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God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan
God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War
Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War
Report 39 / Africa

God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan

Few countries are more deserving of such attention than Sudan, where the scale of human suffering has been mind numbing, and where the ongoing civil war continues to severely disrupt regional stability and desperately inhibit development.ICG launched a Sudan project in 2001 because we felt the country was at a crossroads,and that now was the time when concentrated attention by the international community could make a decisive difference.

Executive Summary

The International Crisis Group (ICG) works to prevent and contain deadly conflict through a unique combination of field-based analysis, policy prescription and high-level advocacy. Few countries are more deserving of such attention than Sudan, where the scale of human suffering has been mind numbing, and where the ongoing civil war continues to severely disrupt regional stability and desperately inhibit development. ICG launched a Sudan project in 2001 because we felt the country was at a crossroads, and that now was the time when concentrated attention by the international community could make a decisive difference.

As this report shows, a small window for peace has opened. The reasons for this include the shock effect of the 11 September terror attacks in the United States (U.S.) and their aftermath on policy debates within the

Khartoum government; the military calculations of the government and its main opposition, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) insurgency; a difficult economic situation; and the increasing desire of the Khartoum authorities to escape international isolation and enjoy their new oil wealth. Importantly also, the U.S. government, by appointing distinguished former Senator John Danforth as Special Envoy, is showing some willingness to become more engaged.

Progress, nonetheless, will not be easy. This report makes clear that the Sudan situation is far more complex than normally port rayed in the media, or by advocates of particular causes. It is a struggle, to be sure, between a northern government that is largely Arab and Muslim and a southern insurgency that is largely black and significantly Christian , but it is also increasingly a contest between a non-democratic centre andhitherto peripheral groups from all parts of the country. It is a contest over oil and other natural resources , but also one about ideologies, including the degree to which a government's radical Islamist agenda can be moderated and a rebel movement's authoritarianism can embrace civilian democracy.

The Sudanese government faces stark choices, brought into sharp relief since 11 September. It can build on the progress that has been made on counter - terrorism and commit itself to negotiate peace seriously. Or it can try to pocket the goodwill it has gained and intensify the war while remaining shackled to the ideology that was the inspiration of its 1989 coup.

The Sudanese opposition faces difficult choices and challenges of its own . The SPLA can remain a relatively limited rebel group, with a restricted geographic base and a low - risk minimalist partnership with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, including a number of northern political parties . Or it can deepen its commitment to a hearts and minds campaign in the south and its cooperation with National Democratic Alliance partners around a credible peace agenda .

Among the main conclusions we reach, and recommendations we advance are:

  • A comprehensive peace may be possible but only if the international community for the first time makes its achievement a significant objective, and commits the necessary political and diplomatic resources;
     
  • There will be no success if the parties can continue to play one initiative off against another, which means the major existing efforts -the Egyptian - Libyan Joint Initiative , and that led by Kenya in the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) - must either be unified or a single new peace process created;
     
  • A unified peace process should be built around the vital element of IGAD's Declaration of Principles, namely self-determination, recognising all the room this leaves for creative negotiation on context, detail and timing;
     
  • A unified peace process needs to be energised from outside: the ideal team to coordinate both incentives and pressures for the parties to negotiate seriously would include the U. S ., indispensably, and key Europeans — ideally the UK re p resenting the European Union (EU) joined by Norway — with a meaningful degree of buy-in from key neighbours and other concerned states such as China, Malaysia and Canada;
     
  • Concerned members of the international community should pursue vigorously and concurrently four major interests in Sudan: stopping the war, laying the ground - work for democracy, protecting human rights and winning cooperation in the fight against terrorism; and
     
  • The top priority should be a comprehensive peace, grounded in the restoration of democracy, which is the circumstance most likely to bring both fundamental human rights improvements and guarantees against backsliding on terrorism.

ICG developed this report , as always, through extensive fieldwork. The primary author, Africa Program Co-Director John Prendergast, made three trips between June and November 2001 and conducted many scores of interviews in Sudan - both Khartoum and war - torn areas of the south - as well as in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Europe and North America .

Many others on the ICG team helped with writing and production, including Mirna Galic, Regina Dubey, Philip Roessler, and Macgregor Duncan. ICG Senior Adviser John Norris played a major role in the editing process, supported by ICG Vice President (Programs) Jon Greenwald and, at the production stage , by Research Analyst Theodora Adekunle and Francesca Lawe-Davies. I thank them all for invaluable contributions.

