Susan D. Page: Peace elusive in Sudan, with intractable generals and real risks of worsening conflict

April 24, 2023

As foreigners flee the continued fighting in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and the death toll rises, there are fears of full-blown civil war breaking out. At least 400 people have been killed and 3,500 injured since fighting broke out April 15, according to the World Health Organization.

At the heart of the conflict are two generals: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, who controls  the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Following mass civilian protests that began in December of 2018, longtime Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was finally ousted and imprisoned in 2019. When protesters refused to back down from their calls to establish civilian, democratic rule in the country, and unrest and massacres by the RSF and SAF forces continued, negotiations between the military elements and activists led to the formation of the civilian-military Sovereignty Council with a specified transitional timeline and procedures for a transition to full civilian, democratic rule. But in 2021, Burhan and Hemedti launched a coup against the Sovereignty Council they led as, ousting the civilian prime minister, sacking the government, and taking de facto control of the country. 

Now, tensions between the army and the RSF have exploded, just as several deadlines for forming a civilian government and integration of the RSF into the SAF were missed. 

Ambassador Susan D. Page, a professor of practice at University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy, and Professor from Practice at Michigan Law, spent years in the region and was the first U.S. ambassador to the newly formed Republic of South Sudan. She shares insights on what has happened and where things might be headed, including real risks of broader conflict.

After the revolution that saw Bashir leave office, there was a brief hope for democratic rule. Why did that fall apart?

The coalition that established the Sovereignty Council was made up of members of both civilian forces as well as military. In my view, there was always a bit of a fig leaf about it actually being called a ‘civilian-led’ transitional government, given that there were more military personnel on the Sovereignty Council than civilian, and the military insisted on leading the transitional government during the first half of the transition, with the civilians to lead the second phase of the transition.

What really happened is the population, the civilians who stood together—the Sudanese Professionals Association, a union consisting of doctors, teachers, and other professionals under the banner of the Alliance of Freedom and Change, women’s groups who led sit-ins, and other resistance committees throughout the country, had really come together calling for democratic governance and an end to the military’s role in politics. Sudanese citizens led the way for the ouster of Bashir and the roadmap to democracy through their continued protests and acts of civil disobedience. Eventually, Burhan and Hemedti turned their backs on their benefactor Bashir, agreed that their respective forces would abide by the agreements, and said the appropriate words that made enough people believe that this was truly going to be a transitional government. But they were never really interested in civilian government, which is why Burhan and Hemedti ousted their own Sovereignty Council partners including civilian Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and the rest of the government and all of the transitional arrangements with it, just two years after the coup that ended Bashir’s rule. 

Why were Burhan and Hemedti not sanctioned when they overthrew the civilian part of the transitional government in October of 2021?

There was talk of it. There was a brief period where there was some pressure by various governments, including the United States. Ultimately, a decision must have been made to work with the two coup leaders, first by convincing Burhan and Hemedti to release Hamdok from house arrest and restore him as the civilian prime minister, then persuading Hamdok to return, thus, reconstituting  at least the main elements of a partnership. But when  Hamdok was “restored” to a significantly diminished role as Prime Minister, he immediately lost credibility with his own followers, the civilian activists and protesters, whose objective was for the military to be out of politics in Sudan. Less than six weeks after his November 2021 reinstatement Hamdok resigned.  

Since then (January 2, 2022), these two generals, even though they control separate forces, have been in de facto control of the country. 

This violence is taking place just as a new transition was about to occur. What happened to that power-sharing agreement that was about to go into place with yet another transition to a different kind of government? 

There  had been negotiations with the generals and other political parties,  but a lot of the people who needed to be at the table weren't there. Of course, you have to talk to the people with guns, but you need  to have a pretty clear idea of what you're trying to solve. Creating a government is not just about the people, it's about what they're going to do, what are their objectives and how  they intend  to solve the problems that led to the 2019 uprisings in the first place and attain democratic rule.

