Why the Sudanese people stand ‘alone’

Nanjala Nyabola 8 Jun 2019
In Sudan the interests of powerful states are trumping values of multilateralism.

In the early hours of June 3 and after five months of protest, the Sudanese security forces moved to break up a protest camp outside the army’s headquarters in Khartoum using live ammunition and tear gas. Similar coordinated crackdowns occurred at sit-ins in other cities in the country.
According to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, by the end of the operation at least 100 people had been killed, many brutally beaten and injured, and some were raped. Dead bodies and some of the wounded were thrown in the Nile River. The Transitional Military Council (TMC) has disputed these numbers, putting the death toll at 40 while saying nothing about the alleged sexual assault.
Two days later, the UN Security Council debated the situation in Sudan and the possibility of targeted sanctions. Predictably, the drafted resolution failed to garner the necessary support and was vetoed by Russia and China. And while US and UK diplomats in Khartoum have been quick to condemn the attack on social media, the Sudanese people are countering these with pictures of these officials meeting with the alleged architect of the June 3 massacre.
On June 6, the African Union announced that it was suspending Sudan from its ranks – a gesture with questionable impact as the TMC has shown more interest in courting financial backers in the Middle East than in speaking to diplomats in neighbouring Addis Ababa.
In the small hours of June 5, a friend who was able to access a satellite phone in Khartoum sent me a solemn message that captured the mood among the Sudanese people: “We are alone.” Sudan has fallen into the yawning gap between interests and values in international diplomacy.
Multilateralism is founded on the stated – if not always shared – belief in common moral ideals and the objective of preserving peace. It is not that specific nations have not had interests in the past that they worked to protect. Rather, the dirge is for the apparent death of the consensus that some actions are so offensive to the idea of being human that they trump any kind of unilateral interest. The suspended animation around the crisis in Sudan suggests that this consensus has unravelled even more than previously feared.
It didn’t have to be like this. The events of June 3 in Sudan were a dark turn in what had to that point been a case study in effective civil disobedience and diffuse but coordinated political action in the face of one of the most entrenched military regimes in Africa.
The immediate trigger for the protests was the bankruptcy of the Sudanese state. Unable to provide the largesse needed to pacify dissent, former president Omar al-Bashir’s regime raised taxes and prices on basic goods. The people demanded bread and more – civilian rule, freedom and dignity. And for the first few months, the people were winning, first pushing al-Bashir to step down and then forcing his successor, the TMC, into concession after concession.
Perhaps sensing this shift in power, the TMC turned to backers in the Gulf. Causation is difficult to prove, but the correlation is strong. The escalation in violence followed visits by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the TMC, and his deputy, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Sudan represents a significant if not major geopolitical interest for both regimes which are stuck in a jostle for regional influence with Iran, Qatar and Turkey. After whatever happened in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, al-Burhan and especially Hemeti returned to Sudan emboldened.
Meanwhile, the US is paralysed between its own disdain for multilateralism and an unwillingness to take the lead in preventing another potential war in another corner of the world. National Security Advisor John Bolton openly loathes the UN system, and the Trump administration has over the last three years made several cuts to its funding for the organisation.
Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia also give pause. A report on a recent meeting between a high-ranking US diplomat based in Khartoum and senior State Department officials suggest that the US might allow Saudi interests to prevail in Sudan.
By now the European Union has sacrificed its moral standing in Sudan over its interests in stemming migration from East Africa, having previously extended financial support for al-Bashir, which was allegedly mostly used to strengthen his security apparatus, and now appearing to tacitly support the TMC.
The AU, for its part, has at least taken a decisive step, although it must grapple with its recent history of shielding al-Bashir and Hemeti from international prosecution for committing crimes in Darfur.
So, what can multilateral organisations do about Sudan? Not a whole lot. Since 1997 Sudan has been subjected to a cocktail of sanctions that only served to tilt the balance of power towards the military at the expense of civilian politics. Intervention is also out of the question. After what happened in Libya – which also had an oversized military and weak state institutions – there is substantial fear that outside military involvement could precipitate another civil war in Sudan and bring more chaos to the region.
Thus, the Sudanese people appear to have fallen victims to a debilitating crisis in multilateralism, where diplomacy has atrophied, while militarism as a vehicle to achieve illusory stability has triumphed.
Those who are asking for the so-called international community to “do something” may not appreciate that the only “something” it has done in recent years was instigate forever wars, even though the promise of multilateralism has precisely been to strengthen diplomatic levers and help avoid conflict.
The only way to salvage multilateralism is by making more room for values and less for interests. In an ideal world, the Sudanese people would be allowed to determine their own destiny without external interests tipping the scale in favour of power. In this less-than-ideal world, there needs to be renewed focus on what ordinary citizens demand rather than what regional players want. Until any multilateral institution finds the requisite moral courage to push for this, we are, indeed, alone.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.