Sudan: The World Turns Its Back While the Noose Tightens Around Sudan

Sudan has become emblematic not just of the collapse of the global security order but of the limits of American power.

Five million people are on the verge of starvation and 150,000 are dead, but the war rages on and the international community is frozen.

A friend, writing from Paris, lost four more family members in Sudan last week, including his wife’s uncle, who was forced to witness his sister being raped. “The man and his sister were both elderly and he died of shock – he had a heart attack – when he saw his sister being raped,” wrote my friend, Gordon.

“Two younger boys who were cousins tried to protest and were gunned down by AK-47 fire inside the hosh (courtyard).”

Gordon’s wife, Fatima, is from Wad Medani in Gezira State, the breadbasket of Sudan, situated between the Blue and White Niles in the centre of the country. It has been occupied by raiders from the Rapid Support Forces since December, though the Sudanese Armed Forces have been fighting in recent weeks to take it back.

Fatima’s niece was feared killed on the same day as her uncle. Communication is difficult, with mobile phone networks down. The family knew that their niece may have been present at the nearby village of Wad al-Noura on 3 June when more than 100 members of a local resistance committee were massacred by RSF marauders for protesting against the looting and pillage.

Cameron Hudson, an associate of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, complains that the “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine has been shelved. In the wake of the overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, many now see it as a roadmap towards “regime change” rather than stability… “Instead, we are forced to watch in real-time as the noose tightens around millions of civilians begging to be saved… But make no mistake, Sudan is not being ignored. The reality is much more craven. It’s just deprioritised.”

The Sudanese Armed Forces were 20 kilometres away and must have been aware of the slaughter, but did not lift a finger to help, presumably because the resistance committees are opposed to both military factions.

The family located Fatima’s niece sheltering at a local farm where she was taken after she sustained severe bullet wounds. Her companion was killed. They are trying to find a way of getting her out of Sudan, possibly through Uganda, so she can get proper medical treatment.

Bedrock of the Revolution

Sudan’s Resistance Committees were mobilised to fight against the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir and were the bedrock of the democratic revolution in 2019 that has been so cruelly quashed.

In the wreckage of Sudan, a country without a government, these committees of ordinary volunteers are cleaning the streets, collecting the garbage, keeping a minimal amount of administration ticking over and burying the dead.

The fourth member of Gordon’s family to die last week was a 23-year-old woman who, while trying to flee to Egypt, contracted a deadly form of malaria and was unable to get treated because the clinics in Gezira have been looted and abandoned.

Two more of Fatima’s elderly relatives died earlier of thirst during a 10-day trek in an overcrowded truck through the desert to get to Egypt, running the gauntlet past bandits and soldiers of all stripes.

Hospitals in the southern Egyptian city of Aswan reported on Tuesday that the heatwave has killed dozens of Sudanese fleeing across the border this week.

The story of Fatima and Gordon’s family is typical of daily life, if you can call it that, under the occupation.

The RSF are a loose alliance of Arab militias who subsist through banditry and pillage, and over whom their commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), exerts only weak control.

“The RSF force that did that killing (in Gezira) is a group of bandits and looters who are not even obeying Hemedti’s orders,” wrote Gordon. “He does not care about Gezira because he is concentrating everything on attacking El-Fasher.”

Fasher is the last holdout of the SAF in Darfur, where a ferocious battle has been raging for more than a month.

Though separated by more than a thousand kilometres, both Gezira State and El Fasher were places where hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge to escape the first wave of fighting that erupted between troops loyal to Hemedti and the SAF under Abdel Fattah Al Burhan on 15 April last year, principally in the capital Khartoum and elsewhere in Darfur.

Refugees Flee

About 500,000 refugees are said to have fled Fasher in recent days, scattering in a desperate attempt to escape the mass killings and the bombing raids from the air. But they are running away from what little food assistance remains and it is expected that many will starve to death.

Hemedti’s push to capture Fasher comes exactly a year after his Arab militias, fighting under the RSF banner known to locals as the Da’ama, massacred more than 10,000 black African Masalit tribespeople and drove another half a million from their homes into the refugee camps around Ardre in Chad, where many languish today.

Weeks later, a UN investigation discovered a mass grave of Masalit civilians near Geneina.

The Da’ama are the descendants of the Janjaweeds who were dispatched by Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum to deal with rebellious black tribesmen in Darfur and were responsible for the deaths of up to 400,000 people. The victims were themselves Muslims.

World Abandons Sudan

Bashir was charged by the International Criminal Court with genocide, but he has evaded accountability.

When the fighting blew up in Khartoum, he and his henchmen wanted by the ICC escaped from Kobar Prison in Omdurman, and some are now working alongside Burhan.

It is a measure of how much the world has changed that 20 years ago, outrage boiled over at the genocide, with star names like George Clooney, JK Rowling and Angelina Jolie taking strong public stands against the mass killings in Sudan.

