Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sudanese Civil War: The Humanitarian and Regional Dimensions

As the Sudanese war continues, severe humanitarian repercussions become evident, alongside the disruption of the democratic transformation process.

Sudanese Civil War
Members of the Sudanese armed popular resistance, which supports the army, raise their weapons on a pickup truck during a meeting with the city’s governor in Gedaref, Sudan. EBRAHIM HAMID / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Between December 2023 and January 2024, the Sudanese civil war experienced significant escalation, marked by intensified clashes between the regular army and the Rapid Support Forces in the state of Gezira and its capital, Wad Madani, the second-largest city in the country after the capital, Khartoum.

The conflict has since entered a critical humanitarian phase, with over 5.9 million people living in Gezira State alone.

Notably, the war has heightened concerns regarding food security, given that the state boasts the largest agricultural project in Africa. This designation has led some to characterize it as “the food basket of Sudan.”

War expands, humanitarian crisis worsens

Due to the escalating civil war in Gezira State, the population of displaced individuals surged to over 7.7 million by January 2024, based on figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Among these, 6 million people were forced to seek refuge in other Sudanese cities and villages, while 1.7 million sought safety in neighboring countries such as South Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt, the Central African Republic, and Libya.

Consequently, the Sudanese civil war has emerged as the primary cause of the world’s most extensive internal displacement crisis.

Regrettably, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan extends beyond the displacement predicament. Organized looting and armed robbery have become rampant practices, particularly orchestrated by militias engaged in the conflict, notably the Rapid Support Forces militia. These activities have wreaked havoc on entire cities, neighborhoods and villages, impacting all areas affected by armed conflict.

In a broader context, the militias systematically seized everything within their reach upon gaining control of each area, from stores, cars and agricultural tools to vital humanitarian aid, health supplies and pharmacies.

Consequently, numerous regions in Sudan, including certain neighborhoods in the capital, Khartoum, have become uninhabitable due to the prevailing chaos, militia dominance and the erosion of the official security institutions’ infrastructure.

The most alarming development has been the resurgence of massacres and acts of ethnic cleansing, primarily on tribal or ethnic grounds, particularly in the Darfur region.

Current statistics indicate that more than 15,000 Sudanese have lost their lives since the onset of the recent armed conflict, a result of ethnic violence perpetrated by the Rapid Support militias in Darfur.

Furthermore, according to testimonies presented to the International Criminal Court, the number of individuals abducted from the Masalit tribe has exceeded 2,700, with more than a million Sudanese in West Darfur state among the displaced who are awaiting humanitarian aid.

Vulnerable groups: The cruelty of war on women and children

As is the case in every conflict, women emerged as the most vulnerable demographic, bearing the brunt of the violent aftermath. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sudan documented approximately 105 cases of sexual violence against women, a consequence of the militias incorporating rape into their tactics aimed at displacing specific social groups.

Shockingly, 70 per cent of these confirmed cases of sexual violence were attributed to fighters garbed in the uniform of the Rapid Support Forces, with a lone case linked to a fighter in the regular army uniform.

In contrast, the Sudanese Government Unit for Combating Violence against Women contends that officially documented instances of sexual violence make up no more than 2 per cent of the overall occurrences.

The vast majority of these cases remain undocumented due to the deteriorating security conditions in combat zones, victims’ fear of militias controlling their areas, and the difficulty in accessing health facilities.

Notably, 85 per cent of documented rapes occurred in the Darfur region and the city of Khartoum, underscoring the brutality of the displacement operations in these areas.

Turning attention to children, a perilous development is the resurgence of child recruitment camps benefiting local militias. This resurgence followed the closure of schools and universities in 90 per cent of the country, leaving 19 million Sudanese children out of school.

While Sudan has grappled with the crisis of child recruitment in previous conflicts, the current conflict has witnessed an unprecedented rise, fueled by high poverty rates, displacement and families’ increasing financial desperation.

