El impacto global de la actual crisis de Sudán, con Christopher Tounsel

10 de mayo de 2023 - 37 min escuchar

Mientras las facciones enfrentadas en Sudán libran una guerra por cuarta semana desde que estallaron las tensiones, se intensifica el sufrimiento de la población civil. ¿Qué significa la escalada del conflicto para el país, la región y el mundo? Christopher Tounsel, profesor asociado de Historia y director interino del Programa de Estudios Africanos de la Universidad de Washington, se une a los copresentadores de Doorstep, Tatiana Serafin y Nikolas Gvosdev, para analizar la importancia estratégica de Sudán para el comercio y la seguridad mundiales.

¿Qué está en juego si fracasan las conversaciones de paz lideradas por Estados Unidos? ¿Cómo ha cambiado el rostro del conflicto la diáspora sudanesa en Estados Unidos y en todo el mundo? ¿Puede llegar al poder en Sudán un movimiento democrático dirigido por civiles?

Transcripción completa y vídeo próximamente . . .

Impacto global de la crisis de Sudán Podcast a pie de puerta Enlace Spotify Repercusiones mundiales de la crisis de Sudán Enlace al podcast Doorstep

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming today a discussion about the Sudan and the crisis there, trying to dig a little bit deeper and understand how it impacts us here at home

Joining us in a moment will be Christopher Tounsel, associate professor and interim director of the African Studies Program at the University of Washington. He is a historian of modern Sudan—and I really like what his bio says—"with special focus on race and religion as political technologies." We will get into this also about Sudan because I feel Sudan is not framed in a great way here in the West, especially when we are just doing two-minute sound bites, and we will talk with Chris about this and more in a moment.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Chris. I appreciate your time and your recent piece about Sudan that laid the framework for me for understanding this current conflict. We are in day 26, according to Al Jazeera. I have been following and reading their news and commentary. I encourage our audience to go to Al Jazeera because I think that is one of the better purveyors of information about what is going on in Sudan.

I would like to hear from you, Chris, where you think we should go for information, but I would like to start with your piece in theconversation.com, "Sudan's plunge into chaos has geopolitical implications near and far—including for U.S. strategic goals." Here at The Doorstep we are always trying to make sense of the world for our audience at their doorstep and why it is so important for us to pay attention to what is going on around the world beyond the snippets that we might see on broadcast news to get into it. Your piece I think laid out well what the United States should be doing, could be doing, and has not been doing.

Maybe you can walk us through and explain to the audience truly—and I know you cannot do 5,000 years of history in 30 minutes, but I think that we need to understand the legacy of colonialism and what it has wrought today, and where we stand as the United States against two very big vested interests that we are in conflict with, one being Russia and the other being China. I think we need to understand that, and I do not think people grasp it.

I am going to say one last thing and then throw it to you, but it is about #followthemoney. We need to also follow the money here. Your piece does that also really well. If you can, take us back to maybe some of the origins, if not all of them, of what is happening today and where we stand today.

CHRISTOPHER TOUNSEL: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

In terms of the origins I think we can start with where Sudan is physically located. It is at the nexus of several regions in Africa. It is immediately to the south of Egypt; it is across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia; and it borders several countries in Central Africa, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and East Africa, so it is in some ways a crossroads.

Economically speaking, to your point, it is very important for several reasons. It is a major producer of gold. It is a major producer of oil. One of its natural geographic features, which is very important and has actually been economically important for the last 150 years, is its access to the Red Sea. Sudan has a several hundred miles-long coastline on the Red Sea, which means that a good 10 to 20 percent of the world's trade goes through the Red Sea and through either side, including the Suez Canal to the north.

Sudan was an English colony from 1899 until 1956 and became independent in 1956, but it has had a pretty tough go of it in terms of its post-colonial history. This is not the first coup that it has had. It has had coups—this is just off the top of my head right now—in 1958, 1969, 1985, obviously in 2019, the one that saw the overthrow of the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, 2021, and once again on April 15, when these two men at the helm have been basically struggling if you will to maintain military supremacy, so a lot of the economic effects of this conflict, to your point, stretch to places as far away as China, the United States, and also Russia. I am sure we will get into that as well. I hope that that helps.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is great. I want to reference, Nick, if you remember, the class we took at Georgetown, Map of the Modern World, which talked exactly about the importance of geography. If I could, I would put up a map to show not only the Red Sea and the surrounding area because that is exactly where we are seeing refugees going so people understand that refugees are going to Egypt, refugees are going to Ethiopia, refugees are going to South Sudan, and by the way, there are refugees that are "double refugees" because they were refugees in Sudan, and now they are going back to South Sudan. Maybe you can give us a little bit of historical perspective on Sudan and South Sudan, which in 2011 voted for independence, because I think that also plays an important role when we are looking at the map, which as you say is so important.

CHRISTOPHER TOUNSEL: It plays a huge role. The world's newest nation-state is the Republic of South Sudan, which as you just mentioned became independent in 2011, and it became independent after two very long and very devastating civil wars. To make a long story short, when Sudan became independent from British colonialism in 1956, the new independent Sudanese government wanted to forge the Sudan along Arab and Islamic lines. There were multiple attempts to institute Islam as the religion of state, efforts to have these forced Arabization policies as well, and this was something that a lot of people in South Sudan did not gibe with. Despite the fact that Islam has a thousand-plus-year history in the Sudan, we know that in South Sudan it is not the same and that for much of the colonial period British Christian missionaries purposefully were sent to South Sudan in a kind of Victorian effort to "halt the spread of Islam" deeper into the heart of Africa.

When Sudan became independent in 1956 it was basically—and I am being very general here—divided between a predominantly Muslim North and a Christian and indigenous religious South. Southern Sudanese resisted these efforts from Khartoum to encourage Islam and Arabization, so South Sudan fought two civil wars against the Sudan, hundreds of thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands went into exile, and after protracted negotiations South Sudan finally became independent in 2011.

To your point, the issue here, though, is that even after it became independent, South Sudan itself unfortunately suffered its own civil war, which forced a lot of South Sudanese refugees to go up north into Sudan. Now you have some South Sudanese refugees of this most recent civil war within South Sudan being forced to go back south into the very country, their home country, that they most recently fled.

In addition to those refugees along the Western border that Sudan shares with neighboring country Chad you have had hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees going into Chad because of some internal conflict in Western Sudan. That is just to say that you now have Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees in Sudan proper, in South Sudan, Chad to the west of Sudan, and of course Egypt to the north of Sudan, but also you have refugees who have been leaving the country through Port Sudan on the Northeastern coast of the Sudan and going into Saudi Arabia.

Obviously this has birthed an enormous humanitarian crisis. There have been reports about people not having access to medicine that they need to take care of their diabetes, running water is low, and electricity is low, so you have what is essentially a Sudanese conflict that is in danger of becoming a broader regional humanitarian crisis.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is an important perspective. If we bring it to today, Nick, there are talks in Jeddah now, so Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in Sudan—I was reading your piece—I think because of the opportunities for agriculture, and you mentioned oil and trade certainly, but the United States is also there. The United States is obviously interested in the region because of the humanitarian crisis and some of the resources you mentioned. What are the United States and the Saudis doing, and how can we bring this home to the doorstep of why we need to be more involved here at home?

CHRISTOPHER TOUNSEL: That is a great question. There are multiple reasons why the United States and Saudi Arabia have a vested interest in what is going on in the Sudan. I will start with the United States.

To begin, Sudan is very central to Russia's war effort in Ukraine. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we know that there have been a host of international sanctions against Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation.

What is very interesting is that the Wagner Group—which is basically this Russian private paramilitary group that has ties, however directly or indirectly, to Vladimir Putin—has operations going on in the Sudan. The Wagner Group is in Sudan because they are interested in Sudanese gold. The two main people at the center of the conflict—General al-Burhan and General Dagalo, otherwise known as "Hemedti," who is head of the Rapid Support Forces—have taken over Sudanese gold mines. There was a discovery of gold in 2017, and there was this rush to control these gold mines. Since 2017 and 2018 there has been Wagner activity within the Sudan, and the idea is that Russia is basically using Sudanese gold to insulate itself from the impact of international sanctions related to Ukraine.

Why the United States would be interested in this is that in essence so long as that pipeline stays open, so long as Russia is still able to lean on Sudanese gold to protect its economy in the wake of its operations in Ukraine, the Ukraine operations can continue. So in some ways Sudan represents a kind of proxy, a potential reservoir of energy to fuel Russia's war effort.

Then there are two or possibly three other reasons—I will just say those that come to the top of my head—why the United States would be interested: One is that Sudan is a signatory of the Abraham Accords. As Israeli relations warm up to some of the Arab League Member States, the Sudan included, there is a way in which Sudan represents one of these countries that since the fall of Bashir in 2019 is seen as an Arab nation that is at least warming up its bilateral relations with Israel. There is a desire for the United States obviously to have as many Arab nations that are friendly with Israel, a nuclear power, as it can.

There is also the kind of foreign policy matter of terrorism. We know that Al-Shabaab has been headquartered in Somalia, which, while it does not border Sudan, is still within that Horn of Africa region. The idea is that the more unstable things get within the Sudan and the more that this becomes a regional crisis the greater the possibility of organizations like Al-Shabaab taking advantage.

