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The Battle for Control in Sudan
Former American diplomat, Ambassador to Sudan, and current Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute Alberto Fernandez sheds light on the ongoing struggle for power in the country.
Faisal: Thank you for your time, Ambassador Fernandez. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I am Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington, DC, and a former state department officer and US ambassador serving in Sudan.
Faisal: What has your personal experience been in Sudan as an ambassador? What was it like to work with Sudanese officials?
I worked in Sudan twice. I worked in Sudan early in my career from 1990-1992, and then many years later, in 2007, I was assigned as the acting ambassador, what we call chargés d'affaires, at our embassy in Khartoum, where I served for two years. The Sudanese as people are wonderful people. They are very warm and smart people with a rich culture– those are ordinary Sudanese. Obviously, I had a very different experience dealing with ordinary Sudanese versus officials of the Bashir regime who were in charge when I was there.
Faisal: How did we arrive at this point? There seemed to be some hope in 2019 that Sudan would transition to a civilian-led government. Why did that fail?
How we got to this point is a long question– suffice it to say that the dictatorship was overthrown after almost 30 years of being in power. It was overthrown mainly because of people-power. People demonstrating for weeks, months, and years against the regime were killed and eventually reached a critical mass where the regime fell. It also fell because the security services, at some point, decided that it would be more in their interest to switch sides. So you had the problem from the fall of the regime in that participants in the fall of the regime were the same security forces that were used by the regime. So you had the snakes in the grass and double dealers inside the tent from the beginning. However, with great difficulty, a kind of interim civilian government was arrived at, led by a civilian prime minister, a well-respected economist who did a lot of good. It was not a perfect government, not a great government, and had lots of problems. But from 2019-2021, it at least provided a road map towards the future. What happened is in October 2021, the generals overthrew the civilian government, got rid of it, and then ruled by themselves until now. The international community, led by the United States, did very little to punish the generals for getting rid of the civilian government. What's more, what happened when you got rid of this weak but existing civilian component, it accelerated and sharpened the struggle for power between these two armies, these two rival military factions, the Sudan Armed Forces or SAF and the Rapid Support Forces led by General Mohamed Hamdan Daglu.
Faisal: The Sudanese Armed Forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, were allies until recently. What changed?
They were allies, and of course, they're intimately involved in Sudanese history. You know, the RSF or the outgrowth of something that the regime in Khartoum and the army, the same army that we're talking about, created going back decades, which is they wanted paramilitary forces, irregular troops, that could be used as cannon fodder on the cheap to kill their enemies. Whether in Darfur, in South Sudan, or in places like Nuba Mountains or Blue Nile, wherever. So these paramilitaries created by the security establishment grew and grew. They went from being cannon fodder to the Praetorian guard. So that's where you got these kinds of rival institutions. And even though they're both very similar, they're both bloodthirsty, they're both corrupt, and they have very different trajectories. SAF or the Army is the ruling elite. It's the same army that overthrew a civilian government in 1958, that overthrew a civilian government in 1969, that overthrew a civilian government in 1989. So they all come from the leadership of SAF, where the army comes from a kind of elite background in a specific part of the country. The Rapid Support Forces, as I said, they're cannon fodder— throwaway militias that got too big for their britches. They're like Frankenstein's monster. Dr. Frankenstein is the Sudanese government and the national security state, and they created the RSF, and the RSF got bigger and richer and more of a rival to its former master.
Faisal: Sudan previously signed the Abrahamic Accords. Do you think that will essentially come to an end under the generals?
Not really. Both generals are kind of committed to it. It's not a big issue in Sudan. There are people who are in favor of the Abraham Accords in Sudan, and there are Sudanese— either nationalists or Islamists, who are against the Abraham Accords, but let's face it, relations with Israel, while it is a polarizing issue, it's an issue that is kind of used by people, by demagogues. It's not a huge issue in Sudan. It's likely that the relationship with Israel will continue no matter who wins. Both sides of the two factions that I mentioned, both of them have connections with the Israeli government.
Faisal: Why do you think the negotiations the United Nations has attempted to lead over the past few years have failed?
There are two reasons. Number one, as I said earlier, is that the generals were emboldened by overthrowing a civilian government on October 21st, 2021. As far as we know, this was an army coup, but Hemeti and his Rapid Support Forces went along with it, at least initially. The international community did very little. I mean, there were talks, and they tried to walk it back, but the generals were not sanctioned. They both have a lot of money and stuff that they could have been sanctioned for. The United States did not decide to sanction them. So that was mistake number one: emboldening the generals in 2021.
