As foreign diplomats evacuate Sudan amid fierce fighting, millions of civilians are left to make the best of their lives, leaving many frustrated by what they see as armed conflict between formerly Western-backed generals.
Sudanese analysts and activists who spoke to Al Jazeera blamed Western officials for encouraging and legitimizing the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and the army led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the two men engaged in deadly armed conflict. since April 15.
“I think these generals were hand-held and appeased a lot because the US believed they could create reformers out of them,” says Sudanese expert Kholood Khair, the founder of Confluence Advisory.
According to the International Crisis Group, the catalyst for the armed struggle terrorizing Sudan was a Western-designed framework agreement signed Dec. coup in October 2021.
The framework agreement led to a series of political negotiations between the military, the RSF and a coalition of political parties known as the Forces for Freedom and Change – Central Command (FFC-CC).
One of the most sensitive issues to be worked out was security sector reform and a dispute over the integration of the RSF into the military – and the short time frame Western countries gave them to resolve it – escalated tensions between the rivals.
The army wanted to absorb the RSF in two years, while the RSF wanted to remain an autonomous force with its own command for another ten years. Both feared losing power and relevance to the other in a new political environment.
Still, Western officials pressured both troops to sign a deal.
The Western position was that the security elites should be part of a democratic transition and would be incentivized to support a transition for Sudan to access millions of dollars in development aid and billions in debt relief.
The assumption was that the RSF and the military would prioritize the stability of Sudan, not just their own power.
On a personal level, many of those overseeing the negotiations wanted a success they could point to, according to a Western diplomat.
“Many diplomats are very results-oriented and want something tangible. Of course, one [political] The deal is tangible,” the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to the press, told Al Jazeera a few weeks before the framework agreement was announced. “Maybe a deal will last six months – and then when those diplomats leave – they can write on their resumes that they helped to close a deal in Sudan.”
“I think if the international community – especially the Americans – doesn’t take stock of how their contributions have gotten us to where we are today, there’s a serious problem,” Khair said.
“The UN, the European Union, the US and all Western countries are the reason why there is now a war between the army and the RSF,” said Amira Osman, an activist imprisoned in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan.
Long before the current crisis, Western countries had already started making deals with Sudanese security elites under the banner of reducing migration.
In 2017, the EU launched the Khartoum Process – a partnership between Brussels and governments in the Horn of Africa, aimed at containing the flow of refugees and migrants to Libya.
It paid millions of dollars to the government of authoritarian former leader Omar al-Bashir while he was accused by the International Criminal Court of committing crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
Taking advantage of Europe’s fear of Africans on its doorstep, Al-Bashir empowered the RSF — which was initially formed to quell insurrections and make his regime coup-proof — by designating the group as the border guards of the country.
“We all know that the RSF was just taking over the smugglers’ migration routes,” said Ahmad Mahmoud, a Sudanese documentary filmmaker who has researched the fallout from the Khartoum trial.
That put the group, which emerged from Arab tribal militias that carried out state-sponsored massacres in Darfur between 2003 and 2009, in a position to pocket a share of the $40 million that the EU “law enforcement agencies” and the judiciary cared about strengthening Sudan’s capacity to curb migration.
“On the one hand, they received legitimacy from Europe. On the other hand, they provided the same services as the smugglers,” said Mahmoud.
He said the al-Bashir-EU partnership has also helped Hemedti’s public relations strategy, as he has often championed the RSF’s role in mitigating migration.
But the RSF – along with the military – is now responsible for generating another refugee crisis from Sudan. Tens of thousands of people have already crowded the Egyptian border, while many others have moved east to try to enter Saudi Arabia or Djibouti by boat.
Chad has also hosted up to 20,000 refugees, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
“The RSF got this level of power because they were first legitimized and funded by the EU. This is not something that Hemedti hides. He brags about it all the time,” Mahmoud said.
In Khartoum, fighting began to ramp up in some areas after Western countries secured their own officials and diplomats. A further escalation of violence, which has left nearly 500 people dead, could exacerbate an already spiraling humanitarian crisis, according to the World Health Organization.
Thousands more were seriously injured by shelling, gunfire and bombs, while hospitals close daily as supplies run out and international aid agencies are unable to help.
Hamid Murtada, a Sudanese analyst and member of the grassroots pro-democracy movement, told Al Jazeera he believes the West is ignoring an opportunity to prioritize humanitarian needs while evacuating their own diplomats.
With a 72-hour ceasefire already shaky, Murtada said international actors should arrange safe passages to and from hospitals, or operate some banks so people can access their money.
“Foreign governments have apparently succeeded in getting both the military and the RSF to largely abandon combat to evacuate diplomats, proving that they have influence over them and can take advantage of the [ceasefire]. But it seems they are focused on safe passages for diplomats,” Hamid said.
Many international relief efforts remain suspended after four aid workers were killed in random violence last week.
Despite the magnitude of the need, resuming aid does not seem to be a top priority, said the director of an international aid organization who requested anonymity so as not to jeopardize his relationship with donors.
“We don’t understand why aid organizations are scaling down or leaving almost completely when there are accessible parts of the country that seem safe enough to settle in…we also don’t understand why there has been a particular focus on crisis management with regard to evacuation, and not a or other parallel initiative to think about scaling up an emergency response,” he said.
“The mood in many capitals and foreign ministries is generally good [been[ to avoid another Kabul or Benghazi situation,” he added, in reference to the death of Western personnel in both countries.
The flight of Western diplomats – and lack of emergency aid coming in – has distressed many Sudanese, both at home and abroad.
Ola Idriss, a 24-year-old in Toronto, Canada, who still has many relatives trapped in Sudan, expressed anger towards Western officials who had not championed popular calls for full-civilian rule, and instead insisted that security elites needed to be part of a restored democratic transition after the coup.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former US African envoy Jeffrey Feltman agreed. He said the United States appeased the generals rather than hold them accountable for sabotaging popular calls for democracy.
“Sudanese civilians saw this for a long time coming and they were ignored,” said Idriss. “But when the situation got too dire, the people that didn’t believe [us] were the first to be saved.”