Violence in Sudan and the West's dilemma

Western states were heavily involved in the reform process in Sudan. In light of the escalating violence there, some are wondering if western countries and their allies mishandled the situation.

Dilapidated houses in Sudan
Dilapidated houses in Sudan


Sudan is plagued by intense fighting and countless deaths which have led thousands of people to flee the country. The prospect of reconciliation, democracy, and the rule of law in Sudan is still out of reach, and hopes of a peaceful future in the country appear out of reach. The population seems bitter about the ongoing fighting between generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who is most often referred to as Hemetti. Many in Sudan are also disappointed about the role western countries have played in the ongoing conflict.

Activist Hamid Khalafalla posted on Twitter that he woke up to the sounds of battle, even though there was supposedly a ceasefire, asking why Sudanese generals should adhere to the ceasefire when the US continued defer to generals when they did not. He also complained that the military coup 18 months ago went virtually unpunished.

Khalafalla also argued that western nations would continue rapidly leaving the country due to the latest wave of violence. He was referring to the recent evacuations, and he says the country would lose influence as a result.

A homemade conflict

Marina Peter, founder and head of the Sudan and South Sudan Forum, says that the conflict is, at its core, a homemade one. Her NGO is also planning to leave the country in the coming days. She says the conflict is the result of problems that have remained unresolved for decades, including struggles over resources, as well as the country's power-hungry political and military leaders. She also thinks the dynamic within Sudan will be difficult to influence from the outside.

However, Peter acknowledges that western countries made errors after 2019, which is the year former Sudanese head of state Omar al-Bashir was deposed.

"The most egregious mistake was not allowing a large portion of the population to participate in the discussions and negotiations," Peter said during an interview with DW. The German-born Sudan expert said there was too much reliance on the military. "Sudanese activists and foreign experts repeatedly warned that the military, especially Hemetti, couldn't be trusted, and that relying on them would make a long-term solution impossible."

Too reliant on old forces?

Democracy advocate Ahmed Esam from the organization Sudan Uprising Germany agrees. He doesn't want to give complete responsibility to western states for the failure in Sudan, but the German-based activist does believe they made significant mistakes. "The fact that they didn't acknowledge the western ideology behind the resistance on the streets, or support their direct demands for reforms was problematic. The resistance committees were ignored. Instead the western states relied too much on the old forces."

Journalist Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz suggests that western countries may have been too quick to trust both of the powerful men who are now battling for control of Sudan. "Both of them tied up their attempts to secure power in language that was intended to make clear that they were acting in service of democracy, and with the intention of transitioning to a completely civilian government," wrote Middle East Eye journalist Abdel Aziz. However, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemetti themselves are the ones who overthrew the civilian government in 2021, when they carried out a coup against Sudan's former prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok.

It's understandable that from that moment on, al-Burhan and Hemetti had other things to worry about besides bringing the then thriving reform process to an end. Adbel Aziz says they both had one priority: securing their own personal power. That's also why the two enemies have cultivated strong ties to Moscow.

Experts agree that Russia's influence in Sudan has increased enormously, and could continue to do so. But Russia is primarily interested in gaining economic influence and power, and supporting fledgling democracies is not of utmost importance. That's another reason why western politicians have carefully considered to what extent they can afford to put the Sudanese military under political pressure, since other international rivals have already established strong connections with them.

Sudanese government 'in no way civilian-led'

Foreign Policy Magazine also criticized the West's approach to Sudan in recent years. The renowned news publication's analysis maintained that the US put too much faith in the words of the two generals, words that seemed tailor-made for western ears. That's one reason why the US insisted on referring to the transition in Sudan as "civilian-led." Foreign Policy Magazine says that was a misleading description, and that the transition was "in no way civilian-led."

Beyond that, activist Ahmed Esam says western countries preferred a questionable distribution of power between civilians and the military in Sudan. "Western countries saw the Sudanese military as a separate unit, and not as an institution that can ultimately only receive legitimacy from society. The west tended to regard the military as a political party, and that was a mistake."

West was limited in its ability to take action

Marina Peter from the Sudan and South Sudan Forum also told DW that the West should have introduced sanctions against the generals earlier. Western countries were counting on increasing pressure on Sudan by freezing developmental aid to the country for an extended period of time. "But then money came from other countries, so those efforts were unsuccessful," Peter explained. It was clear to al-Bashir's followers that the West was limited in its ability to take action. "Western countries had definitely worked with al-Bashir, partially due to fear of more migration," Peter said.

In recent days, western countries had to engage in talks with the rival generals. Without their approval, they wouldn't have been able to get their citizens out of Sudan. This presented a classic real-political dilemma: western countries had to painfully acknowledge that they had been wrong about an important ally. At the same time, due to the current dire situation in the country, they were no longer able to keep avoiding them.

This article was translated from German.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines