Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is being destroyed in a fight to the death between two venal, brutal generals. This is a war of choice; allowing it to happen was a failure of international diplomacy. But if we look at the city’s 200-year history, the fighting shouldn’t be a surprise. Khartoum was founded on a command post built for the purposes of imperial robbery – and every subsequent regime has continued this practice. In ordinary circumstances, Sudan is run by a cabal of merchants and generals who plunder the darker-skinned people of the marchlands and bring their wealth to Khartoum, a relatively opulent city and a haven of calm. But the logic of kleptocracy is inexorable: when the cartel is bankrupt, the mobsters shoot it out. We saw this in Liberia and Somalia thirty years ago. The ransack of the Sudanese state today is ten times bigger.
Khartoum was founded in 1821 at the junction of the two Niles – the White Nile, which rises in Equatorial Africa, and the fast-flowing Blue Nile, which brings seasonal floods from the Ethiopian highlands. At the point where the rivers converge, just opposite the modern parliament building, and for some miles downstream, the pale brown and blue waters run next to each other, unmixed. The site was chosen by Ismail Kamil ‘Pasha’, son of Muhammad Ali, khedive of Egypt, who had dispatched an army to conquer what is now Sudan. He also licensed a multinational band of freebooters to roam wherever they wished, as long as Cairo shared in the takings. For six decades Khartoum was an outpost of rapacious 19th-century frontier capitalism: a trading and slaving entrepot for the ravaging of the Upper Nile Valley.
Elephant tusks were in demand for piano keys, and elephants themselves were exported – among them Jumbo, who was sent to London Zoo and then sold to Barnum and Bailey’s circus in America. Khartoum’s traders and freebooters raided for slaves, or played divide-and-rule among the people of the southern forests and marshes, buying captives for their own plantations along the river or to be sold to Egypt. To this day, Sudanese have a lexicon of skin colour, from red and brown through green and yellow to ‘blue’ – the darkest people of the south, still routinely called abid, meaning ‘slaves’. Southern Sudanese were depicted as untouched primitives by colonial-era anthropologists, but they had been dragged into the imperial capitalist order. The chief warlord was Zubeir Rahma, a northern Sudanese trader and slaver, who set up a string of forts across southern Sudan and then led his private army against the vast western sultanate of Darfur in 1874. His ambition to become ruler of what was then the richest domain on the edge of the Sahara was thwarted when the khedive, alarmed by his rise to prominence, detained him in Cairo.
The last time Khartoum was razed was in 1885. The army of the Sudanese millenarian leader, Mohamed Ahmed ‘al Mahdi’, overran the besieged garrison of Egyptian troops commanded by General Gordon, massacred the starving residents and ransacked the town. The Mahdi, who was born to a family of boatbuilders on the Nile, set up a new capital at Omdurman on the opposite bank of the river. It’s now Khartoum’s twin city. His lieutenant, Khalifa Abdullahi al-Taaishi, who came from a nomadic tribe in Darfur, mobilised the mass armies of the Mahdist cause, with their uniform of patched tunics, as worn by wandering mendicants. He had emerged from the turmoil and bloodshed that followed the collapse of the sultanate in Darfur. When the Mahdi died a few months later, the khalifa – the word means ‘successor’ – assumed command. The next thirteen years of Darfurian despotism, administered from Omdurman by the khalifa’s armed tribesmen, remain unforgotten by the peoples of the Nile.
The Gatling guns of General Kitchener slaughtered the Mahdist forces on the plain of Karari outside Omdurman in 1898. Kitchener ordered that a new city be built on the ruins of Khartoum. Its plan resembles a Union Jack, with avenues running parallel to the Blue Nile corniche. Among the grand colonnaded buildings were an Ottoman style palace, a finance ministry where colonial secretaries raised revenue from taxes and cotton exports – slavery was no longer an option – and Gordon Memorial College, a school for boys. A liberal pioneer called Babiker Badri set up the first girls’ school in 1907. Further down the waterfront were barracks for the British army, later used as dormitories for the University of Khartoum, the graffiti of homesick colonial soldiers still legible on the brickwork. The Sudanese army HQ moved into a pharaonic parade of dark-windowed tower blocks next to the airport. Today this is all a battle zone.
Khartoum has long been a welcoming and courteous city, in which members of the establishment socialised at weddings and festivals, setting aside fierce political differences. Their militias might be committing atrocities in remote villages, but murder and discourtesy among the elites were off limits. Sudanese call these people ‘the community of the state’: roughly the middle-income, educated enclave of Khartoum and its environs. Across 65 years of independence, alternating military dictators and parliamentary regimes have disagreed on most things except maintaining their city as an island of civility and the image of a nation-state they hoped to bring into being. The first independent government changed Khartoum’s street names. Parallel to the Avenue of the Republic a narrow street links the army headquarters to the central market and the Acropole Hotel, the favourite of visiting archaeologists and aid workers. Oblivious or indifferent to the message this sent to those beyond the city limits, they called it Zubeir Pasha Street after the slave trader Zubeir Rahma.
