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How (Not) to Talk About the War in Sudan

Megatrends spotlight 30, 22.04.2024

Reporting about the war in Sudan is clouded by three oversimplified narratives – “forgotten conflict”, “war of two generals” and the “proxy war” classification. Gerrit Kurtz (SWP) calls for a more nuanced phrasing by journalists and policymakers.

International reporting and political statements about the war in Sudan often echo three misconceptions about the origin, dynamics, and impact of the conflict. These biased views concern the lack of international attention, the role of the security sector and the interference of external actors – all important aspects of the ongoing conflict that should be highlighted. However, the chosen narratives often oversimplify and twist the discourse in problematic ways. It is understandable, and necessary even, that journalists and international policymakers use shortcuts to make the complex war in Sudan more comprehensible to non-experts. And, of course, there have been excellent reports and carefully considered statements. But biased narratives risk twisting the agency of national and international actors as well as their respective options to silence the guns in Sudan.

‘Forgotten conflict’

That the fighting in Sudan has received relatively scant international attention is incontestable. However, this has less to do with forgetfulness than, arguably, ignorance.

Judging from the number of high-level political statements, the amount of reporting by international outlets and how much of the target funds have been raised by the UN humanitarian appeal, the Sudan war seems marginal compared with today’s two main conflicts: Ukraine and Gaza. Over the past 12 months, for example, the German Chancellery mentioned Ukraine in 190 press releases and Sudan just three times. During the same period, The New York Times has run almost 10 times as many articles mentioning Gaza as those featuring Sudan and more than 13 times as many as articles mentioning Ukraine. And while the UN Flash Appeal for the Occupied Palestinian Territories is funded at 104 per cent, the 2024 appeal for Sudan had been funded at less than 6 per cent, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (before the Paris conference pledged another US$2 billion on 15 April).

To be clear, there should be no competition where human suffering is concerned. All these conflicts (and others like them) demand attention as well as the resources and diplomatic capital that come with it. Discrepancies over resources and the amount of attention exist for such obvious reasons as geographical proximity, international linkages and the availability of media coverage.

But given the scale of the suffering in Sudan, the stark differences are striking. Sudan has become the world’s largest displacement crisis. Nowhere else have so many people been forced to leave their homes –  around 11 million, more than eight million of whom since the start of the war on 15 April 2023. With increasing urgency, the United Nations and humanitarian organizations are warning about an imminent famine and Sudan experiencing the “world’s largest hunger crisis”.

The source of the problem with framing the war in Sudan as “forgotten” lies elsewhere, however. The word itself implies that all we need to do is “remember” Sudan, even though many people here in Europe do not know much about it in the first place.

Furthermore, it suggests that the lack of attention is accidental, when, in reality, it results from deliberate actions by various actors – not least, the warring parties, which have clamped down on the media freedom of both Sudanese and international outlets. It was only recently that the de facto government authorities, which are allied with the Sudanese Armed Forces,revoked the licences of three Arabic-language media channels.

Donors also contribute to the ignorance, or even exacerbation, of the crisis in Sudan. Donor countries – including Germany – have slashed aid budgets in recent years. The European Union is asking Sudan’s neighbours Egypt and Libya to increase security along their borders and stem irregular migration via the Mediterranean. Sudanese people are among those trying to make their way along this route and suffering from the harmful practices encouraged under Europe’s hostile external migration policy. Indeed, it was EU support for Sudan under then President Omar al-Bashir that helped the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) grow in importance, even if the latter did not receive European funds directly.

The “forgetting” narrative relieves Western governments of their role in supporting the Sudanese security forces while marginalizing the peaceful resistance of Sudanese civil society, which continues to mobilize against militarization. In this way, this narrative ties in with a supposedly liberal-interventionist agenda that already existed in the "Save Darfur" campaign. To put it bluntly, such an agenda implies linking the problems of conflict-affected countries with local actors and finding their solutions outside these countries. In view of the current overburdening of Western actors to deal with the other major crises of this period, an excess of Western interventionism is admittedly not the greatest threat to Sudan at the moment.

‘War of two generals’

A more accurate description than “war of two generals” would be “war of militarization”, that is, a conflict which leads ever more to take up arms, reducing the space for those who seek to pursue political goals in a non-violent manner.

It is true that the leadership ambitions of both General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the commander-in-chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti), the commander of the RSF, played a role in the outbreak of war last April. Behind the scenes, there was no love lost between the two: each wanted to be at the helm of the Sudanese security sector and perceived the other as a rival. Nonetheless, neither the origins of the war nor its evolution can be simply attributed to personal rivalry.

At the heart of the conflict is the struggle for control over Sudan’s security sector and, by extension, the state itself. Military governments have ruled the country for most of the post-independence era, exploiting the population in the peripheral areas. Whenever some members of those marginalized groups rebelled, successive Sudanese governments delegated ethnic militias and paramilitary forces to engage in the fighting. Former President Omar al-Bashir used those forces to create competition within the security sector and thereby keep the military in check and prevent it from challenging his rule.

The RSF was the most prominent – and ultimately most powerful – of the Sudanese paramilitary forces. It originated in the “Janjaweed” Rizeigat militia deployed to quell the insurgency in Darfur. Thus, the war that erupted in April 2023 has its origins mainly in the institutional competition between the SAF and the RSF for supremacy over the state.

