In Part I of the article, the author provided a deeply researched narrative of Sudan’s current crisis as viewed through the lens of Sudanese history. Power struggles, corruption, and wealth amassing by a few, have been the norm in Sudan. With a short ceasefire, perhaps there is a chance to diffuse the situation. The author analyses the implications of the Sudanese conflict on the African region and globally in this concluding part of the article.
An extended ceasefire between the warring parties led India to evacuate the first batch of evacuees under Operation Kaveri from Port Sudan to Jeddah and onwards to India. There is optimism that before the ceasefire expires, India will have evacuated its citizens from the troubled shores of Sudan. India’s ability to evacuate its citizens within a short period is because of the good relations the Indian government has with most African countries, especially Sudan. India considers the African continent an important foreign relations objective.
The issue that requires focus is to what extent Sudan could be catastrophic for the world’s geo-political environment. To understand the situation, a study of the geo-political location of Sudan is a must.
The map above gives out the salient points which need emphasis. The geographic region, known as the ‘Horn of Africa’, is the part which juts out like a Rhino horn in the north-eastern part of the African continent. It borders the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. On the west of this sea route are the Arab and Gulf countries: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. The horn houses Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. All five African countries named are infamous for some reason or the other. They all have a violent past and hang on to fragile peace as strife continues on their land.
Sudan is a part of the Horn countries though it lies in the shadow to the west and north. The Strait of Bab el Mandeb opens into the Red Sea as it moves west. The Red Sea is a long narrow stretch of water considered one of the most sensitive areas in the world. As the Red Sea stretches northwards, it reaches the meeting points of three continents – Asia, Africa, and Europe. Through it runs the Suez Canal, an artificial channel connecting the Red and Mediterranean Seas. It is the Jugular vein of shipping for the sea trade between Europe and Asia. It lies in Egypt and is in proximity to Israel and Jordan. The three countries have a history of conflict over the Suez and other regional geo-political issues. The volatility of the situation can be gauged by the fact that a single ship, ‘Ever Given’ in March 2021, struck the ground and lay stranded in the Suez Canal, halting the shipping traffic passing through for full six days. The six days stoppage cost US $ 9.6 billion. It was a case of an accidental nature.
The Red Sea is 1900 km long and, on average, 280 km wide. It has many areas of disputes between the littoral countries. If these facts are linked to unrest in the Horn of African countries, the potential for creating chaos in the region is humongous. Somali piracy has still not given respite to the shipping industry, and they fear a Somali pirate attack every time a ship is near Somali waters. Somali pirates are not a state-sponsored force; they may be state-supported. The possibility of a state-sponsored or supported by one of the rival factions in any of the Horn of African countries could wreak havoc on the peaceful trade flow through the region.
The above does not factor in the possibility of a growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism to the region. These troubled areas border the hard core of Islamic states: Yemen, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan towards the east of this region, and Libya, Chad, and Tunisia on the west. Sudan is in the centre. The centre of Islamic fundamentalism could potentially lie in Sudan from a geostrategic perspective. Sudan was not a religion-oriented country at the time of its independence. While Sunni Muslims constituted most of the population, the alignments were more tribal and region based. Non-Muslims, mainly Christians, dominated the south. As brought out in the first part, the Sudanese dictators, for short-term personal interests, encouraged fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood to get a foothold in Sudan. Now they are well entrenched.
The US had proclaimed Sudan as a country which sponsors terrorism and put sanctions on Sudan for housing Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. The US suspected a Sudanese hand in the bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya in 1996 and the bombing of the US ship USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000. The sanctions were lifted in 2017 after the revolutionary council made reconciliatory moves. However, the new state of unrest cannot guarantee how the fundamentalists will behave. Due to the Saudi influence, Wahabi-style Islam is spreading, gathering more and more of the Sudanese populace under its wings.
The two rival factions waging war on each other: The Army and the RSF are supported by the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and the UAE. Both the benefactors are staunch Sunni Muslim states who wish to spread the faith in other parts of the world. From a peaceful Muslim majority state to a hardcore fundamental Islamic state is worth noting. Could Sudan become another Somalia that exports terrorism is the question everyone needs to ponder. Another civil war is most likely to lead to this possibility.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has added a geostrategic dimension to the region. Russia is keen to have a Naval base in Sudan to host 300 troops and berth four ships. Dampening the Russian efforts is the US, which is exerting influence, not allowing it to happen, thus bringing the superpower rivalry again to the region. Not many would forget the catastrophic damage it did to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Russian compulsion emerged from the necessity to influence the Suez Canal, the only channel to access the Russian ports around the year. Loss of Suez access would cost Russia dear in terms of its exports of oil and imports of other essential needs.
