According to Mary Carlin Yates—Atlantic Council board member and former chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Khartoum—the people of Sudan “are ready for freedom and democracy.”
Yates gave her remarks as she moderated a discussion, hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, that focused on the origins of the latest conflict in Sudan. At the event, a panel of experts gave their takes on Sudan’s future and the international community’s next steps in responding to the conflict. Below are highlights from the event, which kicked off with welcoming remarks from Africa Center Senior Director Rama Yade that highlighted the strategic importance of Sudan in the region but also the exceptional legacy that the country has left to humanity through its multi- millennial civilization.
Where this conflict started
- Ernst Jan “EJ” Hogendoorn, former senior advisor to the US special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, dove into the history of this conflict. He traced it back to 1989, when Omar al-Bashir—now known as Sudan’s long-serving dictator—came to power. Hogendoorn explained that Bashir, in an effort to prevent his own deposition, “fragmented” the security services—the paramilitary Rapid Security Force (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF)—“in an effort to… play them off against each other and essentially coup-proof his government.”
- Hogendoorn detailed how, despite long-standing competition between the forces, they eventually unseated Bashir following pro-democracy protests in 2019. However, Hogendoorn pointed out, the military was allowed to “retain a political role” in the ensuing negotiations on the Sovereignty Council “because of fears that if they [were not] included, that they would continue to revolt.”
- Tensions between the RSF and SAF have remained, Hogendoorn explained, and they’ve intensified further as proposals for “security-sector reform” arose and “pressures on the military to cede power back to the civilians” increased.
- “General [Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo], the commander of the RSF, felt that… his power was potentially going to wane over the next period,” argued Hogendoorn, “and thus he decided to launch a coup against General [Abdel Fattah al-Burhan], the leader of the SAF, and that led to the [current] fighting.”
Where the conflict goes from here
- Nureldin Satti—the former Sudanese ambassador to the United States and a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Sudan working group—said he did not believe there is “any kind of support to either of two [generals] from a popular point of view.” A majority of Sudanese people are “against the war,” he noted, because “they know that they are suffering.” “They are living the war, and they want it to stop as quickly as possible,” he said.
- Nicole Widdersheim—the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch—argued that the international community, in not taking strong action, has been “empowering bad actors” who have a long list of accusations against them including “atrocities,… war crimes, and abuses.” Without that action from the international community, there has been “nothing to block [the bad actors] from continuing to use the same tactics,” Widdersheim said, which has led to the current war.
- Widdersheim said that Human Rights Watch has “seen a lot of evidence of indiscriminate attacks” and a failure by both sides to “mitigate harm” against civilians.
- In the ongoing negotiations since the revolution, Satti said that there has been a “dichotomy” between the “euphoria and the wishful thinking of the revolution and the reality of governance in a country like Sudan.” The military “feared handing over power to the civilians for… the issues of accountability and financial resources” despite strong popular support for this transition, he explained. However, he added, it is important to recognize that it’s difficult “just to take guns out of the hands of the military,” pointing out that it “has not been done in any other countries without political process.”
The international community’s response
- The United States faces a challenge in figuring out how to “stay in contact with the two generals… to try to bring them to see reason,” said Tim Carney, the former US ambassador to Sudan. “The secretary of state has been in regular contact with Hemedti and Burhan,” he noted, but added that without diplomatic staff on the ground, “it’s a very complicated, difficult way to do communication.”
- “The parties need money to continue the conflict,” Hogendoorn said, “in particular Hemedti, who has a very, very large business empire in Sudan and is able… to use all the money to sustain this paramilitary force and to grow it.” The United States “has partners who know that if they freeze external bank accounts,” it could “very quickly change the calculations of the different leaders,” he said. Hopefully, he added, this approach “would change the balance of power between the two fighting armies” and result in “good faith” negotiations.
- Egypt has “been supporting General Burhan,” said Tom Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He also pointed out that “it should be especially concerning in Washington, Brussels, and London that the RSF is getting support from the Russian-backed Wagner group.” The West should pay attention to these connections “because at this point, the generals are not going to listen to the diplomats who are no longer in Khartoum,” he said.
- International advocacy groups are “trying to center a call for… a full arms embargo,” Widdersheim said. She explained that they are not naively believing that “machinery and weapons would just stop flowing if the [United Nations] did pass a full arms embargo,” she said, but organizations are “trying to make sure that people [do not] think narrowly on the parties to the conflict and also think about their enablers in the region.”
What the international community should do next
- One scenario that is “hard to contemplate,” according to Warrick, is an “Egyptian or some other military intervention.” This would “completely overturn the table” and “clearly destabilize the politics in the region,” he said. Ultimately, “the absolute worst thing [to do] is stage one of these major military operations, upset the situation, and then leave.”
- Satti said that, in order to get resources and food supplies to affected civilians in Sudan, the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the Arab League, as well as Sudan’s neighboring countries, can coordinate their efforts. Supporting the people of Sudan “should not be seen as a Western problem and as a Western initiative alone,” Satti added.
- Plus, it is not “in China’s interest to see Sudan collapse,” Hogendoorn said, primarily because of its business interests in the country and the region. “China built a multibillion-dollar pipeline to export oil from South Sudan through ports,” he said, and “greater instability risks that pipeline being destroyed and it costing [China] a lot of money.”
- Ideally, “the countries that are most invested in Sudan’s stability” coordinate and increase pressure on the RSF and SAF “to stop the fighting, to return to the negotiating table,… and continue on the framework agreement negotiations track… to restore a civilian led government,” Hogendorn said.
Alexandra Gorman is a young global professional at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
In the past weeks, the political and security conditions in the Republic of Sudan have deteriorated rapidly. Foreign embassies are being evacuated, increasing numbers of civilians are fleeing the country, and violence is escalating.
In 2019, the people of Sudan made clear that they wanted democracy when the three-decade long rule of Omar al-Bashir came to an end. The forces that removed him pledged to move towards a civilian-led democratic government. Such a pledge has gone unfulfilled. The revised target date for the formation of a new government, April 11 this year, came and went without Sudan’s political factions being able to come to agreement.
Then on April 15, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces began fighting on the streets of Khartoum.
Join us and a panel of experts online at 11:00 a.m. ET on Wednesday, April 26 to find out what is happening in Sudan, why it is happening now, and what comes next. Our expert panel will discuss the re-emerging conflict, the role of external actors in fueling and funding the conflict, and ways to bring this crisis to an end.
Ambassador Tim Carney
Former US Ambassador to the Republic of Sudan
Ernst Jan “EJ” Hogendoorn
Former Senior Advisor to the US Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan
Ambassador Nureldin Satti
Global Fellow and Co-Chair
Wilson Center’s Sudans Working Group
Thomas S. Warrick
Senior Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative
Deputy Washington Director
Human Rights Watch
Ambassador Mary Yates
Former Charge d’Affaires, US Embassy Khartoum
Board Member, Atlantic Council
Welcoming remarks by
Please stay tuned for the rest of the panel
The Africa Center works to promote dynamic geopolitical partnerships with African states and to redirect US and European policy priorities toward strengthening security and bolstering economic growth and prosperity on the continent.