The third reason—and this connects back to the whole geography piece—is the fact that the United States has a Navy base in Djibouti, which also borders the Red Sea, so the idea is that the more unstable things get in the region the more vulnerable this Navy base at Djibouti becomes, and this Navy base in Djibouti is obviously important because it is on the Red Sea and is close to the Persian Gulf, so the United States wants to protect its interests there.

As we all know, the economy, not just in this country but around the world, is still recovering and still borderline in the throes of this pandemic-related recession, so any instability on the Red Sea also has the potential of messing with the supply of world trade and the supply of energy. Those are just some of the reasons why the United States in particular is interested.

For Saudi Arabia we know that the Saudis are very much interested because after al-Bashir was overthrown in s2019 the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stepped up their investment in the Sudan and their attempt to bring a sense of calm and normalization to the region. Both the Saudis and the UAE have had their eyes on the outhern Arabian Peninsula and in particular the civil war that has been ongoing in Yemen, so they have been trying to fend off these Houthi rebels, who are said to have ties with Iran. For all of these reasons and more, the Saudis would like to see someone in charge in the Sudan who is also on friendly terms with them as well. Those are just some of the reasons why the United States and the Saudis are interested.

Last but not least—because I think as a historian of religion that this should not be marginalized either—Saudi Arabia is obviously the country where millions of Muslims each year make the Hajj. So long as things are disrupted in the Sudan, that is going to impact the number of people who can travel to Saudi Arabia to make the Hajj because Port Sudan is one of the primary ways that Muslims from places like Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa are able to make that trip. The conflict in the Sudan, by affecting access to Port Sudan as well as the airspace above Sudan, is going to have a very direct impact on which Muslims around the world, not because of financial reasons but because of security reasons, are able to participate in this practice that is very central to their faith.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think it was great, Tatiana, that you mentioned Map of the Modern World, Professor Pirtle's old course, because maps and mindsets are really important here.

Chris, as I hear you lay all of this out, we think of the importance of Sudan—it is part of the Abraham Accords, which is critical to U.S. strategy in the Middle East of trying to normalize the relationship. Sudan, along with Egypt, are the Western end of the Indo-Abrahamic Corridor from Sudan and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to India and from there to South and East Asia, the oil trade, the gold trade, how this plays out with Russia, how this affects security for the Hajj and for pilgrims all indicate that Sudan sits, as you opened with, as a keystone between a number of key regions of the world.

I wanted to bring this back to Tatiana's original question, which is: Given all of this, one would think that there would be a lot more coverage of Sudan. Is it that we in the West and in the United States have put Sudan in an Africa box that is separate somehow from the rest of the world?

Maybe, Tatiana, this is why Al Jazeera is giving so much better coverage, because they have a better understanding of how Sudan is positioned and why it matters in all of these things. We are at a point today—gold prices are going up, oil prices are going up.

Chris, you mentioned that we still are shaky post-COVID-19, and we know what happened the last time we had a blockage in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and what that did for trade and for goods and services. One would think that there would be a lot more reporting on this because this seems to be touching a number of doorstep issues. Yet it is not, or at least not the six o'clock news and the like.

Coming back to Tatiana's earlier question, where should we be looking for sources on this and a sense of why this issue does not seem to be getting the coverage that it ought to be getting given Sudan's critical role sitting, again as you said, at the intersection of North, West, and East Africa, but also across from that to the larger Middle East and the Indian Ocean?

CHRISTOPHER TOUNSEL: Thank you for that two-pronged question. One, in terms of where Americans can and/or should be receiving their news on this, I absolutely underscore the importance of Al Jazeera. I am not paid by them, but I do believe that they are the news media organization of record in that part of the world. I have been watching them throughout this crisis. They still have a reporter on the ground in Khartoum reporting regularly.

The Conversation I think is a good source because all of the content put up there is put up by experts, so not people who are assigned to a particular part of the world one month and then perhaps reassigned when different hotspots emerge elsewhere. If one goes on The Conversation, they can read news pieces and think pieces by people who are professors of that particular field. To read a piece written by someone who has been reading and writing about Ukraine-Russia relations for the last 20 years is going to provide a certain depth and texture that someone just assigned since 2021 might not. That is not a knock or judgment against that; it is just to say that it is different.

While you were talking I was also thinking about how important journalism and bias is here because for the Sudan in particular I think since the early 2000s, post-9/11 and as the world became increasingly more familiar with the Darfur crisis, I think that Sudan became the "Western face," if you will, of African chaos, corruption, child soldiers, genocide, all of the familiar tropes that we on this call are familiar with. I think Sudan in that way, in the Western media imagination, is emblematic—obviously incorrectly but emblematic—of the continent as a whole. If I am watching the local six o'clock news or the 6:30 evening news on any of the major news outlets, if for the 90 seconds or two minutes of coverage that Africa receives, more times than not it is going to be for a conflict, a human rights abuse, or something that is not great news. I think we have seen this in the Sudan since mid-April.

