The Sudanese state is collapsing, but does the US or Africa really care?

The Sudanese state is collapsing, but does the US or Africa really care?
Smoke billows above residential buildings in Khartoum on 16 April 2023, as fighting in Sudan raged in battles between rival generals. (Photo: AFP)

Just as this senseless war of two narcissistic sides is a choice so, too, is the inadequacy of the responses so far. This is not the best the West or Africa can or should do nor the most the Sudanese people should hope for or expect.

As Sudan rushes headfirst into state collapse, the complexity of the crisis should not obscure two basic facts. First, the state’s failure would take with it any remaining hopes that the US and Europe have of establishing themselves as credible strategic partners in confronting the continent’s most fundamental security challenges. Second, the African Peace and Security Architecture will lose all relevance in addressing those same challenges. Amid this stark reality, however, Africa, Europe and the US are fiddling while Sudan burns and giving free rein to Arab states to maximise their non-democratic, parochial interests. A fundamental change of course is therefore both urgent and necessary.

The stakes

The wilful destruction of the state in Sudan –literally and figuratively – should command the acute attention of leaders in both the West and Africa. Sudan bears geostrategic significance that makes it too consequential to let fail with 46 million people (more than twice the population of Syria), an 853km coastline bordering the Red Sea (through which more than 10% of the world’s trade passes and on which Russia keenly wants a foothold), the confluence of the two Niles (upon which Egypt depends for its water security), significant gold reserves (largely illicitly traded through the UAE), and seven neighbouring countries (all in varying states of internal strife and extreme fragility). 

The capital of Khartoum, which has not seen urban warfare since 1885 despite Sudan’s long track record of (non-violent) military coups and (very violent) wars, is now being decimated. The level of destruction of physical infrastructure as well as the flight of human capital – nearly everyone with the means to escape is seeking to do so – is unprecedented even considering the country’s volatile history. It will take decades to restore the capital to what it was on April 14, the day before the war erupted. Given that half of the nation’s GDP is generated in Khartoum, that devastation portends profound effects for the country. 

Four weeks into the two security forces’ fight to the death, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) appear to control the ground in Khartoum, including nearly all its vital infrastructure, thanks to its superior ground forces (they are better paid and battle-hardened from mercenary stints in Libya and Yemen, as well as recruits from across the Sahel). The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), meanwhile, are using their air dominance to indiscriminately bomb RSF targets irrespective of their occupation of residential homes and neighbourhoods. Both forces continue to act with wanton disregard for civilian safety, international humanitarian law and the preservation of infrastructure vital to the functioning of the state, notwithstanding the signing of a Declaration of Commitment to protect civilians and guarantee the safe passage of humanitarian aid in the country in Jeddah on May 11. 

Fighting has spread across eight of the 18 states in Sudan, leaving millions of civilians without supplies essential to survival—water, food, electricity, medical care—as well as intermittent telecommunications, transportation, and banking services. The toll of civilian deaths and injuries is undoubtedly exponentially higher than the official count of at least 676 people killed and 5,576 injured since the fighting began. More than 936,000 people have been newly displaced by the conflict since 15 April, including about 736,200 people displaced internally and about 200,000 people who have crossed into neighbouring countries, according to the UN. Prior to the conflict, there were already 3.7 million people internally displaced and 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan; some 15.8 million Sudanese were in need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

Performance-based problem solving

If not for the merits of the case of Sudan itself, leaders in the US and Europe should recognisee that they must succeed in solving complex problems around the world, not just in Ukraine, to remain great powers. Moreover, if the US wants the entire world to stand with Ukraine, then the US must stand with other parts of the world, especially when confronted with equally grave – albeit different – challenges to the most basic principles of the international liberal order. 

While unlike Ukraine, the aggressors in the case of Sudan are internal rather than external, an egregious assault threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state is nonetheless under way with civilians as the principal targets and pawns.

African leaders and institutions, for their part, must also solve more of Africa’s complex problems to be taken seriously – both by their own citizens and by other regional and international actors. Too often, however, “African solutions for African problems” amounts to having neighbouring dictators “mediate” their fellow dictator’s self-inflicted wounds. Unsurprisingly, this has neither “silenced the guns” nor secured the basic safety and security of the civilians being violently preyed upon.

