In August MENA Research Center discussed with Jędrzej Czerep, Head of the Middle East and Africa program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) the war in Sudan and related challenges. Sudan is particularly close to Mr Czerep’s heart since he conducted a few field studies in both South Sudan and Sudan and completed a PhD on the political culture of those countries. The interview was carried out by Denys Kolesnyk, French Consultant and Analyst.
Given your rich background and exceptional knowledge of Sudan, let’s start with this question related to this country. One of the recent challenges in the MENA region is, obviously, the armed conflict in Sudan. How would you explain the dynamics that led to this conflict?
The dynamics were overwhelmingly domestic. In fact, only recently has this conflict been getting internationalized, so to speak. Sudan was undergoing a difficult process of transformation after the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, who was toppled in 2019. And since then, there has been a big question for Sudan — whether to continue with the same model of states that Bashir built or to transform it genuinely.
There was a power-sharing agreement between the military actors and the new civil parties starting in 2019, supplemented in 2020 when some of the former rebels joined. This further favoured men with guns and their “ways of doing things”. The two top military generals, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the formal army and Mohamed Dagalo “Hemedti”, chief of the militia called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), popularly referred to as the Janjaweed (Darfur’s genociders from whom they hail), who are two key protagonists in the current conflict, worked to prevent reforms from taking place, and the ex-rebels joined them in this goal. They jointly toppled this joint civilian-led government in which they were supposed to share power in October 2021, to assure continuation of the core of the old system and their ability to win power within it.
It was based on the existence of a parallel economy and parallel power structure that was in the hands of different military actors and unreachable for the civilian population and the Ministry of Finance.
In other words, those who genuinely wanted to put Sudan on the right track and to transform it wanted to take back power from the military and give it back to the civil sector. But that, of course, created a backlash from the military actors, who kept power and wanted to continue to exercise it.
A crucial thing to note is that at that period Sudan experienced an unprecedented wave of civic mobilization since 2019, and it only grew following the 2021 coup. And, probably, if we are looking for the best examples of where democracy is alive, where it is inspiring people and where people want to stand for democracy and freedoms, we get quickly disappointed, since in most places on Earth democracy is backsliding. When we look at Hungary or Turkey, the list can go on and on, but it is much more difficult to find a place where democracy is advancing. And if in Europe it is Ukraine that is the country that defends democracy, freedoms and its choice of development, then Sudan is the one in Africa and the Middle East. And it is probably the brightest example in that part of the world, where democracy and freedoms inspire people and push them to find ways to achieve it.
So the first kind of dimension of the current conflict was tension between the military actors, wanting to preserve their power, versus civil forces which wanted to achieve genuine transformation and take the state back from the militaries – that’s why we have both the army and the RSF, both heirs to the Bashir’s system, similarly targeting local activists. Paradoxically, both also refer to the legacy of the 2019 revolution and the very movements they kept on quelling, trying to steal some of their legitimacy, because that is the only pool where it rests.
But here also adds an internal tension between different military actors, which was inevitable in a situation of a state with de facto two armies, both hailing from different geographic and social backgrounds. Hemedti, despite hailing from the peripheries and lacking formal education rapidly became the most powerful, the richest, the most influential person in Sudan and beyond. His forces became probably the biggest private army in the world. Even Russia’s “Wagner” group was likely to some degree inspired by Hemedti’s forces and not the other way around as it is often assumed – Western observers tend to overestimate Russian role in distant conflict areas and underestimate African agency.
Hemedti’s ambitions to take control of the entire state were something obvious to all the Sudanese. But that was never really acknowledged by the diplomatic world. The West kept on believing or wanting to believe in the game Hemedti – and Burhan – was playing, pretending to be a statesman, and never really acknowledged the depth and potential of the civic mobilization. They excused the soldiers and the militias for whatever they did, be it the massacre of the sit-in in June 2019 (which a Sudanese “Maidan”), the coup d’etat of 25 October 2021, or daily violence against protesters ever since. Anytime those thieves and the power-hungry military actors saw their position was somehow threatened, they reacted violently. These actions should have disqualified them forever, but the diplomatic crowd always considered them as natural political actors entitled to be at the table and to share power, probably because of this old belief that the military people are needed for “stability”. But the reality was proving otherwise: the more power they got, the more chaos and violence it brought, and the worse the governance became. That never changed. And it was a fundamental mistake. Those military actors got used to seeing political violence as a way of achieving their goals, which led to the current confrontation as its logical culmination.
The momentum that could have truly transformed Sudan into a shining star of inclusiveness and civic engagement was missed. Instead, the worst of Sudan – tribalism, violent militancy, mafia-like deep state – was rehabilitated and even lifted to become the only driving force in the country.
