Sudan crisis: Pain of broken chains of command

Monday May 15 2023
Abyei region

A refugee from Sudan crosses into Ethiopia while holding her child in Metema on May 4, 2023. PHOTO | AMANUEL SILESHI | AFP

By The EastAfrican

Sudan’s battered civilians were hoping for a respite this week after representatives of warring generals agreed on a deal to protect non-combatants, a first such pledge since the conflict erupted on April 15.

But the biggest question by Friday was whether such a deal would hold, given the many broken ceasefires that have unveiled broken chains of command within the ranks of fighting sides.

The Thursday deal varied from the previous four broken ceasefires, as the parties called it a “declaration of commitment to protect civilians of Sudan.” It was the easier part for parties to agree, following “difficult” talks brokered by Saudi Arabia and the US, a US diplomat told journalists in a virtual briefing on Thursday night.

“It recognises the obligations of both sides under international humanitarian and human rights law to facilitate humanitarian actions to meet the needs of civilians,” the State Department official said on the background, after the deal in Jeddah.

“One important point that will be different from the earlier ceasefires that we have tried to negotiate is that we have developed a ceasefire monitoring mechanism, which is being supported by the UN, the Saudis, and other members of the international community.”

Read: Sudan warring sides only agree to protect civilians


Representatives of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had been meeting in Jeddah after the Saudi military flew them in last weekend.

This deal means the warring sides have vowed to protect aid agencies as well, including stopping the continual looting. But there is little guarantee the lieutenants will abide by the deal, given the recent violations.

The mediators themselves admitted to the “depth of enmity” between the SAF led by gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his rival Mohammed Daglo Hemedti of RSF. And experts think a cessation of hostilities is not ripe because of the command structure.

“It makes sense that the conveners of the talks in Jeddah have focused their efforts on achieving a humanitarian ceasefire and creating safe zones and humanitarian corridors for civilians,” Murithi Mutiga, Programme Director for Africa at the International Crisis Group told The EastAfrican on Thursday.

The warring parties, he argued, are not ready for substantive peace talks because each is determined to win on the battlefield, or at least achieve an upper hand.

A humanitarian corridor can protect civilians as fighting in the middle of a crowded city has already caused a heavy human toll.

Read: Sudan refugees queue at airport, praying to leave

“There are also signs of fragmentation in the ranks of key actors, which complicates the search for a settlement. It’s vital that all sides recognise that this is a race to the bottom. Neither can win sustainably and they need to halt fighting before this spirals out of control,” Mr Mutiga said.

The deal in Jeddah included the affirmation by the SAF and the RSF to protect civilians and the safe passage from areas of hostilities.

Yet the two rival forces accuse each other of committing new ceasefire violations, in a battle for control of the capital Khartoum.

With the United Nations saying only 16 percent of health facilities in Khartoum were functioning normally, the humanitarian aid from the Red Cross, which had arrived in Port Sudan by air, was still housed there, as there had been no “clearance” and security guarantees for onward delivery to Khartoum.

The RSF appears to lead random operations and lacks a unified command and many of its soldiers act out of order. Witnesses in Khartoum say that the RSF have been parking their vehicles near people’s homes, presumably using civilians as shields against aerial raids from SAF. While this may show some kind of restraint on the part of the SAF, it may also reflect violation of the ceasefires they agreed to.

Hemedti has tens of thousands of fighters in Khartoum, but Burhan’s larger forces are scattered across the country and rarely appear in the capital, giving the RSF a chance to entrench. Hemedti’s men have since occupied government buildings such as the Interior Ministry and police headquarters, seized large supplies of fuel from an oil refinery.

To tighten their control, they set up checkpoints across Khartoum, checking identity cards and searching cars and luggage. Residents said they were opening mobile phones to search for calls to the army, and residents of the capital accused the RSF of looting, which it denies.

At least 600 people have died, 5,100 wounded, and about 730,000 displaced, according to figures from UN agencies. Aid agencies say the conflict is threatening Sudan’s planting season which is set to begin at the end of May.

If the season is missed, the number of people going hungry — 11 million or 25 percent of the population prior to the current crisis — will increase.Before the conflict, one of four people in Sudan was going to bed hungry, according to charity group CARE.