For the West and Africa to rise to the challenge in Sudan, it will require overcoming the numbness that has ensued from the collectively ineffective responses to extreme human distress following the failure of politics in Ethiopia, South Sudan and elsewhere in recent years. Sadly, the lesson of these catastrophic wars is that massive loss of human life, war crimes, and even crimes against humanity brought upon civilians by those sitting in the seats of government are not enough to move policymakers to act decisively and effectively to end impunity. 

In each case, the populations fell victim to genocidal campaigns perpetrated by the very national governments meant to provide for their well-being under the pretence of being provoked by a competing political power – the TPLF in Tigray and the SPLM-IO, as it came to be known, in South Sudan. Of course, the TPLF and SPLM-IO (and other sub-national or non-state armed actors) bear responsibility for their parts in these scorched earth conflicts as well. The excess deaths of civilians resulting from these existential conflicts would likely rival the Rwandan genocide – albeit over a longer period – if proper estimates were ever done. (The few mortality estimates to date have been severely hindered by a lack of access to existing data and evidence that epidemiologists require for a properly informed calculation of the human toll.) 

Either of these wars should have provoked existential soul-searching for the regional, continental and international bodies charged with maintaining peace and security and protecting civilians from the violent depredations of their states, especially for the Western powers seeking to maintain the relevance of the current international peace and security architecture. Tragically, they did not. Even more so, the prospect now of the collapse of a state of Sudan’s magnitude should be a crisis that demands new strategies and even new international architecture. This requires a rethink by both the West and Africa to apply responses that are better fit for purpose than those which have demonstrably failed thus far – and will continue to fail. 

Democracy is a Sudanese – not a Western – project

Key to this will be jettisoning the conventional wisdom since the outbreak of full-scale war in Sudan that democracy in that country is largely a Western project that has now spectacularly failed. While Western diplomacy has been catastrophically ineffective by every measure, such analysis misses the most fundamental point, which is that democracy in Sudan is a project of the Sudanese people that has never been given the robust external political backing it deserves. The US, Europe and Africa have consistently (if inadvertently) undermined Sudanese aspirations for – and courageous action to bring about – a truly civilian transitional government leading to a democratic dispensation. 

Rather than bringing their political weight to tip the scale in favour of popular demands for meaningful change, time and time again regional and international actors have insisted on accommodation and power-sharing with military and security actors rather than requiring a return to barracks and incentivising exit pathways for military and security leaders with over-reaching career ambitions. 

This was true in 2019, when popular protests led to President Bashir’s removal through a joint coup by the SAF and RSF. Despite continued mass protests for the military and security actors to hand over power to civilians, the most the West and Africa could muster was to make security actors pretend to share power with civilians. This produced the facade of a “civilian-led transitional government”, but power to govern was never really in the civilian prime minister’s hands. The prime minister and his civilian “technocratic” cabinet were both sabotaged by the military and also too tentative to assert their theoretical primacy in the arrangement, uncertain that there would be practical external support to back them up. 

In October 2021, when the military was finally being pressed to hand off the chairmanship of the transitional Sovereignty Council to a civilian in accordance with the 2019 power-sharing agreement (confusingly amended by the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement with several non-state armed actors), a second coup ended the civilian facade with the arrest and removal of the prime minister and his cabinet and the detention of key political leaders. 

Despite violent repression, mass protests ensued once again to press for a civilian transitional government. Still the West and Africa resorted to accommodation and power-sharing, pushing for the restoration of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under terms less favourable to civilian authority than the pre-coup arrangement. This lasted but a few months before even that pretense was too difficult for the prime minister to abide and he thus resigned of his own accord, leaving Sudan under the rule of a fully military/security Sovereignty Council. 

While foreign aid and debt relief to Sudan were suspended in the wake of the October 2021 coup and Sudan remains suspended from the African Union (although bizarrely still chairs the regional body IGAD), meaningful consequences for Sudan’s military and security leaders have never been levelled by either the West or Africa. Left without a civilian scapegoat for the state’s continued failure to meet citizens’ needs for basic livelihoods and services, rivalry between the two security forces “sharing” power – the SAF and RSF – went into overdrive. Civilians were left divided, some seeking a new accommodation to recover any possible pathway to a democratic transition, others holding out for a true civilian transitional arrangement. 

The UN and the “Quad” (the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and UAE) came down on the side of yet another accommodation with the security forces, with the concurrence of IGAD and the AU. However, the proximate elephant in the room that was evidently wildly underestimated by the mediators was the future relationship between the two rival forces. The mediation seemingly expected that one side would voluntarily yield to the other, despite the absence of any incentive or imperative to do so. 