Many civilian political leaders believe that the main responsibility for the war lies with the loyalists from the former Bashir regime’s National Congress Party (NCP). Many of the latter are now organized in the Sudanese Islamic Movement. Imprisoned, exiled or otherwise excluded from politics and public institutions by the transitional government installed in 2019, these Islamists have returned in force since the military coup of October 2021. Closely allied with the SAF, they operate from the shadows.

Perhaps more important, there are many more combatant forces which, formally, do not come under the direct command of either the SAF or the RSF. Even if they associate themselves with one or the other and fight alongside them, they still pursue their own opportunistic goals; and that may yet bring them into conflict with their current allies in the SAF or the RSF. Such forces include the Popular Defence Forces, operational units of the General Intelligence Service, individual militias, community self-defence groups, armed groups of current or former rebels, as well as foreign fighters and mercenaries. Moreover, armed groups have started new recruitment drives assisted by the SAF.

Despite this fragmentation, international mediation efforts are mainly focussed on the two main parties to the conflict and their respective leaders. In December and January, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) tried to arrange a face-to-face meeting between General Burhan and General Hemedti and set several dates. Less than 24 hours before a scheduled face-to-face meeting, the IGAD Chairman Djibouti had to cancel the meeting because Hemedti had other plans, namely to go on an extended regional tour to boost his international standing.

Bringing the leaders of the main warring parties to the table is a common mediation approach, but unfortunately it also excludes important third armed or unarmed parties from any peace negotiations. Previous peace processes in Sudan, including the Naivasha talks that ended the North-South war in 2005, suffered from this lack of inclusion. Perhaps most importantly, it is increasingly likely that even if Burhan and Hemedti signed a credible ceasefire agreement and sincerely intended to honour it, many of their allies would not abide by it. After all, Burhan could simply be replaced by another general who is closer to the Islamist forces that vehemently oppose an agreement with the RSF.

‘It’s a proxy war’

The third and final misconception is that the Sudan conflict can be classified as a proxy war, that is, one in which an external power indirectly engages in a conflict with another external power by supporting a warring party in a third country. This narrative risks diminishing the primary role that domestic actors are playing in the Sudan war – as well as the reasons why they are relying on international support in the first place.

It cannot be denied that there is considerable international interference in Sudan. Egypt and Iran are delivering arms (to the SAF), as is the UAE (to the RSF) via Chad. Eritrea is providing training camps for armed groups associated with the SAF. Fuel is reportedly being transported to the RSF from Libya and South Sudan, not necessarily always at the behest of the respective governments. And Ukrainian special forces are fighting against the RSF and Russian mercenaries in Khartoum, apparently in return for the SAF having supplied weapons to Ukraine.

Though probably not exhaustive, this list amply illustrates just how many external actors are interfering in Sudan and how the war cannot be reduced to a simple bipolar proxy conflict. For example, some commentators see the confrontation as being between the UAE and Saudi Arabia or the UAE and Iran, although there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia is currently providing military support to the SAF (and, if it were doing so, the RSF would have been unlikely to accept its mediation role, as the RSF has done several times by joining negotiations in Jeddah). Sudan’s most significant external military backers have been Egypt and the UAE, which, despite their differences over Sudan, have very close bilateral relations, as underscored by the recent announcement of an Emirati US$35 billion investment to develop Egypt’s coastline. Neither the SAF nor the RSF are proxies fighting on behalf of their external sponsors. They fight for their own interests.

The term “proxy war” makes it easier for outsiders to form a view about the complex conflict. It allows them to see the war as the manifestation of a rivalry between great or middle powers with which they are more familiar than with Sudan. The narrative suggests that an understanding among these external powers could be the primary means to end the war.

Similarly, a too narrow focus on the activities of external actors in Sudan could de-emphasize the interests of Sudanese civilians. If the war is predominantly about Russian and Iranian influence, for example, other international actors may seek to contain that influence by acquiescing to the demands of their Sudanese clients. Reportedly, the Sudanese authorities have so far rejected the Iranian request to build a naval base on the Red Sea, but they could use that request as a bargaining chip with the Saudis, Emiratis or Americans. For example, the SAF is demanding that civilian parties be excluded from any post-war interim government, which, they say, should be only a “technocratic” cabinet.

Faulty analysis leads to misguided policy

It matters how external observers frame political issues – especially when they mean well. A differentiated approach is important, precisely because relatively little is written about Sudan. Instead of "forgotten conflict", observers would do better to speak of an “ignored conflict", instead of a "war between two generals", a "war between the main armies and their allies at the expense of the civilian population" or a "war of militarisation" of the country. And instead of "proxy war", they would do better to speak of "external influence".

In this way, it becomes easier to talk about effective entry points for German and European involvement in Sudan. These exist in particular where European actors have connections, influence and capacities or where they can support the existing efforts of Sudanese and regional actors. This includes revising the negative effects of European migration policy in the region, mobilising further aid funds, sanctioning the financial and military network of the conflict parties abroad more widely, reconsidering its own arms deliveries to countries such as the UAE and supporting civilian actors in Sudan and in exile with resources, expertise and mediation services.

Silencing the guns in Sudan is an extremely complex challenge to which European actors can only make a partial contribution. How they speak about what is happening in Sudan, however, lies squarely within their power.

Dr Gerrit Kurtz is a researcher in the Africa and Middle East Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).