There are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt; there’s a network of them in Meroe, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Khartoum. Although smaller than the pyramids in Egypt, Meroe’s pyramids are older, built as crypts for the Kingdom of Kush that once stretched across the region. Historians say that these are the prototypes for the pyramids of Giza, and they are inscribed with drawings and hieroglyphics, though they have images of people with curly hair instead of the straight locks featured in Egypt.
Sudan, with all its complexity and changeability, is easy to fall in love with. This only makes recent events more devastating. The marriage of convenience between the military and the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary outfit built from the embers of the infamous Janjaweed militia, has collapsed into the worst fighting that the capital, Khartoum, has seen in a generation. Sudanese people have been protesting the military regime since the 2019 military coup, warning the world that this could happen. Both the current de facto president and the leader of the RSF were henchmen of the deposed former President Omar al-Bashir, who oversaw mass killings across Sudan. Sudanese people immediately saw through their new rulers’ false promises of change and demanded a democratically elected government. As the date for a promised return to a civilian administration drew close, the contest between the two arms of military power has devolved into fighting, which has killed at least 300 people.
Despite its tendency to fall out of the international media spotlight, Sudan is as central to contemporary history as the ancient city of Meroe, where iron was first forged, is to ancient history. Al-Bashir may have created the RSF, but the group partly owes its survival to the tacit support of European governments and their desire to stop the flow of refugees and migrants from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan itself. In 2015 Eritreans were the largest single group by nationality attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. In the same year, al-Bashir deployed the RSF as Sudan’s border guards, particularly at the Kassala border crossing with Eritrea, even though the group had been accused of human rights abuses while fighting in Darfur.
In 2018, the European Union agreed to give al-Bashir and the military regime an estimated $200 million in migration-related support, even while protests were ongoing. Much of this money was presumably allocated to the RSF, as the country’s official border police, further propping up the military regime. European border policies are intimately connected to the politics of Sudan, a reminder of the transnational consequences of Europe’s unethical behavior toward refugees and migrants.
The violence in Sudan is not unexpected. Sudanese people have been fearing it since the military regime took power. Existing at the crossroads of the African and Arab worlds, two regions that Europe, including Russia, routinely treats as backgrounds for other people’s politics, Sudan offers another example of how the lives of people in these areas are treated as secondary to the role their nations play in European economies.
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Political philosopher Immanuel Wallerstein developed World Systems Theory in the 1970s to explain how different regions of the world relate to each other. He argued that there are core regions in which money and resources are concentrated because of long histories of extraction and violence. On the other hand, there are peripheral regions whose position in global systems is reduced to producing the raw materials that the core countries need to sustain themselves. Leaders and power brokers in the core region often do not consider these areas as places where people live and love but solely as sites where raw materials are found. In fact, people from the core countries often view the human beings—with their demands for rights and justice—as obstacles to be overcome or navigated.
World Systems Theory captures both the dynamics of extraction and the complicity between elites in Europe and people like al-Bashir and his cronies in Sudan. Although Sudan has been under sanctions since 1998, the export of Sudanese gold has never stopped, and the protagonists of the current war are part of that industry, with Russia in particular expanding its interest in the precious metal following its invasion of Ukraine.
In the West, the media has tended to focus on the connections between Sudan and Russia’s war in Ukraine. This understandable: Putin’s government has openly and aggressively courted Sudan for diplomatic support. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, one of the protagonists of Sudan’s war, has visited Moscow at least once since Russia launched its war in Ukraine, and Sudan has repeatedly voted against Russian isolation at the UN. Still, focusing only on this is an oversimplification. In fact, the crisis in Sudan represents the ugliest consequences of the neoliberal bargain, in which authoritarian leaders deflect global scrutiny by offering wealthy countries an illusion of stability and continuity.
For at least the last 10 years, the military regime in Sudan has been quietly implicated in conflicts across the region. The divided junta has sent soldiers to fight in Yemen, Chad, and Libya, and is caught up in the escalating diplomatic impasse over the waters of the Nile between Ethiopia and Egypt. Sudan may not be at the core of the Western world, but it central to contemporary politics.
For the people in the periphery, the loss of complexity often means disappearing from global attention as soon as stories no longer fit popular tropes. Countries that have competitive elections must suffer the narrative burden of the big-man clash. If fighting breaks out, it triggers pundits’ search for primordial tensions. Our political leaders can hide their bad politics behind zealotry and fanaticism, because it fits the mold of the exotic Other. The global media ignores greed and the aggressive expansion of foreign capital as explanations for why domestic politics unravel. The actions of our leaders are misattributed to something deep within our cultures—even when people are resisting their rulers.
These framings have knock-on effects on the people who have the power to respond to political developments. For the people of Sudan, the loss of complexity has been most deeply felt in the collective punishment they endure for the political choices of their leaders. After the September 11 bombings, sanctions against Sudan were supposed to stop military leaders like al-Bashir from participating in global politics. Instead, they pushed millions of Sudanese people into poverty, while elite networks across the core and the periphery around the world kept those soldiers wealthy and connected.
Sudan remains one of the main exporters of gold in Africa, and officials estimate that up to four times as much gold is smuggled out of the country as is sold in formal markets. Today, Sudanese people must go to great pains to remind the world that this is not their war—it is a fight between two military men, a fight they have been protesting for the past three years.
We owe it to each other to try to understand larger context of places that too often fall out of the headlines. This is not just about storytelling. It’s about making room for more meaningful action that allows us to respond to situations like those in Sudan. We must recognize how past political choices on one side of the world feeds into present-day consequences on the other. Understanding the larger context allows citizens to hold their own governments accountable for the role they play in disrupting the lives of others. Sudanese people deserve to be seen on their own terms, with as much context as anyone else would demand that others see them in.
I’m not arguing that we all need to become experts in Sudan in order to extend empathy, but it doesn’t feel excessive to ask for more than a framing that says people’s problems matter only if they can demonstrate how they are connected to the problems of the West. At the very least, Sudanese people themselves deserve to be heard above the clashing generals. The demand for Madaniya, a civilian administration, that galvanized the anti-coup protests since 2019 remains as urgent and important as ever.
Kholood Khair, the founding director of Confluence Advisory, a think tank in Khartoum, told me: “The dream of a democratic civilian Sudan is not over, not by a long shot. This conflict has shown unequivocally that the pro-democracy movement was right all along: You cannot trust the generals; not to usher in a stable or democratic Sudan and not to put the welfare of the Sudanese above their brute ambition. The generals think that one of them will win and be able to consolidate their 2021 coup in their image, the pro-democracy movement, knowing now, fully, the dangers they present, won’t let them. Perhaps this time the world will listen.”