Sudan’s violent implosion shows that the international community’s approach to responding to conflict there is misguided and devoid of imagination. Most significant is the failure by the international community to appreciate how stacked the incentives are in favor of those using control of the state to violently loot and repress. Unless these incentives are altered, the calculus favoring violent kleptocracy will persist.
One of the two men vying for control of the Sudanese state is General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), who heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF was formalized in 2013 out of the militias known as the Janjaweed that carried out the genocidal dirty work in Darfur. The RSF is now the largest paramilitary entity on the African continent, receiving significant support over the years from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, and Russia’s Wagner Group. Hemedti has enriched both himself and his networks through control of gold smuggling, real estate, and other key sectors of the economy.
His main competitor, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and other top army leaders have also monopolized key sectors of the economy, such as banking and agriculture. The army leadership and RSF seek each other’s destruction, and are certainly driving Sudan into an existential death spiral over the economic spoils of state control that has been years in the making.
Over the last few years, international mediators have continuously accommodated the two generals, imposing few consequences on them for massive corruption and human rights abuses. Sanctions and legal prosecutions have been too few to make an impact. State power remains the ultimate prize, delivering personal enrichment with few consequences. Sudan has become a classic kleptocracy (“rule by thieves”), and none of the mediation efforts have addressed the incentives in the system that favor violence, repression, and corruption.
In fact, the U.S. previously reduced its leverage by removing the most significant sanctions on the regime in 2017 in return for promised reforms instead of evidence of actual change. No consequences were reintroduced in response to the army and the RSF’s subsequent depredations, including perpetrating massive violence in Darfur, killing hundreds of protesters in Khartoum, and overthrowing the civilian-led transitional government in October 2021.
Endless rounds of mediation focused on Sudan have professed inclusivity but often move forward without sufficient involvement of local Sudanese “Resistance Committees,” women’s organizations, and other civil society peace and democracy advocates. Mediators and policymakers from Africa, the US, and Europe have accommodated warring leaders and focused on short-term objectives that in no way alter the instability-producing status quo in the hopes that the guns will go silent on their watch. Of course in this moment of conflagration every effort must be made to reduce the damage. But over these past few years, mediators have repeatedly kicked the can down the road on kleptocracy and massive rights violations, entrenching the status quo rather than requiring fundamental change. They have issued repeated unfulfilled threats of legal and financial accountability, to the point where the Sudanese warlords can afford to largely ignore their entreaties.
To become major players again in Sudan, the U.S. and Europe must rebuild their leverage. China has leverage because of its economic investments and massive corruption in the oil sector. Russia has influence because of the Wagner Group. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have clout because of their military support and payoffs.
U.S. and European policymakers can’t compete with the flood of dark money, but they have unique strengths that appeal to a broad swathe of Sudanese, from civil society to the responsible parts of the private sector to government and military reformers. And the U.S. in particular has an additional comparative advantage: the predominance of dollar-denominated transactions. Stronger leverage could come from using the broad array of financial tools of pressure and anti-money laundering measures to counter kleptocracy by targeting the officials, enablers, and entities benefiting from mayhem.
The U.S. and Europe could ally themselves with Sudanese civil society reformers by embarking on a multilateral campaign focused on building financial leverage for longer-term system change. Working with willing countries, multilateral bodies, and relevant private sector entities, the U.S. and key European countries could impose coordinated targeted sanctions focused on the kleptocratic networks through which both Sudanese warring parties are profiting. These “network sanctions” are a far cry from the usual financial penalties issued in response to African abuses, where individual officials are targeted, rather than the broader set of cutouts, collaborators and companies that are part of the massive looting machines that several governments like Sudan have become.
Furthermore, the U.S. Treasury Department could also issue an advisory to banks around the world articulating a clear anti-money laundering strategy aimed at the corrupt Sudanese networks and their enablers extending to Russia, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Shutting these networks out of the international financial system would disincentivize the ongoing win-at-all-cost struggle for state control.
Ultimately, for peace and democracy to have a chance, international efforts should focus on making it financially painful to benefit from human suffering through war, repression, and corruption. Unless that fundamental calculus favoring violent kleptocracy is altered significantly, the Sudanese conflict will bleed on for as long as there are resources to loot.
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