The Horn of Africa countries have iron, cobalt, uranium and gold deposits. Sudan is rich in oil, gold, silver, copper, zinc, cobalt, tungsten and tantalum. The lure of Oil and Gold is lucrative for foreign companies to make a base in Sudan.
South Sudan is well endowed with oil and has a pipeline across Sudan to supply oil and gas to North African countries. The supply is not yet disrupted, but a long-drawn conflict would also affect the oil trade in Sudan. The Blue Nile River flows northwards from Ethiopia. In its wake, it has created many multiple economic options, including a dam – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile in Ethiopia. The Nile flows into Sudan nd onwards to Egypt. Egypt, the ultimate destination before the river empties into the Sea, has raised strong objections to this project. It fears reduced water flows in the river if a dam is constructed upstream. Sudan has some reservations but is inclined to support this project as it sees mutual benefits. This impasse is likely to influence relations with Egypt negatively.
Regional disputes like the one stated above are not alarming by themselves. However, couple them with the possibility of fresh refugees from Sudan fleeing to neighbouring countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic and Egypt. It would spark regional disputes and cause major strife with Sudan. During the two civil wars, millions of Sudanese fled their country and took refuge outside their borders. Instability in Sudan enhances the overall discomfort and reduces tolerance thresholds for the volatile neighbours of Sudan.
Indian Interests in Sudan
Sudan and India have historically shared friendly relations. They date back to Sudan’s independence. The historical aspects have been touched upon in Part I of this article. Since Sudan’s independence, India has provided help and supported investments in Sudan. ONGC was one of the first to invest in oil blocks in Sudan, knowing that it had the largest oil reserves in Africa. ONGC’s investment in the petroleum sector till 2011 amounted to $ 2.3 billion US. However, after the independence of South Sudan, the problems of transit and border conflicts took the sheen away from this sector.
India’s investments in South Sudan remain intact, but India has made no new investments in Sudan in the petroleum sector. India’s trade with Sudan till 2018 amounted to US $ 1.5 billion, which includes Indian investments of US $ 450 million. India donated $ 100,000 for flood relief and medicines to Sudan during the floods in 2008. Such help had been rendered on earlier occasions too. During the Covid pandemic, India provided Sudan with ten metric tonnes (MT) worth of life-saving drugs and 100 MT of food relief to cope with the Covid pandemic. Indian companies have invested in Sudan’s pharma, FMCG and electrical goods sectors. India has provided at least two battalions worth of UN troops on UN missions in Darfur and South Sudan. These missions include Police Personnel who trained the newly created South Sudan Police force. India has lost at least one officer and six soldiers in the line of duty in Sudan fighting the rebels as part of the UN missions. India remains a favourite destination for Sudanese who are seeking advanced medical treatment. It is also a favourite education destination for Sudanese students.
All of the above shows the involvement of India in Sudan and Sudan’s prosperity. The conflict in Sudan would put this and more at peril. There are no military-to-military ties with Sudan except that Sudanese are allowed to be trained in NDA to become military officers. The absence of official ties on the military front is due to the Sudanese military’s lack of a professional organisational structure. With China having secured a naval base in Djibouti, India would want to make a stronger pitch for military ties. It could bid for its navy to get a foothold for Indian ships. India could then counter the Chinese influence in the region. This possibility is unlikely if instability in Sudan continues to persist.
The conflict in Sudan is not in anyone’s interest. Most commentators are hesitant to suggest options to stop the strife and killing. From a narrow perspective, it appears to be a fight of egos between the Army chief and the Chief of the RSF. Both had joined hands to take Sudan towards a path of democracy. They both claim they want fair elections to be held. However, both have failed to walk their talks. The lack of options stems from the compulsion that insiders have no leverage over the two warring factions.
Interference from the outside seems the only option. Either an UN-led initiative or an AU (African Union) led initiative could stop this madness. Leadership in Sudan is at its lowest ebb. There are people on the streets, yet, no leader. Successive dictators have ensured that civil political leadership is never groomed or allowed to exist. This dilemma must bother outsiders too. Who would lead Sudan? No one wants the military or paramilitary to rule Sudan anymore. No one also desires the Islamists to take over the country. The repercussions would be catastrophic.
However, something must be done. Another civil war in Sudan would bring catastrophe to the region. Does India have any leverage in Sudan? Can it help Sudan return to the democratic path? Only time will answer these questions.
Maj Gen Nitin Gadkari (Retd)