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26 April 2023

Should the UK have seen the crisis in Sudan coming?

This conflict didn’t come out of nowhere.

By Megan Gibson

As Sudan’s descent into civil war is momentarily paused, thanks to a temporary ceasefire agreed at midnight on 24 April, the UK government is trying to evacuate thousands of its citizens.

This follows the US’s evacuation of its embassy personnel from the capital, Khartoum, where the most intense fighting has taken place, in the early hours of 23 April. But the US government has said it won’t evacuate the roughly 16,000 Americans who live in the country, even as the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) battle for control. European countries such as France, Italy and Germany, meanwhile, were able to successfully get both their diplomatic personnel and hundreds of their citizens (as well as citizens of allies) out. The UK managed to evacuate its embassy staff from Khartoum, but thousands of British people were still trapped in the country. Reports emerged of UK citizens who were unable to access help from the embassy when attempting to flee the country; a number of people were recorded as being actually hindered in their efforts to leave.

On 25 April – ten days after the conflict broke out – the UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly finally announced that a mission was under way to evacuate remaining UK citizens.

The rapid and chaotic evacuation in the middle of an escalating conflict echoes the sudden US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Unnamed Foreign Office sources and UK government ministers, such as the development and Africa minister Andrew Mitchell, have made it clear that the situation in Khartoum is far more volatile than was the case in Kabul: the airport has been badly damaged, the capital is at the centre of direct clashes, and the UK military has little presence in the country.

Yet the defensive nature of the official response seems designed to give the impression that it was impossible to foresee such a conflict in the first place. While it’s true that the fighting in Sudan escalated rapidly – clearly catching foreign allies and millions within Khartoum by surprise – the conflict hardly sprang from nowhere.  

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[See also: Anarchy unbound: The new scramble for Africa]

Tensions have been escalating between the Sudanese army and the RSF for years. The two worked together to stage a coup against the fragile civilian government in October 2021, enforcing military rule on the country. But in the 18 months since, the leaders of the two factions – the army’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is Sudan’s de facto leader, and his former deputy, the RSF’s General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (more commonly known as Hemedti) – have been locked in an increasingly bitter power struggle. 

They were also facing a deadline. April marked the four-year anniversary of the popular uprising that overthrew the autocrat Omar al-Bashir, and the point at which both the army and the RSF were meant to cede some of their power to civilian political parties in a Western-backed agreement. This was intended to nudge Sudan along in its transition to democracy. While al-Burhan and Hemedti had provisionally agreed to the transition in December, they were deeply divided on another element of the agreement: how – and when – the RSF should be integrated into the army. Meanwhile, the two factions had been busy shoring up support for their own side, both within the country and abroad.  

In recent weeks talks broke down completely and the 11 April deadline to sign an agreement passed without the promised democratic transition. Two days later, RSF troops were posted across the country. Fighting erupted two days after that. Now the country is on the brink of all-out civil war.  

In an excellent piece in the Guardian, Nesrine Malik lays out the decades-long roots of this conflict. In blistering detail she recounts the many ways in which peace in Sudan has been sabotaged by a large cast of antagonists: the myriad international governments across the Middle East and North Africa, who sought to trip up the small steps towards democratic reform in the neighbourhood by backing military rule; Russia, which has sought material and security gains by cosying up to the country’s military leaders and supplying it (the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, is reportedly providing weapons for the RSF); and the Western players who disregarded the complexity of the country’s rivalries. 

Even the Sudanese elite had a role because of their disregard for the political reality outside the capital. “The war that now tears Khartoum apart is just a taster of what several regions across the country reaped for years, as the capital enjoyed peace and times of prosperity,” Malik writes. “This disconnect fostered bitter resentments, fractured national identity and maintained a vast lawless hinterland in which mercenaries and warlords thrived.”

That peace has been shattered, and there is little to indicate that it will soon be remade. Western countries may yet succeed in evacuating all of their citizens, but the crisis for Sudan and the wider region will only worsen. As many as 100,000 Sudanese refugees are expected to flee the country in the coming days; those who remain face shortages of food, water and medical care. There’s a real risk of wider regional conflict, as the NGO International Crisis Group warns: “The conflict might directly involve ethnic groups whose homelands straddle their borders with Sudan.”

Directly or indirectly, the consequences of this war will affect the West. In order to even begin to address it, the disregard for the reality on the ground – which led to so many being blindsided by the eruption of fighting – must end.

[See also: The world according to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin]

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