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The crisis in Sudan shows no signs of abating

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

People are fleeing Sudan. The U.S. military has evacuated American diplomats from the capital, Khartoum, as forces loyal to two top generals fight street battles there. So far, the violence has claimed hundreds of lives and threatens to become a civil war. Murithi Mutiga is program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group, and he joins us now. Good morning.

MURITHI MUTIGA: Good morning.

DOMONOSKE: So we're hearing reports that hospitals, homes, even airfields have been destroyed in these ongoing clashes. Can you explain what the two factions are fighting about?

MUTIGA: Simply put, the two generals at the helm of these rival forces, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, are vying for control of the country's power and resources. Because the backstory - the quick backstory is that the previous president, Omar al-Bashir - he governed for about 30 years, was very repressive, was driven out of power. But to try and keep himself in office, he kept the security forces divided. Now we are seeing a reckoning from that policy. We have two rival militias, very strong, very capable, very motivated, and all of them trying to dominate.

DOMONOSKE: We're talking about the third largest country by area in Africa. This is a country where 45 million people are living. And it's also a country with a lot of neighbors. We've got Egypt, Libya, Chad, Ethiopia. Are these neighboring countries worried about the violence in Sudan? Are they picking sides?

MUTIGA: That's a good question, because Sudan is really a critically important country in the region. It's the crossroads between the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and North Africa. It's absolutely geopolitically important. And what's more, a lot of the neighbors have experienced a lot of instability in recent years. Ethiopia has just gone through a vicious civil war. We see instability in the Central African Republic, in Libya next door. Of course, the neighboring countries are extremely anxious. Egypt worries about a spillover. It's already receiving quite a number of refugees.

I think one of the most critical things at this stage is to make sure that neither of the neighbors tries to tip the scales in favor of one party or the other. They do have their favorites. They do have horses in the race, but it will be very dangerous if they decide to resupply, to support from the air, any of the parties, because that could encourage them and might prolong this conflict.

DOMONOSKE: Right. So you're describing real risks for neighboring countries if this does become some kind of a proxy war, it sounds like.

MUTIGA: Yes. So the risks are real - the possibility that you end up seeing militias pouring in from one party or the other. So, for example, in one of the scenarios that we've seen, you might see if the RSF, the Rapid Support Forces, are forced back into their stronghold in Darfur, they would look to recruit from not just that area, but also from Chad and the CAR. Egypt is acutely anxious about the risk of instability pouring over across the border. Libya already is very conflict-scarred and so the risk of contagion and spread of instability is real.

DOMONOSKE: Do you have any sense for how the fighting might come to an end?

MUTIGA: I think you will need concerted and coordinated action both from within Sudan but also from outside. We've seen an offer for mediation from the Kenyan president, but I think that outside actors, notably the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which all have very substantial contacts with the main actors - I think they need to lean on them in a concerted fashion, in partnership with the African and regional countries and also with neighbors such as Egypt, but also those a little farther away, such as the United Arab Emirates.

DOMONOSKE: What sort of pressure or what leverage might these countries have in trying to negotiate a cease-fire?

MUTIGA: The levers are not very attractive. This is a fight for survival. It's a fight that both sides view as existential. And all of them are very keen to try and settle it on the battlefield. However, the international community needs to signal that there will be consequences. And they also need to signal that if any of these sides prevails and attempts to govern Sudan in defiance of the wishes of the Sudanese people, which is for civilian-led government, that government will be ostracized, will not receive the badly needed economic support that Sudan desperately needs at this stage.

And so I think there needs to be coordinated messaging to the generals that it will not be business as usual, but that they might also be able to get an exit ramp if they can quickly stop fighting and allow the civilians back in power.

DOMONOSKE: Right. You're describing the need for a coordinated effort from the international community to bring about a better outcome. You know, we mentioned at the top of this interview evacuations of foreigners from the capital, Khartoum. Does that indicate to you that the international community is preparing for the worst here? How grave do you think the situation is in Sudan?

MUTIGA: So since Bashir was toppled in 2019, many people had warned that the relations between the security forces were very unstable, that the risk that they might confront each other by force of arms was very high. But frankly, nobody really expected this outbreak of war. Nobody really expected the suddenness with which it has unfolded and how vicious it is. And so we have a situation here where, of course, it is the Sudanese paying the highest price, trapped in a country that has already endured so much instability and conflict in the past and now are trapped in essentially the worst-case scenario.

DOMONOSKE: That's Murithi Mutiga of the International Crisis Group. Thanks for being with us.

MUTIGA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.