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World War Sudan and what it means for Nigeria

It would seem that a war, not a one-off shootout, has broken out in Sudan, Nigeria’s neighbour to the north. If we have learnt anything…

It would seem that a war, not a one-off shootout, has broken out in Sudan, Nigeria’s neighbour to the north. If we have learnt anything from the crisis in Libya, which Nigerians only followed on the news without any sense of foreboding, it is that in the end, one unstable country is a problem for all.

That conflict in Libya created a whirlpool of small arms and mercenaries who fed into the Boko Haram terror that is still the bane of Nigeria today. So unlike in 2011, Nigeria cannot afford to be passive about this one.

Contrary to what was initially thought, that the April 15 shootings in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, were a bust-up between two military leaders, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Army and General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo of the Rapid Support Force, the RSF formerly the Janjaweed), it is shaping out to be a full-on crisis. It might even devolve into a full-blown civil war with a number of vested international interests. That is bad news not only for Sudan, or its immediate neighbours but for Nigeria as well.

Trade relations between Nigeria and Sudan may not amount to much on the larger scheme of things (a total volume of only about $10 million for 2021) but established social and cultural ties go back centuries. 

As an important node on the hajj route, when pilgrimages were embarked upon by foot, thousands of Nigerians either on their way to hajj or home somehow ended up settling in Sudan.

Current estimates suggest five million Sudanese are of Nigerian descent. Does that mean there are five million Nigerians in Sudan? Not really. Those five million people are Sudanese who happen to have Nigerian ancestry. 

Officially, there are some 5, 500 Nigerians in Sudan at the moment. Eighty per cent of these are students. These are the priority group that Nigeria needs to get out of the country before it becomes too complicated to do so.

There are already plans by the Nigerian government to evacuate these Nigerians. These plans have met some hitches that hopefully, by the time this column is published, would have been ironed out.

Many people have asked why Sudan. Why have many Nigerian students ventured to Sudan for their studies? In the same vein, I suppose one could ask why Ukraine? Or even Cyprus or Malta? Why in Ghana or Benin Republic where degrees are allegedly procured in months? 

The truth is that in the past, the quality of education in Sudan has been good, not only in religious studies but in the sciences as well. Medical education in Sudan has had a long history dating back to 1924 when the Kitchener Medical School, now a part of the University of Khartoum was established. In the 1990s, when education in Nigeria was taking a pummelling from mismanagement, underfunding and SAP, Sudan was rapidly improving its medical education.

Today, there are about 60 medical health schools in the country to serve its 45 million population. In contrast, Nigeria has 42 medical schools for its 200 million people. There are scholarships for foreign students in Sudan and there was consistency and stability. They kept a regular Academic calendar and had student welfare, things that are sorely lacking in Nigeria. So yes, Nigerians trooped to Sudan, and now they are trooping to Ghana and Cyprus and some obscure places to escape the malaise in Nigerian institutions.

In the last few years though, the standards in Sudan have fallen. Instability in that country has seen the academic calendar ruptured repeatedly by unrest, the pandemic, the tenuous power structure in the country opposed often by mass street protests.

Nigeria should have invested more in its education sector. And now it must invest in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Sudan. Not only as the much-touted regional power it is supposed to be but for its own security. It will simply cost us more to live next door to an unstable Sudan than it would to bring peace to the country.

The first concern would be the possibility of weapons and mercenaries from Sudan percolating through Nigeria’s infamously porous borders. All they need to do is cross through Chad and they are on the doorsteps of Sambisa, that infamous den of terror. That is not a possibility we should be entertaining considering that Nigeria has to some extent contained Boko Haram.

The conflict in Sudan has the potential to blow up into an international quagmire. Already, we have seen a convergence of international interests in Sudan. While the country might have lost most of its oil reserves when South Sudan broke away in 2011, it still has huge gold deposits, the third largest on the continent, and water. The Nile runs through the country and provides fresh water to both Egypt and Sudan. 

Egypt is strongly involved in Sudan, not only because of cultural ties but because it needs to secure the Nile channel. Egypt’s leader, El Sisi is a close ally of General El-Burhan.

Russia’s involvement on the other hand is tied to the gold mines that General ‘Hemidti’ controls. Russia, through its ‘privately-owned’ soldiers-for-hire outfit, the Wagner Group, has been accused of partly funding the Ukrainian war with Sudanese gold. 

For years, Russia has been accused of smuggling Sudanese gold and has had an “arrangement” with General ‘Hemedti’ and his RSF that has seen his Dagalo family proclaiming itself one of the wealthiest on the continent.

The largest procurer of that gold is a company owned by a Russian oligarch and friend of Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who just happens to also be the boss of Wagner. So, neither Dagalo nor the Russians, whose payment for the gold has included weapons supply and military training, would want to lose that advantage.

The Horn of Africa region is already too unstable with the long-standing conflicts in Somalia, the Tigray crisis, and the mayhem in South Sudan. A full-scale civil war in Sudan further contributes to the instability in the region and will potentially unleash an army of soldiers-for-hire, as we have seen in Libya already. No one wants that. Well, apart from the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) which profits from conflicts and arms sales.

If the crisis escalates, there is also the possibility of some of those five million Sudanese of Nigerian descent finding their way to their ancestral homes. We already have a serious humanitarian crisis with Nigeria’s map pockmarked by displaced persons’ camps from the Boko Haram crisis, and ethnic and herder/farmers clashes.

For Nigeria, the priorities should be the immediate and safe evacuation of its 5, 500 citizens in Sudan and then a necessary intervention to bring the warring factions to the table, in that order.

The first priority is easier and more attainable as that is being worked on at the moment, thanks to the intervention of NEMA and the Diaspora Commission. As for the second, it is hard to see with Nigeria itself in the midst of a power transition. Whatever Nigeria and the rest of the African Union do, it should be known that peace in Sudan, as peace anywhere tends to be, is worth its weight in gold.


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