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Sudan's War is a Geopolitical Rorschach Test
In a Fight for Power and Gold, People See What They Already Believe
“The Leaders in the cities made the fairest professions: on the one side with the cry for political equality of The People, on the other of a moderate aristocracy; but they sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish and, stopping at nothing in their struggle for ascendancy, engaged in direct excesses…
Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.” - Thucydides [3.82.8]
The war in Sudan has been ongoing for almost 7 months. Besides the initial evacuation of foreign nationals, it has received limited notice in the international press. It remains what it always was: a war between two factions over power and gold. The Rapid Support Forces [RSF] under General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo [Hemedti] appear to be moving towards some sort of victory, with control over most of the twin cities of Khartoum and Omdurman at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile Rivers, and having also taken most of the Darfur region in the west. On the other side is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leading the Sudanese Armed Forces [SAF], who are on their heels and have long been threatening to set up a government-in-[internal] exile in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Neither side has a high degree of popular support or stands for any principle. A Rapid Support Forces victory would empower Hemedti’s people, the Baggara Bedouin nomads, whereas the Sudanese Armed Forces would keep power with a riparian elite, which has long been dominant after having been elevated by foreign rulers during the period of Anglo-Egyptian governance. The public view appears to be that there should be a pox on both of their houses. It is considered that these men betrayed a 2019 popular uprising when they took power together before later turning on each other. Burhan is seen as representing the government institutions, and many maintain some hope of wresting civilian control from him if he is victorious. Alternately, though they were made a formal part of the government in the later Bashir years, the RSF are seen as a rebel group and don’t control any of the country’s institutions.
For English speakers around the world, though poor, the SAF’s public relations are much better, because the class of Sudanese who are fluent in English and often Western educated prefer the SAF and fear dominance by a nomadic people. Alternately, the RSF doesn’t appear to care much what the Anglophone world thinks of them, though they will periodically deny atrocity accusations and sometimes Tweet in English. The dearth of information and messaging, combined with the facts that neither side has an ideology, that both will accuse their opponent of anything, and that foreign involvement has been limited, has created a situation where people see whatever they want in the Sudanese war- or at least claim to. One person says the RSF is allied with Hamas, another says it is a Zionist project, another says Hemedti works for Russia, another says the real story is racial violence in Darfur. Both sides accuse the other of Islamism [neither is Islamist, though the SAF has Islamist support.] I suppose I have my angle too, which is that this is not some vast geopolitical struggle and has little to do with the world outside of Sudan. We should hope it stays that way, as the relative growth in messaging power among SAF supporters is coalescing into a claim that the RSF are genocidal Russia-supported Islamists who will create a terrorist safe haven that threatens Israel. From there, quite a lot of people will want to invade, and as it stands, that would most likely lengthen a war that is perhaps near some sort of conclusion. At this point it seems to me that a despotism of the RSF would be better for most of the public than this conflict continuing.
For a quick summary of the situation, a bright spot in the English language coverage is this three minute video by a woman who goes by the name Munchkin on Twitter:
This is one of the most neutral and well informed attempts I have seen that concisely explains the situation for someone who hasn’t been following the conflict. The fact that she is clearly a native speaker of American English, without an accent and with a firm grasp of colloquialisms does make one wonder how much of her life has been spent outside of Sudan. Overall, she does much better than almost anyone on the internet, but it’s worth considering how much her world view has in common with the man on the street in Sudan. Of course, this is not to say mine does, but she’s describing this as someone who is experiencing it and greatly impacted, whereas I’m an outsider who knows about how human affairs function generally.
