Sudan’s war may be a tussle between two generals who worked together to topple civilian institutions. But their dirt could be felt by victims of past, present and future atrocities.
Last week, as chaos produced more deaths and injuries in the capital Khartoum, something else happened: Indicted war criminal suspects escaped jail.
Ahmed Haroun and other members of ex-strongman Omar al-Bashir’s government were who were being held at Kober prison in the capital, Khartoum, and wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, took advantage of lawlessness and fled.
Soon after, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), one of the parties in the war, the other being the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), said Bashir was being held at a hospital in Khartoum. They didn’t comment on the escape of other criminals. It may have been deliberate, or accidental. But rights watchers warned it was a sign of bad things to come.
“As fighting continues, law and order will further break down throughout the country, and command and control will dissipate. Sudan could become increasingly fragmented, which would have a devastating impact on the region,” warned Volker Perthes, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan.
Ceasefire sporadically violated
Perthes spoke on Wednesday after ceasefire was sporadically violated as both sides blamed one another for which the UN diplomat described as a “miscalculation.”
Bashir was ousted in April 2019 and the two generals; Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the junta leader, and his deputy, and now rival, Mohamed Hamdani Daglo ‘Hemedti’, cooperated to remove him from power and form a sovereign council. But his shadow lingers, and the two had ridden on his shoulders to retain power, and avoid punishment.
“Longstanding impunity has allowed those suspected of war crimes in Darfur to remain in leadership positions today, contributing to the current violence in Sudan,” Tigere Chagutah, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, said in a statement.
“It is shocking that 20 years after the Darfur conflict began, Sudanese authorities are still failing to protect civilians.” The lobby referred to the 2003-2009 crushing of the Darfur rebellion, where more than 300,000 people were killed. Bashir and other officials were indicted by the International Criminal Court. Incidentally, he used both al-Burhan and Hemedti to deal with the rebellion, meaning their hands carry blood too.
Last week, at least 500 people had been killed as urban warfare raged in Khartoum. Thousands had fled the city and nearly all health facilities had collapsed. It could get worse, unless the two generals choose dialogue as called by the government of South Sudan.
“War makes things worse. There were already difficult prospects for transitional justice. The country was already in the hands of perpetrators of Darfur atrocities,” said Donald Deya, Chief Executive Officer of the Pan-African Lawyers Union, a lobby for justice.
Lt-Gen al-Burhan was commander of the army in Darfur and as a strategy, they created Hemedti to help fight the rebellion. Hemedti, a camel trader who dropped out of school, used that to rise in power and establish contacts within and outside Sudan. He, too, crushed opponents including rivals from his tribe in Darfur.
“These are the people who should be held to account for the atrocities that have happened in Sudan over the last 30 years. It means there is very little appetite to find justice for what happened in Darfur, southern Sudan (during the war that led to secession of South Sudan) and now,” Deya told The EastAfrican.
Not that anyone expected transitional justice to be fast or even immediate. Traditionally, such efforts have often taken time, as seen in Rwanda, for example, which is still pursuing perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and Kenya, which still hasn’t completed the reforms to avoid a repeat of the 2008 post-election violence.
What matters, rights watchers argue, is the consistent rebuilding of collapsed or weak institutions. In Sudan’s war, that amounts to two steps backward, something that may run against the African Union’s only proposals.
Deya said that the continental body must now wave its Policy framework on transitional justice to the generals when they agree to hold dialogue.
“We are pushing that envelope before the African Union. We want to see that when they engage these generals, they also push for the transitional justice policy so that they think about the people of Sudan at all times,” he said.
Except that they haven’t agreed yet. On Thursday, a diplomatic source told The EastAfrican al-Burhan had agreed to Juba’s invitation for dialogue.
Hemedti didn’t immediately respond. And the dates for the talks hadn’t been fixed. Even the ceasefire itself was being broken from time to time.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement on Tuesday argued that the parties to the current conflict – the Sudan Armed Forces and the RSF -“have a long history of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law,” even after Bashir was gone.
HRW accused al-Burhan and Hemedti of having “jointly carried out a coup against the country’s short-lived transitional government, a military-civilian government, on October 25, 2021.”
Since October 2021, when the two generals accused the transitional government of Abdalla Hamdok of ‘wrangling.’ Some analysts think the transitional government was yanked off because it demanded security reforms and accountability, which would have exposed the two to some review of their deeds.
Then they disagreed. In December 2022, Sudan’s military and civilian leaders signed a framework agreement to create a new two-year civilian transitional authority. Still, the security reform became a sticking point of divergence.
Abdullahi Hassan, a Sudan and Somalia researcher at Amnesty International, says the framework “lacks clear benchmarks and time frames for justice, truth and reparation, and security sector reforms. This conflict comes at a time when many expected to have the December agreement implemented. This conflict is a blow to the hopes of millions of Sudanese people who wanted change in their country,” he told The EastAfrican.
Past atrocities and injustices also seem to be haunting Khartoum and derailing transitional justice, experts argue.