This book-length report is not the ICG's last word on Sudan. It will be followed by a series of further, shorter, field-based reports as we stay engaged with future developments . We hope very much that an end to Sudan's agony is near, and that this report will help the international Policy community to accelerate that process.

Brussels, 10 January 2002

Sudanese forces are deployed around Khartoum's army headquarters on 3 June 2019 as they try to disperse Khartoum's sit-in. AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY
Statement / Africa

Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War

Sudan’s political transition is in great peril following the unprovoked killing of dozens of protesters. The African Union has rightly suspended the country’s membership. Western and Gulf powers should take urgent steps to compel Sudan’s interim leaders to accept a civilian-led transitional administration. 

On 3 June, Sudan’s security forces launched a bloody crackdown on unarmed protesters in Khartoum, clearing a sit-in outside the country’s military headquarters and bringing its political transition to a screeching halt. The horrific rampage left dozens dead and many more injured. State-affiliated militias now roam the streets of the capital and other major cities, with residents sheltering at home. Many Sudanese fear the prospect of fractures among the army, intelligence services and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitaries blamed for the attacks. The risk of widespread conflict is at its highest since the military removed Omar al-Bashir on 11 April. But the alarming course of events is reversible. On 6 June, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council took an important first step in the right direction, suspending Sudan’s African Union (AU) membership until authorities put a civilian administration in place. Other world leaders, including Sudan’s backers in the Arab world, must now follow suit, quickly and in concert, to force the military junta to resume talks aimed at handing power to a civilian-led transitional authority.

The ouster of Bashir was set in motion by a remarkable, non-violent campaign, which began in the provinces in mid-December and quickly spread countrywide, eventually forcing the toppling of one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders. Since 11 April talks have been marked by periods of apparent progress, only to be followed by stalemate. On one side is the Transitional Military Council – an awkward marriage of the Sudan Armed Forces, now led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, a rural militia primarily from Darfur led by General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who many consider the true power behind the scenes. (The RSF rose to prominence as a counter-insurgency force during the civil war in Darfur.) On the other side is the opposition – the Forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change, comprising traditional parties and active rebel movements as well as a coalition of professional trade unions known as the Sudanese Professionals Association.

There had been hopeful signs: the two sides agreed on the outlines of a deal built around a civilian-led executive overseen by a sovereign council for a three-year transitional period leading up to elections. The sovereign council’s composition and chairmanship remained in dispute, but the parties reportedly came close to a compromise under which they would have had an equal number of seats, with the chair rotating between the two sides, and with the civilian-dominated council of ministers and legislative council wielding more power in any case.

What happened next is not entirely clear. According to various reports, parts of the military council were unhappy with the tentative deal, fearing it ceded too much power. The RSF and other disgruntled elements scrapped the deal and moved to disperse the protesters. On 4 June, Burhan announced plans to form a government and hold elections in nine months.  That the crackdown came immediately on the heels of the junta leaders’ first state visits from 23 May, including to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), fuelled protesters’ suspicions that external actors encouraged the Sudanese officers down the path of violence instead of compromise.

All concerned with peace and stability in Sudan should take every possible step to stop this prospect in its tracks and press for a genuine transition to a civilian-led transitional administration.

The attacks on the protesters have muddied the road ahead. The RSF now patrols the streets of Khartoum as residents hole up at home, fearing to go out and without internet access, which the state has cut off. The crackdown could in principle bring together the factious opposition against the military council, which had been quietly trying to peel off some of the established opposition parties. Protesters say they will continue their campaign of civil disobedience rather than negotiate to share power with the military rulers responsible for the mass killings. They have demanded that the junta step down.

The junta’s most powerful constituency lies, by all appearances, outside Sudan – in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The Saudis and Emiratis know Burhan and Hemedti well due to their command of Sudanese forces in the Yemen war. They trust the generals to shepherd the country through a managed transition from one military-led regime to another, avoiding the interlude that occurred in Egypt – elections with uncertain outcomes followed by brief Muslim Brotherhood rule – by sidelining those favouring more wholesale reform among civilian protesters. This gambit is risky, however: it could lead to greater unrest, or perhaps even civil war, precisely the outcomes Arab allies say they dread. The recent two-day general strike has made clear that popular protest can continue to render the country ungovernable. Sudan’s economic troubles are already severe, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be on the hook for open-ended subsidies to keep the ship of state afloat.

