(Editor’s Note: The author and other top experts share their insights on the conflict in Sudan in the Just Security Podcast. Listen to the episode here).
As the fighting in Khartoum and across Sudan continues, those of us in the diaspora are still hearing gunfire in the background each time we call friends and relatives back home. The situation for civilians grows ever more dire. The injured and the ailing are often unable to access treatment, as a majority of Khartoum’s hospitals have been forced to close their doors either for lack of electricity and supplies or because they’ve been bombed. Friends and relatives are running out of food, water, and other essential supplies. More than 400 people have been killed and thousands have been injured across Sudan, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Union.
Amid this violence, the international community has understandably focused on securing a ceasefire and evacuating foreign nationals. Calls for ceasefire have come from leaders around the world, and a number have been agreed, but none so far have held. Foreign nations scrambled to evacuate their citizens, leaving Sudanese feeling abandoned. It has been heartbreaking to listen to friends and relatives try to decide whether to leave their homes and run the gauntlet of gunfire to “safer” places or to hold out despite the lack of essential supplies in Khartoum. Many are fleeing. Some were able to use short ceasefires or lulls in violence that allowed the evacuations to occur as cover to leave, but others were not. As one friend told me, “We were hoping to leave yesterday, but there was too much fighting in my area.”
Corruption Drives Violence
Understandably, Sudanese are frustrated at feeling left behind, but the international community can show that it is still acting. Both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) see the struggle as existential and have little interest in ending the fighting. They are battling over power, control, and the kleptocratic networks that allow them to extract the country’s resources to both enrich themselves and buy off supporters to ensure the continuity of the system.
This political economy of grand corruption fuels the current zero-sum thinking and violence. Negotiations for a humanitarian ceasefire will necessarily involve reaching out to SAF commander, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, the head of the paramilitary RSF. But the international community must deny both commanders any legitimacy for the roles they have played in destroying Sudan. This should specifically ensure that the generals are not able to leverage their military positions to secure positions of power in the post-conflict transition. Repeated failures by the international community to censure these two actors for either the June 2019 massacre or the October 2021 coup means Sudan still has two generals continuing to violate their people’s rights.
Further, the United States, the European Union, and others in the international community can use what they know already about the financial systems these commanders control to disrupt their war financing. Anti-corruption researchers and Sudan’s interim government of 2019 to 2021 did a lot of work to uncover and make explicit the networks of corporate structures and economic actors that finance the SAF and the RSF.
Also engaged in these networks are Islamist members of ousted President Omar al-Bashir’s political party. Some also are in the army, were promoted to high rank under his regime, and now control interests that overlap with those of civilian Islamists. There is evidence that they are playing a strong role in support of the army, as can be seen by army actions to garner favor with them, such as returning many former regime officials to civil service positions, and the reported jailbreaks that allowed the escape of high-level Islamists of the former regime from prison. This evidence can be used to disrupt funding streams by freezing assets and engaging critical industries such as gold by explaining to Sudan’s trading partners the high risks of exposure to grand corruption, violence, and money laundering that characterize Sudan’s gold production.
Using Existing Tools Like Sanctions Can Make a Quick Impact
Freezes on individual assets, visa denials, and travel bans have failed in the past because they focused on individuals who excelled at busting them. Instead, States and institutions with influence, such as banks, gold-importing companies, and the London Bullion Market Association, should apply targeted sanctions and enhanced due diligence measures to the entire economic networks undergirding them, including the corporate structures that they control. International actors must work together to apply targeted sanctions comprehensively and close the loopholes that typically allow parties to circumvent prohibitions and continue to fuel their war machines.
Several international actors and institutions already have frameworks that can be used to create and apply targeted sanctions. For example, the U.S. government could use the Global Magnitsky Act sanctions program to impose consequences on corrupt networks. Authorization for sanctions on Sudanese who “threaten the peace, security, or stability” is also provided by the Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability, and Fiscal Transparency Act of 2020 that was included in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
The United States and other governments with the relevant legal tools should issue advisories to their financial institutions and corporations on the significant money laundering risks that are inherent in the environment of rampant grand corruption in Sudan, especially in its gold and commodity trade. Regional and international corporations that are trading, or considering trading, with Sudan should apply the highest level of due diligence measures, as many trading partners are likely fronting for the SAF or the RSF.
Given the enormity of the disasters their reckless fighting has unleashed on the Sudanese people, the SAF and the RSF should be met with the same level of coordinated international punishing sanctions applied to Russia following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that froze Russia out of much of the international financial system. Careful documentation of the intricate corporate family trees of Sudan’s security agencies, which are populated by layers of front companies, is a prerequisite for applying smart, targeted sanctions in ways that could have the desired impact of changing the calculus of security institutions while sparing ordinary Sudanese and the beleaguered private sector from becoming the unintended victims of these targeted sanctions, as happened over the two decades of U.S. comprehensive economic sanctions on Sudan that were incrementally lifted beginning in 2017. All business partners of Sudanese entities must be guided by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains, and the Equator Principles, a framework for businesses to identify, assess and manage risks in investment projects.
These measures must be quickly activated and broadly applied. Only when the parties see that their financial interests are in jeopardy will they be willing to seriously negotiate. The people of Sudan deserve safety, humanitarian aid, and democratic and accountable government, and have fought long and hard to achieve it. The international community can support these aspirations – if it acts now.