Inside Sudan’s forever war

  • Themes: Africa, Geopolitics, Sudan

There seems to be no end in sight to the conflict in Sudan, a war largely overlooked in the West.

Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers drive toward frontline positions near Pana Kuach in South Sudan on Friday May 11, 2012.
Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers drive toward frontline positions near Pana Kuach in South Sudan on Friday May 11, 2012. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Monday 15 April marks the first anniversary of Sudan’s latest civil war, a bitter, bloody and utterly self-destructive contest between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) — the official army of the Sudanese government — led by General Abdel Fatah al Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known just as ‘Hemedti’. I write ‘latest’ advisedly. In truth, this current conflict is just one more round in a long series of deadly confrontations that have blighted East Africa’s largest country since its independence from Britain.

From 1956 to 2010, the south and the north of the country fought each other to a standstill over religion and race. Since South Sudan gained independence in 2011, fighting in both countries has metastasised into nothing more than ugly competitions for power, driven by greed (principally for oil and gold) and the gun. This is one obvious reason why the anniversary of Sudan’s contemporary agony will slip by almost unnoticed – futile blood-letting has become so much the norm in the country that it barely qualifies as ‘news’ anymore, especially in the media beyond Western Europe and America. Struggling for attention against the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, to name but two, Sudan is often referred to as the ‘forgotten war’. It’s depressing to admit, but in truth I suspect that even without the urgent distractions of Gaza and Ukraine, Sudan would have vanished down our memory-hole regardless.

Yet custom cannot be allowed to desensitise us entirely from the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster that has overtaken the country. Even by the standards of Sudan’s own terrible history, the last 12 months have taken an almost unimaginable toll. Sudan now constitutes the world’s greatest and most urgent human catastrophe, by some margin. The UN and other agencies have been updating the grim statistics in the run-up to the anniversary, perhaps in an attempt to give the conflict some oxygen.

Thus, a full eight million people have been driven from their homes by the year’s fighting, both inside Sudan and outside the country, mainly to neighbouring Egypt, South Sudan and Chad. That’s in addition to a further three million made homeless by previous conflicts — out of a total population of about 49 million. It is estimated that about 13,000 to 15,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and over 33,000 injured.

Whole towns have been emptied out. Once-bustling, overcrowded Khartoum, the capital, has been reduced, in parts, largely to rubble. The few vehicles that dare to take on the debris-strewn streets mostly belong to one or other of the warring factions. I spent years reporting from Khartoum and always stayed at the Hotel Acropole, one of Africa’s most celebrated and hospitable haunts for journalists, aid workers, diplomats and spies; this was where Bob Geldof and his crew camped out during the LiveAid era. The three charming and endlessly helpful Greek brothers who ran the place miraculously kept it open throughout all of Sudan’s previous wars and crackdowns, even surviving a bomb attack by Islamist militants on the dining room in 1988. Not this time. The eldest of the brothers, 79-year-old Thanasis Pagoulatos, was finally forced to flee his beloved hotel by the RSF, weaving through streets littered with bodies, taking only his laptop and passport. ‘We had seen a lot of coups, a lot of changes, but never such a thing,’ he says, now a shattered and deeply reluctant exile in Athens. ‘That was something really out of this world.’

With most of the infrastructure knocked out, access to the country severely curtailed and domestic agricultural production gravely disrupted, the UN warns of five million people slipping into ‘catastrophic food insecurity’ in the coming months – famine, in other words. And with food in short supply, so prices have rocketed, aggravating the crisis further; last year, according to the World Food Programme, the average local food basket was 88 per cent higher than before the start of the conflict. The granular detail is just as awful: 730,000 Sudanese children are now thought to be suffering from ‘severe malnutrition’. Diseases such as cholera are on the increase, while about 80 per cent of the country’s hospitals and clinics have ceased to function due to the fighting. Yet for all the catalogue of horrors, having asked donor countries for $2.7bn to provide aid and food, the UN has received just a paltry $131.5m, or five per cent of the request. That is the very definition of a forgotten war.

Yet, tragically, neither party to the conflict appears to care much — or even at all — about the terrible consequences of their actions for the wretched people in whose name they claim to be fighting. Far from striving to limit civilian suffering, both the RSF and SAF have been accused of looting food warehouses, stealing badly-needed medicines and imposing charges for deliveries of aid.

