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Sudan: Death Toll Tops 420 as Fear Grows That Fighting Between Rival Generals Could Lead to Proxy War

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The United States and other countries moved to evacuate diplomats and citizens from Sudan over the weekend amid fighting between rival military factions that’s killed at least 420 people and injured over 3,700 more, in a crisis that began on April 15 when the Sudanese military and the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces began exchanging fire in the capital Khartoum, further dashing hopes of a return of civilian rule in the country. CNN reports the powerful Russian mercenary group Wagner has backed the RSF by providing the paramilitaries with surface-to-air missiles. Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has denied the report but offered on Friday to act as a mediator between the two warring factions. Meanwhile, many residents remain trapped in Khartoum with dwindling supplies of food, water, medicine and power. For more on the crisis, we speak with Khalid Mustafa Medani, associate professor of political science and Islamic studies who chairs the African Studies Program at McGill University. He says neither side has much support from the civilian population, which has shown an overwhelming commitment to a democratic transition. “It’s not so much a civil war, but essentially a fight to the death between two generals,” says Medani.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the crisis in Sudan, where fighting between rival military factions has killed at least 420 people and injured close to 4,000 since April. Over the weekend, U.S. Special Forces flew into Khartoum to evacuate U.S. Embassy staff. Many other nations evacuated diplomats, as well as their citizens, as fear grows the fighting could lead to a civil war in Africa’s third-largest country by size. The Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces have been fighting each other since April 15th. The fighting has dashed hopes of a return to civilian rule in Sudan.

CNN is reporting the Russian mercenary group Wagner has backed the RSF by providing surface-to-air missiles. The head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has denied CNN’s report, but on Friday he offered to act as a mediator between the two sides.

In Sudan’s capital Khartoum, many residents remain trapped with dwindling supplies of food, water and power as Sudan experiences a “near-total collapse” of internet and phone service. The World Food Programme is warning the fighting could plunge millions more people into hunger in Sudan. This is a Nigerian student stranded in Khartoum.

NIGERIAN STUDENT: Since there is no electricity, there is no water. I was having some little water left with me. I’ve been managing the water. I cannot — for two days I can’t shower. There is no water to drink. There is no food to drink. You cannot go out to the street to buy food. There is no — there is nothing you can buy. And even the cash is not there.

AMY GOODMAN: Doctors Without Borders recently reported up to 70% of the hospitals in Khartoum and neighboring states are not able to function. This is Esraa Abou Shama, a doctor at Sudan’s Health Ministry.

DR. ESRAA ABOU SHAMA: [translated] Most of the big and specialized hospitals are out of service and not offering any services of examination or treatment services for the patients, because they have been targeted with shelling, and some of them because of the shortage of doctors and also because of electricity and water outages.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Khalid Mustafa Medani, an associate professor of political science and Islamic studies, chair of the African Studies Program at McGill University. He’s joining us from Montreal.

Thank you so much for being with us. We had hoped to also have a guest in Khartoum, but it looks like there’s almost a complete internet as well as cellular service shutdown in Sudan, so we have not been able to reach them.

Professor Medani, can you describe the situation? We’ve been talking about it being near a civil war. Is it in the midst of a civil war right now?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: I wouldn’t categorize it as a civil war, because that would suggest that you have, essentially, a collection of people, a group of people fighting another. This is essentially a power struggle, really, between General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the general of the standing army, and, as you noted in your report, in your introduction, the head of a paramilitary militia, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. So, unfortunately, the civilians are held hostage. So it’s not so much a civil war, but essentially a fight to the death between two generals who have been partners and allies in the past.

The consequences, unfortunately, for a city, the capital city, that houses approximately 8 million to 10 million people, is unprecedented in terms of the catastrophe, as your reporting has shown. It’s not only that there are over 500 people that have perished — that’s, of course, probably, clearly, an underestimation — but the humanitarian consequences in the city — basically, the infrastructure has completely collapsed. It’s not just that the supplies of food are not there, but also people are generally trying to flee the city, and most cannot. But thousands are fleeing northwards towards Egypt or towards the Red Sea in the east. There are also clashes in the western province of Darfur. Sudanese there are fleeing to Chad, across the borders. This is unprecedented in terms of the kind of violence that has really — the capital city has witnessed. So, I would really categorize it less as a civil war, as basically a conflict between two generals who are just basically trying to take over political control over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what prompted this latest conflict. Give us a brief history of Sudan.

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Yes, absolutely. I think, for your viewers, it’s important to understand that these two generals had conspired and were partners in upending the very fragile coalition government in October 2021 that had been set up after the historic revolution of 2019, where millions of Sudanese took to the streets not only in the capital of Khartoum but throughout the country, that overthrew 30 years of an Islamist authoritarian dictatorship under the rule of the former President Omar al-Bashir. After that revolution, there was a coalition government that was supposed to oversee the country to transition towards a civilian democracy and elections that would consolidate that. But in October 2021, both of these generals — one was the head of the army, and his deputy was actually now is the head of these militias, Dagalo — decided basically to wage a coup to upend that democratic experiment, or the transition to democracy.

