Two Dead Ends in Sudan
The Sudanese conflict, Africa's most high-profile event of recent times, began on April 15 after days of tension as members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a movement the army sees as a threat, redeployed across the country. The RSF was formed in 2013 and traces its origins to the notorious Janjaweed militia that fought rebels in Darfur and has been accused of ethnic cleansing. Since then, General Dagalo (Hemedti) has built a powerful force that has intervened in conflicts in Yemen and Libya. He has also developed economic interests, including controlling some of Sudan's gold mines. During Sudan's Darfur conflict in the early 2000s, Sudan's Dagalo was the leader of Sudan's notorious Janjaweed forces, which were involved in human rights abuses and atrocities, and after international outcry, Bashir transformed the group into paramilitary forces known as Border Intelligence Units. These units became part of the country's intelligence services in 2007, and in 2013 Bashir established the RSF, a paramilitary group supervised by him and led by Dagalo. The RSF's rise to prominence is not a new phenomenon. It has been accused of various human rights violations, including the massacre of more than 120 protesters in June 2019.
General Dagalo said on Twitter that General Burhan's government was "radical Islamist" and that he and RSF were "fighting for the democratic progress that the Sudanese people have long yearned for". In 2019, after the ouster of Omar al-Bashir, a government was formed as a military-civilian partnership, but it was overthrown in October 2021 in another coup in which General Burhan took power. Since then, the rivalry between General Burhan and General Dagalo has reportedly intensified. A framework agreement to return power to civilian hands was agreed last December, but talks to finalize the details failed. Meanwhile, the country's ruler, General Burhan, has said he supports the idea of a return to civilian rule but would only hand over power to an elected government.
Fighting has escalated rapidly in different parts of the country, with more than 400 civilians killed according to the World Health Organization. Several countries, including Turkey, are trying to evacuate their citizens from Sudan, while the UK, the US and the EU are calling for a ceasefire and talks to resolve the crisis.
Some of Sudan's neighbors, including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, have been affected by political turmoil and conflict, and Sudan's relations with Ethiopia in particular have been strained over issues including disputed farmland along its borders. Sudanese refugees have fled to the country's neighbors from the recent conflict, including thousands who crossed into Chad. There are also geopolitical dimensions as Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other powers struggle for influence in Sudan. Saudi Arabia and the UAE see Sudan's transition as an opportunity to counter Islamist influence in the region. Together with the US and the UK, they form the "Quartet" that supports mediation in Sudan together with the UN and the African Union. Western powers fear the potential for a Russian base in the Red Sea, to which Sudanese military leaders have expressed openness. Of course, the position of Egypt, another important player in the region, must also be carefully monitored.
Sudan - Russia Relations
In 2017, during a visit to Moscow, then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir signed a series of agreements with the Russian government. These included an agreement for Russia to establish a naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, as well as gold mining concession agreements between the Russian company M Invest and the Sudanese Ministry of Mines. The US alleged that M Invest and its subsidiary Meroe Gold were fronts for the Wagner Group's activities in Sudan, Africa's third largest gold producer.  "Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan's natural resources for personal gain and spreading a malign influence around the world," then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2020. Both M Invest and Meroe were subsequently specifically targeted by US sanctions.
According to an investigation by CNN, exports (gold) not recorded in Sudan's official trade data were transported overland to the Central African Republic, where Wagner is known to operate. A significant amount of gold was also smuggled through a network of military airports, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph last year.
Since 2017, Russian and international sources have published images showing the location of Russian mercenaries in Sudan. According to these images, Russian mercenaries are allegedly there for various purposes, such as training Sudanese soldiers or providing advice in various areas, such as helping security forces quell protests.  In 2021, a Wagner-linked Telegram channel published footage of an unnamed senior Wagner commander awarding Sudanese soldiers with souvenirs at a ceremony held two years earlier. In July 2022, the channel distributed a video purportedly showing Wagner mercenaries conducting parachute landing drills for Sudanese forces.
How Effective Was Wagner?
The United States claims that the Wagner Group is engaged in "paramilitary operations, support for the maintenance of authoritarian regimes and the exploitation of natural resources". "Initially, in 2018, they had about 100 men actively training Sudanese military forces, and the relationship grew from there," says Dr. Joana de Deus Pereira of the UK-based Royal United Services Institute. According to Sudanese media reports, this number has grown to about 500, mostly stationed in the southwest, near Um Dafuq, close to Sudan's border with the Central African Republic (CAR). When President Bashir faced popular protests in 2019, Sudan Tribune reported that "Russian fighters" were deployed to observe the anti-government protests alongside Sudanese intelligence and security forces, although this was denied by Sudanese authorities. Also in 2019, Amnesty International reported that Russian and Chinese weapons are said to be involved in attacks in Darfur.
Reflections on Today's Conflicts
According to Dr. Ramani, in 2021 and 2022, the Wagner Group increased its links with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is currently fighting Sudan's regular army led by General Burhan. Prigozhin was interested in supplying more gold through mines recently acquired by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the RSF, known as Hemedti. Hemedti had visited Moscow last year and said he hoped to strengthen ties between Sudan and Russia.
But Kholood Khair of Confluence Advisory, a think tank on Sudan, believes that Wagner has not chosen sides in the current conflict. "Wagner has links to both General El Burhan's and Mr. Hemedti's businesses in different dimensions and in different ways."
Sudan People's Choice
The military takeover has unfortunately become a normal process of power transition in many African countries. The people of Sudan, ruled by a military regime, cannot be forced to choose between groups that benefit from different alliances. The Sudanese people, whose sovereignty is being mortgaged through conflicts initiated by those who plan for their own position and political ambitions rather than the people, are forced to witness civilian deaths every day. The prolongation and deepening of the conflicts will prevent the democratization of the Sudanese government and the construction of a government based on the will of the people. International actors, who should approach the conflict not on the basis of interests but on the basis of peace and non-conflict, should persuade the parties to sit at the table as soon as possible. Otherwise, the fire burning in Sudan, one of the most important countries in the region, may spread to other countries in the region. In this respect, instead of offering dead ends to the Sudanese people, the way should be paved for the emergence of options that will quickly take steps towards democratization.