Sudan have suffered a week long violence that was not seen before except in the Darfur some 20 years ago. This time it is the battle of supremacy between the current ruler military chief General Burhan and his rival deputy Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo also notoriously called Hemedti heading the Rapid Support forces (RSF) drawn from the feared Janjaweed militias that held and continue to hold sway over the Darfur region.
It will be recalled that against the back drop of Arab Spring 2.0 and popular uprising against the much sanctioned strongman Omar Abdul Bashir, the army led by General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan revolted and deposed Bashir in 2019. But the people’s resentment continued and eventually a civil and military leadership with fixed time lines for full transition to civilian rule and oversight were agreed to and Prime Minister Hamdok was installed.
But the military leader was not satisfied and along with RSF engineered a coup removing PM Hamdok in 2021, who was declared as inefficient and ineffective. It is a fact that army that tastes the power is unlikely to submit to civilian rule. It is so much more evident in Africa.
In any case under the public pressure and ongoing protests as well as international urgings General Burhan overtly agreed to transfer power to civilian rule on April 11, 2023. But that was not to be, not because military despite its statements to that effect was ready to give up power but Dagalo the leader of RSF and No. 2 became even more ambitious and wants to wield actual power and sees as his last opportunity.
Hence, he challenged the authority of General Burhan and the battles across the country began between the two forces with early leads for the RSF especially in capital Khartoum where apart from government offices even embassies and UN and other outfits were attacked from April 15 onwards. Already more than 400 people have been killed and 3500 injured as over 400,000 Sudani refugees are in Chad. As such humanitarian crisis is overwhelming due to the war.
Another reason for this escalation was that integration timelines of RSF paramilitary forces into the army were not acceptable to their leader. Burhan wanted to complete it in two years while Dagalo was inclined for a longer period up to 10 years for proper integration. Besides reports of dissolving the RSF and poaching of RSF forces by Army top brass to weaken Hemedti and his claims to power and legitimacy, despite their gory past in Darfur, made him enraged and nervous.
Some army commanders even announced dissolution of SRF. Hemedti is trying to play both sides firstly by trying to discredit army leaders accusing them of trying to undermine military reforms and oversight which could lead to smooth transition to civilian rule apart from the Army trying to bring back cronies of Bashir. Secondly RSF, trying to project itself as a custodian for impending civilian rule although farther from the truth, directly confronted the army while keeping channels open with the political elites and revolutionaries alike to regain legitimacy.
Military obviously is projecting that it was ready to transition to civilian rule but for the RSF insurgency. This is also a questionable claim as the already agreed date of April 11 passed over without any hint leading to more public protests.
The plight of the African continent has been the coups and conflicts and ambitions of the military brass to rule as they deem fit. However, the African Union has been striving to mediate and act against such violent take overs through various prescribed means and tools in accordance with its charter and security policies.
But it has done so with a limited success. In the case of Sudan, AU had suspended it in 2021 when General Burhan snatched the power hence it is really not left with much leverage except expressing its concern and condemnation and return to dialogue and diplomacy. But the troika of Heads of States from Kenya, Djibouti and South Sudan -its vital neighbours have reached out to both leaders to ceasefire and help return to civilian rule. US Secretary of State Blinken has spoken to both General Burhan and Dagalo especially with regard to evacuation of US citizens and cease hostilities.
Sudan is also a member of the Arab League and they have also taken an initiative in coordination with AU to stop the civil war.
A very difficult task since the key intent of both is to grab and preserve their power. Former President Bashir had created the RSF and gave them military ranks to keep it as a check against the army interventions. Army has numerical and professional and arsenal superiority over the RSF but as the ground reports indicate RSF has retained its initial advantage apart from keeping its hold over Darfur intact.
RSF’s strategic focus remains Khartoum and its environs so that its negotiating advantage increases given the fact that international presence is located in the capital and pressure will mount from the international community to settle the matters through dialogue. At this stage it does not seem very likely that Military will be able to overwhelm the RSF.
There are external powers who have been the benefactors of both sides which include Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Turkey, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Qatar and Russia. Even the USA and Israel have been far more active since the Abraham Accords in Sudan.
All of them have asked the two forces and their leaders to end the bloodshed. However, they would need to do much more with their own beneficiaries to not cross the red lines and themselves avoid playing geo politics in this embattled country in particular and Africa in general. Perhaps an ideal scenario and expectation but it clearly shows a repeat of what is happening in Libya for the last decade where external powers have fanned the conflict rather than help resolve it.
Meanwhile, RSF captured some airports to deny the army using the fighter planes against them. In one such case RSF returned the Egyptian air force personnel, who were apprehended at Marawi base during the exercises with their Sudanese counterparts. This shows that RSF is mindful of keeping the conflict domestic and would not expand beyond its shores.
India may not have direct influence over the two Generals but it has significant economic interests and nearly 3000 Indian diaspora which is stuck in this war of attrition and has always stood with the Sudanese people through its humanitarian and capacity building assistance. Hence, its appeal to end the conflict must continue to resonate and support all initiatives to achieve that objective.
For New Delhi the pressing challenge is to evacuate all the Indians safely and hence Prime Minister Modi is personally seized with it as the contingency plans and 24×7 Control rooms have been activated. External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar has been following and discussing with all stake holders like Saudi Arabia, UAE, US and UN and regional stake holders like Egypt and Djibouti. Early on an Indian was killed in the cross fire.
India has tremendous expertise in evacuations from conflict zones and should be able to bring all Indians safely. Operation Kaveri to evacuate Indians has been launched by New Delhi. Saudi Arabia has already agreed to help India in evacuations. As per Saudi Foreign Ministry statement, it has already evacuated its own citizens (91) and foreign citizens (66) including some from India via Port Sudan. US embassy staff was also evacuated as US deployed additional forces on its base at camp Lemonier in Djibouti. A US citizen was also killed.
As the things stand despite a failed ceasefire on Eid, the warring sides may agree to longer ceasefire to enable foreigners evacuate at the earliest even though ground situation remains hazardous. Both Burhan and Hemedti have assured of creating human corridors and ceasefire to enable foreigners to leave the country.
Hope their assurances hold and all foreign citizens return safely while international efforts are made to bring the situation under control.
First Published in Vivekanand International Foundation on April 25, 2023 as Sudan Struck amidst the Power Grab.
Read more about the author: Navigating the New Normal in West Asia