Discover more from Letters from an American
April 23, 2023
An article by Matthew Lee, Tara Copp, and Aamer Madhani of the Associated Press gave a good overview of today’s evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. About 100 U.S. troops used three helicopters to evacuate about 70 U.S. personnel from the embassy, getting them out of Sudan to Ethiopia without major incident. Such a military evacuation is unusual, but the fight between two rival Sudanese leaders has closed the main international airport and given armed fighters control of the roads leading out of the country, making it impossible for U.S. personnel to leave by civilian routes.
Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Saudi Arabia helped to get the Americans to safety. There were no major incidents associated with the evacuation. Other nations have also evacuated their embassies, and the United Nations staffers left by road on a 19-hour trip.
U.S. officials said it would be too dangerous to evacuate the approximately 16,000 private U.S. citizens remaining in the country, whose great size contributes to the difficulty of getting them out. (Significantly larger than Alaska, Sudan is the third largest country in Africa and has more than 45 million people.) According to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA), most of the remaining U.S. civilians there are dual-nationality Sudanese Americans or aid workers. They have been advised to shelter in place while the U.S. government works with other countries to get them out safely.
Vedant Patel, the principal deputy spokesperson for the State Department, noted in a press briefing on April 21 that since August 2021 the department has listed Sudan as under a Level 4 travel advisory, meaning that the U.S. government warned people not to travel there and that the U.S. might have “very limited ability” to aid travelers in a crisis. Since then, he said, “we have communicated to American citizens in the country about safety and security measures and precautions that they can take…. We have not parsed our words or been ignorant or naïve about the delicate and fragile security situation in Sudan.”
The fight in the eastern African country that erupted on April 15 grew from Sudan’s 2019 revolution. In that year, opponents of the ruling government threw out President Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power since 1989 and who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, and rape in his attempt to get rid of rebels in the western region of Sudan, known as Darfur.
Leading that revolt were women, known as “Kandakat” after powerful Nubian queens. In the wake of the revolution, the Sudanese people attempted a transition to democracy. But in 2021, two military leaders, General Abdel Fattah Burhan, who leads the armed forces, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known by the nickname Hemedti), who leads a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces that grew out of the Janjaweed militias that terrorized Darfur, launched a military coup and took power.
In the wake of the coup, foreign aid was halted, the economy collapsed, and the United Nations and international negotiators pressured the two generals to turn power back over to civilians this month. But talks dragged on, tensions rose, and now the two men are at war with each other for control of the country. Experts say if the crisis is not solved, and solved fast, Sudan could descend into a civil war. More than 400 people have already died, mostly in Khartoum.
The fighting in Sudan has repercussions around the world. There are signs that Russia’s Wagner group is supporting Hemedti, which would be in keeping with the statement Wagner’s founder, Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, made after his group’s recent losses in Ukraine, saying he planned to concentrate on Africa, where his forces have been propping up authoritarian governments now for a while. They have been in Sudan since 2017, and in addition to the interest of Wagner-linked companies in gold mining there, Russia has long wanted to build a naval base on the Red Sea at Port Sudan, which is currently under the control of the government forces led by Burhan.
The Nile River runs through Sudan, tying Sudan to Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as to eight other African countries. Other international powers are also interested in Sudan’s resources, and in making sure the conflict doesn’t spill over into other countries. Overall, as Patel noted, the violence destabilizes not just Sudan but the region as a whole, hurting civilians and jeopardizing “the will, the aspirations, and the progress that the Sudanese people are hoping to see through some kind of transition to democracy.”
In the New York Times today, Jacqueline Burns, a former advisor to the U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan and a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, suggested that the conflict in Sudan had a much broader lesson for the international community.
Since 2005, Burns wrote, international negotiators have focused on splitting power between armed groups rather than civilians. Women and others who were not part of armed military groups were almost entirely excluded, she wrote. “Armed groups and dictatorial regimes know that as long as they are participating in a peace process, international pressures will eventually—often quickly—ebb. If they are pressed into signing an agreement, there are typically very few effective mechanisms to hold them to it.” And while they are pretending to engage in peace processes, armed groups are actually consolidating their political and military power.
This pattern was especially problematic in Sudan, she wrote, where the women who had led the uprising that got rid of al-Bashir were largely excluded from the government that followed; armed groups were at the table instead.
Burns warned the international community that if we are going to stop the “continued cycle of violence and human suffering,” negotiators must stop prioritizing the voices of “the armed and corrupt” over those actually interested in real political reform.