AFRICA UNSCRAMBLED OP-ED
A cavalry of pick-up truck warriors deals ‘catastrophic’ blow to Sudan’s army
More than 10,000 Sudanese civilians have died since the fighting erupted in April, and there are seven million displaced people – more than a million of them refugees in neighbouring countries. Three million children have been forced to flee their homes, the largest displaced population of children in the world.
The more than six-month war in Sudan has taken a decisive turn.
The Rapid Support Forces militia under the warlord Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) is poised to take control of the entire Darfur region, having captured several key cities abandoned by the Sudanese Armed Forces in the dead of night.
The RSF has taken control of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur and the country’s second commercial hub, and Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, since last week.
The RSF also completed its hold on El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, by clearing out the garrison of the 15th Infantry Division this weekend.
Geneina was the scene of ethnic cleansing earlier this year when Arab Reizegat militias associated with the RSF killed thousands of “African” Masalit tribespeople.
“The survivors – several hundred thousand – just walked to Chad,” said one former resident of West Darfur. “There’s none left there now.”
Despite grave concerns expressed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the RSF is ready to attack El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur and the last stronghold of the army in the region, where tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting have sought sanctuary. Fasher has been spared from the conflict until now.
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have offered little resistance, appearing to cede Darfur to the RSF in the hope of consolidating their forces in the rest of the country.
RSF’s victories have created a de facto partition between the RSF in the west and Khartoum, and the SAF in the east and north of the country.
There was also heavy fighting in Khartoum on Sunday, 5 November, with unconfirmed reports that the RSF had attacked the Armoured Corps base in the southwest of the city.
Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies in Washington, described the developments as “catastrophic” for Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces.
The independent news website Middle East Eye quoted RSF sources as saying they were now considering setting up their own government in Geneina, creating a Libya-type situation where Sudan is “ruled” from two centres.
Burhan has talked about moving his capital to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan as the contested and shattered tri-city capital of Khartoum, Bahri and Omdurman is mostly in RSF hands and destroyed as an administrative centre.
The RSF, backed by the United Arab Emirates, has moved aggressively to carve out its fiefdom.
The question is whether this highly mobile pick-up truck cavalry of tribal warriors from Chad, Niger and Western Sudan will be content with Darfur.
Hemedti’s brother, Abdelrahim Dagalo, the deputy commander of the RSF, intimated that they would keep going until they controlled the entire country.
RSF troops have already reached White Nile state.
“I think at this point there’s no reason for the RSF to think that they should be limited to Darfur,” said Hudson.
“I would guess they have an ambition to take everything west of the Nile, to include all of Khartoum and Omdurman – that would be two-thirds of the country.”
And 100% of the gold.
The Sudanese people as bystanders
The RSF moves coincided with the return of the warring parties to peace talks in Jeddah last week, brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia, this time including African representatives from the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
But the talks are limited to matters of humanitarian assistance and another ceasefire, which will probably be ignored like the ones before. On the ground, everyone is talking about the break-up of the country.
According to conservative estimates, more than 10,000 civilians have died since the fighting erupted in April, mostly in crossfire, and there are seven million displaced people – more than a million of them refugees in the neighbouring countries of Chad, South Sudan and Egypt.
Three million kids have been forced to flee their homes, the largest displaced population of children in the world.
“A feature of this war which hasn’t happened on this scale in recent memory, I think in African wars, is the level of looting and abuse of civilian populations, largely by the Rapid Support Forces,” said Dr Suliman Baldo, executive director of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker.
“They have occupied private residences, looted all valuables and engaged in a campaign of carjacking. I would say tens of thousands of vehicles have left Khartoum to areas of constituencies of the fighting forces of RSF,” Baldo told the International Crisis Group podcast, “The Horn”.
Neither the SAF nor the RSF has shown much interest in actual governing, which raises the question of who runs the country if the RSF does succeed in winning the war.
