Two generals are selfishly keeping Sudan’s torment alive
Just over three months have passed since Sudan’s transition to civilian rule was scuttled by a war between two generals. Abdel Fattah al Burhan, who leads the country’s army, and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), remain locked in mortal combat, with civilians stuck in between them, especially in Khartoum, the capital.
The war has displaced almost three million people. In a spectacular reversal, Ethiopia (whose own recent civil war sent a flood of refugees into Sudan) and South Sudan (which seceded from the country in 2011 after a brutal war) are now hosting some of the 700,000 Sudanese refugees who have fled the country. It’s almost as if the region is cursed with an eternal cyclic propensity for instability.
Thankfully, the fear that major foreign powers would be drawn into the conflict hasn’t panned out (yet). Russia has had eerily similar problems of its own to sort out. China doesn’t seem too interested in military interventionism in Africa just yet. And regional Arab powers, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, seem keener on brokering a negotiated end to the conflict than on backing either side.
In fact, the United States and Saudi Arabia have brokered multiple ceasefires from Jeddah. Sadly, however, both warring parties have violated them over and over. Not even requests to allow the free flow of the scant available humanitarian aid – which nearly half of the population needs – seems sufficient to persuade them to still the guns. Even worse, both have looted aid caches that were already in the country.
What’s going on in Sudan is tragic. But contrary to appearances, it is not a civil war. The people of Sudan have not taken up arms and risen against each other. This war is the flare-up of a personal dispute between two selfish men who control armed forces, and are willing to hold the country hostage, with brazen impunity, to show each other who’s boss.
Though they have both attempted to portray it as an attempt to secure the country’s democracy, their fight has little to do with democracy. It primarily concerns which of them should answer to the other, given that the March agreement to transition to civilian rule, to which both men assented, called for the RSF to be folded into the official military, and for both to eventually come under civilian command.
The war’s immediate spark was Hemedti’s refusal to do this before the transition, ostensibly because he thought that, by insisting that the RSF be integrated before the transition, army leader al-Burhan was fishing for a grievance with which to scuttle the transition itself. His brother and deputy, Abdel-Rahim Dagalo, went on to demand that al-Burhan should “…hand over power to the people without further stalling.”
But this was a silly argument: Hemedti himself had signed the agreement that indicated that the RSF would join the army; the question of timing would have been trivial had he been serious about this. It was also a hypocritical, given what happened after. The RSF has perpetrated the worst excesses of the war so far, such as terrorising civilians, looting their homes and, most concerningly, moving to reignite the civil war in the restive Darfur region.
Contrary to his pontifications, therefore, Hemedti simply doesn’t want to take orders from al-Burhan. He has been angling for leadership of the combined military ever since it was agreed that it should be combined. Having emerged as a leader of the genocidal Janjaweed militia during the War in Darfur, and thereafter been cultivated as a counterbalance to the army by Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s former dictator, he has been a power unto himself for too long to countenance being directed by another.
But Hemedti knows he cannot win a war against the military, which not only has a lot more troops and more powerful equipment, like airplanes, but also retains control of most of the country outside Khartoum. His fight, therefore, is obviously a cynical play to strengthen his negotiating position. It has nothing to do with a desire to see Sudan transition into a civilian-led democracy.
Al-Burhan, for his part, is no less guilty for beginning the conflict. Not only did he draw a line where there was none (there was no requirement in the transition agreement that the RSF should be folded in before the transition), but he has also overthrown civilian-led transition governments twice and, in the present war, violated ceasefires and shown himself quite willing to put civilians at risk.
Recently, he refused to send a delegation to the start of negotiations convened by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-member regional bloc, claiming that Kenya, whose president, William Ruto, was appointed to chair the initiative, was hosting a sick Hemedti. Ruto denied these claims. But that’s beside the point. The truth is that, had al-Burhan been really interested in peace, he would have sent a delegation regardless of Hemedti’s location.
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In the final analysis, both men have shown themselves incapable of statesmanship, and are thus unworthy of their authority. For as long as they remain in power, they will be a thorn in the side of any civilian democratic government that eventually takes the reins of Sudan. This is why a lasting resolution to the conflict must exclude both of them. And mediators, like IGAD, shouldn’t be afraid to set this before them.
This is not an argument for the further militarisation of Sudan. Rather, it is a call for resolute and courageous leadership from Sudan’s neighbours, who do have a stake in the conflict. They are the ones hosting the refugees, and all stand to lose a lot should the situation spill out of Sudan. Besides, there is an African precedent for countries uniting to hold errant leaders in their neighbourhood accountable.
For instance, when, in 2017, Yahya Jammeh, then dictator of The Gambia, tried to hold onto power after losing an election, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), threatened to forcibly evict him. Wisely, it also offered him safe passage into exile. Mr Jammeh, after some initial dawdling, chose exile. He’s been chilling with his fellow dictator Teodoro Nguema in Equatorial Guinea since.
Of course, Sudan is a lot bigger than The Gambia, and its situation is slightly different. But the outlines are the same. And IGAD is perfectly capable of forcing al-Burhan onto the negotiating table, and then both him and Hemedti out of Sudan. It has assembled peacekeeping military forces before. In fact, AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, which has rebuilt Somalia’s government under worse odds, started out as IGASOM (the IGAD Peace Support Mission in Somalia).
Helping the people of Sudan build a civilian government will be much easier, for they do not lack visionary leadership. Since the revolution by which they overthrew al-Bashir in 2019, to the protests by which they beat back al-Burhan’s attempts to re-entrench military rule, and the resilience of their so-called resistance committees, through which volunteers have been treating the sick and repairing utilities during this war, they have proved that they are perfectly capable of ruling themselves.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
Image: CNN screenshot
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