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Away from the world’s gaze, the Sudanese civil war is exacerbating regional rivalries that threaten to foment a devastating wider conflict. One that the West will be helpless to prevent.

As the post-1945 world order, that brought us the longest era of relative peace and prosperity begins to wane, what was once a far-flung war in an inconsequential backwater is slowly drawing in an alarming range of actors that threatens to spill over into a wider conflict. As the vacuum left behind by the West is gradually replaced by powers not looking too far beyond their immediate interests, the region is starting to resemble in many ways the build-up to the First World War – Africa Edition. Exacerbating an already fragile area of the world that is beset by a mess of complex issues increasingly intertwined and threatening a wider conflagration.

And there is one issue that could ignite the region more than any other.  

The interwoven geopolitical rivalries and alliances being played out across the region are slow-marching it into a larger conflict that could embroil the likes of Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland and Eritrea.  What is different in the Sudan compared to say civil wars in Libya and Somalia before it is the chronic and rising instability of countries bordering it.  All are interconnected by historical and overlapping issues and in most cases inimical relations with frozen conflicts to boot.  And that is worsened by wider geopolitical fragmentation that has seen middle-power countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran and big-power players such as Russia pile in to further their own goals unhindered. 

Overstretched elsewhere, the Biden administration has sought to outsource its strategic goals to countries it considers friendly.  In the Horn of Africa, and North Africa, the U.S. has turned to Turkey.  In Libya and Somalia, Turkey has intervened, usually with American logistical support and equipment. 

But by outsourcing its security objectives to other countries, ones that the U.S. can hardly control. Countries that at times use this leverage to pursue their own foreign policy objectives that can be at odds with those of the United States have weakened its hand. Unable to act because of big power distractions elsewhere, the U.S. has settled for the most effective policy it can hope to achieve.

There’s gold in them hills

In the media, the Sudanese civil war has largely played out as a humanitarian disaster – the default setting for African wars in the western press where editors know their readership has no understanding or desire to learn about the underlying issues.  And make no mistake, there is a human catastrophe brewing in the region. Care International, a global NGO stated in a press release in January 2024 that 24.8 million people – or 1 in 2 of the entire country – will require urgent humanitarian assistance in 2024.  A combination of failed harvests due to a changing climate and imported food inflation in the post-pandemic era has seen one country after another call for urgent help.  Flooding in South Sudan has displaced 800,000 since mid-2021 and an eye-watering eight million require urgent assistance.  In Somalia, a persistent drought, eased only recently after over 5 years by decent rains, has made millions food insecure.  While in neighbouring Ethiopia, the U.N. and the Ethiopian government have the figure of those requiring assistance at 16 million, 13% of the entire population.

But the human disaster will be dwarfed if urgent diplomatic action, backed by military intervention if necessary, is not taken to quell the wider issues at play and that the civil war in Sudan has placed into overdrive.

The civil war in Sudan broke out when rivalries between two Sudanese generals. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, colloquially known as Hemedti, heads a powerful paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and which is the present manifestation of the Janjaweed – the group largely held responsible for the genocide that took place in Darfur from 2003 onwards. And Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) proper. Simmering tensions that began shortly after they united to stage a coup to oust the fledgling transitional democratic government in October 2021, broke out into all-out hostilities on 15th April 2023. 

On the face of it, the catalyst for the civil war was an agreement reached between Burhan and the largest Sudanese democratic party as part of a pact to put the country on the road to democracy once more.  It required the RSF to merge with SAF.  This was something that Hemedti vehemently opposed and Burhan knew it when he signed the agreement. But behind the scenes, there are two more powerful drivers.  Gold revenue – Sudan is the fourth largest producer on the continent – and strategic access to naval ports on the Red Sea, especially by Russia and Turkey and countries who are trying to stop them from doing so. 

Hemedti had been rewarded under Bashir’s regime for his loyalty particularly in quelling the unrest in Darfur, with gold mines.  By 2017, he was one of the richest men in the Sudan.  He formed close ties to the United Arab Emirates and a network was formed to export the gold mainly via companies based in Dubai.  Above and beyond gold revenues, Hemedti solidified ties with the UAE by supplying mercenaries to bolster the UAE’s international objectives elsewhere in Libya and Yemen most notably, and in return received military equipment and support for the RSF.

Around 2017, the Wagner Group – back then a Russian mercenary outfit that was used to advance Putin’s foreign policy goals at arm’s length but since Prigozhin’s demise has been subsumed by the Russian military proper – began to get involved.  In return for military support and equipment from the Russians, the Wagner Group gained control of gold mines in the Sudan at generous concessions.  The Sudanese operation grew so large that according to a July 2023 report by the U.K. Parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, it brought in over a billion dollars in annual revenue for Wagner and Russia as a consequence. 