Looking at the war in Sudan from a modern Western perspective that anyone raised in America would absorb [even if we consider Enlightenment values to be dying] is not necessarily productive. Of course, no one consulted Sudanese desert tribes about the “rules-based world order” when it was invented after World War 2. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to use a 21st century understanding of conflicts [“ethnic cleansing,” etc] to describe raiders on horseback torching neighboring villages. It’s not that we should write off their crimes as “they’re from a different culture,” but it needs to be acknowledged that “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” were concepts that arose from the Nazis taking the process of killing to a modern, industrialized scale. What is happening in Darfur, at least for now, is more accurately a conflict following the pre-modern rules of war. While racism as we understand it is certainly a factor given that the nomadic consider themselves Arabs [though there has been a great deal of mixing over the centuries] and they do have a long history of trading black slaves, the black African tribes are also said to be allied with the army, so the men among them who fight are the enemies of the RSF and allied militias. More importantly, the animosity between these groups is better understood as farmers and herders fighting over scarce desert food and water. The RSF claims any atrocities in Darfur are tribal conflicts it is not involved in, which I find plausible given the chaos within the country. Usually it is a strong government which develops a “monopoly on violence” and stops such groups from warring. As you can see from this quote from Human Rights Watch, besides the phones, this is the same as a raid 5,000 years ago, except that modernity has touched them in that they didn’t take the population as slaves,
“They took blankets, mattresses, beds, money, phones … donkeys … and they burned the remaining stuff,” said a 20-year-old woman farmer who was robbed. A teacher, 35, estimated that in addition to the gold and phones that the assailants took from people hiding in classrooms, they also stole more than 50 farm animals, including horses, donkeys, and goats, from around the schools.”
There have been widespread reports of looting, especially by the RSF; this is also the ancient way of war, where soldiers were expected to “live off the land,” which in one way or another generally meant getting food from the local population. Though soldiers have always foraged [which could mean anything from picking apples to robbing villagers at weapon point] in our era it has become uncommon that soldiers should gallop off with all of the village’s livestock. It’s hard to see what military utility any of this has, which is why I think it is mostly banditry that is being allowed, and which the RSF would struggle to stop if it was so inclined.
The nature of the fighting in Darfur is but one antique aspect of the war in Sudan. I wrote about this conflict when it was first starting, and in most ways little of what I said has changed. This is about gold and power. Hemedti controls an enormous gold mining empire in Darfur, which would be necessary to fund a functional state, while the SAF controls most of Sudan’s formal economy, due to decades of military rule while under heavy sanctions. For clarity, the military does not just collect revenues from industry, it is the owner of many major industries in the country. As I said in my first article, this is remarkably similar to either of the Triumvirates in Rome, with Burhan and Hemedti getting rid of the third guy and then turning on each other. The reason so many “experts” fail to understand this conflict is because they believe human nature has changed and that the world is not how it always has been, and they study modern theories instead of ancient history. Most of all, they believe that the post-World War 2 order is something different than the victors in a major conflict seeking to enforce their rules and the power over war and peace, when it has never been anything else. Thus far, their rule doesn’t seem to reach the distant deserts of west Sudan, and the UN can only cry out helplessly.
Those who study international relations- usually at a university in one of the world’s most powerful states- are trained to see everything as an influence struggle between international powers, or even worse, competing values. They imagine that both internal and external powers will in some way align themselves into a bigger picture of global conflict. In this case most powers had a relationship with both parties when it started and didn’t have a clear reason to choose either side. It remains the case that besides the Egyptian government supporting the SAF and Hemedti being close to the UAE there is little outside involvement. It must be emphasized that Hemedti is like a dragon on a vast pile of gold, so it is fallacious to assume that any outside power is providing support for reasons beyond his ability to pay or the other profits of doing business with him. Hemedti’s gold is primarily brokered through the UAE, where Russia is a major buyer; this is used to say that it is funding the war in Ukraine. Clearly, this is just an intentionally prejudicial description, as Russia would fund a war from its general state budget and itself produces a lot of gold. However, many find it is necessary to spin this in that way because everything must be a vast struggle between the enlightened West and the despotic Orient.
You can read my previous piece if you are so inclined, and then I have a few more notes:
Shortly after that was published, I saw an article by a Sudan expert named Joshua Craze, similarly titled, “Gunshots in Khartoum,” which had been published a few days prior. He also went on Radio War Nerd for an excellent interview. While he made me feel I did quite well, in terms of finding the same information on my own, he also explained some insightful things about Sudan’s history and how it got to where it is now. The first, and most important part is that the long-time ruler, Omar Bashir, held power for 30 years by promoting a bunch of different power centers within the country, that their own rivalries should stop them from overthrowing him. This is part of Hemedti’s meteoric rise from a camel trader with a 3rd grade education to a gold mining magnate warlord. Bashir also cynically promoted Islamists for the same reason, many of whom are still affiliated with the SAF, giving an amount of truth to the RSF constantly referencing the SAF’s “extremist backers linked to the former regime” on its Twitter page. The point, though, is that Bashir crafted his own feudal system within the country so they would compete with each other while his power did not face existential challenge- something which worked until 2019, when suddenly it didn’t.