Khartoum accounts for more than half of Sudan’s economy. Within a day’s drive of the city lies the modestly prosperous ‘miniature country’: the only real estate, according to the former Islamist minister of finance Abdel Rahim Hamdi, that’s worth investing in. The rest of the country is a social and economic wasteland, ravaged by the heirs of Zubeir. In the 1970s, the Sudanese Marxist Fatima Babiker Mahmoud explained how the country’s merchant class reaped immense profits in the provinces and ploughed them in Khartoum. Where capital moves, people follow. The city had already trebled in size over twenty years to a population of around a million when she published The Sudanese Bourgeoisie: Vanguard of Development? in 1984. The population of greater Khartoum is now about seven million.
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) – the government army now fighting for its survival against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries – is also the country in miniature. The colonial military college was built near Karari, site of the Mahdists’ last stand against the British: there is a monument to the 22 lancers who died in the last ever cavalry charge by the British army, but none for the 11,000 Mahdists cut down by machine-gun fire. Karari is now the site of Wadi Sayidna airbase, from which foreign nationals have been airlifted to safety: the main airport in the city centre has become a battle zone. The colonial army combined a camel corps, an Equatoria battalion raised from southern ethnicities and named after the region – in the tradition of military slavery – as well as a cadre of officers selected from the social elite of towns along the Nile.
At independence, the descendants of those officers saw themselves as the guardians of the nation. The leaders of Sudan’s coups – three successful and thirteen failed in the first twenty years of independence – have included conservatives, Nasserists, communists and Islamists. On a few occasions when NCOs from the peripheries tried to seize power, their attempts were denounced as ‘racist’ by their paler-skinned superiors. Several coup attempts have come close to unleashing civil war in the capital. When the Islamists seized power in a bloodless coup in 1989, they distrusted the army’s politics as well as its hard-drinking esprit de corps, and set up the Popular Defence Forces as a counterweight. Ten years later, in 1999, the Islamist movement split, raising fears of armed clashes in Khartoum, but instead the intra-Islamist power struggle was relocated to Darfur.
Khartoum prosecuted wars in the south of the country between 1955 and 1972 and again between 1983 and 2004; these conflicts also enabled racketeering by army officers and merchants. The wars finally ended with a peace deal in 2005, after which South Sudan took the exit option, voting for secession twelve years ago. With it went most of the oilfields and the revenue to which Khartoum’s traders had become addicted. By then, Darfur had also rebelled, after decades of neglect during which it was exploited by Khartoum as a kind of bantustan for cheap migrant labour. Khartoum’s generals carried out a counterinsurgency on the cheap, rallying the Arab tribes in the west and licensing them to repeat in Darfur the pillage, rape and starvation that had been used against the south. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as ‘Hemedti’, or ‘little Mohamed’ because of his youthful demeanour, was among the most capable of the Janjaweed’s junior commanders. His boldness on the battlefield, his folksy rapport with his troops and his business acumen brought him to the attention of President Bashir.
But Hemedti was not won over cheaply. In 2008, angry at the way in which he and his men had been used for dirty work in Darfur and then cast aside with months of salaries unpaid, he withdrew to the bush and vowed to fight Bashir ‘until judgment day’. He borrowed his rhetoric from the Darfur rebels against whom he had been fighting, and from discontented former militiamen who called themselves ‘the forgotten soldiers’. A few months later Khartoum offered him a deal – money, promotion, jobs for his relatives – and he came back to the fold. Money and firefights are interchangeable currencies in Sudan’s political marketplace, and Hemedti trades in both. In 2013, six years before he was overthrown, Bashir overruled objections from his army chief of staff and formalised the role of the Janjaweed as the official state paramilitary, to be known as the Rapid Support Forces. He bestowed the rank of general on Hemedti – whose only training had been the battlefield – and gave him a direct line to the presidential office. As street protests mounted in December 2018 and Bashir’s regime began to falter, he summoned Hemedti’s units to the capital as his personal protection force. He should have known better.
The RSF is now a private transnational mercenary enterprise which has rented its services to Gulf monarchs to fight in Yemen and has dealings with the Wagner Group and with Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army. It’s a gold-mining and gold-trading operation and the enforcement arm of Hemedti’s ever expanding commercial empire. If in the months ahead Hemedti and the RSF prevail in the battle for Khartoum, the Sudanese state will become a subsidiary of this transnational venture. Hemedti isn’t from the well-mannered Khartoum ‘community of the state’. And we shouldn’t be misled by his identity as an ‘Arab’ – there’s a vast social divide between the metropolitan Sudanese elites whose Arabism looks to Egypt and the Bedouin communities of the Sahara. He and his men are feared and ridiculed as illiterate, ill-spoken hoodlums. True, the top RSF commanders are from Hemedti’s own Mahariya Arab clan, but the rank and file are from a range of tribes, united in their conviction that they have been deprived of the spoils of state. Like the southern Sudanese who voted to secede, they are enraged subjects of the Sudanese imperium.