Both sides, but particularly the RSF, have also been accused of war crimes and atrocities. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is investigating the RSF’s action in the western region of Darfur, where some have accused the group and its allies of perpetrating another genocide, just as their merciless predecessors, the Janjaweed, did 20 years ago under the direction of then-president Omar al-Bashir. He was subsequently indicted by the ICC on three counts of genocide. Bashir has never been handed over for trial, however, and the 80-year-old now languishes in a military hospital.

The RSF was thus born of a genocidal regime, just as the SAF cultivated the Janjaweed as their unaccountable, proxy killers in Darfur. We cannot be too surprised, then, by the uncompromisingly brutal conduct of the war, on both sides; this has long been their modus operandi. Hemedti himself created the RSF out of the Janjaweed in 2013; four of his closest lieutenants have been indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity for their actions in Darfur, including the murderous Abdel Haroun. None of these men have ever been handed over to the ICC, and as far as we know Haroun actually escaped from custody at the start of the current conflict. Of Hemedti, who nowadays likes to woo diplomats and foreign interlocutors in crisp white shirts and sharp suits, Eric Reeves, a longstanding American analyst of Sudanese affairs, says of the self-styled ‘Son of the Desert’: ‘[He] has accumulated more Sudanese blood on his hands in conflict in Darfur and South Kordofan – as well as in Khartoum and elsewhere – than any other man in the country… his conduct of war has been by means of serial atrocity crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.’

With both the RSF and the SAF unwilling to take any steps towards peace or even meaningful talks, moribund since the start of the war last year, a despairing international community took the opportunity of Ramadan to issue another call for a ceasefire. On 8 March the UN Security Council adopted a UK-drafted resolution demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities, as well as compliance with international humanitarian law and unhindered humanitarian access. The UN call to peace was backed by the African Union (AU) and the League of Arab States, and was accompanied by a modest flurry of diplomatic manoeuvring. America recently appointed a dedicated special envoy to Sudan, Tom Perriello, while in January the AU set up a three-man High-Level Panel on Sudan.

The attention is welcome, perhaps, if only to raise some awareness of Sudan’s plight in the world’s chancelleries. The close involvement of the AU and the Arab League, in particular, reflect a genuine concern about the disastrous consequences of the war for Sudan’s neighbours, as impoverished refugees stream over its borders. Egypt, facing its own economic meltdown, is particularly jumpy about taking any more Sudanese over its southern border, just as it has adamantly refused to let in any but the most needy Gazans across the Rafah crossing in the east.

Such apparent goodwill and concern from the ‘international community’ will only ever amount to cynical gesture politics as long as all those countries that happily sign up to these resolutions continue to meddle, for their own selfish ends, in Sudan’s domestic politics. This drives Sudan’s disintegration just as much as the relentless bloody-mindedness of the country’s own generals and warlords. Indeed, the military and political backing that foreign countries and leaders lend to each side gives the RSF and the SAF the confidence to continue fighting, cultivating the illusion that a final ‘victory’ is always just within reach. 

Given its geographical position on the Red Sea, at the hinge of Africa and the Middle East, as well as its oil and other natural resources, Sudan has always invited foreign involvement, both sovereign and private, from port operators to petroleum companies, loggers to bankers. From 2000, China took a major stake in the economy, investing about $3 billion in the country in exchange for taking a large share of its oil exports. Since the country split into two and the governance structures of Sudan weakened, so an array of unscrupulous foreign states, mercenaries and chancers have poured in to feed off the carrion of a rotting state.

The most notorious of these is Russia’s Wagner Group, commanded by Vladimir Putin’s chef and henchman, Yevgeny Prigozhin (until his untimely death in a mysterious helicopter crash in 2023). Since 2017, the mercenary group has been deeply involved in Sudan, mainly to protect Russia’s interests in the gold mines of Darfur. In that year, President Bashir negotiated a series of deals with Putin, signing concession agreements on gold mining between a Russian company called ‘M Invest’ and the ‘Sudanese Ministry of Minerals’. M Invest is widely believed to be a cover for the Wagner Group, while the mines were controlled on the Sudanese side by Hemedti. The consequent flow of gold, mostly bypassing Sudan’s federal ministries (and all that pesky taxation business), has been vital both to funding the RSF’s war against the SAF and to propping up Russia’s economy during the invasion of Ukraine. Russia thus has a strong interest in ensuring that Hemedti wins his civil war. The Wagner Group has long been training RSF troops but, at the start of the current conflict, CNN uncovered evidence that the Wagner Group was also supplying the RSF with missiles. Hemedti is, to all intents and purposes, the Kremlin’s man in Sudan, and it’s unlikely that the Kremlin will let him lose his war.

