the “old Sudan” was seen or hoped to be a remedy for stability and prosperity of both parts after the post-independence decades of devastating civil war. But this, naively conceived or not, was not to be. Especially in the new republic of South Sudan, albeit massively supported and assisted initially by all sorts of Western institutions and governments, the years following the split from the northern neighbor have been a devastating experience of more or less permanent civil war, with brief periods of internationally-mediated cease-fires, hostilities initiated and led by South Sudan’s antagonist-in-chief, the embattled president with the big black hat, Salva Kiir, and his long-term rival Riik Machar, the latter fascinatingly depicted during the civil war in the 1980s by Deborah Scroggins in her novel Emma´s War.
So, what we are witnessing here, oddly, is both parts of the “old” Sudan, both Sudan and South Sudan, being torn apart by the notorious conflicts between two power-hungry men, Al-Burhan versus Hamdan Dagalo in the north, and Kiir versus Machar in the south. Huge investments on the part of the international community, in aid and in peace-keeping operations, have proven unable to prevent these men from reducing their states’ viability to far, far below their potential, with the difference between them being that the northern part, Sudan, is relatively much more exposed to the competitive machinations of external players seeking to exploit Sudan’s natural mineral resources, access to the Red Sea and importance as refugee transit area (and other assets), these external players – regional and global – differing as to whether they seek a stable or rather an unstable Sudan in pursuance of the interests.
Sudan as a state and a territory thus suffers from the fall-out of its geographic location, bordering the Red Sea and all the strategic interests connected to that sea route, the Horn of Africa with all its conflicts, its poverty and its notorious exportation of migrants, and the notoriously unstable neighboring states to the west and north-west, Chad and Libya, in addition to bordering Egypt and Ethiopia and sharing with them tensions over the supply of Nile water. Meaning that many external players have many reasons to have a stake in domestic Sudanese politics.
Thus, significantly, there is recent reporting of heavy-handed Russian involvement in this recent episode of erupting violence – which unless halted soon could develop into a full-scale civil war and as such could have a profoundly disruptive function in the entire region. CNN, for instance, now reports on an established link between Moscow, general Haftar in eastern Libya (in command of that part of the divided Libya), his air base Al-Jufra in south-eastern Libya, close to the Sudanese border, the Chevrolet base on the other side of that border, presided over by Hamdan Dagalo, and the Wagner group, supporting Dagalo in the current hostilities, while the regular army leader, Al-Burhan, seems to be supported by Egypt (Israel?, Turkey?) and some other neighbors, some rather standing by, for now, watching who is winning. What the wider international community, including the UN, the EU, and major Western powers such as the US and the UK, can do to counteract and to stabilize is worryingly unclear at the time of writing.
But it is a tragedy for Africa that there is now – contrary to expectations and hopes – a range of states in its northern part, such as Sudan, South Sudan, Libya, Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Mali, and others, where stability and prosperity are diminishing hopes, and where national viability is also suffering greatly from the machinations of nature, i.e., climate change, in lethal interaction with conflict and foreign meddling, with migration often being the last and only hope for the many. But migration to where? The EU seems determined to seek to prevent the destination of these people to be Europe, while apparently being rather powerless to offer credible assistance at the very scene of conflict, and despair.
Still, there was a time when Alaa Salah, “the Nubian queen”, provided and represented hope. Maybe she, and the likes of her, can again step forward, take the lead, and show the way.