Shortcuts / 18 May 2023

The Sudan conflict

It’s been a horrifying time in the African nation of Sudan with foreign nationals including Aussies being evacuated out of the country. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at why Sudan is in such strife, what’s happening on the ground right now, and what the world is doing to try and stop it from becoming a full-blown civil war.

My geography’s not so great – where exactly is this happening?
So Sudan is up in the northeastern corner of Africa, near the Middle East. Sudan is mainly Muslim, bordering Egypt and Libya to the north and west and then Ethiopia and Eritrea to the south and east.

How big is Sudan?
It actually used to be Africa’s biggest country until South Sudan got independence just over a decade ago. But it’s still the 3rd biggest nation and is home to about 48 million people.

And that region has seen a lot of trouble?
Sure has – and Sudan’s whole back story is filled with fighting and famine. It was ruled by both Egypt and Britain until it successfully fought for independence in the 1950s and since then, it has been plagued by a succession of military coups and civil wars. And more recently, one that made headlines a few years ago was the conflict in Darfur.

What happened?
The United Nations said it was a campaign of genocide within the country. The conflict went on for 17 years – up until 2020. More than 300,000 people were killed and another 3 million were forced from their homes during that time.

So it was a big thing at the time…
Yep, the International Criminal Court even ordered the arrest of the country’s President Omar al-Bashir on 7 charges of war crimes. He was accused of trying to eliminate the non-Arab minorities in Sudan.

Gotcha. Why is there more fighting now?
Basically, 2 branches of the country’s military are clashing – one is the regular army and the other is a separate military group called the rapid support forces (RSF.) The RSF didn’t want to be integrated into the main army and they’ve taken their battle into the cities and streets – so ordinary civilians are getting killed in this power struggle.

That doesn’t sound like a really solid basis for war…
Sure, but it’s a tale as old as war itself. You probably wouldn’t be shocked to know that a couple of generals are using these militaries as pawns to fight their own power struggle.

Go on…
So after 30 years in power, President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in 2019 – the people wanted him gone. He had set up the RSF to rival the army, thinking that having those 2 forces would keep him safe from a military coup. But instead, the 2 generals of those forces combined to get rid of him and now both groups are reneging on promises to establish a civilian-led government and are instead fighting for power amongst themselves.

So they’re not really upstanding guys…
You could say that. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is the de facto leader of the Sudanese Government and also the leader of the Sudanese Army. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, is his deputy leader and also the head of the RSF. Both have played roles brutally putting down the largely non-Muslim rebel groups in the Darfur conflict.

What’s happening on the streets right now?
Similar tactics to what we’re seeing in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The RSF is trying to control key assets – things like hospitals, banks, and TV stations – and it’s all playing out in urban areas. And the army and air force have mounted counterattacks including air strikes in the capital Khartoum.

And civilians are getting caught in the middle?
Yep. A number of ceasefires have been announced to allow people to escape the fighting but these have all largely been ignored.

How many casualties have there been?
We know more than 600 civilians have died so far and more than 50,000 have been injured – and that’s before we mention the country’s severe food, water and electricity shortages.

You can see why foreigners were so desperate to flee…
That’s for sure, and it was a huge exercise to get diplomats and ex-pats out. The UK alone sent in about 30 military flights to get 2,500 people out. Others got escorted by road to Port Sudan on the Red Sea and then onto ships to Saudi Arabia. The US, Germany and France were also doing a lot of heavy lifting to get people out.

Including Aussies?
Yep – all up 190 Australians and their families have been helped out of the country over the past month.

How has the world reacted to this crisis?
Unsurprisingly, a vast range of governments are now trying to influence events on the ground in Sudan; from the EU and the US to Sudan’s 7 neighbours and Saudi Arabia, which lies across the Red Sea.

What are they doing?
The Saudis hosted peace talks that brought reps from the Sudanese army and rival RSF to the table – but they really didn’t get very far… The 2 groups said they’d do more to protect civilians but made no commitment to end the fighting.

Why not?
Well, a Saudi diplomat at those talks said a permanent ceasefire isn’t on the table because both sides believe they have the upper hand – so they have no incentive to halt the fighting.

I’ll bet the diplomats are tearing their hair out…
Yep, and if it wasn’t complex enough already, there’s another troubling actor in all this: Russia.

What’s that about?
So we know Sudan has a big stretch of coastline on the Red Sea and the Kremlin has for years been trying to establish a military base at Port Sudan. So that would give its warships influence in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – and you can imagine the US and the UK do not want that to happen.

Okay, but what do the Sudanese people want?
When the 30-year dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown in 2019, the people wanted democracy, not more military rule. So for the people of Sudan, this is a struggle between 2 bad actors who both reneged on a promise they would lead Sudan through a transition to civilian rule.

Any chance that transition might happen?
It’s looking pretty unlikely. But just a month before this latest fighting broke out the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, gave a really emotional speech pleading for peace and democracy in Sudan. He talked about the “profound pain” in that country, but also the extraordinary hope “driven by people of all walks of life” that things could be different.

You’d hope so…
And in the short term mediators are going to keep pushing to get any sort of ceasefire so civilians can get to safety and humanitarian aid can get in – but beyond that, it’s going to take some extraordinary diplomacy to stop this going off the rails.

Squiz recommends:

Sudan’s conflict explained in 5 minutes – The UK’s Telegraph
The backstory on the two Generals now fighting for supremacy in SudanBBC News

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