The second, and perhaps more interesting thing which Craze brings up in that interview is that Khartoum’s importance to the rest of Sudan is like 18th century Paris compared to the rest of France. He notes that until this conflict, Sudan had constant war in the periphery but Khartoum and its satellite cities remained peaceful. In his article he writes,
“Bashir made a Faustian pact with Sudan’s cities: accept terror in the country’s margins in exchange for cheap commodities and subsidies for fuel and wheat, whose import required foreign currency obtained from the sale of resources produced in the peripheries.”
I am left to wonder if Bashir or one of his advisors read Montesquieu [or if Craze did for that matter.] More likely, however, this is just one of those old techniques that despots have a tendency to think of independently. Montesquieu writes, some 200 years before Bashir was born,
“As republics provide for their security by uniting, despotic governments do it by separating, and by keeping themselves, as it were, single. They sacrifice a part of the country; and by ravaging and desolating the frontiers they render the heart of the empire inaccessible…
A despotic government does all the mischief to itself that could be committed by a cruel enemy, whose arms it were unable to resist.
It preserves itself likewise by another kind of separation, which is by putting the most distant provinces into the hands of a great vassal.” [The Spirit of the Laws, I.IX.4]
This, then, is what explains how power has been distributed throughout Sudan. Unfortunately for Bashir, he found that he had to agree to let the oil-rich South Sudan vote on independence, then was unable to stop it from going through. Then, Hemedti, who he used as a vassal to ravage Darfur and extract gold, ultimately betrayed him. It was only a matter of time before the system fell apart and the fighting came to Khartoum, the capital where all the wealth had accumulated. It may seem grandiose to treat Sudan as a great empire, but it is around 3.5 times the size of metropolitan France and has 45 million people, so by any historical standard this a large area and enormous number of people to rule.
All of the above is why people cannot see the situation in Sudan except through the lens which they view all current events. The causes are too complex to understand while the result is too simple to accept. I’ve collected a large volume of Twitter takes, ranging from random people to large accounts that are meant to be credible. I will provide some context after. Presumably some of these people are intentionally lying, and others are sincere, while at the same time some have actually looked into the situation and others are just gracing us with the majesty of their uninformed ad hoc reckoning:
Whew, and people wonder why I have trust issues. Dare we even try to recap? In short, RSF are Islamist, Hamas-allied, Zionist puppets of Israel and the UAE, who fight the Islamist SAF while looting Sudan’s gold to pay Wagner mercenaries so they can control a Red Sea port in service of Pan-Arabism and perpetrate the genocide of black people due to an ethnic superiority myth. The oldest Tweet I featured is from 5 days ago: this is 5 days worth of people commenting on Sudan. What’s more, this isn’t even a major news story among the idiot masses, so if it gets “Current Thing” status the situation will get much worse. Clearly, no normal man could wade through this and reach clarity, but would instead go straight to whatever confirmation bias tells him to believe. Further, the Darfur genocide was a big deal when millennials were growing up, so people will find that aspect easy to believe, though it seems they may not currently have the energy to care.
As I said earlier, part of the issue here is that neither side really believes in anything, they just want to rule Sudan. Credible-seeming reporting from The New York Times does say that the UAE supports the RSF through the transfer of weapons and running a hospital across the border in Chad. Egypt’s support of the SAF is no secret, as Egypt has considered Sudan in its sphere of influence- or thought it should be- in one way or another since time immemorial and they want to keep the institutions they have worked with. It’s not really disputed that Islamists whom Bashir promoted as part of his ruling strategy have power within the SAF, but the SAF isn’t Islamist generally. It is also widely reported that Wagner operates in Sudan, though claims in that regard are rarely certain and the accusation is made freely. Ukraine has promoted a bizarre story that its sparse remaining special forces took time out of their busy schedule to fight Wagner in Sudan and released video to that effect, something which is more strange for them to actually do than to make up.