Of particular concern are the findings of Siobhan Mulally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, who highlighted the widespread proliferation of child recruitment in the suburbs of Khartoum, Darfur and West Kordofan. Mulally also drew attention to the alarming trend of girls being kidnapped from Khartoum for sexual exploitation, including instances of sexual slavery.

Regional dimensions of the war

Since the onset of the conflict in April 2023, the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces have exchanged accusations centering on allegations of external support for maintaining power. These claims, however, have been veiled in ambiguity, refraining from specifying the external parties or countries involved.

Notably, both parties have tactically refrained from naming these regional entities, presumably to avoid provoking influential nations already intervening in the armed conflict.

By January 2024, the Sudanese army transitioned from vague accusations to more explicit actions. They decided to suspend the country’s membership in the Intergovernmental Authority for Development in East Africa.

This decision stemmed from the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dominated by the army-led Sovereignty Council, deeming IGAD biased in favor of the Rapid Support Forces.

The Ministry contended that the invitation extended to the Rapid Support Forces commander, Mohamed Dagalo, to attend IGAD meetings constituted a violation of Sudanese sovereignty. Notably, Dagalo lacked any official representative status for such a summit.

It is important to note that IGAD is comprised of Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Djibouti. Established in 1996, IGAD aims to enhance security, economic integration, food security, and environmental protection within the Horn of Africa region.

At the conflict’s outset, IGAD attempted to mediate between the conflicting parties. However, the Sudanese army harbored suspicions about Ethiopia and Uganda’s influence within the organization, particularly their ties with the Rapid Support Forces militia.

These concerns heightened after Dagalo undertook a rare foreign tour to Ethiopia and Uganda in late 2023, leaving his goals and motives unclear.

Consequently, IGAD lost its mediating capacity until the Sudanese army recently withdrew the country from IGAD membership.

The roles of the UAE, Wagner and Egypt

The Sudanese army, in addition to harboring concerns about the influence of its Horn of Africa neighbors, harbors suspicions regarding the United Arab Emirates‘ role in the ongoing conflict.

Army leaders accuse the UAE of providing military support to the Rapid Support Forces militias. Allegedly, this assistance involves smuggling weapons and equipment through multiple crossings in Uganda, Central Africa and other African countries. The UAE’s purported alliance with the Rapid Support Forces militia is believed to be motivated by a desire to exploit gold mines under the militia’s control in Sudan. United Nations reports indicate that the Emirati company Kaloti facilitates the trade in smuggled gold.

In recent years, the Russian company Wagner has emerged as a significant external supporter of the Rapid Support Forces militia.

However, the fate of this relationship remains unclear following the killing of Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigogine. Wall Street Journal reports suggest that Prigogine, before his demise, met with leaders of the Rapid Support Forces militia and received gold bullion as a “gift” extracted from Sudan.

In exchange for continued support, Prigogine pledged assistance to the militia in its conflict against the Sudanese army.

Alongside the UAE and Wagner, Maj. Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya have provided substantial military support to the Rapid Support Forces militia. This support reciprocates the deployment of hundreds of Sudanese fighters to Libya in 2019, aiding Haftar in his battle for control over Tripoli, the Libyan capital.

In contrast, the regular Sudanese army maintains a special relationship with the Egyptian army, which views the Sudanese civil war as a threat to Egypt’s national security. The Rapid Support Forces militia showcased footage in April 2023, purporting to depict the “surrender of an Egyptian army battalion” at the Merowe base in northern Sudan.

This footage was intended to prove that the Sudanese army received direct field support from the Egyptian army, which insisted its presence was part of joint training with the Sudanese army.

The war persists, fueled by the aspirations and ambitions of regional powers supporting local conflicting parties. As the conflict unfolds, severe humanitarian repercussions become evident, alongside the disruption of the democratic transformation process.

The intended return of the army to its barracks, handing over power to elected authorities, remains elusive. Without a political resolution, the Sudanese people find themselves caught in the struggle between the army, controlling constitutional institutions, and militias contributing to the state’s disintegration.

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