In this episode of Worldview with Suhasini Haidar, we discuss the conflict in Sudan, the global fallout and how it could impact India
As Indian forces and diplomats race against the clock to bring back Indians safely from Sudan- what’s the story behind the conflict and fight between two generals? And how could India be impacted by its fallout?
It was meant to be a time of peaceful transition to civilian rule- yet as Sudan’s top two Generals ranged their forces against each other, this North African country is facing a return to civil war- with hundreds dead, and thousands fleeing the country. We will speak about the India’s evacuation operations for about 3,000 Indians who are caught in the crossfire there- that began this week in just a bit. But first- here’s what happened
1. For 30 years, Sudan was ruled by one leader- Omar Al Bashir- an African strongman known for his brutal regime, and for the use of the Janjaweed militia that carried out killings in the troubled Darfur region- and eventually he lost control of South Sudan- which became independent in 2011. Bashir was a major figure in the region- he had in fact visited India in 2015 for the India Africa conference, even after being convicted by the ICC for war crimes.
2. In 2019, Sudan’s two top Generals, head of SAF- Sudanese Armed Forces General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, created out of the Janjaweed militia General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as Hemedti)- both got together and helped a civilian uprising against Omar Bashir- who was ousted and jailed. A civilan-military combine then ruled Sudan
3. In 2021, however, the military toppled the government, and a power struggle for control began
4. This year, as Gen Burhan said he was beginning a transition to civilian control, set to take place in April-May, Gen Dagalo objected to plans to merge the RSF into the military, and fighting broke out. In clashes, that saw RSF grab airports and the SAF Air Force bomb RSF bases, nearly 500 people are dead, more than 4,000 injured.
5. As a 72 hour ceasefire was announced this week, India joined dozens of other countries in evacuation operations- many were able to fly out their nationals directly, many have been put on ships out of Port Sudan, and are using Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah as a hub for evacuation
Let’s focus on India’s own operations for 3,000 Indians- 1 of whom died from bullet injuries. There are also about 1,000 People of Indian origin who migrated from Saurashtra about 100 years ago. And there are some requests from countries like Sri Lanka to also help evacuate their citizens, just as India has been helped by Saudi Arabia and France.
1. A control room was set up in Delhi and in the Sudanese Capital of Khartoum, and in Jeddah Saudi Arabia. MEA reached out to governments in UK, US, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to coordinate efforts, while EAM Jaishankar was at the UN, and MoS Muraleedharan was based in Jeddah, greeting those who came from Sudan and ensuring their arrangements to return to India
2. Indians wanting to leave were asked to register online, join message groups, and guided on coming out of Khartoum, where the fighting is the worst
3. At the same time, India sent two C130 J planes to Jeddah, as well as 3 Indian Naval Warships INS Sumedha, Teg and Tarkash to Port Sudan.
4. Indians came on buses mainly from Khartoum to Port of Sudan accompanied by Indian Embassy officials- a torturous route of about 800 kms through fighting, were taken on ships to Jeddah.
5. Finally, they were flown back to India aboard charter flights or military planes
Here’s what Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said while briefing journalists about Operation Kaveri, as it was named:
Foreign Secy Kwatra: The situation on the ground remains highly volatile with the, as I said, conflicting report of claims coming from both sides. So, when we talk about Operation Kaveri, you know, naturally there would be a degree of focus on number of Indians who are stuck in Sudan, how many have come back, how many we are planning to bring back, which is a very significant and probably the most important consideration for Government of India. But I would also suggest to you to keep in mind the ecosystem in which this exercise of assisting and bringing back the stranded Indians is taking place.
In some senses, this is not unlike conflict in neighbouring countries that have seen transitions- like Egypt, where even after the Arab Spring toppled Mubarak, the military remains supreme, or Libya where NATO forces ousted and eventually helped kill him, but chaos continues amidst two power centres in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Like them, the conflict inside Sudan has many external players too, and many countries are ranged on one side or the other of this conflict- some for historic reasons, others due to new rivalries and interests.
The US has been pushing for the civilian transition- some say pushing too hard, as that led to the current round of fighting- but mainly working with General Burhan
Russia is not involved directly- but the Wagner group militia that has been involved in Ukraine, has also been involved in training RSF paramilitary soldiers
China has major economic interests, investment in infrastructure, oil and about $3 bn in annual trade- it has evacuated about 1,500 nations- it hasn’t taken sides thus far, and some wonder if it may offer to mediate.
UK, France and Turkey have old colonial empire relationships here, but have taken a backseat in more recent times.
Saudi Arabia has been seen backing General Burhan a military ruler. During the Yemen war, Sudanese forces joined the Saudi UAE coalition to fight the Houthis
Then there’s Israel, which in 2020 began to normalise ties with Sudan, a country which had fought wars with it in 1948 and 1967. Today, Israel that was seen closer to Gen Burhan who negotiated the deal, is offering to host talks between Burhan and Hemedti, and to mediate.
UAE on the other hand, which buys most of Sudan’s gold reserves in the West, has been closer to the RSF
Egypt has by far the most influence in Sudan, and has by and large backed the main power- Gen Burhan
Eastern neighbour Chad, however, where the RSF has supply lines, has been closer to Hemedti
There’s also Ethiopia, which has had tensions with Sudan over the construction of a dam on the Nile and a boundary dispute, which is watching closely.
And like in the rest of this part of Africa- pan-Islamist Jihadist terror groups have been active in Sudan – Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, ISIS.
-India’s ties with Sudan run from civilisational ties and trade between the Nile and Indus Valley civilisations. For more than a century,a business community from Saurashtra has been settled there
– During Al Bashir’s time, India was Sudan’s second largest exporter, with trade around $1.2 bn, Since 2003, India has invested about $3 bn in Sudan, largely in the Sudan-South Sudan petroleum sector.
– Conflict in Sudan will affect India’s ties with the region – and given Saudi Arabia and UAE are ranged on opposite sides, will require some balancing.
We dealt extensively with the subject of Indian evacuations from conflicts in an episode about a year ago, when evacuation operations were under way- and the latest Operation from Sudan compares with huge coordination efforts between diplomats on the ground, MEA and the Indian Armed Forces, and foreign governments, as we have seen in the past few decades- from the war in Iraq, to Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Ukraine.
While I won’t repeat conclusions, there is this to add- In 2022, the Parliamentary committee on External Affairs published its report and made several suggestions on the way forward for evacuation, in addition to the MEA’s existing crisis management protocol and a rapid response cell, the report recommended:
1. A full database of Indians living in each country with contact details
2. An SOP Standard Operating Procedure manual to be published, rather than a case-by-case basis approach
3. A dedicated force for evacuation processes that can be constituted immediately
4. Special training for Indian diplomats on evacuation preparedness
The truth is, with more than 14 million Indians living in 208 countries and jurisdications worldwide, and more than 18 million PIOs, who have relatives here, there is no crisis in any corner of the world that doesn’t affect an Indian. It is necessary therefore to always be in preparedness for evacuation missions- and to as India has done in this crisis too, to coordinate closely with other powers in the region and beyond, without getting embroiled in proxy wars within the conflict.