And the mediators  have not really included the  broader  group of the civilians who started the calls for democracy. One of the reasons that the current  violence began  is because neither side seems to be willing to actually cede power or form a coalition government that would have civilians playing the most  significant role  in leading a new dispensation in Sudan. It’s also really difficult to see how any new government could include these two generals who have caused so much damage and destruction to the Sudanese people and the country.

It's a tension where you have a marriage of convenience between two very powerful men with weapons and armed forces behind them and neither one wants to give up  power or lucrative contracts and business deals they have. Hemedti, of the RSF, doesn’t want his forces to be absorbed into the SAF. And Burhan doesn’t want security sector reform that would lead to his ouster either.

Are the Arab League or African Union or even the U.S. in a position to mediate? If not, how can the situation be calmed?   

Part of the issue is that all of these players, the African Union, the Arab League and individual member states of these regional bodies, have very different interests. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, UK, and the U.S., have been working together as a quartet. But do the goals of the quartet align with those  of some of Sudan’s  neighbors, such as Egypt, Chad, South Sudan, or Ethiopia? Are the foreign objectives taking into account the desires of most of the Sudanese civilians themselves who never wanted a deal with the military, paramilitary, or other armed groups in the first place?  At the end of the day, regional and intergovernmental organizations are made up of states, and states do not always share the same objectives. 

The African Union, under the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), agreed to send the presidents of Kenya, South Sudan, and Djibouti to help mediate, but with the airport closed, intense fighting in and around key installations in Khartoum and elsewhere, when these leaders might be able to enter the country is unclear.  And, of course,  we can’t forget that Sudanese citizens themselves have been appealing to Burhan and Hemedti as well, calling for  a cessation of hostilities, and using other means to encourage an end to the fighting and the targeting of civilians and infrastructure.  

Another  problem is  Russian interests, particularly with the Wagner Group, and control over gold mining activities. Neighboring Chad  borders the Darfur region which is home to Hemedti and many  of his  RSF forces. So there are businesses  and lucrative contracts that Sudan’s  military has almost always controlled in Sudan; with the free reign then-President Bashir gave to Hemedti when the RSF was the Janjaweed fighting rebel forces in the Darfur region, Hemedti, too, has secured contracts for gold mining. It is also widely believed that Hemedti was paid large sums of money by some foreign countries to supply RSF forces to fight against the Houthis in Yemen and elsewhere.  So there are a lot of interests at stake, business, money, power, and control.

It's not territory as much as infrastructure, the ports, airstrips, the Red Sea. Russia has been trying to negotiate a deal with the government of Sudan for some time to build a military base along the Red Sea. 

The hard part is getting people to at least temporarily put down their weapons and then start a real process that is significantly more inclusive than what has been done in the past.

Could the conflict spill over to other countries in the region, either through fleeing refugees or violence? For example, some Egyptian MiGs were bombed at Khartoum airport. 

I think there's real danger. Even the AU sending three presidents (Kenya, Djibouti and South Sudan) to help mediate, even with whatever their own individual national interests might be, they can't even get in the country until they open the airport and  their safety can be assured. 

Chad has closed the border with Sudan, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of Sudanese from entering the country. Egypt has long been supportive of the SAF, and Burhan in particular. Egypt’s military conducts training for the SAF, and perhaps performs other activities. 

So my fear is what if Egypt decides to go in, and backs Burhan and the Sudan Armed Forces? What if the Wagner Group, which we know is already operating in Sudan, involves its fighters or mercenaries? Will the Russians, through the Wagner Group, potentially risk being on the wrong side? There  are  other countries that support either the SAF or the RSF. If one country decides to intervene militarily  in Sudan, what happens if  another country  thinks it's in their interest to back the other side? It absolutely could spread. Already, the situation in the country is dire, with the Sudanese civilians, who dared to dream of a democratic future without military leadership, caught in the crossfire.