There was a lot of coverage between April 15 and maybe April 20, but as foreign governments started to evacuate their citizens there was this concern voiced that when those foreign nationals were evacuated basically foreign cameras would go to other news stories and that the Sudanese who remained would be left alone, the cameras would go away, and then the abuses would become worse because the eyes of the world would no longer be on Khartoum.

My wife is a communications scholar, so I am also thinking about just how central the importance is of media here. Media—and I do not have to tell you, Tatiana, how important that part is, but I think it is so important because it does shape how people think about entire countries, societies, religions, and policy.

Moving forward, I think the good thing—it is good, but it is also obviously potentially dangerous—is that there is an abundance of sources that one can have access to. Some are more trustworthy than others, but I would say certainly Al Jazeera is pretty good. The Associated Press is pretty consistent.

Last but not least—and this has actually been talked about recently as well—social media. For all of the flack, deservedly so, that has been directed at organizations like Twitter, post-Elon Musk stuff, Twitter has become an amazing source of information for people in and outside of Sudan. There is a way in which social media plays no small role here in terms of what we know, in terms of what is going on in the country—what airports are safe, not safe, what roads are good to travel on or not—so I think that social media can become one of these spaces not just for reporting what is going on but also continuing to shine a light on the country even when some of the three-letter news networks are not.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am so glad you brought up social media. I am obsessed, but I am obsessed because you said in an article on Twitter—by the way, I am off Twitter, everybody—I was so intrigued by the hashtag #KeepEyesOnSudan that you mentioned. In the article you also mentioned "A Digital Campaign to Save the People of Sudan: How Diaspora Communities are Plugging the Gaps Left by International Aid Organizations" by remaining to help. I thought that was so empowering because all we hear, as you say, is we [dislike] Elon, Twitter is a disaster, yet this hashtag and the people who are as you said communicating internally in the country where to get resources, what to do, but also there is a huge Sudanese diaspora here that is also able to communicate.

I was fascinated by this because I feel—I am Ukrainian—the Ukrainian diaspora has phenomenally driven and elevated the conversation about Ukraine in this country, and I feel like there is potential for the Sudanese diaspora to also do that. There was one quote from that article: "What we are seeing worldwide is not just people feeling they need to help but also being able to help because of this organization," like the Sudanese American Physicians Association.

I am wondering what you are seeing from the diaspora front and Sudan. Is there this groundswell? What are you seeing that we need to be seeing because there are Sudanese in our communities?

CHRISTOPHER TOUNSEL: I will say that as someone who is on Twitter there has been an incredible way in which people who are in Sudan are describing, giving day-by-day accounts of, "This happened to me here, this happened to me there." In terms of the Sudanese diaspora it has also been good to see Sudanese talking heads on these major networks that non-Sudanese pay attention to.

Just yesterday I saw one interview given by a Sudanese professor at McGill, but what was great about it was that the venue was Democracy Now. There is a Sudanese diaspora in Australia, the United Kingdom, in Canada for sure, and throughout this country in places like Pittsburgh; Washington, DC; Omaha, Nebraska; and San Diego. The counterintuitive part about it all is that in many respects the Sudanese diaspora that could be so important in shining a light on the crisis in Sudan now was actually created by the Sudanese civil wars of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

Certainly I think there is a way that not only through financial capital can members of the Sudanese diaspora, which is literally sending in remittances to friends and family in the country who are now really struggling, but are also staging protests at colleges and universities, writing editorials in newspapers, and being active on social media.

The unfortunate piece about this is that within South Sudan itself we know that freedom of the press is not a thing. It might be enshrined on paper, but reporters have gotten arrested for saying unsavory things about President Salva Kiir. I think there is a way in which Sudanese civilians outside of the Sudan can actually have a very big role in putting pressure on their foreign governments to do everything that they can because it is an untenable situation. The consensus seems to be that the best possible solution is that neither Hemedti nor al-Burhan actually be in power. It might have to come down to Sudanese civilians leading the forefront in terms of calls for there being civilian-led democracy in the country.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a great optimistic note to conclude our conversation for today. Thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER TOUNSEL: Thank you both for having me.

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Carnegie Council para la Ética en los Asuntos Internacionales es una organización independiente y no partidista sin ánimo de lucro. Las opiniones expresadas en este podcast son las de los ponentes y no reflejan necesariamente la posición de Carnegie Council.

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