On June 1, the Biden administration imposed financial sanctions on four companies associated with and generating income for the warring parties in Sudan (two companies on each side of the fighting); imposed visa sanctions on a number of officials deemed to have subverted the democratic transition in Sudan; and issued a business advisory update spotlighting the risks associated with the burgeoning conflict.
The sanctions raise important questions: Is this enough action from the United States? Was this the right strategy? What more should be done? EJ Hogendoorn and John (JP) Prendergast are two leading experts on the conflict. They’ve worked for U.S. Special Envoys to Sudan, run U.S. interagency processes on Sudan, negotiated with Sudanese leaders, and worked for the same international NGO – but they have different views on the way forward. The dialogue below highlights their ideas and puts them in debate with each other.
John “JP” Prendergast: EJ, we largely agree on the causes of Sudan’s implosion, but we have a major divergence on what to do about it. Since much has been written already about the causes, and very little about solutions, I’d love to dive into the substance of our policy disagreements and see if we can help shed light on some serious options for what can be done about Sudan’s metastasizing crisis.
I’d like to start with what should be the fundamental objective of U.S. policy. Of course, we agree that the United States – working with key allies – should continue to do all it can to secure a humanitarian ceasefire, though current efforts have yielded little in that regard. But I don’t think the only objective of U.S. policy should be another framework agreement between the armed factions creating a transitional administration leading eventually to a civilian-led, democratic government. Such an agreement, based on a hope and a prayer, would allow the warlords currently tearing the country apart to have time to consolidate their positions while international attention eventually shifts away from Sudan, giving them the opportunity to undermine any such transition down the road. Thus, I think U.S. policy should instead be aimed at undermining and ultimately dismantling the kleptocratic cabals run by the two principal warlords – General Abdel Fattah Burhan, who heads the Sudan army (SAF), and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti”), the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces — who have built up huge commercial monopolies and hijacked Sudan’s government and economy.
EJ Hogendoorn: JP, I agree that the ultimate objective should be an accountable, democratic government – which most Sudanese want – and that many of Sudan’s current elite are undermining this objective to protect their positions and ill-gotten wealth. It will be the task of a transitional government to prepare for a credible election, draft a constitution for this new government, and put in place the institutional reforms that limit the power of the kleptocratic old guard, begin to address corruption, and create a level economic playing field necessary for the country’s economic development.
Where we diverge is how we get there. My first concern is to quickly and sustainably stop the fighting. If we do not do so quickly, I fear that we could have an entrenched, multifaceted civil war that would be an unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe, destabilize the region, and produce an even more massive surge of refugees—so far 1.4 million Sudanese are displaced, with hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighboring Egypt, Chad and Ethiopia. I would argue that focusing first on dismantling kleptocratic networks would detract from the effort to stop the fighting and can be deferred until we get to a transitional government. We have both seen this civil war scenario before in Sudan, and in the region. It will take time to dismantled corrupt networks – time we do not have.
JP: Of course, stopping the fighting should be priority number one, but frankly that could take months if not years, given how committed both sides are to the death spiral they’ve put the country into. I fundamentally don’t believe that there can be a stable, somewhat peaceful transition to a democratic government that involves the current leaders of the two warring parties. And there is no way these warlords can be sidelined without finally, for once, going after the kleptocratic networks that have cemented this violent autocratic system in place.
The U.S. government doesn’t have to lead the peace negotiations, as it has been doing with Saudi Arabia – unsuccessfully, I might add. There are plenty of regional powers who have a demonstrated capacity to manage a negotiations process, such as Kenya, some of the Gulf states, or the African Union. I believe the comparative advantage of the U.S. would have it play a different role. The U.S. is uniquely positioned to lead what USAID calls a “dekleptification” strategy, aimed at dismantling or at least undermining the corrupt system over which the warlords are fighting. For years the U.S. has helped lead mediation efforts in Sudan, and look where we are. The system in Sudan is “too deformed to be reformed,” as many Sudanese have argued throughout the years. While engaged in deep mediation, the U.S. diplomats leading these efforts have argued against using the targeted financial tools of pressure that could address the corrupt system, worrying that such escalation would undermine U.S. negotiating access.
Sudan’s military leaders will not hand over power to civilians, will not diversify the economy, will not stop using extreme violence and repression to maintain the status quo, and will not move in any positive direction unless their calculations are altered through painful financial consequences.
That is why the Biden administration’s sanctions package is so important. Finally, a price will be paid for profiting from immense human misery. But this should just be a first step in an escalating strategy of financial pressure on the leaders of these warring parties and their commercial interests.
EJ: JP, I agree with your concerns about the structural problems with the Sudanese state, which have led to chronic armed insurgency. However, I think that we should sequence the application of financial pressure more strategically, and if we do so we can stop the fighting in Khartoum quite quickly. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is a mercenary force that was able to grow rapidly because its leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo better kown as Hemedti, gained control of several gold-producing areas in Sudan and because the Gulf states paid him millions of dollars a month for the RSF’s services in Yemen, fighting the Houthis. His troops fight for money, not a purpose, and many will melt away if they are not paid their salaries. Note that one of the companies sanctioned by the U.S. is Al Junaid Multi Activities, controlled by Hemedti’s family, which is heavily involved in gold production and export, particularly through the Dubai Gold and Commodities Exchange in the UAE.
I have a rough logic and timeline that I would argue could be the basis for a strategy to end the conflict and put Sudan back on the right path. Right now, the two “armies” are relatively equal, although the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) have the advantage in heavy weapons and likely Arab support. I hope we both agree that a stalemated conflict would be the worst outcome, because it would lead to a long and bloody war. More controversially, I contend that to end the conflict quickly we should help one side prevail by applying more financial pressure on the other.