At the outbreak of the civil war, Hemedti’s links to the UAE and Russia coalesced to form a large, lucrative sanction-busting smuggling network to ship gold and launder its proceeds in the face of western sanctions.  The U.K. report cites a CNN investigation that claims the lion’s share of the gold goes to Russia. It claims that a whistleblower at the Sudanese central bank has put the level of unaccounted-for gold export at 32.7 tonnes in 2021, which would make it more than what was exported through official channels in the same year.  Some insiders told CNN that the amount smuggled out of the country was higher and made up 90% of all production.  Meaning it could account for up to USD$13.4 billion of export earnings.  What is certain though is that the RSF would not have been able to take on SAF, and indeed put Burhan’s SAF on the back foot, exacerbating the war as it stands, had it not been for the backing of both Russia and the UAE.

To be sure, Burhan and SAF also control gold mines and smuggle their gold mainly through Egypt which has close ties with Burhan.  But in the lead-up to open warfare in April 2023, the agreement Burhan signed with the Forces of Freedom and Change – the largest democratic party – also offered up the concession that powerful military business interests would be confined to the defence industry. It would have banned any military personnel from dealings with gold mines. 

It is curious that Burhan would have agreed to this.  Another agreement with a similar clause is often cited as one of the reasons he and Hemedti staged a coup in October 2021. Maybe he believed he could skirt it down the line.  Viewed though as an attempt to outmanoeuvre Hemedti, it makes more sense. 

Russia in particular would have been dismayed by all this.  And not just by the threat to its sizeable gold revenues – that after the Ukrainian invasion and subsequent western sanctions became more important. But also by a second article in the agreement that would have given Sudanese regional lawmakers the power to veto large projects, and specifically, an agreement to allow a Russian naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. 

Access to the Red Sea

The Russian deal first came to light in 2021.  Sudan agreed to allow up to 300 Russian soldiers and 4 navy ships, including nuclear-powered ones at Port Sudan in return for military assistance.  It has long been a goal of Putin to gain strategic access to the Red Sea, and such a veto under Burhan’s agreement would have likely been unacceptable to him

In a separate deal between Sudan and Turkey, the latter had also been granted strategic access in a 2017 deal on the Red Sea Island of Suakin. This caused consternation amongst regional powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Certainly, Egypt has used its influence over Burhan to try and prevent the deal from materialising, while Turkey has been dynamic in courting Hemedti to revive the accord. 

The race to the Red Sea spilt over past Sudan earlier this year in January, briefly coming to the attention of the world’s media when landlocked Ethiopia signed a formal maritime agreement with Somaliland – an unrecognised but well-run breakaway province of Somalia to give Ethiopia both commercial and naval access at the port at Berbera.  In return, Ethiopia is rumoured to be gearing up to become the first country to recognise Somaliland as an independent nation, something Somalia is vehemently opposed to. Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has gone as far as accusing Somalia’s age-old adversary, Ethiopia of trying to annex part of its territory. 

In response, Somalia pushed forward a deal it had been negotiating with Turkey that would permit the latter to patrol Somalia’s 3333km coastline in return for training Somalia’s navy.  In the background, the UAE – forever an agitator in the region – has fully supported the agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland.  This is tied to its economic interest in Somaliland and the sizeable investment by DP World – a Dubai-based company – in the Somaliland port.  Egypt and Eritrea have been so alarmed by the geopolitical threat posed by the deal, they have sought assistance from Saudi Arabia.  Lines are slowly being drawn in the sand.  Frederico Donelli, assistant professor of International Relations at the University of Trieste recently wrote in The Conversation, an independent African media outlet, “It is important not to oversimplify, but two factions are emerging.  On one side are Ethiopia, Somaliland and the United Arab Emirates.  On the other are Somalia, Egypt, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.

But while all these sometimes-contradictory alliances and interconnected issues appear to be moving the region towards some sort of almighty confrontation, none on their own will probably be enough.  The drive to conflict is somewhat tempered by the fact each country sometimes finds itself on different sides of each issue, making friends out of rivals depending on the flashpoint.  Egypt and Turkey see eye to eye over Somaliland but clash in Sudan over Turkey’s drive for Red Sea access is a good example.  And both are staunch allies of the U.S. as it stands. 

Furthermore, geopolitical rivals often have strong economic ties that temper the rivalry, or at least contain it.  The UAE has become adept at using its financial clout to wield more influence and blunt its rivalries.  Egypt which has recently been rocked by economic instability and high debt, agreed to a USD$35 billion loan from UAE to develop an island in the Mediterranean touted as the next Dubai.  It will be the single largest sum of FDI Egypt has received in its history.  Even Turkey, the UAE’s bitter rival, and not just in the Horn of Africa and Red Sea region, has received sizeable loans to prop up its faltering economy.  Something that will certainly help soften any potential confrontation, even by proxy. 

