By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
There are two countries whose wellbeing and stability reach into nearly every part of Africa. One is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is nominally in the central African region but which shares borders with nine countries extending to all of the continent’s four other regions – Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. Unsurprisingly, the DRC is in the regional organisations of every region of Africa except those of the North and of West Africa.
The second is Sudan. With a current landmass of 1,886,068 km2 Sudan is nearly double the size of Nigeria and the third largest country in Africa behind only Algeria and the DRC. Its neighbours include Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, and South Sudan; and its regional reach extends to the Middle East and North Africa, Central Africa, Eastern Africa, and West Africa. Even more, Sudan’s geo-strategic significance covers nearly all of the continent’s fragilities, including the Congo Basin, Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes of Africa, the Gulf of Aden, the Maghreb, the Nile Basin, the Sahel, and the Indian Ocean. A popular land route for Muslim pilgrims and a magnet for all manner of irregular hawkers of violence, Sudan holds the key to nearly all of Africa’s significant strategic exposures from governance, through Climate Change, to international terror.
But Sudan has known little peace since independence in 1956 as a Condominium of Egypt and the United Kingdom. In 67 years of Independence, it has seen at least 17 attempted coups, six of which were successful. Two of those successful coups have occurred in the last four years, the first in April 2019 resulting in the overthrow of the 30-year long rule of General Omar Al-Bashir, and the second in October 2021 resulting in the overthrow of the power-sharing arrangement that was to return the country to civil rule in 2022.
On both occasions, Egypt, itself at once both uneasy neighbour worried about the course of the Nile (which substantially flows through Sudan before emptying in its territory) and former colonial power, was always an enthusiastic business partner with the Armed Forces of Sudan. To many people, General Burhan, who nominally heads the Sovereignty Council, as the ruling military arrangement in Sudan is called, is a client of Egypt.
These two recent coups were a joint enterprise between the two most organised and best financed entities in the country: the Sudan’s armed forces commanded by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a four-star General; and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by the nom de guerre, Hemedti. The RSF is the new name for an entity that used to be known as the Janjaweed, an expeditionary unit of largely lawless irregulars, to whom the government of Omar Al-Bashir outsourced the violent pacification of Darfur. In many ways, it was an internal mercenary force which fed off its crimes. This arrangement suited all sides: the Army could conserve its assets; the regime could deny direct responsibility; and the leadership of the Janjaweed could make a lot of money and political capital too.
In the decade and a half from the beginning of the Darfur campaign around 2004 to the overthrow of the regime of Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, Hemedti, who comes from one of Sudan’s most troubled regions in Darfur, built up considerable personal wealth and strategic capital, and the bandit force which he originally constituted as the Janjaweed emerged to become what Alex de Waal described as “now the real ruling power in Sudan. They are a new kind of regime: a hybrid of ethnic militia and business enterprise, a transnational mercenary force that has captured a state.”
In Darfur, the Janjaweed were responsible for a long and distinguished record of credibly attested atrocities, including crimes against humanity that have since become the subject of investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court, ICC. They also managed to export their skills in the deployment of indiscriminate violence to clients in the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, who found them useful for outsourcing atrocities in Yemen. From his early origins as a bandit and violence rustler, Hemedti managed through these kinds of arrangements to insinuate himself into respectable company in the region, becoming an almost indispensable factor in the security of arguably the most fragile region in Africa, with support from an assortment of actors including the Gulf States and renegade General Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
The threat posed by the Janjaweed was always very evident even to the uninitiated. Until 2019, they were a kind of iron fist underneath Sudan’s velvet gloves. After the overthrow of Bashir, Hemedti, as the commander of the Janjaweed-in-Government nicknamed the RSF, became effectively the power behind the throne. The marriage between him and Burhan always seemed rather convenient. It was only a matter of time before he made his bid for power.
On or around 15 April 2023, Hemedti launched what would effectively become Sudan’s 18th coup attempt by bringing the guns and heavy artillery into Khartoum which were formerly trained on Darfur. The build up to this unfolded almost in slow motion amid the ruins of the effort to integrate the RSF into Sudan’s Armed Forces. While struggling to retrieve some respectability from that, Hemedti reportedly picked up rumours that the assets of Egypt’s Air Force stationed at the Merowe Air Base in the north-west of the country, including the relatively sophisticated Egyptian MiG-29M medium weight ‘4+ generation’ fighters, were planning a strike on him. So, he made the first move and attacked.
Whether this could end up as Sudan’s seventh successful coup is presently unclear. The fact that Burhan and Hemedti, both committed Islamists, were too impatient to defer the outbreak of military hostilities until after the end of the Holy Month of Ramadhan is notable. As Muslims all over the world marked the Feast of the Sacrifice this week-end and amidst rising civilian casualties in this most urban of Africa’s recent wars, both sides proclaimed an unconvincing ceasefire, supposedly to enable the victims mark the Eid.
Anyone with even limited knowledge of Sudan may be disappointed but not in anyway surprised by this turn of events. Much of the present tragedy was both foreseeable and predictable. The most surprising thing of all is the absence of any effective plan for addressing it. While the people of Sudan are slaughtered by those supposed to protect them, the world and the region carries on in apparent resignation and confusion. Karim Khan, the Prosecutor of the ICC, appears so fixated on Ukraine, he cannot find the bandwidth to acknowledge the conflagration in Sudan, where Darfur, itself currently an active case under the watch of both the ICC and the UN, has also degenerated into warfare.
For its part, the United Nations Security Council appears to have outsourced the situation to the African Union who have in turn outsourced it to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is chaired by Sudan, whose duelling rulers each seem to believe that they have the military solution to this war. All they can muster at the moment appear to be Zoom meetings.
While regional countries try to scramble, Nigeria, Africa’s self-appointed big-brother, has barely noticed. Yet, the links between both countries are beyond geographic. In 1903, Frederick Lugard sacked Sultan Attahiru of Sokoto, who made a last stand at Burmi (now near Bajoga in Funakaye Local Government Area of Gombe State) where he and over 700 of his family and followers were slaughtered nearly 120 years ago in August 1903 in the “destruction of the town by a British force of 30 whites and 500 native rank and file”. His surviving son, Mohammed Bello, led the remainder of Attahiru’s survivors into exile in Sudan where their descendants have lived since then. Above all, the embassy in Sudan is Nigeria’s most lucrative foreign mission.
For Nigeria, the crisis in Sudan is not just a matter of security and geography, it is also inescapable history and economics.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org