Following that, protests in Sudan continued. The will of the Sudanese people with respect to continuing on the road to a full civilian democracy continued, forcing and compelling these two generals to actually get back to the table with civilian politicians and iron out what was called a framework agreement under the auspices of the international community, the Quad. The actors from the international community included the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That framework agreement was supposed to restart and revitalize this transition to a civilian democracy.

But there were three essential contentious issues that really have sparked this particular conflict. One of them had to do with the issue of accountability, that is, transitional justice, the accountability on the part of both these generals, because, on the one hand, Hemedti had been accused of violence in the Darfur region — he was responsible for, really, thousands of civilians in Darfur, putting down that insurgency in the 2000 — and Burhan himself, who cooperated with that. But also both of them actually repressed the activists on the street. In June of 2019, both of them and their forces essentially killed over 100 activists that had been in a sit-in trying to energize this revolution.

And another issue was the dismantling of the economic empire that had been built by the former regime, overseen now by Burhan, and also dismantling the vast wealth that Hemedti, the militia leader, had really amassed through the smuggling of gold, cooperation with the Wagner corporation, and also sending mercenaries to the war in Yemen. These were two essential kind of contentious issues.

But the one that really sparked this conflict was an issue over integrating the paramilitary militia into the standing army. That is really where the dispute emerged, leading to this horrible conflict. On the one hand, General Burhan had wanted the paramilitary militia to be integrated within the course of two years, a very quick integration, after which he could consolidate his rule over the military establishment. On the one hand — on the other hand, Hemedti, or Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary militia, wanted this to happen over the course of 10 years, essentially, basically, rejecting integrating his paramilitary forces into the national standing army. It is at that point that both decided or calculated that they had to actually defeat their rival. Quickly, Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary militia, began mobilizing even more forces in Khartoum and throughout the neighborhoods of the capital city and also attacking an airport in Merowe in northern Sudan. That mobilization is what led Burhan to utilize his — the forces of the national army to try to eliminate his rival.

Essentially, both of them now are in a battle to the death. They conceive it as a zero-sum game. The Sudanese population throughout the country is held hostage to the ambitions, the political and economic ambitions, of these two generals. So it’s not a civil war. It really is, unfortunately, the kind of result of this kind of greed for power and their interest in maintaining their vast economic assets and empire, both built in the course of the previous regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see that this could become a proxy war? I mean, you have Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. What? He was in Moscow on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. You talk about him getting support for the RSF forces from the Wagner Group, the Russian group. And, of course, then you have the United States there clearing out its embassy staff, about a hundred there still, 16,000 Americans; Italy clearing out both its citizens and its staff; Saudi Arabia doing the same. Talk about the significance of all of this. And is this also a fight over resources, as you mentioned, gold?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Yes, absolutely. Well, it is — there is no question that it’ll — there’s a very good chance, unfortunately, that it would devolve into a proxy war, because these two generals had already been utilized as proxies by certain powers. In the case of Hemedti, there is absolutely no question the Wagner corporation or the mercenaries of Wagner had helped in amassing the gold, and that was smuggled not only to Russia, eventually, but the majority of it actually to the United Arab Emirates, the markets in Dubai. That’s very important. As I said, he also served in the past as a mercenary, being sent to Yemen at the behest in support of Yemen — of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in that war. Another very important aspect of Hemedti is that he does have close link with the — Haftar, Khalifa Haftar, of the Libyan National Army, who had also supported him. Hemedti had also sent soldiers from his paramilitary militia to Libya to fight under Haftar in that war in 2019. Many of them have returned, however. That is with respect to Hemedti.

With respect to Burhan, his links with Egypt are very, very strong. El-Sisi in Egypt supports him because he’s very much opposed to a democratic evolution in Sudan but also deeply concerned about Egypt’s interest with respect to the Nile waters. What I want to emphasize in terms of answering your question in this context is the strategic location of Sudan. I think many people are unaware how important it is located. It not only borders the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which is so important. Russia, historically, has really wanted to have a naval base there and had been working out an agreement to do so. That, of course, is a great concern to the United States and, of course, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, so there is a scramble for control over the strategic location of the port in Sudan on the Red Sea. Sudan also, of course, shares the Nile waters with Egypt and Ethiopia. Those two countries, as you probably know, have been in conflict and in tension over the establishment of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt, in particular, has been concerned. South Sudan, for those viewers who may not be aware, does have a great deal of oil. It exports to China, but that oil has to go through a pipeline in Sudan. That becomes really important. So the strategic location of Sudan is the main reason that there’s a great danger of this conflict not only destabilizing Sudan, which it has, of course, in the capital city and throughout the country, but the entire region, as the different actors understand, and they are very quickly, that their own strategic interests and their conflicts with their rivals may actually be undermined if Sudan’s stability completely evaporates.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, Sudan’s top general, the de facto ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, made his first public remarks since the fighting broke out.

ABDEL FATTAH AL-BURHAN: [translated] There remains hope that we are with our great people and we will overcome this tribulation and emerge from it unified, strong and coherent. And our slogan will only get stronger: “One army, one people.”