Russia is not alone in its meddling. As the veteran analyst Alex de Waal has written: ‘Sudan has become a cockpit in which the rising powers of the Middle East seek to project their power and gain advantage over their rivals… The breadth of these complications has no precedent.’ Thus the newly assertive United Arab Emirates has also been accused of arming the RSF. A UN investigation, leaked earlier this year, reported that the UAE was sending arms to the RSF ‘several times a week’, an allegation that the UAE denies. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, strongly backs the SAF. Foreign Policy magazine has described the UAE/Saudi rivalry in Sudan as their own ‘proxy’ war, an opportunity for one or the other ‘to cement their hegemonic status in the Middle East’.

Egypt also backs the SAF, mainly concerned with the security of its borders, as does Iran. For decades the Mullah’s theocracy helped to build Sudan’s mammoth military-industrial complex, before breaking off relations with Sudan temporarily in 2016. Iran is now firmly back in the SAF’s corner, supplying it with highly effective combat drones, much as it does to Russian forces in Ukraine. Iran probably has its eyes on Port Sudan, a useful toehold in the Red Sea.

Perhaps if there were fewer countries enmeshed in Sudan then such foreign engagement could be leveraged for peaceful purposes; the relevant backers of the SAF and RSF could force them to the peace table. But with so many rival powers involved, the SAF and RSF can easily play them off against each other for their own tactical and diplomatic advantage. That has been the case so far, and is likely to continue into the future.

Equally, with apparently easy access to foreign-supplied weapons, neither side looks likely to win a comprehensive victory on the battlefield. Both the SAF and RSF receive enough lethal kit to stay in the fight, but not enough to land a knockout blow. At one moment earlier this year it looked as if the RSF was winning decisively; countries such as South Africa were rolling out the red carpet for Hemedti as all but a president-in-waiting. The SAF has since staged a comeback, particularly in Omdurman. The war of attrition resumes.

With little hope of victory on the battlefield or the prospect of peace talks, what happens next?  One possibility is the ‘Libya Scenario’, whereby the country effectively breaks up. The RSF has largely triumphed in Darfur, Hemedti’s home region, and is mostly in control of the regions south of Khartoum and in parts of the capital itself. The SAF still has a footprint in Khartoum, but exerts more control in the east of the country and, crucially, commands Port Sudan, and with it access to the Red Sea and the world’s seaways.

Such a bifurcation of the country alarms many, but also merely continues the process of territorial fragmentation has been underway since 1956. Sudan, as created by the British colonial authorities, was an artificial construct in the first place, and since the British left it has been slowly breaking apart into its constituent parts. This process has been helped along by a myopic governing class in Khartoum, which has squandered every opportunity to bind the country together. The South rebelled against the new country from the start, finally breaking off in 2011; Darfur rebelled in 2003, spawning Hemedti, and is now, de facto, a self-governing region; the east, home to the Beja chiefdoms, has also fought for greater autonomy, and is now further removed from Khartoum’s control than ever.

The only alternative, as Cameron Hudson, a former American diplomat with long experience in Sudan, argues, is for America to corral its allies into backing the SAF with such overwhelming force as to ensure a definitive victory over the RSF – in exchange for guarantees that the army will return the country to civilian administration. This seems fanciful. There is no appetite for what would be a major military investment in Sudan, and never has been, even at the height of the Darfur imbroglio in 2006-7. A huge UN peacekeeping force was inserted into Darfur in subsequent years and proved largely ineffective; there will be no appetite for a repeat performance. Public opinion in the West would also be outraged – rightly – by the prospect of backing a military force that has terrorised its own people for decades, even if the SAF is slightly more palatable than the RSF. Furthermore, left to its own devices the army has never tolerated autonomous civilian rule, and there is no reason to expect them to do so now.

No-one wants Sudan to break apart, but it might well be the case that the severity of the last year of fighting has finally wrecked the country forever. Sudan was always dysfunctional, but staggered on. Even so, we might finally have reached the point of no return. Rather than fretting on how to put the country back together again, maybe it’s time to manage its disintegration in a manner that causes the least harm to the remaining people who live there, and the surrounding region.


Richard Cockett