The unthinkable is unfolding in Sudan. A humanitarian disaster is deepening, as the state is being torn apart. The spill over could impact East Africa and the broader region — already tens of thousands of Sudanese have fled. As we have seen with other conflicts in the region, it is likely that malign, foreign interests will seek to exploit the situation to advance their own interests. The risk of Somalia-like anarchy on the Red Sea is real if the current fighting continues and foreign support for the warring parties — the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — continues to grow. While Sudan needs a long-term political process to bring peace and stability, there are immediate humanitarian needs that must be addressed now.
Sudan’s current reality is stark. Conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries, like Darfur, have now come to the capital Khartoum and other towns of Sudan. Internally displaced Sudanese have doubled within the last week, from 340,000 to 700,000, according to the International Organization of Migration. The collapse of services is only exacerbating the worsening the human toll. Civilian groups and professional associations are organizing to fill the void but are stymied by the continued fighting between the SAF and RSF, who break cease-fires with a regularity that demonstrates a sense of impunity, unprecedented even by Sudan’s standards of civil conflict.
As everyday Sudanese confront this worsening crisis, it is critical the U.S.-Saudi-led talks between SAF and RSF envoys result in a durable cease-fire to address immediate needs. There is no hope for a quick and tidy end to the conflict; any long-term resolution will need to lead to a civilian-led government if it is to be successful. This means that Sudan’s wealth can no longer be treated as spoils for warring parties. The belligerents must surrender their claims to represent the interests of all Sudanese and the country’s proliferating militias need to be gradually incorporated into a single force providing security for all Sudanese citizens. This is the only long-term path to a Sudan at peace with itself that serves as a pillar of stability in a volatile region. In the immediate, however, the international community and the region must address the spiraling humanitarian catastrophe.
Heading Off the Immediate Crisis
The international community and Sudanese themselves must rapidly glean lessons from the failure to translate the uprising that overthrew long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir into a civilian-led government. Those lessons should inform how the current crisis is addressed because setting the right priorities for immediate humanitarian and diplomatic action can help lay the foundations for a more manageable recovery. The key components should be: streamlined humanitarian and diplomatic organization; rapid positioning of essential supplies; targeted protection of both civilians and critical infrastructure; and securing supply lines.
In practice, this means that the forces who don’t want peace must know that they will be confronted by a host of political initiatives, actions and pressures that will force them to the table. These initiatives must receive the international community’s high-level public endorsement and be communicated in person to the belligerents.
Addressing the humanitarian crisis should be the top priority. Along those lines, a positive step has been the arrival of the most senior U.N. humanitarian official, Under-Secretary-General Martin Griffiths, who represents the collective will of the international community. The parties to the conflict would be well advised to invite him promptly, welcome him and ensure his security and freedom of movement.
The impressively organized civilian groups that have been providing front-line relief must be ready to demonstrate that they are coordinated, know what Sudanese need and have the capacity to deliver if not hindered. Sudan’s neighbors must be ready to offer every facility and protection for Sudanese fleeing the conflict and to support the positioning of supplies in their countries. The international community, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, must engage in an organized manner with these constituencies to ensure coordination of these initiatives.
Security is, of course, paramount to meaningfully addressing the humanitarian situation. The spread of violence calls for agreed upon sites in Sudan where humanitarian access can be assured, and where supplies are secured. In addition, there should be immediate steps taken to protect critical infrastructure. Electricity and water-supply plants are what will ensure the survival of populations trapped in urban centers. Fertilizer and other necessary agricultural inputs need to be accessible to farmers before the imminent planting season. Sudan’s Nile River dams must be physically protected from any threat. This is vital for immediate post-conflict agricultural recovery and for the security of water flowing through Egypt — demonstrating yet another way the current conflict in Sudan has become a threat to stability among its neighbours.
Engaging the Region is Essential
The Inter-Governmental Agency on Development, the eight-member regional bloc in the Horn of Africa, the African Union and United Nations are all discussing the security implications of the crisis. The immediate priority is for all of Sudan’s neighbors to be engaged and encouraged to advance a coordinated plan. These are the frontline states that will be the first to be affected and should be the first to be consulted. Indeed, the sooner Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Eritrea are coordinated with Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and Egypt to forge a common approach to the stabilization, the more effective they can be. Regional actors should make available their territory and resources, including military forces if necessary, to protect humanitarian initiatives and critical infrastructure. Any such initiative involving force deployment and monitors would have to be financed by a coalition of willing donors from the international community.
Thus, the international community must now organize itself with a hitherto unprecedented political and operational efficiency commensurate to the grave dangers of the moment. This calls for the engagement of very senior officials, representing a few key countries and organizations with an ability to execute policy in the humanitarian and security sectors and in any forthcoming political negotiations. Such a group should consider key stakeholders from the United States to Europe, the Gulf and beyond. But, above all, essential neighbors need to be included. In that spirit, Egypt and Ethiopia will have to find a way to reach beyond their differences in order to secure the rapid restoration of peace in Sudan and to demonstrate that they have opted to support Sudanese citizens and not the SAF nor RSF.
The situation in Sudan is now so dramatically different to what it was a few months ago, that there will be no return to a status quo ante. The latter has only brought misery to the Sudanese people, anyway. This crisis presents the opportunity for all in and beyond Sudan to find reasons to collaborate — rather than compete — and forge a stable, democratic Sudan.
Alex Rondos is a senior advisor for USIP’s Africa Center and co-chair of the Institute’s Senior Study Group on Peace and Security in the Red Sea Arena