The gambit also appears based on a faulty analogy. An Egyptian-style managed transition in Sudan lacks a critical ingredient: a cohesive military. Bashir gutted the Sudan Armed Forces, gradually outsourcing security tasks to a dysfunctional array of state-backed militias and paramilitaries, in order to forestall a coordinated challenge to his rule. In recent years he bolstered the RSF in particular to counterbalance other elements of the security apparatus. The RSF also gained influence as it contributed to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Indeed, Bashir so divided his security forces that, in the end, he could only be ousted through a coup-by-committee. Today, many of Sudan’s officer corps would sooner trust their fate to Khartoum’s opposition elite than to Hemedti, whom they view as a thuggish provincial warlord and who lacks the legitimacy and political constituency to rule on his own. In short, this bloated and fissiparous security apparatus offers no clear foundation for a political regime.

A key to a peaceful settlement thus lies in prompting the junta’s Arab backers to rapidly shift tack. There are signs that they and their Gulf backers have softened their position in the face of widespread condemnation and revulsion at the attack on unarmed protesters. On 5 June, Saudi Arabia publicly expressed “great concern” over the loss of life in Sudan, calling for a resumption of dialogue. As if in response, Burhan quickly changed his tune, calling on 5 June for the opposition to return to talks. A day earlier, the U.S. State Department released an unusually blunt readout from a call between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman in which the Americans pressed for a transition to a civilian-led government “in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people”. This call may be directly related to the softening of Riyadh’s stance – and Khartoum’s.

Still, Sudan’s peaceful transition to more inclusive governance is in great and immediate peril. International actors should take the following steps:

  • The AU Peace and Security Council should follow up on its suspension of Sudan’s membership by pressing authorities there to drop their unilateral decision to hold elections within nine months. The military rulers should instead go back to the deal earlier broadly agreed with protesters for a civilian-led transitional administration. The Council should set a new deadline for the conclusion of a final round of talks on the hand-over to an authority led by civilians. AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki should visit Khartoum at the earliest opportunity to convey the urgent need to meaningfully advance the dialogue process.
     
  • Parties with influence over Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, particularly the U.S., should urge them to lean on the generals in Khartoum to back down from their attempts to rule through repression. They should instead ask Sudan’s military rulers to resume talks with the protesters and swiftly accede to a civilian-led transitional authority that can restore stability.
     
  • To persuade an understandably reluctant civilian protest movement to resume talks, the junta will need to take a number of confidence-building measures. It should release all political prisoners, accede to an outside-led commission of inquiry into the killings and swiftly reinstate access to telecommunications. A more difficult step might be persuading the RSF, whose reputation arguably is beyond repair following its role in the violence, to retreat to the barracks. To this end, the RSF’s backers, notably Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, should rein in its leaders and urge them to back down, to avert the descent into chaos they fear. Egypt, a key regional power broker and current chair of the AU Assembly, ought to have every interest in avoiding a Libya-style meltdown in one of its key neighbours. It should lean on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to persuade the RSF leadership to pull their men out of Khartoum and to give space to parties able to strike a deal that could prevent a dangerous slide to civil war.
     
  • The AU Peace and Security Council, the U.S. and the EU should warn members of Sudan’s security forces who stand in the way of a political deal that they will face targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans. The Council, which on 6 June took the additional welcome step of cautioning those obstructing a path to a political settlement that they would face individual sanctions, could start compiling a list of targets. 
     
  • The U.S. should reiterate that no talks with Khartoum toward the normalisation of ties, which could lead to the lifting of Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation, the potential return of a permanent ambassador to Khartoum and Washington’s enabling of debt-relief, will resume until the military junta reaches a deal on a civilian-led transitional authority.   

As early as 2012, Crisis Group had warned that the security forces might fly apart in a post-Bashir Sudan. The danger of such a split – and the conflict it portends – is real and growing. All concerned with peace and stability in Sudan should take every possible step to stop this prospect in its tracks and press for a genuine transition to a civilian-led transitional administration.