So, what’s going on in Sudan then? Over the past week or so we have watched the country descend into a fair approximation of chaos as two former allies in the country, General Abdel Fattah Burhan who commands the regular Sudanese army, and his former deputy, General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo – a former camel dealer widely known as Hemedti – who leads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), battle it out for control.
They were meant to join together and deliver a civilian, democratically-elected government to their impoverished country, but have ended up at each other’s throats. Hundreds have been killed and injured in the violence and now western nations are scrambling to get their nationals out.
Sudan is an important regional power and, despitethe poverty of its indigenous population, has attractive natural resources in oil and gold which others eye with envy. Traditionally the USA has not held much sway in this part of Africa, but its attention has been focussed recently by rumours of Russia’s increasing presence in the country, including the infamous Wagner Group which is alleged to be involved in gold smuggling.
Russia has also negotiated a yet to be ratified agreement to establish a naval base on the Red Sea coast, not too far in strategic terms from the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, through which some ten per cent of world trade passes. You can probably recall what happened when the container ship the Ever Given got stuck there, causing widespread disruption.
But geopolitics aside there are real problems for Sudan and the people who live there, with large movements seeking solace in neighbouring countries, yet another refugee crisis that the world will have to deal with.
In common with most countries that have workers in Sudan, the UK has called for all British nationals who can to exit the country and has set up an extraction and movement group to expedite this, drawn from all three armed services.
Britain chose to evacuate its diplomatic staff first, a move which has attracted widespread criticism in the media, but there may have been good reasons for so doing. For starters, the UK has more nationals in Sudan than most other countries, and the initial seventy-two hour ceasefire period was never going to be long enough to get the estimated 2,000 – 4,000 individuals out.
Plus it was judged that diplomatic staff would be much more useful operating in support of the evacuation from somewhere safer where internet and telephone communications were not constantly at risk of going down. Other nations with smaller numbers to extract took the decision to airlift out their diplomatic staff and other nationals at the same time, a decision that was probably right for them.
Criticism has also been levelled at UK planners for those seeking to escape to self-drive to the airstrip where the British armed forces contingent is based, some hour’s drive from central Khartoum, rather than organising convoys and escorting them there.
Again, this is a decision that has been taken by those on the ground who know what they are doing, or at least what they’re trying to do. It was probably judged that individual vehicles were less likely to attract hostility than larger groups; the fact that the French chose a convoy approach and one of them was attacked, severely injuring one of their soldiers, illustrates the difficulties here.
The truth seems to be that the UK reacted as quickly as most and quicker than some in setting up and deploying its evacuation forces. At the time of writing, for example, the USA, which may have as many as 20,000 US nationals in Sudan, has not started to extract its civilians. Britain will also have to operate for longer in-country than other nations with smaller numbers to rescue.
Situations like this always tend to be chaotic, and our armed forces’ overarching task is to bring some order to a chaotic situation in the safest way possible in the circumstances. Thanks goodness that we have the well-trained, motivated, and adaptable – plus compassionate – young men and women in all three of our services to carry out this difficult task with the support of FCDO and other NGO staff.
We can only hope that we manage to get all of our people out before, as it might do, Sudan descends into total anarchy.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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