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Sudan: Catastrophe was foreseeable, says expert

Andreas Noll
April 17, 2023

Fierce fighting is continuing between Sudan’s regular army and the paramilitary RSF. The outcome of the conflict is wide open, says Marina Peter of the Sudan Forum.

Men brandishing guns on a street
The conflict between the two warring sides has been simmering beneath the surface for a whileImage: AFP

DW: Why do you think the power struggle between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries, and the Sudanese army is escalating right now?

Marina Peter: At the heart of it is the question whether there will finally be a government made up of military and civilian forces again. There was an agreement to that effect last November which was supposed to be implemented in December. But this step has been postponed again and again. One of the points of the agreement is also the full integration of the paramilitary forces into the Sudanese army.

The RSF originally emerged from the so-called janjaweed militia, who were particularly notorious in Darfur. Over time, these militias have become a semiautonomous part of the Sudanese force and should now be fully incorporated.

But the power struggle was always simmering beneath the surface and had been expected since the ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

The current commander-in-chief of the forces, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan, became chairman of the transitional sovereign council at the time, and RSF chief Hamdan Daglo (better known as Hemeti) his deputy. Both are Bashir's proteges, so they also come from Islamist backgrounds. Hemeti's popularity has grown in the West because he made sure that migrants who wanted to get through the Sudanese desert to Libya were apprehended and prevented from continuing their journey to Europe.

It was clear that one of them would claim the leadership for himself. For Western observers, and especially for the Sudanese themselves, the question was no longer whether there would be a power struggle, but when. The catastrophe was predictable.

How strong are the RSF?

The RSF are highly armed. They have served for years as a mercenary force in both Libya and Yemen. The force has very strong ties to Russia and Hemeti is one of the richest men in Sudan. The RSF have made a lot of money primarily from gold exploitation in Hemeti's native Darfur and other parts of the country. Much of that gold, by the way, has been shipped to Russia. Russia is a friend and supporter.

But Burhan is not a poor man either. Both militaries have benefited greatly from the economic situation. Hemeti is so rich that he could buy a lot of affection. Among other things, he also brought Russia's paramilitary Wagner troops into the country. And our fear is that the Russians might pass on reconnaissance information to Hemeti.

The complete integration of the RSF into the army would be the prerequisite for civilians to participate in the government again. In your view, is this path now blocked for the foreseeable future due to this escalation?

Sudan expert Marina Peters
Sudan expert Marina PetersImage: Hermann Bredehorst/Brot für die Welt

Unfortunately, that is to be feared. We in the West are quick to believe that military leaders will turn into democrats overnight. That didn't work in South Sudan, which seceded in 2011. The situation is similar in Eritrea. And it's not working in Sudan either. Military leaders, no matter how much they pretend to have suddenly discovered democracy, use these announcements simply as a whitewash. In recent months, Hemeti has tried to win over parts of the population by condemning the military coup. Of course, he is very much in favor of democracy, he has said. But in the end, this is simply to give himself a better starting point in the power struggle.

The Arab League has requested an emergency meeting. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling for an immediate end to the violence. How much influence can be exerted from abroad?

The major difficulty is that foreign countries have previously exerted a lot of influence to little effect. Egypt would prefer to see a government in Sudan comparable to the one in Cairo. There is no democratic government there either.

Saudi Arabia has played a major role in Sudan, as have Russia and Eritrea. Relations with Ethiopia are such that only Hemeti and his forces are supported in this power struggle, albeit not officially. None of these countries has any real interest in a democratic government.

Right now, unfortunately, we see a certain redivision of Africa into zones of power and a new "Cold War." Guterres has been quiet for far too long. We have always asked ourselves: where is the United Nations? There has been no one who really stood up for diplomacy in the past months, when the escalation was foreseeable.

This just shows once again the international community's helplessness in dealing with these situations. It's good that they are getting involved now. But they should have spoken much earlier, and they should have applied pressure much earlier.

Marina Peter is head of the Sudan and South Sudan Forum and has lived and worked in Sudan for 30 years.

This interview was translated from German.

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