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Why Sudan's power struggle is so ripe for foreign interference

What happens in Sudan echoes throughout the world, not least because global powers have taken an interest in the country's resources.

“As long as there are American citizens in Sudan who are seeking our assistance in leaving, we’ll continue to do this,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised Monday night, speaking of the U.S. government's effort to help more than 5,000 Americans escape the conflict raging between Sudan’s two military factions

As of Wednesday, more than 1,500 Americans have been evacuated from Sudan. Most evacuees travel 500 miles by bus from the capital, Khartoum, to the city of Port Sudan, then travel 180 miles by boat across the Red Sea to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where they are finally considered safe in the care of U.S. officials. 

After special operations forces dramatically rescued 70 U.S. Embassy personnel by helicopter, local Sudanese staff were left without any sense of where they should go.

Mohamad Bakr, an American who also has Sudanese citizenship, fled with his wife and two daughters by bus. He told ABC News, “On the convoy’s way to Port Sudan, we were stopped 10 times by the different groups. Some people lost their phones, some lost money. They took it. It was very dangerous.”

The Americans are the lucky ones: After special operations forces dramatically rescued 70 U.S. Embassy personnel by helicopter, local Sudanese staff were left without any sense of where they should go. As Western nations shut down their outposts and limited their aid to online guidance about seeking land routes, dual nationals became frantic about valid passports and ID documents: How can they flee to safety without proof of their citizenship? In the chaotic environment, will race become a factor of who gets recognized as Dutch, Italian or American? 

The United Nations is now warning that the conflict could prompt more than 800,000 people to flee Sudan, raising alarm bells that Africa’s largest country could once again be the site of the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Many of the 50,000 people fleeing Sudan in recent days already escaped wars in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar.

Sudan is a country of almost 50 million people, sitting at the intersection of regional power struggles and humanitarian crises. What happens there echoes throughout the world, not least because global powers from Europe, the Arab world and Russia have taken an interest in its resources and stability. 

Importantly, the conflict is far from over. As hundreds of thousands flee the violence, here are some important things you should know about Sudan: 

Popular uprisings bring hope, until the military gets power

Four years ago, Sudanese civilians backed military forces in the overthrow of autocrat Omar al-Bashir. An image of a woman leading other women in powerful protest chants went viral, tapping into iconic imagery of Nubian queens leading their people to freedom. After al-Bashir was deposed, a power sharing agreement was reached in which the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group would integrate into Sudan’s armed forces, then the military would cede power to a civilian-led government. But the onetime allies became skeptical of losing power and missed multiple deadlines for sealing a deal. 

Regional biases don’t go away

The RSF leader, Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, and the army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, both commanded forces in the civil war in 2003, then worked together to depose al-Bashir in 2019. But the ruling elites and the armed forces draw from ethnic groups around the Nile River and Khartoum; they view Dagalo, who is from the rural region of Darfur, as a high school dropout turned camel trader and the RSF as “country bumpkins” unfit to rule the land. Distrust was baked into the power-sharing deal from the start. As tensions mounted and forces were moving into strategic missions, the two generals met April 14 to de-escalate. They left that meeting with a promise to return the next day and meet with a mediator. Neither one showed up. Shots were fired outside the airport that same day. Each side now says the other is provoking violence. 

Many countries have their hands in the mix

Sudan brings together three important regions: the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Russia wants to build a naval base along Sudan’s coast, while Gulf countries are investing in agriculture and port development to expand their own trade options. Saudi Arabia has drawn on fighters from both factions to support its war in Yemen. Egypt allied itself early on with Burhan and the armed forces, while the U.S. backed the plan to transition to civilian leadership. Sudan is no closer to democracy than it was after it gained independence 30 years ago; the power struggle between leaders is ripe for foreign interference. 

Conflicts bring a “high biological risk”

The country representative for the World Health Organization, who evacuated via a 30-hour journey across the desert, said his team was unable to access the national laboratories to secure pathogens such as measles, cholera and polio once the facility was captured by fighting factions. The WHO expects “many more deaths due to outbreaks of disease.”

And therein lies the problem: Sudan, once considered a far-off nation, is now a critical puzzle piece in this era of great power competition among global economies. As boundaries continue to blur because of technology and climate change, forced migration is more common: millions flee north from Latin America to the U.S., from Syria to Europe, and now across East Africa. But the same countries eager to extract oil and minerals from Africa are quick to shut down, only watching out for their own as Sudan devolves into chaos.