Two heavily armed groups, led by sworn enemies, square off in a dense metropolitan area that is home to about as many people as New York City. Hundreds of civilians have died, and thousands have been wounded, though the true toll may be much higher. People are pinned down in their homes by street-to-street fighting and aerial bombardment. They are running out of food and water; hospitals are running out of supplies. International humanitarian workers have packed up their white sport utility vehicles and high-tailed it to safety. Western and regional diplomats have boarded helicopters, buses and planes to get out.
The 45 million people of Sudan have been all but abandoned in the crossfire of a fight to the death between the two men who want to rule them, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the country’s army, and his onetime deputy, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, the leader of a brutal paramilitary force central to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The fighting has been going on for more than two weeks. There is no end in sight.
Like many people who have spent time in Sudan, I have been watching this crisis unfold with horror and dismay, trying to understand how a disaster of this scale in such a strategically significant part of the world could have happened. Where was the high-level maneuvering that might have found a path to peace and democratic self-rule for the long-suffering Sudanese people?
As I learned more about what’s happened in Sudan, my ears were practically singed by the scathing critiques of the bungled diplomacy from current and former diplomats in the region. Strikingly, some diplomats have spoken out publicly about the failure to head off this crisis or even reach a durable cease-fire to allow more people to escape the battle zone or even get basic supplies.
“We’ve been watching a train wreck gather speed,” Alex Rondos, the former European Union envoy to the Horn of Africa told me. “Why did we get to something as catastrophic as this?”
Four years ago, after decades of military rule, an astonishing protest movement rolled into the streets and toppled Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. That movement brought hopes that Sudan, with its belated Arab Spring-style uprising, could finally turn the page toward democracy.
But the process was booby-trapped from the beginning. The two military leaders had helped remove al-Bashir from office and made noises about civilian power, even agreeing to create a temporary transitional civilian government under their authority. It quickly became clear that they had no serious intention of giving up power. In October 2021, they staged a coup. Having vanquished civilian rule, the two men then turned on each other, and the people of Sudan are caught in the middle.
The diplomatic efforts in the region in the months leading up to the current crisis were handled by a jumble of midlevel diplomats from an alphabet soup of regional and international bodies, and regional leaders are nowhere to be seen.
The Sudan scholar Alex de Waal called it “a low-level diplomatic traffic jam” in a recent essay. “No one wanted what has now transpired — but no one was coordinating the signaling to prevent it from happening.”
One question regional diplomats and Sudanese analysts and officials I spoke to kept asking was: Where is the United States?
In an increasingly multipolar world, the United States may lack the leverage and stature it once had to bend events to its will. That may not be such a bad thing: Pax Americana often came at a price to sovereignty and self-determination, especially for the people of the global south. But that doesn’t make the United States any less indispensable as a force for peace, stability and democracy at this time. In the past, the United States has played an essential role in bringing together seemingly irreconcilable antagonists and their regional proxies to find a path to peace in Sudan. On Monday the glaring lack of high-level diplomacy prompted a bipartisan statement from the House Foreign Affairs Committee urging the Biden administration and the United Nations to appoint senior envoys, saying “direct, sustained, high-level leadership from the United States and United Nations is necessary to stop the fighting from dragging the country into a full-blown civil war and state collapse.”
It may be tempting to throw up our hands and say a peaceful transition to civilian rule in Sudan was an impossible mission. Sudan has been at war with itself for almost 40 of its 67 years as an independent nation. And yet, there is ample evidence that high-level diplomacy by a range of international and regional actors has been effective in the past, making the vacuum now all the more appalling.
Sudan’s future once preoccupied Republican and Democratic presidential administrations alike. Ending the civil war between northern and southern Sudan was such an important priority for the administration of George W. Bush that he dispatched a friend and ally, former Senator John Danforth, as an envoy.
The Obama administration sent high-level envoys to rally regional powers and cajole combatants when the peace agreement between north and south seemed headed off the rails. Important regional figures stepped up, too: Former presidents of South Africa and Nigeria were deeply involved, along with the then-prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, in keeping the agreement on track as south Sudan moved toward a referendum that would split the country.
