Sudan Crisis And Its Geopolitical Analysis
Sudan has been in a state of perpetual conflict and violence since freedom from British in 1956. The violence that erupted was a direct consequence of the British policies and these policies are engrained in the people’s psyche which has had disastrous results for the country. The country is blessed with natural resources like petroleum, gold, and various minerals, which has made Sudan a major hotspot for foreign intervention. However, these resources are panning out to be more of a curse than a blessing; it has given way to authoritarianism and corruption which has further stratified the society. Furthermore, with increasing interventions, the Sudan crisis became one with many stakeholders. The humanitarian catastrophe has driven international organizations like UN, UNICEF, WHO, etc. to provide any aid possible. Despite much international furor, the issue has resurfaced in April of 2023 with more momentum than ever.
Before understanding the present outbreak of violence, it is important that we understand the British takeover of Sudan and the concomitant differences that hijacked the society.
Colonialism and Birth of Civil Unrest
Sudan came under British colonial rule in 1899, they came up with the infamous divide and rule policy masquerading their greed and malevolence under the guise of better administration. This became the starting point of the notion of two Sudans. The North, which consisted mainly of Muslims and Arabic speaking people and the South, which consisted of a largely heterogeneous population in terms of language, religion and ethnicity. Earlier (1820) Egypt had conquered Sudan and after British takeover, it continued to rule as an Anglo- Egyptian condominium. The North witnessed rap modernization and development with a well-established British education system that generated a group of elite people. The South on the other hand, was backward and orthodox, with no investments. Power was given to tribal leaders that led to lack of unity in the South. British policy of differential treatment created a social hierarchy that sowed seeds of grievances among the people. In 1955, Sudan declared independence, a deeply divided but politically unified nation was born (Searcy, 2019).
Independence and the Chronicle of Civil Wars
Soon after independence, a civil war broke out between the more powerful and more developed North and the marginalized South. The war was ravenous and forbade the people, especially from the South of any scope for development. Amidst the war, oil was discovered in Sudan that made it an important mark in the map. The first war ended briefly with the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972 that sought to give the South more powers. However, the war soon resumed in 1983, it was fought between the Sudan government that mainly consisted of the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) which was a rebel group form the South led by John Garang, he advocated for a united Sudan. The government was trying to impose the Islamic law on the multi-religious groups in the South. Moreover, now that natural resources started forming a major share of Sudan exports and wealth, the North was seeking to control it. Omar Al-Bashir took over the government (National Congress Party) in a military coup from Sadiq al-Mahdi. The war continued, and on the international level, having supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war of 1990-91, US attempted to isolate Sudan as well.
In 2003, one of the bloodiest crises was observed in Darfur (a western state), where insurgent violence against the government led to ethnic cleansing of the non-Arabs in the state. Over 300,000 people were affected. The International Criminal Court (ICC) later indicted Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide (Britannica, n.d.). Bashir used the tribal groups like the Janjaweed and inducted them into the military forces creating the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to launch an attack on non-Arabs.
On the other end, peace negotiations culminated with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The agreement entailed that South getting autonomy and the eventual conduction of a referendum to decide if it should be a separate country, the oil revenues were to be equally distributed between both the sides.
The Great Divorce: A Solution to the Woes?
After the heartbreaking death of the SPLA leader John Garang, the CPA failed to create its intended effect, the NCP and SPLA continued to see each other as archrivals. The referendum (mentioned in the CPA) was delayed till 2010, wherein close to 99% of the Southerners voted to be independent from the North. Finally on 9 July 20011, South Sudan was born. However, the split was not supported by most of the Northerners, as it would lead to losing a considerable amount of revenue. But eventually the split was seen as beneficial as it was endorsed by USA which also meant that the sanctions earlier imposed by USA would ease. Moreover, the North could be relieved of its duties of developing the South. (Goulty, 2011)
Post-split the hopes for peace were left unrealized. The North continued covertly attacking the South avoiding any responsibility. Apart from the Northern excursions, South Sudan was facing an internal struggle for unification. The identity crisis created a sense of unrest among the people, the feeling that united them before which was hatred against the North and call for a separate state was dissolved. South Sudan was shaping out to be a kleptocracy with corrupt leaders, who failed to pull up the country from a state of disarray. The newly independent state has thus descended into inter-communal violence. The general questions that follow a split like division of land, resources and citizenship, haunted the two states that gave birth to a constant risk of war. According to Alex de Waal’s‘brute-causes hypothesis’ the split was due to the brutish authorities who wanted to hold their power at the cost of the people (Fahmi, 2012). And at the outset, South Sudan was unable to divorce itself from its past legacy.
Figure 1 Sudan Split, Source: Oxfam America
Unravelling the Causes: Identity, Ethnicity, And Resource Curse
Identity and ethnicity have driven many wars in the world. The crisis in Sudan since its independence is one that also falls under this category. Samuel Huntington in the Clash of Civilization, referred to Sudan as a cleft country because it consists of a significant population that identifies with a different civilization. In the case of Sudan, this demand led to the formation of South Sudan.