Mistake number two in the negotiating process was a kind of habitual hazard in Sudan, which is the incredibly complex mechanisms that exist for negotiating in Sudan which involve the UN, the African Union, an organization called IGAD, which is a union of East African countries, the US, and several groups. There's the quad, there's a whole kind of hermetic language involving negotiation in Sudan, that goes back decades. But the short of it is there's all of these moving parts— the UN, the Americans, special envoys, and stuff like that. All of them fell into this congenital problem in dealing with the politics in Sudan. And that is, they got sucked into a question of process over results where it became about negotiations for negotiation's sake, but they never led to anything. The questions of who's going to be on top, and who's going to control whom eventually exploded. But basically, the negotiating teams decided they had all the time in the world to negotiate this thing, to work this thing, which they'd worked for decades, going back in Sudan’s history. And they didn't. After 2021, the competition between the two armed factions really accelerated, and that meant that there was no time to answer the important questions: Who rules? Who's in charge? Who controls the resources?
Faisal: What do you think the United States should do now, if anything?
Everything is broken now. You have at least two things the US is working on, whether they should or not. They are trying to prevent the violence. The army has the upper hand over the Rapid Support Forces right now. They're going in for the kill. It's about who's going to be the winner. But the US is working to try to give humanitarian space so that assistance can come into the Sudanese people and people can be evacuated, etc. They also want to put Humpty Dumpty back together again and start the democratic transition process. Both of those are laudable goals. There's nothing wrong with them. The problem is there's kind of a third basket or third step, which is, what do you do in the meantime? Somebody is going to win this, probably in the next few days or weeks. Whoever wins it is gonna be emboldened. And they're not good people. Neither side are good people. Neither side are humanistic nor democratic. It's a battle between bad guys. So what do you do in the meantime after the war ends and before there's a transition to politics, to electoral politics? That's the big question. How do you deal with the winner who's going to be empowered, who's going to have dreams of grandeur and totalitarian temptations? That's the question to look at.
Faisal: Have you spoken to anyone that's still in the country about the humanitarian situation?
I have spoken to people. A lot of them are leaving the country or leaving Khartoum. Sudan is a big country. It's almost the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. So the situation is not the same everywhere. But certainly Khartoum has never suffered so much in all of Sudan's bloody history. I think you have to go back to the 19th century in the time of the Mahdi Rebellion when Khartoum was taken from Gordon of Khartoum, going back to the late 19th century. But certainly in the 20th century, all the wars and rebellions in Sudan had never hurt the capital, damaged it, or damaged the infrastructure as much as this fighting. And this conflict is not even two weeks old yet. There are heartbreaking stories of people fleeing, of people losing loved ones. There are terrible things happening. There are places outside the capital where local leaders have been able to configure, come up with some kind of truce.
There are other places, other towns and cities where the situation has gotten even worse than Khartoum. West Darfur has basically destroyed the center of the capital of that state. Tribal fighting, anarchy, gangs, etc.
Faisal: So is this conflict really about Sudan or is there an element of competition between world powers like Russia whose goal is to weaken the United States?
That's something a lot of people say. It's really about Sudan. There's no doubt that all kinds of international actors have played a role. I talked about how the Americans screwed up. Both the factions have their allies and different regimes bankrolling and helping them. The Russians are friends with both sides. It's a very kind of Western-centric way of looking at things. All of a sudden, the West has discovered Africa because Russia's there or China's there. Yes, the conflict is exacerbated by the allies of these two factions and by failures of Western diplomacy. There are lots of bad actors in the region. The Russians are not good actors, but it's it's ridiculous to think that it's a Russian plot. This is a Sudanese disaster brought about by Sudanese, but yes, aided and abetted by failures in diplomacy, by inattention, by duplicity, by all sorts of international players.
Faisal: What role does Islam play in this conflict?
It's not a principal role but it's significant. There are these two factions. One faction, the army, is widely suspected to still have high-ranking Islamists in its ranks associated with the former regime. Of course the former regime led by Omar Bashir, an army general. So the suspicion is that the army is filled with Islamists. There's some truth to that. And certainly we've seen in the last few days supporters of the former regime cheering on the army. So that's a reality. Hamidi's Rapid Support Forces have embraced a kind of rhetoric of anti-Islamist action. That they're against the former regime. They're a creation of the former regime, but they turned against the former regime. That they're against the Islamists. That here we are defending ourselves against the Islamist army, but the reality is of course that now in Sudan when you look at the two forces, when you look at the civilian opposition of the young men and women on the streets asking for their rights, almost everybody is a Muslim in this scenario. The Islam factor comes in with the question of how Islamist is the army? How much of is it still faithful to the spirit and the policies of the former Bashir regime? That's where Islam, political Islam comes in.