This time, the killings are not restricted to Darfur, but dispersed throughout the country.

Tom Perriello, the US Special Envoy for Sudan, told Congress last month that the death toll since April could be as high as 150,000.

Millions Displaced

About eight million people have been displaced from their homes, including three million children, and five million face starvation, as farmers have been unable to plant and famine approaches.

In the West, the contrast between the cause celebre of the mid 2000s and what has been criticised as the US’ half-assed diplomacy and short bursts of media attention is particularly stark.

The shocking indifference extends across the board and includes the weak response from the African Union.

Perhaps someone can explain why the ANC government in South Africa, months before it forcefully brought the ICJ case, refused to support a UN fact-finding mission to investigate human rights abuses in the war.

Who Are the Good Guys?

Sudan’s problem, at least for the international media, is that it’s not clear who the good guys are.

The RSF have been rightly condemned for the looting and pillage, but it was Burhan who led the coup that ended the democratic experiment.

The SAF, with the assistance of the Egyptians, have relentlessly bombed Sudan’s cities and villages, destroyed neighbourhoods and killed many civilians. They have promoted ethnic warfare, and they are still allied with the Islamists who were a big part of the problem in the first place.

The military formations have held the levers of power ever since the colonial power, Britain, created a new Sudanese military based on ethno-regional lines a hundred years ago. This was after it had entirely abolished the old military for staging a mutiny and hung the ringleaders.

The wars of post-independence, right up till today, emanate from this militarised colonial architecture.

The brief flicker of democratisation in 2019 was made possible when Burhan and Hemedti supported the popular uprising against Bashir. But by 2021, when their military autonomy, patronage networks and businesses were threatened, they overthrew the civilian administration and terminated the transition, only to turn on each other two years later.

Smaller militias, representing African tribes, have thrown in their lot with their former enemies, the SAF, and are aiding in the desperate defence of Fasher, while Arab groups from as far afield as northern Nigeria and across the northern Sahel have joined up with the RSF – and have no intention of going home.

Tough Position

Special Envoy Perriello, a progressive former Congressman from Maryland, is in an unenviable position. He is advocating for a return to the Jeddah peace process based on three principles: the creation of a single professional army; no return to power of the Islamists, and agreement on a framework for a democratic transition. These seem more remote than ever.

There will be no armed intervention by a US or multinational UN force. The cavalry is not coming to save the people of Sudan.

Cameron Hudson, an associate of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, complains that the “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine has been shelved. In the wake of the overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya, many now see it as a roadmap towards “regime change” rather than stability.

“Instead, we are forced to watch in real-time as the noose tightens around millions of civilians begging to be saved… But make no mistake, Sudan is not being ignored. The reality is much more craven. It’s just deprioritised.”

Meanwhile, the SAF has gone back on the offensive in recent months, hoping to settle things with a decisive military victory. Last week Burhan signed a deal for sophisticated new weaponry from Russia, in return for a naval port on the Red Sea, while newly acquired Iranian drones are battering the RSF forces.

Even if Sudan morphs into a giant Somalia, the Houthis on the other side of the Red Sea in Yemen have shown that if you are strategically positioned well-enough, even a ragtag army can threaten one of the world’s most important trade arteries.

The one thing that might jolt the West into more active engagement to end the war is the realisation that the longer this drags on, the more an alliance with the Russian-Iranian axis gains traction and the greater the prospect of a return to power of the Islamists.

However, they will find that Russia has grown adept at turning African conflicts into geopolitical wins.

Russia’s Involvement

The RSF are close allies of Russia’s Wagner fighters in Eastern Libya and the Central African Republic, and Hemedti has sustained himself through gold sales to Russia via Dubai and Russian weapons bought and supplied by the UAE.

Perhaps by playing both sides of the war, Russia can position itself as a peacemaker, through a de facto partition of Sudan a la Libya, with the RSF hiving off with most of Darfur. Who knows.

Either way, Sudan has become emblematic not just of the collapse of the global security order but of the limits of American power.

Dmitri Alperovitch, author of this summer’s trendiest book for Washington policy wonks, World on the Brink: how America can beat China in the race for the 21st Century, writes: “It should now be clear that it is time to scale down our ambitions for a worldwide liberal order… the United States can’t do everything – be the world’s policeman, solve every crisis, and every war. No one can.”

The villagers from the resistance committee in Gezira massacred last week belonged to the Communist Party-affiliated Agricultural Workers Union and so it is unlikely that they felt much affinity with the United States.

And yet they, like the thousands of youthful demonstrators whose joyous display of people’s power five years ago overthrew one of the most odious regimes on earth, have seen their hopes and dreams of a democratic Sudan crumble into dust.

What is left are the gold diggers, the mercenaries, the arms merchants and the opportunists – the vultures that have come to feast on the carcass.

Phillip van Niekerk is managing director of Calabar Consulting and former editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper.