China interest in Sudan could shift power alliances in resolving crisis

Fleeing families among them Kenyans to board French Navy Ship at Port Sudan to Jeddah on April 27, 2023. [Courtesy, Standard]

There was a time when Sudan was the biggest country in Africa in terms of territorial size, but it no longer is because the Democratic Republic of Congo has overtaken it.

This happened through the violation of a cardinal principle by the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) turned African Union (AU) of discouraging the expansion or contraction of states as inherited from colonialism.

Africans had a small role, if any, in determining boundaries for colonial states since European predators had allocated that role to themselves. The agreements they reached in European capitals on who owns what became the source of legitimacy for what became colonial states.

These, and the people in them, were the property of respective colonial powers. Within those properties, the different peoples were lumped together as 'natives', serving their owners. While each predator had reason for grabbing particular territories, geo-strategic interests loomed large as they tried to deny each other access to preferred zones.

Britain led in grabbing strategic territories in Eastern Africa in order, first, to deny them to other predators and second, to contain the imperial ambitions of Ethiopia's Menelik II. Sudan, through which the Nile passes to the Mediterranean Sea, was a major British catch.

The people of Sudan, a product of British imperial machination, experienced layers of colonialism whose effect continues to reverberate. One layer was of the overall British control over the entire Nile Valley from the source to the Mediterranean Sea.

Another one was called Anglo-Egyptian Sudan because Egypt, under the British thumb, ruled Sudan on behalf of a declining Ottoman Empire. In a different layer, those with Arab and Islamic proclivity loaded it on those who did not speak Arabic or worship in Islam, mostly in the Southern and Western regions.

At independence in 1956, Sudan was suffering from an identity crisis as to what it was or who it could relate to and thus plunged into prolonged liberation warfare because those in the South and the West still felt colonised.

Right from the time of independence, therefore, conflicting internal and external forces pulled Sudan apart and they still do. Its identity confusion as to whether it is Arab or African, for instance, makes it lose in the discussions on decolonisation because although it obtained independence in 1956 before Ghana, it is Ghana that gets recognition for being the first African colony to acquire independence in 1957.

While news of Sudan's independence disappeared in the midst of the Suez Crisis that symbolised the end of the Anglo-French global dominance and the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser as a force in the Arab world in which Sudan was a new member, Ghana's independence was a world event that marked the symbolic return of black people to ruling themselves in Africa.

Ghana emerged as the pride and symbol of anti-colonialism especially after organising the 1958 anti-colonial conference in Accra. Pre-occupation with being Arab, instead of being African, made it difficult for Sudan to interact with its neighbours or to create a viable national identity.

As various Sudanese governments tried to impose an Arab and Islamic national identity, internal rejection of that imposition meant constant warfare with those trying to create their own 'national' identities. Racism was also rampant as those in black communities who claimed to be Arabs did not receive expected acceptance as either Arabs or Muslims.

This rejection intensified after the 1969 Jaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri's 'Revolution', coinciding with that of Muamar Gadhafi in Libya and Mohammed Siad Barre in Somalia, that prepared the ground for Omar Al-Bashir's 1989 'Revolution' that ended in 2019 with the current chaos. Instead of achieving the desired Sudanese identity, Sudan consequently lost territorial size as South Sudan acquired independence in 2011.

Al-Bashir, under Kenyan and other international prodding, reluctantly allowed South Sudan to secede but he was unwilling to let other regions go. These included Darfur, next to South Sudan, which also complained of mistreatment and showed signs of wanting the same 'independence'.

It was to contain the growing Darfur rejection of Khartoum's rule that al-Bashir organised the ruthless Janjaweed in which his proxies, General Abdel-Fattah al Burhan and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagala, proved their worth by developing appetite for atrocities. While the display of ruthlessness earned rapid promotions for Burhan and Dagala, it also attracted an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment for al-Bashir.

Following protracted civil unrest mostly in Khartoum, the proxies helped to retire their mentor and 'jail' him across the Nile in Omdurman as they tried to figure out how to respond to civil unrest. Each being well armed, they then turned on each other and do not know how to get out of the mess they created.

They are not alone in creating the mess, which has two global values, because some neighbours and extra-continental forces have interest in Sudan's strategic location and raw materials. First, the mess has attracted diversionary attention from the chaos arising from the 'geopolitical proxy war in Europe and second, Sudan cannot be ignored due to its strategic location on the Red Sea through which at least 10 per cent world trade goes through and as the producer of gold, oil, and 80 per cent of global 'gum arabic' that is good as food additive and is used for cosmetics, and paint.

While the mess has made various countries with assorted activities in Sudan to struggle to evacuate their people, they do not lose sight of their perceived interests which they would like to entrench.

In Sudan, therefore, countries are playing geopolitical balancing acts and alliances appear to be shifting as each tries to safeguard the future of its interests. Having diplomatically done the unexpected by uniting Iran and Saudi Arabia and seemingly being the only link between Russia and Ukraine, China is standing tall in the world of diplomacy and might try its hand in Sudan.

Protection of perceived interests in Sudan is the pre-occupation for all countries that want to play a role in stabilising the region. Each engages in balancing acts in deciding what to stress in approaching Bashir's two egotistical Janjaweed mentees.