By contrast, the current crisis has largely involved midlevel technocrats. Volker Perthes, the top United Nations official in Sudan, admitted in an interview with Sky News this week that despite the rising tensions between the generals, “of course, we did not see it coming.”
This is vexing because if anything, Sudan has become more of a strategic priority for the United States and Sudan’s neighbors. It is not only among Africa’s largest nations but also sits at the watery crossroads of north and sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Its neighbors and regional influences include a highly combustible mix of some of the most fragile, strategically significant and incredibly powerful countries in the world: Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. America’s biggest geopolitical rivals — China and Russia — have significant interests in Sudan and in the current conflict.
But as always, beneath the geopolitics, there are real people, with real aspirations for their country. There is a tendency to focus on armed actors as above all else, and a sort of dismissal of the range of civilian actors — political parties, protest movement leaders, civil society — as a bunch of cats too difficult to herd.
“There’s always been this argument that the civilians can’t get their act together,” another senior Western diplomat in the region told me. “The goal is to build a democracy with pluralism. Yes, it’s messy. Democracy is messy.”
Sudanese civilian leaders are no less scathing in their assessment of diplomatic efforts.
“They were actually fostering a political process that increased the polarization and the lust for power between the armed factions to the extent that it exploded,” said Amjed Farid, a former official in the transitional civilian administration. “You cannot bring democracy by exclusion. We saw this too many times in Africa. It is about including the demands of the normal people in the streets.”
Someone will need to shepherd the complex transition to civilian rule, and someone will need to underwrite it. This will not be cheap. The military will need to be bought off, its streams of revenue from its capture of the state replaced. Sudan will need long-term support, money that will ensure the independence of the civilian government.
The military dictatorship was brought down in part by an economic crisis, and the surest way to tank a new civilian government would be to hamstring it with the Washington Consensus regime of austerity. However dear this might be, it is nothing compared with the cost of a festering civil war.
Sudan is simply too big and too strategically located to fail. Its neighbors and regional powers know this, which is they have been so deeply involved in the two sides of the conflict. Most of the Gulf countries involved are either indifferent or hostile to the quest for democracy in Sudan. Egypt, a country that seems to forget that Sudan is no longer its colony, has deep ties to the Sudanese military and is staunchly opposed to a democracy on its southern border.
But the only real solution to Sudan’s crisis is the hard one: A new nation must be built, departing sharply from its past of Islamic extremist-inflected military rule. The people of Sudan deserve the chance, finally, to govern themselves by common assent, free from the dictatorship of the gun.
Now that Sudan’s endless wars have reached Khartoum, the capital, the world has no excuse for failing to help shepherd this troubled giant to democracy. If the realpolitik of regional and international security once argued for abiding by military rule for stability’s sake, that logic is now inverted. A messy fight among the security services in the streets of Khartoum has demonstrated, once and for all, that the men with guns are the cause of, not the solution to, Sudan’s suffering.
The United States keeps telling the world that it stands for democracy and against autocracy, military rule and impunity. And yet that message has been muddled by its support for important allies like India and Israel that are clearly sliding toward authoritarianism. The crisis in Sudan offers a clear opportunity to live up to the grand ideals the United States has been bruiting about across the world. And yet the United States seems curiously mute or even absent.
“Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, I don’t believe that the Biden administration has shown sufficient commitment to democracy, and Sudan is the perfect example of that,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst. “I think, when push comes to shove, there is still a preference for armed actors in hierarchical institutions.”
Khair was in Khartoum, and as we spoke, she kept an ear out for gunfire and bomb blasts. We talked about mutual friends who were trapped in the fighting.
“We keep away from the windows, of course,” she said. Most of the time, this bustling city has been reduced to silence.
“It’s deathly quiet,” she said. “There’s no sound of traffic. There’s no sound of the usual fruit and vegetable vendors that sort of roam around neighborhoods.” Two things puncture the silence, one irregular and the other like clockwork — the staccato clatter of gunfire and artillery, and the call to prayer. Within a few days Khair had fled the city, first to Port Sudan, then via airlift, eventually to London.