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War in Sudan risks inflaming other fragile African countries

FILE PHOTO: A Sudanese woman, who fled the conflict in Murnei in Sudan's Darfur region, walks beside ...
16 February 2024

From that Saturday in mid-April of 2023 when Khartoum woke up in the crossfire of fighting factions, the situation has deteriorated in various parts of Sudan. Archbishop Luis Miguel Muñoz Cárdaba recalls those days very well and has granted the following interview to L’Osservatore Romano in which he offers an insight into the war. The Spanish-born Archbishop represented the Holy See in Sudan and Eritrea until 23 January 2024, when he was appointed by Pope Francis as the new Apostolic Nuncio to Mozambique.

For almost 10 months, Sudan has been grappling with a bloody conflict causing staggering numbers of casualties and displaced persons. Which areas are most involved in the hostilities, and is there concern about a further escalation of this war?

The armed conflict sparked by the rivalry between the two generals, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan leading the Sudanese regular army (saf), and Mohamed Dagalo “Hemedti” leading the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (rsf), has thrown Sudan into chaos with consequences that will last for many years. While the fighting is particularly fierce in the capital Khartoum and in the regions of Darfur — with massacres reminiscent of the terrible genocide of the years 2003-2005 — as well as in Kordofan and Gezira, the rest of Sudanese territory under the control of the regular army enjoys relative calm.

But the war in Sudan concerns the entire Horn of Africa region, which bears its consequences, with the concrete risk of plunging into a long humanitarian crisis with serious geopolitical repercussions. Before the conflict, Sudan hosted over 1.1 million foreign refugees, including 800,000 South Sudanese and many Eritreans and Ethiopians. Sudan was therefore one of the main refugee-hosting countries in Africa. Today, the dynamics are reversed, and there is therefore a risk that the Sudanese war could inflame neighbouring countries, particularly fragile South Sudan, but also Chad and others.

About 20 years after the atrocities of the early 2000s, Darfur has once again become the scene of serious violence and crimes. What is the situation in the area?

The war has reignited ethnic tensions, causing clashes between tribal fighters and militias, especially in Darfur (which has a population of about 6 million, for the most part Muslims, and a territory slightly larger than Spain), dangerously plunging this region into a new tribal civil war. The current situation can be traced back to the long-standing conflict in Darfur over access to land and water between the majority of the black African population, composed of sedentary tribes, and the minority of nomads originally from the Arabian Peninsula, who constitute the majority elsewhere in Sudan. The current war, which erupted on 15 April 2023, escalated after two armed groups in Darfur, hitherto neutral, declared their allegiance to the regular army against the paramilitaries, accusing them of committing atrocities. It should also be noted that members of the rsf are from Darfur.

Mediation efforts between the warring parties seem to have been unsuccessful. Who can carry out effective mediation, and are there areas to work on to bring diplomacy back into play?

So far, all efforts and attempts at mediation to find a way out of the conflict have been fruitless. Even talks between representatives of the two opposing factions, held several times in the Saudi city of Jeddah with the support of Saudi Arabia and the United States, have failed. Indeed, neither of the two warring generals has respected the ceasefires agreed upon for the opening of humanitarian corridors. Both parties accuse each other of repeated ceasefire violations. Moreover, last December, the UN Security Council decided to end unitams, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, whose activities have always been viewed with suspicion and obstructed by the military, who considered it an interference in Sudanese internal affairs. This reduced international presence in Sudan could, sadly, make it easier to commit new crimes against civilians.

Have the two warring factions expressed clear objectives that could be the starting point for possible political-diplomatic solutions?

The conflict in Sudan is merely a continuation of an unstable political situation since the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The armed forces and groups have never wanted to hand over power to civilians. Currently, it is the military and paramilitaries vying for control of the country, at the expense of a transition of power to civilians.

Dialogue between the belligerents is not easy, although this is the path to follow. Furthermore, the international community should work harder to bring peace back to the country and put it back on the path to democracy, with the contribution and participation of Sudanese people. The road ahead is long as the country continues to fracture, not only because the military and paramilitaries do not seem willing to lay down their arms for the moment, but also because they are unlikely to accept handing over the leadership of Sudan to civilians through a new process of democratic transition. There is a key element that should not be forgotten: there will be no peace or democratic transition if civil society, including the numerous young people, is not the true protagonist — and not the military or paramilitaries — of political change and the construction of a new Sudan.

The conflict in Sudan is causing a staggering number of displaced persons. What are the most difficult situations, and how is the Holy See moving to help?

In addition to the very high number of displaced persons (estimated by the UN at 7.5 million people, with over 6 million inside the country and about 1.5 million in neighbouring countries, including Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic), the conflict has complicated Sudan’s already precarious health, education, and economic situation: 65% of the population lacks access to healthcare; 75% of hospitals in conflict-affected areas are no longer functional; the number of children who are out of school reaches 19 million; at least 10,400 schools have been closed in conflict areas; and out-of-school children are exposed to recruitment by armed groups, and to sexual violence. Indeed, according to unicef, Sudan is on the verge of becoming the country with the worst education crisis in the world.

Additionally, the World Bank predicts that the Sudanese economy will contract by 12.5% in 2023 because the conflict has destroyed human capital and the state’s capacity, halted production, damaged the industrial base, and, moreover, led to the collapse of economic activity and the erosion of the state’s capacity, with damaging impacts on food security and forced displacement.

The end of Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year regime in 2019 had fueled hopes for a positive “revolution” for the country. What didn’t work in this “revolution,” and what are the real aspirations of the Sudanese people?

I arrived in Khartoum in 2020 at a time of optimism and hope for Sudan’s future, thanks to the democratic transition process that opened up in the summer of 2019 after the civic revolution and the fall of al-Bashir’s Islamist military regime, which had ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years.

From the beginning, I was struck by the different perceptions that Western ambassadors and Sudanese bishops had of this political transition process. While the former did not hide their great enthusiasm, even stating that Sudan would become an example of democratic openness for the entire Horn of Africa, the latter were much more sceptical about the country’s future, recalling Sudan’s recent history, marked by many coups and dictatorial governments. Unfortunately, time has fully vindicated the local bishops’ judgment.

In October 2021, the same generals, al-Burhan and “Hemedti,” now fighting each other, led a coup, overthrowing the civilian government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and opening months of political, social and institutional crisis. All remaining hopes were then swept away by the conflict that erupted on 15 April 2023. To understand the deep reasons behind the bloody war currently marring Sudan, one must also consider several causes: the impractical presence of two different armed forces (saf and rsf) in the same country, whose leaders acted like “two roosters in the same henhouse”; control of natural resources, especially the gold mines of Darfur; al-Burhan’s affinity with various senior members of the officially dissolved Islamist party, the National Congress Party, in power during the regime of the ousted al-Bashir, which could not please “Hemedti,” considered a traitor by the Islamists themselves; and finally, the different international support on which the two rivals rely.

Though it is still unclear what specific incident sparked the fire between the two rival armed forces, what is clear is the decisive role played by the Islamist minority in the outbreak of the war. The aspirations of the Sudanese people, especially many young people, are the same that inspired the civic revolution four years ago: progress, democracy, more freedom and justice, and an active role for civilians in political and economic life. This is where we should start again. (V. Palombaro)

By Valerio Palombaro