Sudan reaping the whirlwind

Andy Gregg on a story of colonialism, divide and rule, climate change and rivalries behind the current civil war

The UK has recently provided refuge to many thousands of Ukrainians fleeing from the terrible war launched by Putin’s Russia. At the same time, many thousands of Sudanese refugees are fleeing from their own civil war and now need just this sort of assistance and yet are unlikely to get it due to the colour of their skin and the racist perception that they are “culturally different from us Europeans”. In fact, Britain owes Sudanese refugees sanctuary due to Britain’s role, over nearly 60 years, as imperial rulers in colonising and dividing their country in ways that have led to the recent violence and hatred. Between 1898 and 1956, Britain developed colonial links (which we have never had with the Ukraine) and set up much of the potential divisions and ethnic struggles that have recently boiled over into the current civil war between the army and the paramilitary forces of the Rapid Support Forces.

Omar al Bashir’s long rule as the autocratic president of Sudan from 1989 ended in 2019 with a coup that was largely brought about by the strength of the democratic and civil society movements that organised and led the demonstrations. These were then supported by the army (and the militia which became the RSF) when it was clear that Bashir’s government was unsustainable.

After Bashir was ousted, Sudan’s military leadership assumed control, ostensibly to oversee a transition to power of a democratically elected government, though actually to stop one. The pro-democracy movement was already deeply suspicious of the military and its “Transitional Military Council”, and after a series of further huge demonstrations, the military agreed to form a Sovereign Council with civilian input. The agreement had the military governing for the first 21 months with the commitment that a civilian administration would then take over.

However, suspicion and tension between the civilian and military sides of this unstable alliance inevitably developed, and General Burhan (head of the army) then moved to overthrow the government and arrested the leader of the civilian side of the arrangement, Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, who had been pushing for a fully civilian administration to take over in line with the original agreement. Hamdok’s government, despite being continually undermined by the military, had passed some key legislation, particularly around women’s rights, in recognition of the key role that women had played in the civil society movements that continued to organise for democracy. In 2019, the government repealed all the laws restricting women’s freedom of dress, movement, association, work and study, and in 2020, Hamdok passed legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation. These developments were strongly opposed by conservative elements in the army and some religious leaders.

The Hamdok government lasted two years – until October 2021 – when the military struck, taking power for themselves, with Gen Burhan again at the head of the state and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), the head of the RSF, as his deputy. After the 2021 coup, General Burhan started to restore Islamists and former Bashir regime members to their old positions – supported by Egypt and some other regional powers. This led to friction with Hemedti, who had always been seen as an unsophisticated and provincial upstart.

Since British colonial times, Sudanese politics has always been dominated by an elite largely drawn from the ethnic groups based around Khartoum and the River Nile. Hemedti, coming from the far western periphery of Sudan, Darfur, was from way outside this clique, and the Sudanese elite often talk about him and his soldiers as “country bumpkins” unfit to rule the state. Hemedti is, in fact, a brutal and cynical warlord who first came to international notice as the leader of the Janjaweed Arab militia that raped and pillaged through Darfur and then, under the sponsorship of Omar al Bashir, throughout the many restive areas in the peripheries of Sudan.

By the time of the overthrow of Bashir, Hemedti had amassed a significant portfolio of gold and other mines in Darfur. He is now immensely rich and has achieved this in alliance with Russia’s Wagner Group, who have operated across the Sahel area of Africa for the last decade, intervening in the affairs of several African countries, providing military and security support whilst expanding Moscow’s influence across the continent with a number of appalling human rights violations. Hemedti’s appalling history began with the Janjaweed and continued with the RSF (and its increasing involvement with the Wagner Group) in suppressing the uprisings of the mainly African ethnic groups against the Arab ruling class, both in Khartoum and Sudan as a whole.

The recent troubles over the last three decades in Darfur are a direct result of the global climate emergency. As the Sahara moves south, and with increasing desertification caused by global warming, the semi-nomadic Arab camel and cattle herding tribes (Hemedti comes from this background) in the north of Darfur have moved onto and contested the lands farmed by settled African tribes. The resulting racism and Arab imperiousness exploded in the terrible record of the Janjaweed that then subsequently metamorphosed into the Rapid Support Forces with the support of Bashir, who used it as a counter force against the conventional armed forces. Since British times, governments of Sudan have adopted a strategy of setting local people against one another. Deploying the RSF also allowed the government to avoid sending units of the regular army – largely manned by the sons of Nile-dwelling establishment into danger.

Sudan is now reaping the whirlwind of this situation, with the RSF capturing a number of key strategic sites in Darfur as well as in Khartoum. Despite lacking as much air support as the regular armed forces are able to deploy, the RSF’s history of armed actions and its ferocious reputation has seen it make some significant advances. The confrontation between the two military forces has been exacerbated by the involvement of regional states and the continuing role of Nile politics – concerns by Egypt about the damming of the Nile by Ethiopia – and access to water throughout the Nile’s long journey to the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt and a number of other undemocratic Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia are tacitly behind the army and are supportive of the moves by Burhan to reintroduce conservative Islamic laws, whilst Russia and some other regional powers support the RSF.

Attempts to broker a ceasefire have been constantly breached by both sides, and the numbers of internally displaced people and refugees are rising quickly, with increasing numbers trying to gain access to Europe through the Mediterranean and even to Britain across the Channel. Despite the historic strength of civil society organisations in Sudan, these are now largely destroyed or in disarray, and the outlook for the whole of the surrounding Horn of Africa looks increasingly bleak. Britain is yet again operating as though it has no historic or colonial responsibility for the worsening situation, and we can expect the British Government to refuse to set up safe routes for Sudanese refugees to reach the UK, any significant expenditure on emergency aid during the emergency, or developmental aid once some sort of settlement is reached.

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