Faisal: There's reportedly been a mass prison break from one of the country's main jails which house former members of the Bashir regime. Do the escaped prisoners have allies in the government, in Sudan, the army?
Yeah, they have allies in the army. They have openly supported the army. They were coddled by the army after 2019. The army or the government could have put Bashir and others on a plane to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. They didn't do that. They looked after their old friends. So there's certainly a cozy relationship with these former regime leaders and the military. There's no doubt about that. It's incontrovertible.
Faisal: Do you anticipate that the ceasefires will be effective?
So far they haven't been. What's happened is they're slightly effective and then violence breaks out again. Usually the accusation is that one side or the other or both are trying to take advantage of the ceasefire to improve their position, to launch sneak attacks, to bring in additional ammunition or forces and stuff like that. So what we're seeing now is kind of partial intermittent cease fires that give some relief to civilians that are not a definitive end to the fighting given that both sides want to finish the other, especially the army, since the army feels that they have the upper hand.
Faisal: What financial interests are at play here?
Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the richest resource bases in the world. As I said, it's a very large country. It has the ability and there were attempts to make it kind of the bread basket of Africa or of the region. It has tremendous agricultural potential. It has the Nile. So even though it's a dry country, a desert, often very desert-y country, you do have a permanent source of water that allows for irrigation. A decade ago, the country was an exporter of oil. Now most of that oil went when the southerners seceded. The country's the world's largest producer of gum Arabic which is used in all kinds of stuff from cosmetics to gum and all kinds of things, even Coca-Cola. All of these sectors are affected by a basic reality which is the endemic deep corruption which exists in Sudan. So, they have these resources, but the resources have been frittered away, they've been stolen, they've been spent in war. It's the great tragedy of a resource-rich country and a very talented population which is really poor because of the actions of the ruling elites.
Faisal: What outcome would you like to see and what outcome do you expect?
What I would like to see is an immediate ceasefire that both sides agree to radically stand down and an accelerated process of giving full power to a democratically elected government. That's not what I expect to happen. What I expect will happen is probably the army will win over the RSF in kind of a messy situation in the Hinterland. Meanwhile, the army will be empowered in Khartoum, and you'll see witch hunts begin against those that were seen as aiding the other side. The army will wrap itself in the flag and in the aura of the state and actually subvert the democratic process even more. They'll probably give lip service to it because the Americans and the Westerners care so much about it, but what you'll essentially get is some kind of, at best, some kind of civilian cover for what will be essentially a military dictatorship. That's what I fear will happen.
Faisal: What do you think is at stake for the region? Do you think neighboring countries can or should step in?
Chad has seen an influx of thousands of refugees. All the countries that border Sudan are like Sudan, and they have a tradition and a history of either making refugees or accepting them. There used to be people going from Chad to Sudan or South Sudan to Sudan. Let's face it— all of Sudan's neighbors are not exactly model democracies. So there's nothing to crow about Sudan's neighbors. They're all awful to some extent. Some of them are really awful, like Eritrea, which is one of the most repressive countries in the world. The tragedy for the region lies in that the Sudanese people, there was, and there still is to this day, a desire for a better future for themselves and their family, for their country. They want to break from this 60-year heritage of incompetent civilian governments, military dictatorship, then back to incompetent civilian governments, and back to military dictatorship. That's the great tragedy. There was a golden opportunity to cement the transformation of Sudan into a democracy, and that hasn't happened. And many fear, and I'm one of them, that the events of the last two weeks, rather than accelerating a move to democracy, may have subverted it even further.
Faisal: What do American foreign policy officials get wrong about Sudan? What would be a few key points that you just really wish people understood more clearly?
They exaggerate the Russian dimension. That's a mistake. They try to come up with these very cumbersome, complex processes. They're basically deceived by bad actors on the ground who tell them what they want to hear. So the naivete of Western diplomats on Sudan seems like a never-ending story.
I think that this is a fight, and some are calling it the war of the generals. It's a fight between two predatory, corrupt forces. These are both bad guys. We can debate and Sudanese are having this debate right now, which one is worse, right? But they're both bad. I think the thing that Americans need to know is that there's a third reality out there. There's a Sudanese civil society— human rights activists, people on the ground, people of goodwill, and certainly they deserve our solidarity and our help in any way that we can.
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