Even more troubling was the unfounded belief that either security actor was sincere in their professed willingness to hand over power given the repeated evidence to the contrary since 2019. Herein lies the crux of the issue that has yet to be addressed and will not be addressed without the meaningful application of power by the West and Africa. Doing so would require substantive interrogation of the dynamics within the SAF leadership behind its intransigence (ample signs pointing to the ambitions of former National Congress Party regime actors to return to power through a SAF victory are deep cause for concern) and of the RSF’s economic and political ambitions (which hinge on Russian and Emirati-facilitated illicit gold mining and trade). Hence the most recent efforts to return to a “civilian-led” transition blew up, quite literally, dissolving the junta power-sharing arrangement and threatening the collapse of the state outright.

Policy déjà vu

The current Jeddah process of the US and Saudi Arabia represents a repeat of the same policy of appeasing the generals, conferring undue legitimacy on them, and then resorting to power sharing—all of which have failed catastrophically thus far. The only difference this time is that the US has jettisoned working with its longstanding democratic Western allies in Sudan (the UK, Norway and the EU) and with the region itself – the AU, IGAD and regional leaders being treated as after-thoughts. The irony of the US choosing to partner with Saudi Arabia to salvage a return to civilian transitional government to usher in a democratic arrangement is not lost on the Sudanese civilians with whom the US purports to be standing. They are not confused that the Saudis have no sincere intention of seeing a truly democratic government come to pass in Sudan. That US and Saudi mediators are now seeking to hand-pick civilians to join the Jeddah process in order to add a fig leaf of civilian legitimacy to the talks with the emissaries of the two competing generals only adds insult to injury.

By contrast, a serious response from the West and from Africa would make clear that there will be no legitimacy granted to a regime that would exact such wanton destruction upon its own people in the pretence of seeking to govern them well and honourably. 

A serious response would deploy power in the form of political leverage (incentives and disincentives) to change the calculus of the belligerents. Remonstration without repercussions is nothing more than finger-wagging and hand-wringing. Relegation of the issue to sub-sub-cabinet level officers is a clear indication to the parties and most importantly to the Sudanese civilians struggling for their very survival that the West, especially, does not see Sudan’s impending collapse as a priority. 

Most critically and urgently the Sudanese people deserve an immediate, robust humanitarian response. This should entail a massive scale-up of resources and capacity led by the West; the internationalisation of infrastructure vital to humanitarian logistics, including for instance UN operation of airports in Khartoum, Port Sudan, Wad Medani, Kassala, and Nyala with regional force protection and meaningful consequences for the failure of the parties to cooperate; and facilitation by the frontline states of Sudanese seeking to get out of harm’s way, not holding them up at borders for days and nights with minimal or no essential services. Most importantly, Sudanese civilians deserve to lead on the prioritisation and delivery of the humanitarian response, recognising the courageous efforts undertaken thus far to reach people in need and to avoid the many, well-known sins of past aid operations in Sudan, including allowing the belligerents to have veto power over what, where and how aid is delivered to the people they are in the process of harming.

The US alone has poured over $21-billion in humanitarian, reconstruction and economic aid into Ukraine since February 2022. Four weeks into Sudan’s war, the most the US and Europe have marshalled for a population exceeding Ukraine’s is to reprogramme existing commitments, which already fell far short of meeting the pre-crisis humanitarian needs of $1.6-billion and are now likely to more than double in the near-term. Worryingly, no international campaign to mobilise resources for the Sudanese people appears in the offing.

Just as this senseless war of two narcissistic sides is a choice so, too, is the inadequacy of the responses thus far. This is not the best the West or Africa can or should do nor the most the Sudanese people should hope for or expect. The US must prove that it means what it says about partnership with Africa and about advancing democracy globally with effective diplomatic action at the highest levels and robust humanitarian response. Africa must prove that its institutions are more than just a shield for impunity. Both must act to uphold the most basic tenets of the international and continental peace and security architecture as it pertains to Africa. 

Averting the collapse of the Sudanese state is a Pass/Fail test for Africa, the US and Europe; there is no E for Effort. DM

Kate Almquist Knopf is a special adviser to The Brenthurst Foundation. She previously served as USAID/Sudan mission director, USAID assistant administrator for Africa, and as director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an independent academic centre of the US Department of Defence. The views reflected in this article are entirely her own.


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