In the absence of clear information coming out of Darfur to dispel rampant speculation that South African National Defence Force troops participating in UNAMID peacekeeping duties may have been threatened by Sudanese Armed Forces, the ADR team undertook a brief ‘red team’ style speculative breakdown of possible scenarios. This is based on what was actually known at the time, what the Sudanese Armed Forces may have done, and how the South African Defence Force (SANDF) may have responded.
What we knew as of 19 June 2015:
Immediately following a court order in South Africa preventing President Omar al-Bashir from leaving the country where he was attending an AU Summit, something unusual happened in SANDF’s area of operations (AO) – currently under command of 8 SAI, a mechanised infantry battalion now deployed as motorised infantry. One media report implied a mass military presence of SAF or SAF-backed militia effectively holding SANDF forces “hostage”. This news article was apparently based on leaked information from low-ranking SANDF troops
Reports from soldiers in the AO indicate at least the presence of ‘technicals’ (light vehicles with custom mounted crew-served weapons) in the area. In addition, extra ammunition and a “Stage 2” readiness was allegedly ordered, according to soldiers’ reports.
UNAMID denied any SAF threat or escalation, and the SANDF and South African Government has echoed this denial.
Assessing possible actions taken by the SAF
(speculation about what the SAF may or may not have done to trigger events)
1: No unusual action at all.
There is a possibility that nothing out of the ordinary happened, but this is unlikely for several reasons. An indication that at least something happened can be found in the specific details reported on by Netwerk 24 on the level of readiness change in the SANDF forces. Moreover, the occurrence of some manner of enemy force movement was repeated by other (admittedly anonymous) sources calling in to various radio chat programs subsequent to the Netwerk 24 story.
2: Rogue movement of some troops outside of SAF chain of command.
It is possible that SAF commanders operating near the SANDF bases in Darfur took it upon themselves to mount intimidatory patrols with available forces. General posturing of infantry or light vehicles in even a small numbers would be enough of a disturbance to trigger alarm amongst SANDF forces – especially if those forces occupied an isolated position.
Without explicit orders, these commanders may have been aware of Bashir’s potential arrest in South Africa, and taken it upon themselves to intimidate SANDF forces nearby.
Such movements would explain the events depicted in the media without implying any kind of grand, high-risk realpolitik by the Sudanese government.
It is worth considering though, that even if such movements were not explicitly ordered, they are nonetheless potentially cause for concern. Such actions could easily escalate into open conflict. A subset of discussion on the entire affair has focussed on the question of whether the SANDF contingent would have been able to win such a fight – an interesting, but ultimately irrelevant question.
3: Specific deployment of SAF as ordered by Sudanese High Command or Government.
Initial media coverage of the events in Sudan strongly implied that some variant of this scenario had played out. Specifically, it was implied that SAF forces deployed with the specific intent to intimidate SANDF forces as part of a deliberate and planned strategy to coerce the South African government into ensuring that Omar al-Bashir was not arrested
However, the risks of such a gambit would have been high. The threat of fighting actually breaking out between UNAMID peacekeepers and SAF units would not be an unrealistic potential outcome. This makes the notion that Bashir would be reckless enough to risk all-out war with a UN peacekeeping mission an astounding one.
Possible explanations for events and the narrative(s) that subsequently emerged
Scenario 1: Tom Clancy
This scenario imagines decisions and events that could come straight out of the pages of a Tom Clancy novel. In it, the implications of the initial news reports are accurate: the SAF perpetrated an act of intimidation designed specifically to ensure the safety of President al-Bashir.
Two major criticisms of this scenario of occur immediately:
- High Risk with an overwhelmingly negative end-game for Sudan
- Necessitates a significant potential coverup/conspiracy by SANDF/SA GOV
Assuming the reports of SAF movement were accurate, and the Sudanese Government/High Command had in fact ordered such movements with the specific intent to ‘hold hostage’ SANDF forces, such a move would be tantamount to an act of war. Not only could violence break out then and there, but the diplomatic repercussions of such a move would be extreme.
Assuming also that the implied threat was maintained until Bashir was safely back in Khartoum, there is little reason for the SANDF to maintain silence about the events, or to withdraw or even reinforce the contingent in Sudan. Sudan would, at the very least, have irreparably damaged relations with South Africa, and likely with the AU. Moreover, the international community, once informed of what had taken place, would (at minimum) impose heavy sanctions and likely examine options some form of international response. The risks and rewards of such a scenario point strongly against it – Sudan would have to have been pushed to a point of desperation for this to be a rational option.
