For years, Omar al-Bashir’s government in Sudan had the sole purpose of keeping the ruling party in power.
Its activities ranged from slowly dismantling the military that brought him into power and replacing it with militias, to allocating almost nothing from the national budget towards education.
The slightest perceived threat to power would immediately be quashed, regardless of the adverse effects it would have on civilians.
Other nations took advantage of the government’s paranoia, while civilians carried the brunt of the repercussions.
In recent times, Sudan has become a hub of geopolitical importance, largely due to two factors. Firstly, the Sudanese government has been supplying soldiers to fight in the war in Yemen, according to a report by New York Times in 2018 and, secondly, Sudan is used as a route to Europe by African migrants, as reported by witnesses.
These two phenomena have been greatly exploited by the Saudi-led coalition and the European Union, as they have provided Sudanese paramilitary groups and the Sudanese intelligence service with funding, training and weaponry in exchange for the militias’ unscrupulous services. This gave rise to their unchecked power in the country and to their ruling general, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti.
Sudanese child soldiers in Yemen
The New York Times reported in December 2018 that the Saudi-United Arab Emirates coalition has recruited more than 14 000 Sudanese soldiers for its war in Yemen, including child soldiers as young as 14 years old. The report says that the Saudi-led coalition paid as much as $10 000 to the family of a soldier upon his return home. Many of the child soldiers are recruited from the war-torn Darfur region, in western Sudan, and see fighting in the war as the only way to support their families. Sudanese militiamen who fought on the frontlines in Yemen reported that 40% of their units are made up of child soldiers.
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Militia, previously known as Janjaweed, is the perpetrator behind recruiting child soldiers, and is under the command of General Hemedti, who is also currently the face of the Transitional Military Council. In Sudan, military generals have historically pursued power over a civilian-led administration. As such, the Sudanese people are sceptical about whether Hemedti and the Transitional Military Council will relinquish power in terms of the civilian-military power sharing agreement entered into by the council and the civilian-led group, Alliance for Freedom and Change, on July 4 2019.
The Janjaweed are the main perpetrators behind the genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape campaign in Darfur, which resulted in the loss of 500 000 lives and the destruction of more than 3 000 villages. Now, under Hemedti’s rule, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have agreed on the provision of Sudanese soldiers, by Hemedti, to fight in Yemen in exchange for money and political backing.
The Sudanese soldiers have sustained the Saudi-led coalition’s ability to continue the war and they have shielded the Saudis and Emiratis from the casualties that might test the patience of families at home. It is daunting to see that families in Darfur have been driven to sending their children to fight in a foreign war on behalf of the same militia that committed genocide against their people, in order to survive the plight created by the al-Bashir government.
Many of the RSF soldiers themselves are victims of widespread impoverishment and deliberate underdevelopment. This, together with a lack of the rule of law and empowered factional tribalism, has impelled them to join militias and armed groups. This also means that in a future transitional justice process, there will be a need for the recognition of the victimisation of the young men serving in the ranks of the RSF. If Sudan transitions to a civilian-led democracy, perhaps an initiative such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission may be needed to investigate violations and repatriate victims and families.
EU dirties its hands
The EU has also dirtied its hands by working with Hemedti. Since 2016, the EU has allocated more than $200-million in migration-related funds to Sudan as part of its broader policy to outsource migration control to third countries, despite the fact that the EU itself has accused Sudan of several mass human violations, and the International Criminal Court holds arrest warrants for al-Bashir and other Sudanese generals. The intention is to curb migrants seeking to get to Europe. However, the RSF has consistently used less than savoury means to deter them.
Reports from Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants travelling through Sudan stated that these include torture, rape, being forcibly held in detention centres and being turned away at the border. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has accused the RSF of colluding with human traffickers and smugglers rather than investigating them. An Oxfam analysis also found that of the total €400-million allocated through the fund, only 3% went towards developing safe and regular routes for migration. The vast bulk was either lost to corruption or spent suppressing local civilian dissidence and developing abusive migration control methods.
