This is the latest edition of Morning World, the geopolitics newsletter from Reaction defence editor Mattie Brignal. To receive it free sign up here.

The sound of gunfire shattered an uneasy stillness over Khartoum.

The latest ceasefire brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia held for less than a day before Sudan was plunged into violence once again this week.

Since fighting broke out earlier this month between two rival warlords, millions of civilians have been trapped without running water or power in towns and cities across Sudan, sheltering from rockets and bullets. Foreign governments are scrambling to evacuate their citizens.

The troops of General Abdel Fattah Burhan, the de-facto president and head of the armed forces, are locked in a battle for control of the fragile North-East African state with fighters loyal to General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as Hemedti), leader of the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group. Both sides have tens of thousands of fighters, foreign backers, and mineral riches at their disposal.  

Sudan is in chaos, and the ripples of the conflict extend far beyond its borders.

Sudan’s backyard

Sudan, Africa’s third-largest country, lies in the volatile region bordering the Red Sea, Sahel and Horn of Africa.

It has land borders with Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The country straddles the Nile River, the source of intense rivalry between regional heavyweights Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt relies on the Nile to support its 100 million-strong population, and Ethiopia is working on a huge upstream dam that has alarmed both Cairo and Khartoum.

To the south lies South Sudan, which seceded in 2011 and took three-quarters of Khartoum’s oil wealth with it, upping the ante within Sudan for the control of the country’s natural resources. Gold is Sudan’s most lucrative export, and the major gold mining areas are controlled by the RSF.

Analysts are warning that that the longer the conflict in Sudan goes on, the more likely it is that unrest spreads to neighbouring states.

Big powers look on

The Gulf states have long looked across the Red Sea to project their influence in Africa.

Both Al-Burhan and Hemedti have close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Each has sent thousands of fighters to support the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have an interest in ending the violence in Sudan. Which side prevails is less important.  

Egypt, like Sudan, is reliant on fresh water from the Nile, and the two nations have formed an alliance against Ethiopia in opposition to its mega-dam project. Cairo is worried the conflict in Sudan may derail this united front. Like the Gulf states, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is hedging his bets.

Further afield, we have Russia. The Kremlin has long held ambitions of establishing a Red Sea port in Sudan, a crucial trading route for energy shipments from Africa to Europe. As Tim Marshall writes for Reaction this week, the Russian mercenary force, the Wagner Group, has strengthened its connections with the RSF in recent years. In Sudan, Wagner operates Meroe Gold, a front company mining and exporting gold back to Russia.

The US also wields influence. Sudan has been reliant on US aid for decades – it was the withdrawal of this money following a military coup in 2021 that precipitated Sudan’s economic collapse.

US diplomats will be looking for an opportunity to broker an eventual resolution of the conflict. Yet as the shattered ceasefires show, the will of powerful international mediators alone won’t be enough to end the violence.

Mattie Brignal,
Defence Editor

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