In addition, several other factors point against the plausibility of such a scenario having played out. It is particularly questionable whether the SANDF or the SA Government would seek to cover up such an event. While sceptics note a number of possible examples of cover-ups and irrational foreign policy actions by the South African government, there are practical realities to consider. First, the SANDF contingent in Sudan numbers between 800 and 1,000 personnel. It is implausible that such a story would not eventually leak out in sufficient detail and with sufficient corroboration to cause any cover-up to collapse.
Scenario 2: Broken Telephone/Fog of War
(Update: The fundamentals of this scenario appear to have been validated to some extent by a Sunday Times article that appeared on 21 June. The article hints at a general panic that spread amongst troops when a large body of SAF troops approached a UNAMID base).
A more plausible scenario that explains both the limited details that have emerged from Sudan, while also accounting for the mixed nature of reports (without requiring Machiavellian political manoeuvres or conspiracy theory coverups) begins with a case of ‘Broken Telephone’ occurring amongst SANDF units.
In this scenario: after the reported movement of SAF troops near SANDF position, there may have been a breakdown in communications amongst SANDF units. The scope, scale, and implications of the SAF threat was then both overemphasised and misinterpreted, both in Darfur and in South Africa.
It is plausible that there was some form of miscommunication or even panic amongst SANDF personnel, caused by limited information being passed around, specifically in the context of the events taking place in South Africa relating to the possible arrest of al-Bashir. Precautionary measures, such as ordering heightened readiness could be misconstrued as anticipation of an imminent attack, and observations of even slight activity by limited numbers of SAF could be repeated, duplicated or otherwise exaggerated. Such confusion would have been more likely to occur amongst lower ranking troops who were, after all, the predominant source of the initial media reports.
Other factors that could have compounded this situation include the disposition of SANDF troops in Kutum, Malha and Mellit, the current UNAMID bases. These bases are in isolated and remote locations. Moreover, the SANDF peacekeepers are lightly armed – the 8 SAI is normally a mechanised infantry force, but is currently only operating light vehicles. In addition, SANDF forces have grown accustomed to limited attacks in the region. Finally, the experience of isolated SANDF troops having to fight their way out of encirclement in Bangui in March 2013 would not have been far from the minds of other SANDF troops.
A repeated argument in discussions following the breaking of the story referred to the timing of events. The underlying premise of such arguments was that the timing of an alert issued amongst SANDF forces in Sudan was itself evidence of a grander plot. This circular logic points to the compelling nature of the overall narrative. Put differently, the ‘Tom Clancy’-esque story is so good that it may have gained enough momentum to bypass common sense or due diligence. It is also easy for the news cycle to slip into increasing levels of hyperbole where, for example, a case of perceived intimidation becomes ‘virtually held hostage’ and so on.
The implications of the Tom Clancy scenario have been seized on by local South African media and commentators with gusto, particularly by those with critical opinions regarding, variously: the state of readiness and capability of the SANDF; the nature of the SANDF’s involvement in peacekeeping operations in Africa; and the trustworthiness of the SANDF command structures or for that matter, the South African Government itself. For some observers, the fact that the SANDF/SA Government denied the story was, in its own way, confirmation.
Considering the range of possible actions of the SAF, it is worth also considering the possibility of limited or unsanctioned activity. An interesting question to consider is what degree of activity, in the broader context of events, would actually constitute an act of coercive intimidation. It is also worth noting that a scenario of unsanctioned actions in which a rogue unit decided to intimidate a South African unit, does not paint Bashir or South Africa in a particularly good light. It would indicate a lack of unit cohesion within the SAF organisational structures, and potential discipline and coordination problems, as well as potentially shaky morale amongst the SANDF.
The events in Sudan involving the SANDF and SAF remain unclear. In the face of incomplete information, speculation is natural. However, where information is incomplete, or contradictory narratives emerge, it is important to consider contextual factors such as the rational implications of any given scenario.
It seems most plausible that some unusual, albeit limited, actions by the SAF sparked some a response from at least some SANDF peacekeepers – in the form of heightened alert levels. While it is undeniable that there was a perceived relationship between events in Sudan and events relating to al-Bashir’s hasty exit from South Africa, it is a large and implausible leap to suggest that any form of direct coercion was undertaken. Foreign policy inconsistencies aside, the South African government would have little reason to tolerate, let alone orchestrate any coverup of any such dramatic events. Instead, the likelihood is that story itself resulted from a combination of overzealous reporting, prompted by a measure of panic of confusion amongst SANDF personnel in Sudan. This is not to say that there aren’t important questions to be asked, including the capabilities and security of those SANDF peacekeepers, or the nature of the SA Government’s complicity in Omar al-Bashir’s escape. But, those are questions to be tackled separately, and don’t require Sudanese Army hostage taking to be asked.