Sudan’s scary future must be faced with patient realism
Sudan’s civil war shows no signs of abating. It appears that the well-armed struggle between the Sudanese Armed Forces under Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces under Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo is an existential one.
While forecasting is hazardous in an uncertain world, Sudan’s trajectory provides depressing predictability against the backdrop of its tragic history. We should get ready for worse to come.
The nature of the differences between the warring Sudanese commanders implies that, for them to consider peace, one side must win militarily. Or at least attain sufficient territorial advantage to ensure their future survival.
This likely endgame derives from the experience of other wars. For example, the evolving situations in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, Ethiopia’s civil war in Tigray or South Sudan’s achievement of independence.
With no side yet in the ascendance, there is plenty of fight left in Sudan. Therefore, it is not surprising that third-party peacemaking has made little progress, even with the limited objective of humanitarian ceasefires. Existential battles imply no self-restraint or adherence to the rules of war, despite exhortations from outside. Besides, Sudan’s brutal past, including the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the Darfur genocide, show that neither the army nor the Rapid Support Forces are dedicated to the principles of humanity. They are unlikely to change now, even with threats of prosecution in international courts and sanctions from superpowers.
Viciously fought wars develop their own autonomous dynamic, like a proliferating cancer cell or overheating nuclear core. Moderating voices from Sudan’s regional and global friends — even on different sides — fall on deaf ears.
Spurned diplomatic capital will be much more costly to redeploy when the time comes to invest again. While a consoling thought from history is that all wars eventually end, when will that be in Sudan?
War-torn for most of its 67-year existence as an independent state, another five or more years of acute strife is likely, with a further period of half-war, half-peace extending for a generation. No change is likely until the Sudanese fighting class wears itself down and space emerges for a compelling vision that can rise above a divisive debate on democracy. There is no indication so far of anyone emerging to take on this leadership mantle. Civil society activism may sometimes overthrow disliked regimes, but it cannot usually run governments.
Could external intervention reset Sudan’s trajectory? The foolhardiness of that in Africa’s second-largest nation is obvious, noting the continent’s dismal record with peacekeeping under the UN, African Union or former colonial powers. The current geopolitical situation suggests that the prospects of such an intervention in Sudan’s contested state are thankfully close to zero.
In the coming months, the geography of the conflict will continue to shift as the opposing sides consolidate their areas of control and fight to extend them. The country could fracture into different militarized zones. Other groups may appear, either allied to one of the protagonists or by carving out their own pieces of real estate.
Such divisions will generate more instability, which will offer fertile ground for predators. These include existing criminal networks, especially human traffickers preying on the misery of desperation. Europe should be ready for what it fears most: More migrants across the Mediterranean and more news headlines as significant numbers perish in its depths.
Waging wars needs resources and others, such as the Wagner Group or copycats, will capitalize on the economic opportunities offered by chaos. For example, to smuggle Sudan’s gold and minerals in exchange for weapons. Violent extremist groups in the Sahel are already poised to exploit Sudan’s vulnerability. They include the allies of the Rapid Support Force’s precursor, the Janjaweed, who are riding in from Libya and Chad, as well as Daesh cells that are biding their time.
Existential battles imply no self-restraint or adherence to the rules of war, despite exhortations from outside.
Sudan inhabits a very disturbing neighborhood, sharing boundaries with deeply distressed nations such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, the Central African Republic and Libya. Other unhappy countries, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, are just a hop away. And so, rather like a highly infectious virus causing a pandemic, prevalent instabilities could coalesce from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
At a time when the West is worried about conflict with Russia spreading in Europe, or a new one starting in the Fast East with China, should we be concerned about what may emerge as a great African war, with Sudan at its center? This scenario is less fanciful when the continent-wide destabilizing impacts of accelerating climate change, environmental decline and deepening hunger and poverty are factored in. Sudan’s civil war is unlikely to stay confined to its territory.
That much is already evident with the 600,000 Sudanese who have fled the country. Many more will figure out how to leave safely. Planners should start preparing for 1 million to 2 million refugees over the coming year. Their impoverished neighbors must expect additional economic and social problems. As in the past, resistance groups will also emerge among the refugees, bringing political and security challenges.
In many ways, the refugees are relatively lucky. The internally displaced — currently underestimated at 3 million — could double or treble in number as the fighting continues. A significant proportion will be used by armed groups as bait to attract resources from humanitarian agencies. Aid will get looted and “taxed” along the way — perhaps 30 percent of lifesaving food and other assistance will be diverted.
Aid workers will get killed and double standards mean that, while local staff deaths will be regretted, the deaths of foreigners will spark outrage. International donors will be mindful of impacts among taxpayers back home at the time of a widespread cost-of-living crisis. They will react with aid stoppages that penalize innocent victims.
This copybook of the political economy of humanitarian aid is familiar from many complex emergency contexts, most recently in neighboring Ethiopia. As frustration rises because humanitarians cannot solve problems not of their making, we will have more angst-filled conferences on the future of global humanitarianism.
None of this will relieve the worsening plight of the Sudanese. At the current war’s start in April, 16 million people — or about a third of the country’s population — were already dependent on humanitarian assistance for life-sustaining essentials such as food, healthcare and water. A month later, that number had risen to 25 million. On current trends, this will increase to 36 million, or eight out of every ten Sudanese.
The UN’s humanitarian appeal sought $1.7 billion at the beginning of the year and subsequently increased its demand to $2.6 billion. But with less than 20 percent funded so far, and the appeal size likely to reach $3 billion to $4 billion by year-end, such numbers are moot. Rising competition from other crises means that Sudan’s humanitarian share will be ever more limited, especially as donors tend to be less generous in cases where solutions are not forthcoming and authorities remain uncooperative or obstructive.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese cannot live on a diet of unfulfilled aid pledges when humanitarian access is so limited and delivery infrastructure such as hospitals are out of commission. A significant rise in mortality and morbidity from all types of acute and chronic conditions, as well as a stratospheric increase in malnutrition, are to be expected. As always, women and children will bear the brunt.
This stark scenario is presented not to demotivate those who care for Sudan, but to counsel that they help best by understanding what they cannot do. Sudan will have to find its own solutions, but that does not mean abandoning the Sudanese people. It requires solidarity by recognizing what foreigners must not do to worsen the crisis.
To start with, do not enforce shabby peace deals that reward, legitimize and empower warmakers. Do not shortcut accountability and justice for past and ongoing crimes against humanity.
This does not mean neutrality either, but if Sudan’s external stakeholders take sides, let them advise their proteges wisely, not with self-serving political and economic interests in mind. Do not sell inflexible forms of democracy copied from the West. Let the Sudanese find their own practical governance model.
And most importantly, remember that there is no Sudan without its people. So open borders to let them find safety and nurture them with open and generous hearts until they return to rebuild their shattered nation.
The Sudanese are a resourceful people and, when this nightmarish time passes — as it will — their undoubted contribution to our common world will amply repay the strategic patience we must practice in the interim.
• Mukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester and a former senior official at the United Nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.