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Sudan: What can Europe do to stem the violence?

Ella Joyner in Brussels
April 24, 2023

Sudan is at a dangerous crossroads. If Europe wants to help, it should push hard for a cease-fire and advocate for civilian involvement in the country's political future, analysts say.

An evacuee is embraced after disembarking from a Spanish Air and Space Force plane at Torrejon de Ardoz Airbase
Image: Spanish Foreign Ministry/REUTERS

With Sudan's capital in the grip of a harrowing outbreak of violence between followers of two rival military factions, the popular wave of protests that ousted long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019 feels like a very long time ago indeed.

Foreign embassies and international organizations are still scrambling to evacuate their nationals and foreign staff after the eruption of hostilities earlier this month, but many are already asking how to stop the bloodshed from escalating into civil war.

On Monday, foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) gathering at the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg focused comments to the press on their respective countries' evacuation efforts and calls for deescalation. But some were looking further ahead.

Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and defense minister Pistorius
EU foreign ministers have been concentrating on evacuating their respective nationals Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

'European Union could do more'

The bloc's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell urged the belligerents' leaders — General Abdel-Fattah Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo of the powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary — to consider a cease-fire and negotiations. "You have to stop the war, silence the guns and start talking and looking for a political solution because there is not a military solution," Borrell said.

Going a step further, Finland's Minister for  Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto warned that Russia could fill the power vacuum left behind as other countries disengaged from the country amidst the violence.

"If we leave, we also leave some space for Wagner troops and Russia to play this game," he told reporters, referring to the private mercenary group owned and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with ties to Vladimir Putin. "I think Europe has to activate its role in Sudan."

Haavisto said the EU should assist not just its own citizens, but also local residents in Khartoum. "I think the European Union could do more," he added.

After evacuations, what next?

In reality, a number of actors have a stake in Sudan, as Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told DW.

"I don't think it's useful to look at this as just a Russia story. Wagner troops, known to be active in a number of unstable African states, have been present in Sudan for some time, supporting the Rapid Support Forces," he said.

He added that all of Sudan’s African neighbours had serious stakes in Khartoum's political destiny, as did the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Concern is high that the burgeoning conflict could spill over into neighboring countries, creating regional and economic instability. A sudden influx of refugees could also pose a major challenge.

The European Union slammed the military coup of 2021, but kept up formal relations with the de-facto leaders while stressing that it wanted to see a civilian, democratic government.

Murphy told DW that once evacuations were done, the focus for all international players should be ensuring a lasting cease-fire in order to allow for urgent humanitarian supplies to reach the most vulnerable.

Subsequently, the EU, along with other partners, could assess what leverage and incentives it had over the two warring parties. "I think Europe has a role to play, but we haven't got our skates on yet," he said.

Sudanese journalist Alsanosi Adam in Nairobi

Going forward, advocate for civilians

The EU has fielded criticism for its Sudan policy for funding allegedly repressive projects designed to control migration from the major transit country.

The "Khartoum Process" — a dialogue on migration between the EU and Horn of Africa states, including Sudan — began under the al-Bashir dictatorship, as Gerrit Kurtz, an analyst from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) explained to DW.

New outlets such as Qatari Al Jazeera have cited General Dagalo —  whom rights watchdog Human Rights Watch in the past has accused of overseeing civilian abuses including "torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes" — as having claimed that his RSF was involved in the EU's fight to halt migration.

"The EU has always maintained that they haven't directly funded the RSF, which may well be the case," Kurtz said. "But individual member states have apparently cooperated with them."

Burhan and Dagalo worked together to help topple al-Bashir in 2019, and then again in 2021 to oust the fledgling civilian government, before ultimately turning on one another earlier this year.

Looking forward, the EU needs to ensure that it frequently highlights the central role civilian actors must play in political processes, Kurtz said.

Generals should not be able to dictate terms simply because they have guns, he told DW. "The EU should involve [civilians] in any political efforts going forward and take their lead from them."

Edited by: Maren Sass