The Conflict in Sudan the World Forgot

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The Conflict in Sudan the World Forgot

“No place seems to be safe in Sudan now,” Fatima Ahmed said.

Ahmed founded Zenab for Women in Development, an organization that promotes the rights of women and girls in Sudan, a country now entering the second year of civil war. “This is a war inside the cities, inside the villages,” she said, speaking from Cairo, where she fled for her safety.

That war erupted a year ago when two generals began fighting each other for control of Sudan. The power struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka “Hemedti”) has spiraled into an astonishing humanitarian catastrophe. 

Conflict has displaced more than 8 million people, with more than 6.5 million pushed to other parts of Sudan, and a million more crossing into neighboring countries. The RSF and aligned militias are likely committing war crimes in the Darfur region. There is credible evidence of ethnic cleansing and widespread rape in a place where a genocide started almost 20 years ago.

Across the country, violence is preventing access to medicine and food, as is the deliberate obstruction and confiscation of aid by warring parties. Everywhere in Sudan, fuel, food and rent are too expensive. Inflation is at an astonishing 260 percent, and it has helped push the country to the brink of famine. In March, about 90 percent of the country faced emergency levels of hunger.

About 5 million people are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations.

“It is actually the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with the least response in the world,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, a Sudanese human rights advocate who served as assistant chief of staff to Sudanese prime minister Abdalla Hamdok from January 2020 to February 2021. Sudan needs about $2.7 billion in assistance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It has received only 6 percent of that.

There is no clear pathway out of this crisis, even as it has largely faded into the backdrop of other global catastrophes. The origins of the conflict go back decades, from the rule of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir to Sudan’s thrilling, but flawed transition to democracy. That began in 2019, after Bashir’s ouster, and effectively ended when al-Burhan and Hemedti – the two generals currently fighting – overthrew the civilian government.

Then they turned on each other. 

The war has only escalated since. The United Nations called for an immediate ceasefire last month. The generals ignored it, as they have with past ceasefire deals, and attempts at negotiations faltered most of the last year. America’s top official on Sudan told reporters in March he expected renewed talks this month, soon after Ramadan. 

But neither side has an incentive to give up fighting. Both militaries have Sudanese territory under their control, and both are being sustained by outside benefactors. The United Arab Emirates denies it, but it is giving weapons to the RSF. The Sudanese Armed Forces have recently been deploying Iranian-made drones. The Taqaddam, a coalition of civilian leaders led by former Prime Minister Hamdok, has struggled to establish broad credibility and legitimacy.

It hasn’t done itself any favors by doing things like dealing directly with the RSF, the militia that helped unravel the country’s democratic transition and is credibly accused of committing atrocities against Sudanese civilians. Sudan’s grassroots resistance committees, which helped usher in the democratic revolution, have morphed into emergency response rooms, filling in for the functions of an otherwise failed state. They often do so under threat.

Here is where it would be nice to offer up a neat playbook for ending the crisis, and the war that’s causing it, but these never exist. Sudan, of course, needs more money and international support. Aid groups I spoke to talked about the need for cash assistance – many markets in Sudan do have food, it’s just wildly expensive to buy. (Groups like Ahmed’s do small grants, through partners like Women for Women International).

Emergency response rooms, the mutual aid groups that are on the frontlines of this, also need more help. “We’re noticing with the international community the lack of urgency,” Hajooj Kuka, external communications officer for the Khartoum State Emergency Response Rooms told The Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. “Everything takes so long to be like, ‘oh, we have to fight famine.’ If you do something now, we have a chance, but if you wait until three months, then we’ll just be dealing with – just responding to whatever’s happened.”

The prospects of a political solution seem pretty bleak right now. A permanently destabilized Sudan threatens the wider region, but that hasn’t stopped state actors – from Egypt to Ethiopia to the Gulf States – from all trying to figure out what they can get out of this. “I don’t really think we’re going to have a good breakthrough, or an enabling environment for a lasting peace process because of the interests of regional spoilers and international spoilers,” said Maha Tambal, a Sudanese researcher.

The U.S. has sanctioned a lot of people, but it does have somewhat limited leverage here. Where Washington might have some sway is in pushing the UAE to stop funneling weapons to the RSF, or with other countries like Egypt who are mixed up with the SAF. When I asked the State Department about this, it directed me to watch Thursday’s press conference, where the subject would come up.

It did, thanks to a bunch of other reporters. “With all of the countries who have been identified as possibly fueling this conflict, we have had direct conversations with every single one of them to press them to cease support and fueling of this war,” United Nations Secretary Linda Thomas Greenfield said. She added that the Emirates had been among those named in the press, and that the US’s Special Envoy to Sudan had “had those engagements as well.” 

Still, the actual support outside actors are giving to the warring factions is somewhat opaque, which does make it hard to know how long either side can go, or if one or the other might begin to gain an edge. That means one of two war criminals would prevail, which is not exactly a recipe for peace or stability. As Eltayeb said, the Sudanese people are being forced to choose between “what’s bad and what’s worse.”

The Taqaddam is trying to fill the vacuum for civilian leadership, but it is fragmented. The emergency response rooms are a testament to the resilience of Sudan’s civil society, but these grassroots groups are often shunted aside in the peacemaking process. 

Yet there is a sense of urgency here, too. This fight may be framed as a battle between two generals, but Sudan has many, many militias and rebel groups, and the longer the fighting continues, the more fragmented and chaotic it risks becoming. Sudan’s humanitarian catastrophe will only deepen, and is echoing the atrocities of the past in places like Darfur. No easy answers exist, but the lesson the world should have learned by now is that it can only ignore a crisis or conflict until it explodes into something it can’t manage anymore. Sudan is not exempt. 

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