Because of the rough balance of power between the two forces, I maintain that the least bad option for external actors is to help the SAF by focusing more attention and financial pressure on the RSF-affiliated companies. Importantly, this pressure would need to be applied by the U.S. and its Gulf partners, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where the RSF has very large bank accounts and business interests. Once the RSF realizes that it is losing, it will hopefully agree to peace and quickly integrate into the SAF. After all, an effective government cannot have two independent armies.
Then negotiations to restore a civilian government-led transition would resume. In this phase, external actors would put more financial pressure on the SAF to honor its pledge to hand over power. I think one lesson from the current fighting and Sudan’s history is that a military dictatorship cannot stabilize the country and would lead to more armed unrest. Once a civilian government is restored, it could focus on drafting a permanent constitution, preparing for elections, and initiating a few economic reforms designed to limit corruption and put the economy back on track. Last, but not least, elections would be held in 1-2 years, leading to a fully mandated and legitimate government that can institute more reforms.
JP: Ironically, until recently, my colleagues and I at The Sentry had been arguing exactly that, ever since former Sudanese President Omer al-Bashir was overthrown in 2019. The RSF’s role in Darfur’s violence, its killing of protesters in Khartoum, its open alliance with Russia’s Wagner Group and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar (among others), and its violent monopolization of gold smuggling out of Sudan made its leadership a prime candidate for Global Magnitsky or other types of targeted sanctions. But over the past year, it has become screamingly obvious that General Burhan and the army leadership are as opposed to a democratic transition as General Hemedti and the RSF leadership. So, a pox on both houses is in order.
Both the RSF and the SAF are the main opponents of a civilian-led democracy. They both have built monopoly control over key sectors of Sudan’s economy, and they both are responsible for mounting war crimes with each passing day. I do not believe the U.S. should take sides in this conflict. I think we should be leading international efforts to impose network sanctions on the leaders of both cabals, their shell companies, and their enablers and facilitators in the international financial system.
In fact, the U.S. should take a side, just not the one you are proposing. We should be ramping up support for the extraordinary pro-democracy people’s movement that for years has worked for systemic change in Sudan, including the neighborhood-based Resistance Committees. The absence of civilians in the current process and the emphasis on accommodating the interests of those with the biggest guns simply empowers and entrenches the warlords and moves Sudan further away from any chance at stability and decent governance.
EJ: I agree that the leaders of both the RSF and the SAF have a lot to answer for and that the end goal is to empower the millions of peaceful protestors who have sacrificed so much to achieve “freedom, peace and justice,” but again, I would argue that the priority is to stop the fighting before Sudan collapses into a patchwork of warlord-controlled fiefdoms. We have both seen how long civil wars can last, even when sanctions are applied and without other countries fueling the conflict, and the enormous humanitarian toll of even a simmering civil war. Neighboring South Sudan is a case in point. A United Nations arms embargo and targeted sanctions – admittedly not well enforced by the region – have not stopped chronic armed conflict or a steadily growing humanitarian crisis. The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 9 out of its 11 million people require assistance. Therefore, I contend that we first end the fighting quickly by tipping the scales against the RSF. Then we threaten network sanctions so that the military does hand power over to a civilian government, as it promised, and apply them if it does not.
JP: The problem with the idea of a quick end to the fighting is that the mediators have very little leverage left, which I believe needs to be rebuilt using rapidly escalating targeted network sanctions on the competing cabals that are destroying the country, building on the Biden administration’s June 1 sanctions. So, it isn’t just about creating some accountability for the enormous financial and human rights crimes committed by both parties. It’s also about rebuilding leverage over time to support the forces of peace and democracy inside the country in their efforts to achieve fundamental system change. That kind of a serious financial leverage strategy is certainly not what has happened in South Sudan, where occasional sanctions with half-hearted enforcement simply embolden the warlords. If we are serious about supporting long term peace and stability in either country, the U.S. needs to bring out the kind of policy tools of financial pressure it uses for higher-order crises around the world.
EJ: I agree that for the Biden administration’s June 1 sanctions to be effective, the U.S. must employ determined high-level regional diplomacy to convince other partners, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to also apply those sanctions and ideally additional financial pressure to end the fighting between the RSF and SAF. The U.S. can – and should – argue that Sudan’s long-term stability requires a quick end to the fighting, a single professional military and an inclusive and accountable government.
Ending the fighting will require starving Hemedti and the RSF of money, which pays for its troops and arms, so that it can no longer fight the vicious, high-intensity conflict that is destroying Khartoum and risks collapsing the Sudanese state. Forcing the RSF out of Khartoum would not only be a major humanitarian achievement but also would lay the groundwork for much more productive negotiations, which must also address Sudan’s two army problem.
To get to a single professional army will require the RSF merging into the SAF, which again can only happen if the SAF gains the military upper hand. If the U.S. and partners apply equal pressure on both the RSF and SAF, they may get a ceasefire but will do little to change Hemedti’s calculations or willingness to relinquish control of the RSF. A return to the status quo ante bellum, with two large independent armies, would only create the conditions for another war.
This is not to say we should give the SAF the upper hand and then hope for the best. To get an inclusive and accountable government, Sudan needs to move away from military rule – which has never stabilized the country since independence – and towards an elected government that has a broad mandate to carry out the structural reforms that we agree are necessary to address the center-periphery grievances that have fueled decades of insurgency. Only then can Sudan, and the region, stabilize and prosper.