Based on primordialism, ethnic conflicts are a result of different ethnic identities, which are essentially assigned to us at birth and there will be a common feeling of antagonism to other such identities. Next, based on instrumentalism, ethnic conflicts are caused when political actors use ethnic identities to generate socio-economic advantages for a certain group. And lastly on the basis Constructivism, ethnic identities are socially constructed over time. So, if we try to locate Sudan’s ethnic crisis, it would be safe to say that it is an amalgamation of all these theories, primarily because the ethnic differences have always existed but much of the conflict is a result political and military use of ethnicity to benefit the few in power. It is also important to highlight the role colonialism has played in deteriorating the situation. The larger Arab domination in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has also played a significant role in driving up insecurities among the marginalized groups.
The famous Resource Curse Thesis by Richard Autycan also can be applied in the case of Sudan. The theory states that sometimes when countries have abundance of natural resources it ends up acting as an economic curse rather than boosting the economy also referred to as the Dutch Disease. After the split, the South has most of the oil reserves and thus is facing the larger share of the curse currently. The oil production creates over 90% of the government’s budget. Despite the resources, Sudan collectively remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with over 46 million people living at $750 per capita annual income (Edit, 2023). The indiscriminate extraction of oil has also led to deleterious effect on environment as well. There are increasing reports of dumping of hazardous wastes in Nile River which has led to diseases in certain areas. The oil resources attracts vested interests of external actors like the USA and China. China has often tried to command the resource management in South Sudan for their own profit (Goch, 2022).
The Present Chaos
On the other hand, after the split, Sudan has had a rocky experience with a state of perpetual struggle between civilians and military leaders. The coup in 2019 that removed Omar Bashir who ruled Sudan for nearly 3 decades was jointly conducted the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. However, after the coup there has been a struggle for power between the two forces. Both the sides ultimately held all the power despite a civilian Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok from the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), who was brought about by the mass protests by people that lead to the formation of the Transitional Council. The idea was to eventually unite the military forces but neither of the two forces agreed to take the shorter end of the stick. In 2021, both the forces did unite to topple the civilian government in another coup. However, all efforts at cooperation failed to yield a peaceful settlement between the two dominant forces which led to violence and conflict (BisharaA, 2023 ). The RSF consists of different tribal groups who have come together like a guerrilla force thus lack legitimate authority to rule Khartoum (capital). Hemedti has also harboured immense amount of wealth through illegal export of gold. On the other hand, SAF though relatively more legitimate has failed to create a political basis for its rule.
The armed conflict has led to 250,000 refugees who are trying to escape Sudan and more than 1 million people have been displaced and more than 400 people have died (Aljazeera, 2023).
The Geopolitical Dimension
Weak political institutions in Sudan have always made it permeable to external interventions. It is also at times necessary to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilians caught between the sabre-rattling. The external actors are also divided in their support. Egypt supports Burhan to get leverage against Ethiopia in the Nile conflict and the UAE supports Hemedti because he controls the gold mines. On the other hand, USA has always had a bitter relationship with Sudan, due to their covert support of terrorist groups. But this does not mean that USA has left Sudan to its fate. Sudan’s strategic importance is immense, it is located close to Djibouti, which is an important chokepoint for international trade.
There is also a presence of Russian paramilitary organization, Wagner Group which is allegedly supplying the RSF with weapons that is escalating the conflict, they are doing so to take hold of the natural resources which is also helping them in their war against Ukraine (Sheludkova, 2023 ). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently (February 2023) went on African tour, he also went to Khartoum. Russia along with China are trying to undermine USA and Europe’s strong foothold in the region by disparaging colonialism and imperialism (Riboua, 2023 ). China is also engrossed in Sudan for the Belt and Road Initiative. It is also the second largest trading partner after the UAE, Susan exported $780 million worth products to China in 2021 (Week, 2023 )
Considering the fragile situation in Africa, the situation in Sudan could have a spill over effect. There is an influx of refugees to other countries and mainly Egypt. Egypt is facing the harsher end of the conflict; they have had socio-economic relations with Sudan for centuries now and this has put them in a difficult position. All the other major nations have started their evacuation process following the clash outbreak in April.
India also has strategic and economic ties with Sudan. It invested close to $2.3 billion in petroleum sector since 2000s. This has also resulted in Indian Diaspora in Sudan, so there have been many evacuations conducted by the government. India has also contributed significantly to the UN Peacekeeping mission in Sudan, 2288 troops that is the highest. India also wishes to counter growing Chinese assertions through its engagement in Sudan. (Mohan, 2016)
Sudan’s conflict has once again brought into light, the humanitarian crisis that the civilians of a war-torn country face daily. The international actors in the name of aid often work on satisfying their strategic interests. There is a need to refocus the objective and provide aid and assistance in bringing about a democratic transition. The failure of the global actors in ensuring the smooth transition in Sudan also stands testament to the prevalence of new-age realism in international relations.
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About the Author:
Visakha G is currently working as a Research Associate at Indic Researchers Forum
This Article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the organisation