The violence in Darfur is certainly brutal, though the violence against civilians doesn’t seem to serve a military objective. Further, though it is spoken of less, we can be sure the SAF has committed no shortage of atrocities, given that they were caught on video executing a captured soldier and Sudan’s UN Ambassador, whom they control, voted against an international investigation of crimes committed during the conflict. Civilians are surely greatly suffering throughout the country and especially in Darfur, though I doubt the 800 massacred in a day number due to a lack of credible sources. The details we receive about what happens when the RSF takes towns are horrifying, but there aren’t strong enough institutions remaining in the impoverished and war-torn area to have much faith in reports. Masalit tribesman are obviously being brutalized by someone, though I have no way of verifying if this is the RSF or what are said to be allied militias:
It is deeply unsettling to see men rounded up with whips. Of course, this is still better than dying in an airstrike, which is how the more “modern” and “civilized” SAF usually kills civilians. As I am always saying, everyone in the West has been conditioned their entire lives to believe airstrikes are a more humane form of mass murder, but there is no moral truth to that belief. Still, people who would round up their fellow man with whips are capable of any brutality.
Overall, none of the above things are any major part of why there is conflict, though some of them are partially or wholly true. The fact is that Hemedti has gold to keep fighting- at the beginning of the war one Sudanese politician speculated wildly that he was worth $7 billion dollars. That is surely an exaggeration, but he is one of the richest men in Sudan and the mines still run. Despite this, there are still people with the irrational belief that sanctions could somehow harm him. The reality is that he has physical gold to pay for anything he wants, and sanctions don’t seem to work on people who do need access to foreign currency. On the other side, the SAF controls most of Sudan’s industrial capacity including a large armaments industry. The years of sanctions against the Bashir regime combined with persistent internal conflict, “ravaging the frontiers,” created a situation where Sudan is self-sufficient to continue a civil war for a long time: it is the civilians who can’t hold out much longer. Everyone wants their preferred cause of human events to be the reason for the war in Sudan, but at its heart, this war isn’t driven by Islamic terrorists, Zionists, the Russians and Chinese, or racism. It is nothing but greed and the lust for power. There is no deeper meaning.
For now, the fighting will continue. Hemedti, a man frequently described as “Napoleonic,” who went from a camel trader with a third grade education to a billionaire gold mining magnate warlord, against Burhan, the dreary functionary who was somehow the only one left to inherit the deposed emperor’s crown. The advantage, for now, is wholly with the RSF, who have just captured most of Darfur, and control the majority of Khartoum. I attribute this both to Hemedti’s incredible Fortune as well as to my belief that dudes in Hiluxes are better than heavy military equipment, due to their versatility and ease of use. Frankly, I would posit that in general irregular light forces are better than regular heavy forces, but that is a matter for a different time. The prospects for civilians caught in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis are grim. Talks in Jeddah have reached an agreement to allow more aid in, but have done nothing to stop the fighting. There was, at least, an inspiring story about fighters on both sides putting down their guns and simply leaving, the only morally right decision for those caught up in this. My feeling is that Hemedti is one of the most incredible men of the modern era, even if the worst stories are true, and as an observer of human affairs, I can’t help but want to know how he would rule. He seems to be a natural genius with a way to make anything work, though the cruelty of his methods are becoming legendary. Alternately, I don’t think Burhan can rule Sudan, at least not after this, and I believe he can’t steward the country into civil government and probably wouldn’t try. A Burhan victory to me most likely means a state collapse or another war within a few years.
What I do know is this: there is no outside solution, and anything besides increased humanitarian aid and hosting negotiations will be outright harmful. This is the most ancient kind of conflict within a state, and it will only be resolved from within that state, as there is no one powerful enough in that region to come in and settle Sudan’s affairs. My concern is that, following failure in Ukraine, and wanting eyes off of Gaza, the “international community” will drastically miscalculate, and think there is some sort of win to be had with increased involvement in Sudan. If they follow the established pattern, this would come at just the time to stop an RSF victory and continue the war, without creating any possibility of SAF victory. If they are drawn into this folly, the stage is set to wrap everyone’s individual fears into a single man, the villain for all seasons, General Hemedti. Sudan’ war, simultaneously a complex mosaic and the most basic of conflicts, is indeed a geopolitical Rorschach test, with a devastating impact for those trapped within it.
Thank you for reading! The Wayward Rabbler is written by Brad Pearce. If you enjoyed this content please subscribe and share. My main articles will always be free but paid subscriptions help me a huge amount [payment in raw Sudanese gold preferred.] I have a tip jar at Ko-Fi where generous patrons can donate in $5 increments. Join my Telegram channel The Wayward Rabbler. My Facebook page is The Wayward Rabbler. You can see my shitposting and serious commentary on Twitter @WaywardRabbler.