Four years ago the streets of Khartoum were the stage for a non-violent, civic revolution. It was an extraordinary interval: normal Sudanese politics were suspended; an encampment of free citizens grew up around the army headquarters – the citadel of their oppressors – where they painted liberation murals on the walls and sang the praises of young army officers who broke ranks and stood with the people. These activists had neither the skills nor the capacity for political graft to see their revolution through. Foreign donors, who found it easier to deal with men in uniform and failed to appreciate the urgency of lifting sanctions, relieving the debt and bailing out the collapsing economy, did them no favours. At the same time, a parallel revolution was unfolding: a stealthy invasion by provincial paramilitaries. Over the years, a succession of armed radicals from every corner of Sudan hoped to liberate the country from its imperial history. The most prominent was John Garang, dissident soldier, and the founder and leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. After Garang’s death in 2005, there was no one of his stature to press the case that a new Sudan, transformed to benefit the historically oppressed, was essential. Hemedti has stepped into this revolutionary void by bringing the grievances of Darfur to Khartoum and his populist touch to a grander stage. The establishment was incapable of resisting because it had become so corrupt.
Is there a thread we can trace back through the post-independence era that might help us arrive at an explanation for what is happening in Khartoum now? There’s no doubt that successive experiments in modernity were stifled by crony capitalism, insider dealing, firesale bargains for the well-connected, a tangle of illicit trafficking and contrivances against years of sanctions, imposed on Washington’s insistence. During the 1970s – Sudan’s ‘development decade’ – the World Bank and Arab investment funds poured money into the country, but when debt payments fell due the minister of finance discovered that there was no central account of what had been borrowed from whom, for what, or what had happened to the money. In the 1990s, Bashir’s government imagined a path to Islamist modernity, but it couldn’t borrow on the international markets and instead began exporting oil. That windfall isn’t accounted for either, but the plotline can be read in the shining office towers of Islamist-owned, security-connected corporations – what Sudanese call the ‘deep state’ although there’s nothing inconspicuous about them. Bashir’s regime built vast dams on the Nile, drowning millennia-old villages and generating little electricity. Their main function was to facilitate kickbacks for the ruling party, which put millions of Sudanese on the state payroll, without thinking about the discontent that would follow when South Sudan opted for independence and the oil spigot was closed off.
Farmland was cheap, workers even cheaper, especially where villages had been bulldozed for commercial farms or burned by militiamen. The trees were felled, the soil tended by labourers paid a pittance to work land once their own. Much of the main crop, sorghum, is now exported for animal feed. For years, Sudan has relied on ever more ruthless exploitation of land and labour as well as imported fuel and machinery. Much of its scarce foreign currency is used to import wheat for well-off people in cities – until recently, this was massively subsidised. This is one of the world’s most dysfunctional food economies, now on the point of collapse.
Exceptional political skills were needed to keep the volatile and rivalrous Islamist security and army bosses in line. Bashir was famed for his mental who’s who of every army officer, tribal chief and party operator, and their family members, and managed them for almost thirty years. The cabal that overthrew him didn’t trust his most capable successor – the security boss, Salah Abdallah Gosh – and set up an uneasy two-headed system. Hemedti, the key voter in favour of patricide, was seen as too polarising a figure to take the top job and instead appointed as deputy to an obscure army officer, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who was selected to front the military coalition and serve as chairman of the Sovereignty Council, or de facto president. Al-Burhan’s handicaps aren’t limited to his bumbling public speaking. Unlike Hemedti, or Bashir before him, he doesn’t have his own personal source of cash for greasing political deals, and has been forced to haggle with the military capitalists and old guard cronies on key decisions. But the fatal flaw in Khartoum’s military-commercial complex is that the kleptocrats outsourced their fighting. The army is chiefly a machine for swindling the public and putting on impressive parades of tanks and aircraft, while actual combat is waged by rented militias driving customised Landcruisers. Hemedti understood this better than the military academy graduates, who sowed the wind in Darfur and are now reaping the whirlwind in the battle for Khartoum.
Those of us who have lived and worked in Sudan for decades were inspired by the civil uprising and willing to trust its leaderless champions, many of them women. Many times I bit my lip, not wanting to deflate the optimism of the democratic activists. The worst has come to pass. Hemedti has taken the families of SAF members hostage and few doubt that he would have any qualms about murdering them. SAF generals and old guard Islamists openly threaten to kill Hemedti and those who they say have collaborated with him. Hemedti’s fighters ransack houses and shops, while al-Burhan’s jet fighters bomb them from the air. Now that most foreigners have left the country, resupplies and reinforcements for both parties are pouring in; the battle is set to escalate. This is the revolution no one wanted.
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