The EU circumvents accusations that it is working with Sudan’s oppressive security regime by arguing that it doesn’t fund the government directly; rather it funnels its aid through international organisations, including United Nations agencies. In either case, it is gravely irresponsible of the EU to distribute funds to aid agencies in Sudan without properly ensuring that they do not end up in the pockets of known war criminals such as Hemedti.
However, the EU partners are still willing to work with controversial arms of the Sudanese government. For example, the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, confirmed to The New Humanitarian that it has provided motorcycles in Kassala to Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service — a government spy service responsible for the arrest, torture and detention of human rights activists and the government’s political opponents.
This is a similar stance that the Saudi-led coalition takes towards child soldiers in Yemen. Mohammed bin Salman denies that the Saudi Kingdom belongs on the UN child soldiers recruiters list by instead insisting that the Sudanese government bears the responsibility for violating international law. In either case, the EU and Gulf countries had indirectly given rise to the crimes perpetuated by these militias.
However, it should be noted that the Troika group (the United States, United Kingdom and Norway) have openly condemned the RSF and Transitional Military Council for their role in the June 3 massacre. Although recognising the RSF as a perpetrator of mass human rights abuse is a good first step, Western powers must do more than offer firm words and formal letters to curb the reckless and brutal behaviour of militias in Sudan.
The financial empire underpinning Hemedti’s rise to power — which range from his exports of gold from Jebel Amir in Darfur, to his direct profiteering from the war in Yemen and the abuse of migrants — needs to be targeted by global sanctions. Although the power-sharing agreement looks as if it may have brought an end to the political turmoil for the time being, the Sudanese people are sceptical, saying that the military has not conceded enough ground.
This includes the fact that the council will be led by the military for the first 21 months, followed by 18 months rule by a civilian leader, ending with democratic elections and the military returning to its barracks. Furthermore, both sides will nominate five members to the ruling council. The 11th member is to be jointly nominated. An independent investigation on the June 3 crackdown is also included as part of the power-sharing agreement, though there is little doubt that Sudan’s military carried out the bloody campaign, leading to questions of whether such an inquiry will actually hold the military accountable.
Another major worry for civilians is that the military will not abide by the agreement in handing control to a civilian leader once they have gained control during the first 21 months, as there are few guarantees agreed upon. Another threatening factor is that in the current set of talks with opposition forces, the ruling generals have demanded absolute immunity from prosecution against the violent crimes committed against demonstrators, as well as for the initial 21-month transitional term- which did not appear in the landmark deal. This has been strongly rejected by Sudanese protestors who state that such an agreement will drastically undermine accountability of the TMC.
With the return of the internet in Sudan, a plethora of photographic evidence flooded social media. The BBC managed to compile footage of the June 3 massacre into a documentary and concluded that Sudan’s ruling generals ordered the violent dispersal, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the TMC.
Since April 2019, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have openly supported the Transitional Military Council, despite its dire human rights track record, because it serves their national interests. If the EU is serious about its commitment to human rights and UN conventions, then it must ramp up the pressure on the council to ensure that it abides by the power-sharing agreement and makes efforts in reforming the RSF and other factionalised militias.
Rather than formal letters of condemnation, the EU needs to sanction the members of the Transitional Military Council responsible for the June 3 massacre and must closely monitor the first 21 months of military rule to support a peaceful transition to a civilian-led government. This will surely enhance the legitimacy of a civilian-led transition in a country long ruled by generals. In addition, the independent investigating body must hold those accountable for their role in transgressing the law and committing violent crimes against peaceful protesters.
Yassin Osman is a Sudanese-South African human rights lawyer, who graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is currently working with the Denis Hurley Centre, an NGO in Durban, in securing the rights of the homeless. He will be pursuing a master’s degree in international human rights at the National University of Ireland Galway in September