Khartoum, Sudan

Why What Happens in Sudan Matters

Frances Guy

In his recent article in The National David Pratt rightly highlights the possible further tragic consequences of potential regional intervention in the current Sudanese power struggle, as well as the potential horrors of further fragmentation within the fighting armed factions themselves see https://www.thenational.scot/news/23474019.david-pratt-bloody-power-struggle-sudan-wide-implications/.  If you are wondering why this fighting has happened now, others have attributed the reasons for the timing of the outbreak in fighting to a failure of diplomacy see carnegie middle east center; terminators in khartoum.  

These analyses are important but they miss another key reality; what was happening on the streets of Khartoum until the army coup in 2021 was one of the remaining hopes of what western observers like to call the Arab spring; the daring revolutionary movements that led hundreds of unarmed civilians to camp out in the streets demanding accountable civilian government. Across the Arab world the counter- revolutionary authoritarian forces have largely reclaimed control but in Sudan the possibility of a return to civilian rule had remained on the table.  For those arguing that the Arab spring was not dead, Sudan was important.  Even now, the optimists in Sudan still cling to the idea that the military are only proving that they are not capable of governing by their ruthless return to arms.  But it will take a powerful civilian political movement to take the fighting off the streets and reduce the power of the military.   It is hard not to conclude that the flicker of hope has become very faint indeed.  Nevertheless, Sudan has been here before; in 1986 a military government did hand over power to civilians.  Although one can argue as Khalid Mansour did eloquently in his book ‘The Government they deserve’ that the Khartoum based elites then ignored the demands and needs of the periphery including the increasing problems of drought in western Sudan.

Why does it matter?  It matters firstly for all the Sudanese caught up in the fighting, once again seeing their resource-rich country reduced to poverty and anguish.  But it matters for other reasons too; for the harsh lessons on failed diplomacy; and for the longer term lessons of the brutal implications of global heating.   

Although the differences between the armed factions were clear, and their unwillingness to be joined together and be governed by civilian rule were inevitable, it does seem credible that pushing reluctant armed groups towards a deadline that they resisted was a mistake.  The Sudanese have despondently waited long for a return to democracy but forcing the pace did not help.  More importantly perhaps though is the failure of diplomacy to solve the problems of Darfur over the last 15 – 20 years.  As is often the case peacekeeping forces helped contain the worst of the conflict and satisfied the less demanding immediate needs.   The problems of Darfur are historical and complicated but more should have been done to settle grievances exacerbated by climate change.   

In an article in The Atlantic in 2007, Stephan Faris argued that the real roots of the problems in Darfur were related to global warming see https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/04/the-real-roots-of-darfur/305701/

Faris notes that it is difficult to be conclusive, but it is likely that the droughts of the eighties were caused by global climate change.  These droughts upset the delicate balance between nomadic Arab tribes and their settled neighbours, ultimately leading to the rise of the Janjaweed, creating the opportunities for some of the military strongmen leading the fighting in the streets today. 

 The changes in the Sahel have been surprising.  In the eighties in Al Fashir, the capital of Darfur, it was possible to find people who remembered the town surrounded by forest and who remembered the sound of lions in the night.  Already by the eighties that seemed a distant dream;  as you travelled across the desert for hours before reaching the town, and spent a good deal of effort covering eyes and lips from the endless toll of desert dust.   Since then desertification has only increased, and with it pressure on water resources. 

In his article, Faris notes that” With countries across the region and around the world suffering similar pressures, some see Darfur as a canary in the coal mine, a foretaste of climate-driven political chaos.”  To have sought to deal with that chaos it would have been necessary to recognise the roots of the problem, but it would also have taken years of painstaking negotiations and education and ultimately changes to historical and traditional land use.  It might have been possible, but it would certainly have been difficult.  It perhaps ought also have led to a wider recognition; that those of us responsible for the worst carbon excesses have a moral responsibility for the tragedy of the people of Darfur, and now the ongoing tragedy of the rest of Sudan. 

What does this mean for us today in Scotland? 

 It means we must remember Darfur and Sudan when we hold the government to account for failing to meet targets on reducing carbon emissions – the effects of our failure to meet global targets set in Paris in 2015 will lead to many more Sudans.  

It means that we should manifest our solidarity with any Sudanese caught up in the fighting or seeking to flee, including those arriving in the UK by whatever means possible, and we should be urging the UK government to open up genuinely safe routes for people to claim asylum in the UK.   

And it means we should hold on to that iconic image of a Sudanese woman standing on the roof of a car shouting that Sudan is for all (https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/10/middleeast/sudan-woman-iconic-photo-revolution-intl/index.html) These are the actions that can galvanise revolutions and inspire us all. 

Scotland today or in an independent future might have few means to impact global conflicts once they have started, but working with other small states around the world we can influence how the world responds to global warming, and we can do more to prevent conflicts before they start through working to reduce global injustice. 

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