Baldo said that currently at the local level, essential services have been taken over by volunteers: professional associations, neighbourhood committees, resistance committees and so on.
“Local, ordinary people are volunteering to look after displaced people who fled to areas less affected by the conflict, so the state is registering a stark absence.
“The police have all but disappeared.”
One former Sudanese official speaking from Ethiopia said that “the country is completely down”. There is no administration working on either side – not in health, education or anything else.
“There is no more country outside of the armed groups,” he said.
A better word for what is happening is decomposition rather than fragmentation.
World turns a blind eye
The powerlessness of the international community to stop the destruction of Sudanese society and protect its most vulnerable citizens is a sign of the diseased state of the global security regime.
The most noted silence has come from African countries. They have not raised the issue at the UN Security Council nor been particularly vocal about promoting a ceasefire or securing humanitarian corridors into the country.
Just four weeks ago, several African countries, including Sudan, opposed a UN Human Rights Council vote to investigate rights violations in Sudan. The vote narrowly passed thanks to support from Western countries. South Africa abstained.
Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation, blames the international response on the low priority given by the US to the Horn of Africa and an increasing assertiveness by the powers in the Middle East.
“[Former] President Donald Trump authorised his favoured intermediaries – Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to pursue their interests across the Horn of Africa. The Biden administration has not pulled that back.”
The UAE has become the RSF’s strongest backer.
A recent Wall Street Journal exposé revealed how the Emiratis have been moving weapons to Sudan under cover of humanitarian assistance to the refugees in Chad.
The UAE is also motivated by the fact that an increasingly desperate Burhan is leaning on the Islamists from the former regime of Omar al-Bashir to help him. This relationship comes with other alliances: Turkey, Qatar and even Iran, who signed a deal with Burhan a few days before the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.
The RSF is allied with its kindred organisation, the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which mines gold alongside it in Sudan and operates in the RSF-friendly territories of the Central African Republic and Libya.
Saudi Arabia and Burhan’s main backer, Egypt, while supporting him, are trying to wean the SAF away from the Muslim Brotherhood.
It does show that international politics has become more and more of a jungle; what De Waal describes as a “deepening crisis at the mercy of ruthless transactional politics”.
De Waal said that despite a rhetorical commitment to a rule-based international order, Washington had failed to protect Africa’s painstakingly constructed peace and security architecture.
“Those African countries most in need of principled multilateralism are paying the price.”
The extension of RSF Reizegat tribal control over Darfur, a region of multi-ethnic diversity, could bring the conflict to places that have been relatively peaceful up till now and threaten other groups in an ethnically diverse region, and beyond.
In Darfur and neighbouring Kordofan, there are at least three factions of the “African” Sudanese Liberation Movement, who have so far stayed out of the fighting, but who could get drawn in or be forced to defend their communities against the militias.
Many Sudanese view the RSF as a Mafia-style organisation, a money-making venture whose military campaign has been based on systematic plunder and rape.
The United Nations Human Rights Office said on 3 November that it was “deeply alarmed by reports that women and girls are being abducted and held in inhuman, degrading slave-like conditions” in RSF-controlled areas in Darfur.
Cameron Hudson said all of Darfur was now set to fall to a “genocidal militia group”.
“With control over multiple borders, RSF will have uncontrolled access to new weapons and an ability to raise forces.”
Meanwhile, apart from relying on fighters from the Sudan Islamist Movement, the SAF has revived units of the former security services and there has been a general mobilisation of the population, largely on ethnic lines.
“It doesn’t bode well for Sudan that the population is being trained and armed to use weapons along ethnic lines, on both sides. This is a recipe for a disaster that, if not contained by an immediate end to the current war, could lead to further disintegration,” he said.
Baldo reflected with sadness that the core of Sudanese society has been uprooted and dispersed to Egypt and elsewhere.
“Its writers, its artists, its musicians, its politicians, civil society, its actors. What is state failure if not the uprooting of an entire society?” DM