The article is a deeply researched narration of Sudan’s current crisis as viewed through the lens of Sudanese history. Sudan and other African countries have lived in a violent environment for decades. Power struggles, corruption, and wealth amassing, by a few have been the norm. At the same time, an impoverished populace has only too often been caught in the crossfire, their conditions exacerbated by sanctions imposed on the country. The article is being published in two parts. Part II will follow.
As the news of India’s evacuation attempts to bring back Indians stuck in violence-hit Sudan under ‘Operation Kaveri’ reaches the Indian shores, many in India and around the world may not be able to fully comprehend the dire consequences of the violence in Sudan and its relative importance to world peace. However, a section of our country’s population is very familiar with the country and the name – Sudan.
All Armed forces officers who have passed out of the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Khadakvasla near Pune would fondly remember the imposing building in the middle of the academy, which is the main administrative block, named the ‘Sudan Block’. There is a history to its being named so. During World War II, the British Indian army troops fighting with the British liberated Sudan from Italian occupation. Italy was an Axis power. Sudan was a British colony in those days. In recognition of the services and sacrifices made by the Indian troops, the Sudan government donated 100 thousand pounds to the Indian government in 1949 (part of the money went to Pakistan). Since the Indian government was toying with the idea of making a joint services training institution, they used the money to build its main building – ‘The Sudan Block’.
Today, Sudan is one of the most restive countries in the African continent, along with a few others like Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, where peace has been elusive, and violence is the order of the day. Sudan has a history of violence, which dates back to the days of British control. The movie ‘Khartoum’ depicts the country’s violent history in the late 19th Century.
Sudan gained independence from the British in 1956, and since then, every decade has witnessed a coup and a violent aftermath. While the coups were all about seizing power and defeating the forces of democracy by the Generals of armed forces, the two civil wars which had besieged the country have ensured the population remains in abject poverty.
The first was a long civil war between the South and North Sudan until the South finally became independent through a referendum in 2011. The tensions with the South continue due to the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, on which both sides lay claims. Then there was civil strife in the west of Sudan in the region of Darfur. In a way, the civil war in Darfur is the reason for the current crisis in Sudan (more on it in part II of the article).
Outside interference in the country’s local affairs has been the region’s main undoing, and Sudan is no exception. First, there were the British, then came the Egyptian influence, which, after independence, was followed by the entry of the cold war powers, the Soviet Union and the US. Sudan became a dumping ground for surplus weapons. The US and Russia are still battling to gain a foothold in Sudan. After the Arab Spring, the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) jumped in to influence the Wahabi-style fundamentalists in the country. UAE also exerts influence and is the chief backer of the RSF (Reserve Security Force).
What is the current problem in Sudan? The longest-serving ruler of Sudan was Omar Ahmad Al Bashir, who seized power as a Brigadier. in 1989. He later promoted himself to Lieutenant General and stayed in power despite numerous coup attempts till 2019. He was accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of genocide and human rights abuses. For the better part of his regime, he ruled Sudan with the power of a gun. He brought to Sudan such cruelty unheard of in its history. He banned political parties, and trade unions, abolished the judiciary, and jailed thousands of intellectuals and political leaders. He killed opposition leaders and subjugated his people like none before. He also brought in the Muslim Brotherhood to find support for his regime. He took Sudan towards the dangerous radical path that the world is witnessing today.
The US had imposed sanctions on Sudan, pronouncing it as a state sponsoring terrorism in the US and other parts of the world. While all this was happening, the economic situation was worsening. War raged against the South and the regions of Kordofan and Darfur. Sudan was robbed of any source of income from its oil due to the civil war and agriculture due to the war in Darfur. To crush the rebellion in the Darfur region, Bashir formed a militia of armed men called Janjaweed. They inflicted immeasurable death and destruction on the civilian population of Darfur in 2003. The militia was later converted to a para-military force – RSF, as the ICC started accusing Bashir of human rights violations. The RSF Chief is Hamediti, a principal actor in the crisis that has erupted in Sudan now.