The current war erupted when a shaky and barely transparent plan was to be agreed on how to unify the armed forces and militia under one rule and to rebuild the power-sharing agreement. Simultaneously, the hardline Islamists, remains of the old Bashir regime have been rallying around the army and many members of the civilian parties that used to share power, naively believed the RSF could have been their shield against them and a force that would bring them to power again. That made the civilian career politicians equally rejected as the armed factions. This left the credibility and legitimacy centred on the Resistance committees, which is a constellation of grassroots organizations that unites local community leaders. They were proved bitterly right about calling for the army to return to the barracks, the RSF to be disbanded, and the civilian parties not to go for another compromise with them.
When the war erupted, the Sudanese people were overwhelmingly against it. And this war also goes against the interests of all the neighbours. But none of them had real leverage on the main protagonists to stop fighting and nobody had an idea about what kind of new settlements would be good and acceptable for the Sudanese.
We kept on seeing new diplomatic initiatives that recycled the same idea that the military actors should always be on top and should always divide power between themselves and some elitist parties.
The state effectively ceased to exist, it doesn’t perform any functions. Those functions were taken over at the local level, on the street level by the resistance committees.
But, of course, with time this conflict has regionalized, not to say internationalized. We can obviously mention here the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is the most important and most powerful actor there, an external actor that supports the RSF.
And I’d like to ask you, what kind of external actors are playing in Sudan? Also, we all remember that under Bashir, Russia wanted to have a naval base in Port Sudan. And I wonder what kind of role Russia has or may have in this conflict?
Well, we have to understand that Hemedti has his business in Dubai. This city is a place where dirty gold from Africa is being processed. There are also Russian interests there, especially after the Western sanctions were imposed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many wealthy Russians came there.
And the Emiratis were supplying, and still supply, the arms to the Rapid Support Forces. First, via Libya, where General Haftar’s forces are pretty much influenced by the UAE. And then through the Central African Republic (CAR), where there are Russian Wagner forces on both sides of the border, which is their main theater of operations, and the place where their presence is most advanced.
But also on the Sudanese side, there was the Wagner group contingent on the very border between the Central Africa Republic and Darfur Province. And last June, the locality of Umm Dafouk, which is where the two meet, had been captured by the Rapid Support Forces, it opened a safe line of arms supply from the CAR into Darfur. For instance, the MANPADS came from Wagner forces to Sudan through this route.
But given that Prigozhin was most likely recently eliminated in Russia, it puts under question the future of the Russian supplies and Russian meddling in the war in Sudan. We don’t know how that would play out in the future.
We must remember that the Russians in Sudan had contacts and interests with both sides. And they pretty much survived all the political turbulences in recent years because they played multiple cards. Russia didn’t really put all its powers to support one side in this conflict. It was always a bit ambiguous and not putting all the eggs into one basket.
Moscow has the wait-and-see approach, with Wagner slightly supplying the Rapid Support Forces because they were their major partner lately in the area of gold, but they remain open to any other solution. If you look at the Red Sea coast where Russia hopes to establish a maritime base, it is obvious only formal military cooperation on the state level could have advanced that and that disadvantages actors like Wagner.
But If we look at the Darfur region on the border with the Central African Republic, it was natural for Russians to act informally, through mercenaries and support the Rapid Support Forces. But just to make it clear, Russia is not a major power in Sudan and it’s not a driving force for the conflict in any sense.
As for the United Arab Emirates, there is a big question that we don’t know the answer to. Is whether they establish their direct supply routes on the border from Chad into Sudan. They did build something in a remote Chadian town called Amdjarass, from where former president Idriss Deby hailed. They said it was a hospital to help refugees, but the whole process involved dozens of flights, a lot of equipment, and covert operations and there are many suspicions about it. This may be a point of supply for the Rapid Support Forces coming from Chad.
If confirmed, it would put Chad in a delicate position, since N’Djamena doesn’t want to be thrown into this conflict on this or that side. It goes completely against its interests.
Chad borders Sudan and the victims of the war, of the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Rapid Support Forces, particularly in West Darfur, arrive in Chad and they are welcomed warmly. An important part of the Chadian army and the Chadian population are very sympathetic towards them.
There are also fears that the Rapid Support Forces could attempt to take over Chad if they manage to win in Sudan. Therefore, it’s an existential threat for Chad and they understand it very well in N’Djamena.
Another power is Egypt. And Cairo would rather support the Sudanese army in this conflict. But also to a limited extent.
If we look at any kind of crisis or rivalry in this region, it plays in majority between the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, supporting the opposing sides. For instance, Egypt supports the regular army, while the United Arab Emirates support this paramilitary group. But the Russian-Ukrainian dichotomy is also interesting, especially after recently Ukrainian technicians arrived to maintain the Sudanese Armed Forces-held Soviet-era fighter jets, used against the Russian-backed Rapid Support Forces.
And this leads us to a broader question. Given that the war is raging in Sudan, how may it affect the security in the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula?
The Red Sea coast of Sudan is, as for now it’s not a theatre of this war. The war is being waged primarily in the West of the country, in Darfur and surrounding areas, and the capital — Khartoum.
