The suffering of the Sudanese people becomes more dramatic by the hour: water and food supplies are shrinking while the injured are turned out of their hospital beds to make room for fresh victims of a pointless civil war, the third in as many decades. Hundreds have died and thousands have been gravely wounded in the crossfire as two generals fight for supremacy.
The shooting started the day following the Framework Agreement, which was supposed to enable the transition to a civilian government. Democracy in Sudan is always, tantalizingly, just out of reach.
Sudan’s politics live in a tragic loop. Since its independence from Great Britain in 1955, Sudan has been ruled by strongmen who are later replaced by coup leaders promising democracy, the rule of law, and, sometimes, the rule of Islam. Each time, from the coup leaders, a new strongman emerges.
After a bloodless 1989 coup, General Omar al-Bashir came to power along with his former classmates in what was then called Gordon College. Bashir, by 1996, had seized total power, pushing out the Islamists, former communists, and some northern tribal leaders. Bashir was himself was toppled in 2018 by protests, but the army quickly took control before democracy could break out. The doom loop cycled again.
Still, it would be wrong and dangerous to America’s security to assume a disintegrating Sudan poses no risks to the United States.
First, other global powers are already contending to control Sudan’s oil, gold, and strategic ports. If one Sudanese faction wins, then Russian demands for a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast would give Putin’s navy a global reach. If the other faction wins, Russia would also gain but Chinese influence in Sudan—already extensive, as measured by the Chinese-built skyscrapers in Khartoum and the bobbing oil derricks in the Nuba region—would surge.
During a visit to Khartoum in February, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the prospect of a Russian naval base with Sudanese leaders and the goal of completing it by the end of 2023, according to a document leaked online by a Massachusetts air national guardsman.
What’s important is that, left to its own devices, Sudan’s future will be controlled by America’s rivals. Those rivals, especially, include China.
China, already the world's largest consumer of energy, sees Africa as a “promised land’ of oil and gas. Sudanese crude alone satisfies more than 10 percent of Chinese oil needs. Beijing needs Sudan.
China’s Africa Policy Paper, released in 2015, calls for deep military engagement, technological cooperation, and a strengthening of African security forces. Although assistance initiatives to the African Union and its regional military pacts have multiplied considerably under this policy, Beijing channels most of its support bilaterally, from government to government. Often, this means arms sales. As a result, China is currently the largest arms supplier to sub-Saharan Africa with 27 percent of the region's imports between 2013 and 2017—an increase of 55 percent over the period 2008–2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Sudan represents a significant part of that increase in weapon sales.
China also rules sub-Saharan Africa through debt. Growing debts of China’s military partner countries to Chinese state banks that fund China’s megaprojects now worry officials across Africa. They also ruefully note that China hires few locals for its African mega-projects—creating African debt without African wealth.
If Sudan comes apart like Libya, refugees will follow the Nile north and swamp Egypt’s rickety refugee centers. If Egypt decides to become more involved in Sudan, as it did in years past, it will use its influence to stem the tide of refugees and oppose the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on Ethiopia’s stretch of the Blue Nile. This will put Ethiopia into conflict with both Sudan and Egypt. East Africa could soon be aflame—risking U.S. counter-terror operations in the region.
Other U.S. allies have strategic interests at stake, too. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are pressuring both sides to adopt a diplomatic solution. Sudan was part of the original Abraham Accord normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. But after a military coup in Sudan in October 2021, the final steps of the process with Khartoum stalled. Israel is inviting Sudan’s warring parties to a peace summit in Jerusalem. For Egypt and Turkey, a civil war in Sudan would pose a significant threat to their naval presence in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.
For the United States, the options for mitigating the crisis are limited. After successfully evacuating U.S. diplomats and citizens, the focus should shift to alleviating human suffering by establishing safe corridors to allow trapped civilians to escape.
This is an opportunity for America to impose its leadership and to restore the Framework for democracy with negotiation, not war.
The United States has left a vacuum in Africa and now its rivals have rushed in. It is not too late for America to offer the African continent what it really wants: peace, prosperity, recognition, and democracy. It could start with Sudan.
Ahmed Charai is a Publisher. He is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, the International Crisis Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Center for the National Interest.