Huda al-Husseini

War of Generals Turns Sudan into Ukraine of the Horn of Africa

Hundreds have been killed and thousands have been wounded during the recent clashes in Sudan. Many countries, including the United States, have evacuated their diplomatic staff and closed their embassies, which many interpreted as implying that they believe this will be an open-ended war and that Sudan could become the Ukraine of the Horn of Africa.

Despite having been close allies who shared control of the country in 2021, the two belligerents’ relationship subsequently became strained. Disputes over power and key national questions, including but not limited to the integration of the RSF into the Sudanese military and the eventual transition to civilian rule, have created a wedge between them. The violent scenes in Sudan are typical of the power struggles fought out in fragile states where several powerful armed groups vie for control. Nonetheless, given the significance of Sudan's geographical location, the political dispute and the escalating battles are actually far too complex to be seen as a mere power struggle.

On March 23, 2021, the “Ever Given” container ship lost control as it was passing through the Suez Canal and ran aground for about a week, shutting down one of the most important trade crossings in the world - 12 percent of global trade passes through it annually. Egypt mobilized, and once hundreds of ships had successfully passed through the Suez Canal, the dynamics regulating the regional order of the Red Sea were back and regained their importance. Indeed, the Red Sea is a pivotal waterway extending from the Suez Canal in the north and the Bab al-Mandab Strait in the south that is crucial for global maritime trade, as it links the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Its geostrategic and commercial significance has drawn in regional actors keen on establishing a foothold in the Red Sea. In fact, Turkey, Russia, and China, among others, have been building increasing numbers of seaports and military facilities between Sudan and Somalia in recent years. This spike in interest seems to indicate that a new "scramble for Africa" is underway in the coastal states of the continent.

Moreover, Egypt has always seen the conflict over the Red Sea as a threat to the maritime security of the region as a whole. Indeed, the minor incidents near the Bab el-Mandeb and the Ever Given incident attest to the extent of the impact that the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandab have on global trade along the Red Sea. Indeed, problems on either side of this route inevitably reverberate throughout the Red Sea region and extend into the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific.

The Red Sea should thus be considered an integrated system. The security of its maritime routes is part of a complex regional security framework that extends beyond its geographic borders.

Returning to the recent crisis in Sudan, it is the culmination of a quandary that goes back to the later years of President Omar al-Bashir’s now-deposed regime. This quandary was complicated further by the chaos that followed his overthrow by the armed forces in 2019. The disputes over the shaky power-sharing arrangement and transition to democracy that emerged since then have left tensions running high.

The ongoing clashes can only be understood as part of the longstanding competition over sovereign control between two powerful parties to this agreement: the Sudanese Armed Forces led by the Transitional Sovereignty Council Chairman Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces of General Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, more commonly known by his nickname "Hamedti". The two men began forging ties during the Darfur conflict in 2000, when Hemeti emerged as the leader of the Janjaweed militias, whose notoriety precedes them. These factions recruited by the Bashir regime to fight in Darfur later became the Rapid Support Forces in 2013.

The two military commanders were appointed to the Transitional Sovereignty Council, which took power after Bashir was toppled. Burhan was appointed Chairman and Hamedti his deputy. However, this arrangement did little to stabilize things in Khartoum or build trust between the army and the RSF, which had become a powerful non-state rival to the army, after years of mutual apprehension. Things took a new turn for the worse when the military brought down the transitional government led by Abdallah Hamdok in October 2021 and declared a state of emergency. Burhan and Hemedti remained on the council, while all but one of its civilian members were replaced.

The African Union suspended Sudan's membership the day after this coup, while the United States and the European Union froze hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid that had been pledged in support of Sudan's transition to democratic civilian rule. Meanwhile, Sudan's economy continued to teeter on the brink, and violent unrest shook many corners of the country. The military failed to draw the total support of many traditional partners, who were lukewarm about the post-coup government. Meanwhile, mass protests against the army followed the coup, gaining strength with time as the army struggled to garner broad support across the country.

A range of regional and international actors are now calling on African leaders to play a more proactive role in resolving the conflict. Indeed, "African solutions to African problems" is a slogan that retains great traction across the continent, but this is a purely academic warning.

The fact is that Sudan - and, to a large extent, the Horn of Africa as a whole - has long been a battleground where global and regional powers consolidate their influence. The fingerprints of an array of global powers – including Russia, the US, the UK and China – can be found in Sudan, where they have been involved in infrastructure, energy, defense, mining and agriculture projects. This means that these actors have a lot of leverage over the political elites of the country, including Burhan and Hemedti.

The latest crisis in Sudan is extremely consequential, especially considering its geostrategic location. It is the third largest country in Africa and shares borders with 7 countries: Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. All of them are deeply impacted by domestic developments in Sudan, and they have their own immense security challenges to deal with. It is close to the Red Sea and one of the homes of the Nile; the situation in Sudan thus has grave implications, not only for landlocked Ethiopia but also water-scarce Egypt.

The Rapid Support Forces’ financial network operates and what is being said about (the relationship between Russia and gold) could aggravate the situation further and perpetuate the war. Ensuring civilian oversight of military spending is pivotal for allowing Sudan to undergo a peaceful democratic transition, as is granting the Sudanese people greater control over their natural resources. Unless all military forces are brought under civilian control, the transition to the democratic civilian government that is sought by so many in Sudan will continue to be impeded. That is if the generals' war ends swiftly with one getting rid of the other.