Just days before Sudan descended into deadly conflict, its two most powerful generals were very close to a deal. The one that American and British mediators hoped could defuse their power struggle in the country and even steer the sprawling African country towards democracy.
The stakes were high. After years of waiting, the process of democratisation could finally begin in Sudan. The transition process was at first blocked by the 30-year rule of dictator Umar al-Bashir. After his overthrow in 2019, the country was ruled by another totalitarian regime led by the Sudanese army commander, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan (commonly known as Hemeti), the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In practice, however, their cooperation did not work very well, and despite joint negotiations between UN officials and the holders of power in Sudan, the two generals were preparing for war. Fighting resumed in the country after more than a year and a half on April 15, when paramilitary and army units launched an offensive against each other in the streets of the capital Khartoum. The escalation of tensions between the two parties stemmed from a framework agreement signed on December 5, 2022, which envisaged the integration of the RSF into the army. The Sudanese Armed Forces demanded that this process would be completed within two years, while the RSF wanted up to five times more time for its incorporation. The final agreement was originally scheduled to be reached on April 1, with the aim of establishing a new civilian government by April 11. However, the leaders have repeatedly fallen out over the terms.
After the outbreak of fighting, both sides accused each other of initiating it and made contradictory claims of holding control over key positions. If the RSF were successful in carrying out the attack, it would be possible to speak of a military coup considering that the primary targets were the presidential palace, the army headquarters, the airport and state television, which are the typical targets in an attempt to seize power. Moreover, the fighting has the potential to escalate into an open civil war. The risk in this sense is increased by the already low political stability in the country, the destruction of critical or civilian infrastructure and a population without a stable supply of food and water.
The prospect of a long civil war is not only a risk for Sudan but is also perceived as a threat by the entire sub-Saharan region, which has stability problems even without it. Sudan shares borders with seven countries, of which five (Libya, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad) face armed conflict on their territory. Only Egypt and Eritrea are relatively stable. An escalation of the conflict would also affect the Horn of Africa region, where Kenya and the still highly unstable Somalia are located. A refugee crisis could also be a potential threat arising from the tensions, according to humanitarian organisations, as Sudan alone hosts more than one million refugees. However, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) does not foresee the movement of people outside Sudan, but rather within its borders. Migration from areas directly affected by the fighting, such as Darfur and Khartoum, is expected.
Moreover, the current situation in Sudan may have a critical impact on the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project on the Nile, which serves as the main source of water and electricity for several countries in the region. Both Sudan and Egypt, the countries lying downstream of the Nile, are strongly opposed to the further expansion of this gigantic project. The leaders of both countries see the further (fourth) filling of the dam as a threat to the preservation of water resources, which could in turn restrict their populations’ access to water. They have also demanded contractual binding from Ethiopia on the filling and operation of the dam, to which the counterparty has so far not agreed. Once the fighting breaks out, Khartoum is expected to be too busy to pursue negotiations with Cairo at the moment, which may slow down the process of completing the plant.
The situation in conflict-torn Sudan is being closely monitored by the representatives of the states included in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). They have already called for an immediate end to the armed clashes and announced a planned visit to Sudan on April 16 to establish peace between the two sides. But decisive pressure to end the fighting could first come from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as both the Sudanese army and the RSF paramilitary forces are heavily dependent on these countries – both militarised groups fought alongside the Saudis in the current conflict in Yemen. Of course, countries such as Russia, China, the US or the European Union may also come into the position of peacemaker. Given the internal dynamics of the entire region, regional powers and leaders are more likely to be in a position to mediate peace. In practice, they have much greater leverage over the two militarised groupings – they share a common history, trust each other, are culturally closer and there is a military or economic exchange between them.
Photo credit: Flickr.com_EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Ai