Failed to protect civilians
“Sudanese authorities have continually failed to protect civilians or ensure the accountability of perpetrators of violations that were committed during the Darfur conflict,” Mr Hassan told The EastAfrican.
Since the coup, rights lobbies have been pressuring the Sudanese authorities to end the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters, release those arbitrarily detained and take meaningful steps to ensure accountability; which marked most of the post-Bashir period.
“We have also been calling on Sudan’s international and regional partners to ensure that any transition process in Sudan guarantees justice, truth and reparation measures for recent and past abuses, including the surrender of the suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court,” Hassan explained.
The two generals though may get a pyrrhic victory, even though they have used violence to dodge the justice question.
There is now a risk that they could both fail to control their forces, as seen in the continual violations of the ceasefires, which have been agreed on twice in a week but violated all the time.
Hemedti, for example, entered into a bigger battle than what he was used to: He is fighting a national army. Previously, he crushed militias and endorsed by Khartoum. One danger is that some of the groups he crushed may resurrect and take sides with no guarantee of guarding him. The second risk is the potential of losing backer from outside Sudan, which guarantee weapons and financial back up for the war.
Then there is the humanitarian situation that is deteriorating in light of a severe shortage of basic commodities, electricity and water in several areas of Khartoum.
“War is expensive. The question is can you fight if you don’t know how to gain from its? There is a risk that the two sides will splinter,” argued a Sudan security expert and retired army general who asked not to be named for his safety.
Thousands of Sudanese continue to be displaced to neighbouring countries, including Chad, where 20,000 Sudanese are estimated to have sought refuge. South Sudan said 10,000 had already crossed into its territory to flee violence, and foreign governments have been evacuating their nationals. Ethiopia too, said it was receiving thousands on its territory, reversing a trend two years ago when its own nationals fled violence in Tigray into Sudan.
The security analyst thinks this war will have no winners, just suffering.
“Whoever wins this war, whether Hemedti or Al-Burhan, will be a disaster for Sudan and the Sudanese, and will be the real threat to democracy because the victory was achieved by weapons,” the analyst argued saying neither side can be trusted to protect civilians.
The crisis is triggering different narratives and reactions, including suspicions over the identity of outsiders fuelling it. But for people in Sudan, their country is unravelling under the weight of accumulated injustices, grievances, and violence, said Dr May Darwich, Associate Professor of International Relations of the Middle East - University of Birmingham.
“[The] Sudanese are joining their Arab counterparts in paying the price for dreaming of economic welfare and freedom while fighting steadfast structures of imperialism and authoritarianism that keeps on winning,” she argued, referring to the Arab Spring, a set of protests that erupted in the Middle East in the early 2010s but mostly led to worse civil liberties.
Feel confident to win
One problem, argued Dr Rashid Abdi, a senior researcher on the Horn of Africa and the Gulf is that both sides feel confident to win the war which may worsen the violence.
“RSF is fighting on its own terms, drawing enemy into nasty urban combat. To prevail SAF must get dirty and that carries grave political risk,” he argued.
Sudan was once under severe US sanctions for sponsoring terrorism, crippling its economy. Those sanctions were lifted after Bashir was ousted with the West thinking the generals may lead to a civilian government. It has proven counterproductive. This week, Washington was non-committal on whether Sudan’s junta leaders will be punished.
Vedant Patel, the Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the US State Department suggested there may be a review, just not now.
“We are looking at this from all angles. And looking at ways that we can continue to support the Sudanese people, and take active steps that gets us to a ceasefire that is extended, adhered to, and eventually towards a cessation of hostilities as well,” he said.
Dr Mehari Taddele Maru, part-time professor at the European University Institute and Academic Coordinator at the School of Transnational Governance said external forces are playing a role in fuelling the ongoing conflict in Sudan.
“The involvement of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Russia suggests a complex web of interests at play. River Nile and its geopolitical dynamics, border tiffs with Ethiopia, relations with Chad and the presence of Private Military Companies in Central African Republic also seem to contribute to the conflict,” he told The EastAfrican¸ referring to the various interests of Middle Eastern countries and Russia. All have called for dialogue, however.
But Mehari said Sudan’s is a victim of our region’s history marred by several examples of misgoverned transitions that went wary “by perpetrators of unaccounted for their atrocities, despite the glaringly obvious risks and the lessons unheeded from the wars in Darfur, South Sudan and Tigray, Ethiopia.”
“The fighting between RFS and SAF is an outcome of the mis-governance of Africa’s transitions by both domestic forces and extra-regional actors.
“The mismanaged transitions have caused devastating wars, displacement, suffering for multitudes in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic and even Chad and damage to the integrity of the states in our region. Primarily caused by domestic political and economic instability, and unwarranted interference from extra-regional actors. Resolution of the conflict would require both addressing the domestic root causes of the wars and taming the interference.”
Reporting by Aggrey Mutambo, Valerie Koga and Mawahib Abdallatif