But there is one overriding issue that could set it all off. One that no money cannot buy.   

And that is the growing tension that has been simmering for over a decade between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). 

Forget gold and ports… It’s all about water

The Nile has always been a literal a lifeline to Egypt – not just in the modern era of course but stretching back thousands of years to the Bronze Age, when the region first became arid. 97% of Egypt’s renewable water resources come from it, used by homes, agriculture and businesses alike.  And 85% of Nile waters originate from the Blue Nile stemming from Ethiopia.  The latter has long mooted building a dam to take full advantage of the resources available to it but has always been strongly opposed by Egypt and to a lesser extent Sudan out of fear it will severely impact the Nile’s water levels.  

Egypt used to cite two old agreements, one from the colonial era with the British in 1929 and one from 1959 between Egypt and Sudan.  Both gave the lion’s share of the Nile’s water to Egypt and also gave it veto powers over any construction of upstream infrastructure that might affect the Nile’s flow.  Ethiopia has long argued the unfairness of all this.  Excluded from negotiating both agreements, it has coveted a hydroelectric dam that would provide relatively cheap baseload power generation since at least the 1960s.  After Ethiopia took advantage of the turmoil that beset Egypt during the Arab Spring and began construction in 2011, Egypt’s position has since morphed from one where it opposes construction, to one where it seeks to regulate how and when the dam will be filled and a binding agreement over what would happen in the event of a drought in downstream countries. 

Most of the issues over the timing of GERD’s filling were resolved during talks chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he headed the African Union (AU) in 2020.  However, a resolution over what happens in case of a serious drought affecting Egypt downstream eluded the parties.  At heart, Egypt wants a binding agreement it can fall back on, while Ethiopia wants reserves the right to decide for itself what to do and whether to release water that will benefit downstream countries.

The matter is slowly coming to a head mainly out of sight of the world’s attention.  The latest round of talks, held in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, not three months after Ethiopia had unilaterally filled the dam for the 4th time in September broke up abruptly without agreement.  To get a taste of Egypt’s frustration one need only read parts of a statement released by Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation.

“It has become evident that Ethiopia has elected to continue exploiting the negotiation process as a cover to solidify a fait accompli on the ground while negotiating exclusively for the purpose of obtaining an instrument of approval from downstream countries of unregulated and absolute Ethiopian control of the Blue Nile, in isolation from Ethiopia’s obligations under international law.” 

The statement went on to affirm its right to defend itself as a matter of national security against what it perceives as an existential threat. 

Egypt has very much pinned its last hopes of peaceful resolution on the U.S.  The Trump administration had sided with Egypt, tying sizeable aid to Ethiopia to resolving GERD.  Ethiopia has since become suspicious of the U.S. or any outside involvement apart from African multilateral institutions even after the Biden administration decoupled GERD’s resolution with aid.  Furthermore, since the Ethiopian civil war that broke out in 2020 and raged for two years and was censured by the West as a consequence, Ethiopia has increasingly veered towards China and UAE for loans and Russia for both economic and military assistance. 

It is conceivable to see a chain of events that goes something along these lines:

A drought occurs in a region prone to them.  Egypt demands that Ethiopia release waters hoarded by GERD.  Ethiopia, under economic distress and reaping benefits and much-needed foreign currency from selling power generation abroad refuses.  Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister has been known for bold but sometimes brash actions such as during the civil war there.  Emboldened by his perceived victory in the Ethiopian civil war, Ahmed has taken increasingly belligerent foreign policy positions, like the maritime deal with Somaliland. Believing that Russia and maybe even UAE and China, the latter having provided a sizeable loan for GERD’s construction, will come to Ethiopia’s aid, he will stand his ground.  Egypt will feel it has no option but to order a military strike of some sort, its President also looking to score an easy win and take attention away from Egypt’s failing economy. In this scenario, with the U.S. lacking real effective means of deterrent in the region, it is easy to see the situation spiralling out of control with the other issues coming to the fore and alliances triggered on both sides.

There are plenty of potential regional flashpoints in the coming year.  Withdrawal of the AU peacekeeping mission from Somalia in December could leave a power vacuum there, as well as elections in South Sudan at around the same time, where the ever-bickering President and his Vice could spark another civil war to name but two.

But more than any other issue it is GERD that could bring the whole unstable house of cards in the region crashing down as each power with military and economic interests becomes embroiled, fueled by deep-seated instability and a delicate set of alliances and ancient rivalries that will only make any confrontation chronic and harder to resolve.


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