The coast of the Red Sea is firmly in the hands of the army and what remains of the government. This is where the international community is also present. The embassies evacuated from Khartum, but some of them re-established themselves in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. It is also an entry point for relief from humanitarian agencies.
Yet again, it is worth saying that the Emirates is seen as the major obstacle to peace, a country that fuels the conflict. Saudi Arabia, at least theoretically, is the one that works for peace together with the United States, even if it uses the wrong methodology. For instance, there were rounds of talks in Jeddah, which were completely counterproductive and didn’t bring any results.
But this brings another question — the credibility of the Saudis in this part of the world. They are generally not trusted by the Sudanese. I remember back in 2019, just after Bashir was toppled, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates came in with an offer of $3 billion to stabilize this new Sudanese budget. This measure was to save the Sudanese economy in this turbulent time.
It was the moment before the shared power agreement between the military and the civilian parties was completed. The party in power was the so-called Transitional Military Council. The reaction from the streets was demonstrations, where people were holding pan-cards, saying “Saudis, we don’t want your money”, “Stay away from Sudan” and so on.
The Saudis and the Emiratis, both are seen as countries that support the authoritarian model. This doesn’t help to gain trust among the Sudanese population. Since the Sudanese people want more democratic ways, more liberal ways instead of autocracy.
As for the local actors, the government and the regular army are supported by the Islamists, former operatives of the Bashir regime, hungry to come back to power and to be in charge again. All the militants, Islamist movements and former regime structures are very eager to stand behind the military.
As for the Rapid Support Forces, there are nomadic Arab populations from the entire Sahel zone, not only from Sudan, but also from Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, and Mali, who see this as an opportunity to have something of their own. They were all minorities in their home countries and always marginalized. Now many of them have been lured by the promise of conquering a state for themselves.
It is a really destructive kind of force that is very racist and tribalist and that wants to destroy the Sudanese state, conduct ethnic cleansing and put some vague mafia-like family structure instead of it. As a renowned scholar, Alex de Waal recently noted, the RSF moves like a locust, pillaging and looting – areas under its control are mostly deserted as people flee – and then move to a new place. This is something completely unpredictable and hard to imagine. But that’s a reality and Khartoum is likely to fall completely into the hands of the Rapid Support Forces.
Very dim picture, indeed. But let’s talk about another, a bit bigger issue. China and Russia are pushing the Western countries away, for example, like France from Africa. But what is the place of the Arab countries on the African continent?
The UAE is the biggest Arab player in Africa, in particular, in logistics. It invests a lot in the acquisition of African ports, and major projects in the entire Africa, on both sides of the continent — Indian Ocean and Atlantic coasts. It just entered into major projects in Tanzania about control of a big part of the Dar-es-Salam port, in Kenya, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Senegal.
Some countries started to worry about it, for instance, the Emiratis were expelled from Djibouti port, and now the Senegalese state is trying to increase its holding in shares of the port.
The Emiratis always had this idea of coming out of the Saudi shade and becoming more of an independent power, which has its influence and global meaning. And going into Africa was a means to overcome these regional constraints and become something bigger than Saudi Arabia.
There is also Qatar. After being blocked for a few years, it is now coming back into the game as a major mediator, and major facilitator, both in Sudan and in the broader Sahel region. It used to play a major role, for example, as a country which mediated between different factions in Darfur.
As for Egypt, it primarily cares about the Nile region and intends to counterweight Ethiopia in the quest for control of the Nile. Cairo is very active there and tries to present itself as an attractive partner so that the regional countries drop supporting Ethiopia and move into supporting Egypt.
You mentioned the Qataris, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which were mostly interested in the Nile area. But what about Saudi Arabia, for instance?
The Saudis are pretty much focused on the Red Sea. They established the Red Sea Council — the regional group that involves all the major countries of the Red Sea intending to promote better cooperation in this region.
Riyadh doesn’t go much beyond supporting their religious institutions which are spread across the world and also in Africa. The Saudis don’t exert a big economic and political role deep in the African continent as the United Arab Emirates does. And I would say that the Emiratis are now the number one Arab power in Africa.
There is also Oman, which has some historical ties with Tanzania but not on a regional level.
And, of course, there are also the North African countries which always had close ties with their neighbours South of the Sahara. Morocco used to successfully engage in religious diplomacy to gain a foothold in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Moroccan King is seen as the guardian of one of the Sufi Orders, the Tijaniyyah. This link was successfully used by the Moroccan King to open channels for economic influence in many countries in West and Central Africa.
As for Algeria, it was always a country focused on security issues and diplomatically one of the pillars of the African Union. And, for example, now it’s actively lobbying against the intervention in Niger, which would potentially have certain spillover effects on the other side of the border. But Algiers is not a strong player in Africa as it was in the past and the influence it still has will most likely decrease.
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