Sudan's unwinnable civil war must end

Billions of dollars' worth of aid pledges are welcome but this conflict threatens to disintegrate into chaos that will obstruct vital humanitarian efforts

A damaged army tank on the streets of Omdurman, Sudan. If the war between the armed forces and rival paramilitaries continues to fragment into a toxic mix of rival groups and ethnic conflicts, it will soon be out of their control to stop, even if they wanted to. Reuters
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Perhaps the most salient point at Monday’s international aid conference for Sudan was made by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said it was the world’s duty “not to forget what is happening” there. Sadly however, the brutal conflict raging for the past 12 months in Africa’s third-largest country has been out of sight and out of mind for far too many.

The Paris event ended with global aid pledges worth $2.1 billion. Although the gravity of the famine, displacement and poverty gripping Sudan make this commitment an important one, the fact remains that the war is not only continuing unchecked but risks fragmenting into an uncontrollable and unstoppable conflagration that will make aid efforts - let alone rebuilding - more difficult than they should be.

The unravelling of Sudan’s war into a series of localised conflicts fought by different factions with varying allegiances is truly a nightmare scenario. The International Crisis Group this month suggested that the civil war’s two main protagonists - army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan and Rapid Support Forces’ leader Gen Mohamed Dagalo - “may find it increasingly difficult to maintain control of affiliated militias”. This “potential fragmentation” of the civil war, Crisis Group warns, “is also ominous because of how it would endanger efforts to resolve the conflict through high-level negotiation between the two leaders”. Elsewhere, the fighting is “already rapidly degenerating into inter-ethnic wars, particularly between the Darfuri Arabs and Sudan’s riverine peoples, as well as Arabs and non-Arabs in Darfur”.

Sudan is also awash with illegal firearms - about five million according to a 2022 government estimate. With many of these in the hands of various armed groups loyal to local leaders instead of an organised chain of command, many will agree with UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi’s assessment given to a French broadcaster on Monday that the presence of “local commanders, warlords and very complex negotiations on the ground” is a “a powerful obstacle to delivering aid”.

Aid efforts are also at risk because of a widespread breakdown of law and order in various parts of the country, as well as the threat to international shipping in the Red Sea posed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In February, the militants’ attacks forced one humanitarian NGO, the International Rescue Committee, to find longer and more expensive shipping routes to deliver live-saving aid.

The scale of the aid challenge is daunting. Already the forced displacement of nearly two million Sudanese to neighbouring countries poses a major challenge to regional stability. The internal displacement of more than six million people has put Sudanese agriculture under severe strain, exacerbating the famine that is already taking place.

Diplomatic efforts have to be better and more effective. Talks so far have been fitful and largely unproductive. Participants at the Paris summit yesterday urged the UN Secretary General's personal envoy for Sudan, Algerian diplomat Ramtane Lamamra, to push for “coherent mediation”. It is true that the presence of Mr Lamamra and other new figures, such as US envoy Tom Perriello, IGAD special envoy and South Sudanese lawyer Lawrence Korbandy, as well as an African Union team headed by Ghanian lawyer Mohamed Ibn Chambas, may will kick-start a disjointed diplomatic approach that has so far delivered little.

But they will have to redouble their efforts to make it clear to the two warring sides that the longer Sudan’s agony goes on, the harder it will be to end it. They must convince the rival leaderships that this is now an unwinnable war that - if it continues to disintegrate into a toxic mix of rival militias and ethnic conflicts - will soon be out of their control to stop, even if they wanted to. The Sudanese people cannot afford to wait any longer for all warring sides to come to their senses.

Published: April 17, 2024, 3:00 AM