AMY GOODMAN: In his speech, General al-Burhan claimed Sudan’s military is committed to a transition to civilian rule, even though he led the coup 18 months ago that toppled Sudan’s civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. If you can talk about that? And then we’ll talk about — well, as you said, this isn’t a civil war; it’s a war between two militaries. And what is happening to the people, including your own family?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, that signaling, that both of them — it’s not only al-Burhan, but also, even more so, Hemedti, or Dagalo — have insisted that they’re fighting for democracy, ironically, that they’re fighting for democracy and to return Sudan to that path towards a transition, towards a civilian democracy — that, of course, is simply, on their part, propaganda to the international community.

But even more importantly, I’d like to emphasize, the reason that they’re also stating that, on both their parts, is because of the sheer resilience of the Sudanese population, that in their unanimity continue, despite what is going on, to insist that the Sudan’s future must be predicated on a transition to a full civilian government. The reason they are both making these statements is not only to gesture to the international community and to generate their support — after all, the international community had committed themselves, until recently, until this conflict emerged, to oversee and help support Sudan towards a transition to a civilian democracy. But neither of these generals — and this is why I’m not calling it a civil war, despite the severity of the conflict — neither of them have a constituency among the Sudanese.

On the one hand, Hemedti, Dagalo, is relying almost exclusively on mercenaries that he has paid or pays out of his — out of the smuggling of gold and his vast wealth and, of course, utilizing them as mercenaries. And on the other hand, al-Burhan is really the head not so much of the Armed Forces, but the top brass of the Armed Forces that are in Sudan refer to as the remnants of the former Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir, the National Congress Party. So, on the part of al-Burhan, his only constituency is a very limited group of people who are fighting as much as they can, in this case, at the cost of the Sudanese people, in order to retain the vast wealth of the deep state that the Islamist authoritarian regime had built. That is the only constituency they have. And that is very important, because it explains the lack of popularity with respect to Burhan on the part of the Sudanese population. On the other hand, Hemedti not only does not have a constituency among the Sudanese population, but at the moment he’s using his militias in street battles, where he’s using the Sudanese population, essentially, as human shields, because of the kind of strategies he needs to utilize, absent having kind of strategic weapons, including airplanes or fighter jets. He has to resort and is resorting to these street battles in order to generate a military victory in the capital of Khartoum. So, it’s very important to understand that both have very narrow constituencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Medani, in a moment we’re also going to be joined by Jan Egeland to talk about the humanitarian activities in the area of nongovernmental organizations and what they’re able to do in Sudan. But I wanted to ask about your own family. You’re trying to get your mother out? Are you able to reach her?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Thank you for asking. Thank you. Like thousands of Sudanese, she is hopefully on the road from Khartoum. It’s not only my mother, but my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. They have taken several buses. Like most — like all Sudanese, we have relatives throughout the capital city, not just one neighborhood. Unfortunately, the communication is very patchy, and that’s why your guest was not able to make it. It’s a great concern for all Sudanese. It’s a very long trip, very arduous. There are checkpoints.

And the decision to leave is really based on, basically, the evaporation of any other kind of option. No one wants to leave their home, but it’s not just about the shelling. It is also about, as your news reporting demonstrated, I think people need to be aware, that people are completely running out of water and food, and also there are absolutely no medicines. So, there is absolutely no choice except to leave the capital city and find refuge elsewhere.

And it is absolutely understandable that the international community and the foreign countries have evacuated their citizens and essential staff, and hopefully they’ll evacuate Sudanese citizens from their country. At the same time, this is signaling an abdication of the international community’s responsibility not only to the transitioning Sudan to a democracy, but the real concern here is that depth of the humanitarian crisis will not be addressed, the international community will not have the will to actually intervene. And I think that that is the most crucial at the moment. I think they can. There are many pressure points that they can apply. I would even argue, because of the actors that have supported these generals, that selective sanctions — and this is something that even the Congress has been deliberating upon. Selected, targeted sanctions towards them, I believe very sincerely, if it’s a concerted, coordinated effort on the part of the international community, can work.

Importantly, and finally, it’s very important to emphasize that neighboring countries have to be encouraged to maintain their open borders and to be supported in that. It is, of course, a great burden for countries, no matter how generous they may be, to take fleeing, you know, displaced persons and refugees. But that can be alleviated by Jan Egeland and others who — and the United Nations. And that has been done before in what we call complex humanitarian emergencies. And I believe that that is really important to emphasize.

It’s very possible, hopefully, even though many — most foreigners have evacuated their citizens, this does not signal abdicating a responsibility for Sudan. I would argue that it’s not only humanitarian for those in the different capitals in the neighboring countries and the regional blocs, but also further afield in the United States. This is a country whose stability is crucial to the stability of the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, the Sahel region and throughout North Africa. It is the third-largest country in the continent. And I think that is something that must be, you know, kind of highlighted and reiterated to the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: Khalid Mustafa Medani, we want to thank you for being with us, a Sudanese scholar, chair of the African Studies Program at McGill University, speaking to us from Montreal.

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