It is pertinent to highlight that the situation in the neighbouring countries of Sudan, especially the countries in the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea – are no better as they, too, suffered on account of similar problems of secession and insurgencies. They fought within themselves as also with each other. The wars drained these countries, leading to civil strife in Somalia and Eritrea. The strife still ranges and attracts radical groups like Daesh (ISIS) to their shores to find support and spread their ideology. Chad, on the western border of Sudan, is no better, having suffered a coup attempt and the death of their President during clashes with the rebels in 2017. It is also the home to Boko Haram, the notorious Islamist group which supports ISIS.
Sudan under Bashir was a pariah State subject to isolation by most Western and GCC (Gulf Council Countries). The result was a need for more financial resources to fund any developmental projects. The transition to civilian democratic rule under General Bashir was an eyewash. Poll results were rigged, with Bashir becoming the President. The secession of South Sudan in 2011 came as a big blow to the Sudanese economy. Seventy-five per cent of the country’s oil reserves went to South Sudan. The loss of revenue made matters worse as it proved to be a double whammy; sanctions and loss of the only source of income, oil.
Sudan spiralled into a cycle of economic collapse, lack of food for the population and excessive use of force by the regime to keep the angry population in check. Finally, in April 2019, the two subordinates of President Bashir – Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan,
and Chief of the Reserve Security Force (RSF), Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), overthrew Bashir in a military coup and put him under arrest.
They set up a transitional Sovereign Council comprising half civilians and half military members to oversee a transitional government for 24 months. The transition government was to be responsible for holding democratic elections in July 2022. The apparent understanding was that for half the period, the Military would have a Head of State and then hand over power to the civilian authorities.
After months of negotiations and outside intervention from Ethiopia and the African Union (AU), General Burhan became the President and Abdalla Hamdok was sworn in as the civilian Prime minister. The tension between the military and civilian representatives of the council was palpable right from the start. It peaked when ex-president General Bashir’s loyalists attempted a coup. The Military blamed the civilian representatives, who, in turn, called for reigning in the Military. Amidst growing tensions, the Military, on 25th October 2019, arrested all the civilian members of the council. They suspended the transitional government and called for fresh elections in July 2023.
The Prime Minister was put under house arrest. Large-scale protests and condemnation followed, both inside and outside Sudan. Under pressure, General Burhan reinstated Abdalla Hamadi as the Prime Minister but formed a new Council of Ministers comprising technocrats. Abdalla Hamadi resigned, unable to fulfil the promise he had made. Osman Hussein replaced him in January 2022.
Osman Hussein also resigned in the second week of April 2023 after making an emotional speech to the nation that he had failed to ensure the safety of the citizens and not taken Sudan on the path of democracy. The current crisis results from fighting between the two arms of the government: The Army under General Burhan and the RSF under General Dagalo. Both were allies, now turned foes. The bone of contention is the merging of the RSF with the Sudanese Army.
General Burhan and his supporters are unhappy about the enormous wealth and power the RSF’s Chief has amassed. They suspect him of harbouring ambitions to usurp power and become the President. The Army called for their merger within two years, but General Dagalo asked for ten years. No one knows who started the fighting. However, both sides accuse each other of attacking. The clash between the RSF – a para-military organisation, and the Army has led to large-scale violence in Sudan. Most of the violence was initially restricted to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
Nevertheless, the fighting has now spread to the rest of the country. Both sides are unwilling to back down, pitting the civilians in the crossfire. Hundreds of innocent civilians are dead as the Army uses airpower to flush out RSF from their hideouts in the city. Appeals by the GCC, KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), UAE, and Egypt have come to no avail. Most Western countries have failed to stop the bout and have been forced to evacuate their citizens. If things continue, the road to democracy will be forgotten, and Sudan will erupt into another civil war.
India has evacuated over 2000 Indian nationals under Operation Kaveri by Naval ships and Air Force transporters from Port Sudan and by executing a daring night landing at Wadi Sayyidna airstrip, 40 km from Khartoum to Jeddah. (Part II of Sudan Crises will follow).
Maj Gen Nitin P Gadkari (Retd)