© UNHCR/Ala Kheir People fleeing violence pass through a transit centre in Renk in the north of South Sudan.

Sudan’s Most Horrible Year

The single largest humanitarian crisis in the world turns one year old today.

Since a full-scale civil war erupted in Sudan exactly one year ago, some 8 million people have been displaced. This includes nearly 2 million who fled as refugees to bordering countries that can hardly handle the sudden influx of desperate people leaving their homes. The United Nations is now warning of famine in parts of Darfur, in western Sudan. According to the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs, in the last two weeks alone, the number of newly displaced people increased by about 107,800 women, men, and children.

World leaders are gathering in Paris this week to revive stalled fundraising efforts to support humanitarian relief in Sudan, which thus far is pitifully underfunded. The UN and humanitarian relief agencies are seeking $2.7 billion for emergency relief efforts to support displaced and hungry Sudanese. In a galling display of apathy, aid agencies have thus far only been able to raise less than 6% towards that funding goal.

At the one-year anniversary of Sudan’s civil war, the humanitarian crisis is worsening and the conflict accelerating — all the while most of the world’s attention is firmly focused elsewhere.

How The War in Sudan Got So Bad

Like any civil war, the conflict in Sudan has deep roots, but the proximate cause is a failed democratic transition. In 2019, the longtime dictator of Sudan, Omar al Bashir, was ousted from power in a coup. You may remember the scene. Thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets of Khartoum to demand the end of the nearly 30-year Bashir dictatorship. This was people-power at its finest. Security forces tried to crack down on the protest movement, but in the process only made it stronger. Eventually, Bashir’s security forces saw the writing on the wall and ousted him in a coup.

A combination of domestic and international pressure led Sudan’s two top generals, the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces General Burhan and the head of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces General Hemedti, to enter into a transitional power-sharing agreement with a civilian coalition.

For a short while, Sudan had a civilian prime minister titularly in charge of the government. Behind the scenes, Burhan and Hemedti jockeyed for power. Eventually, they joined forces and ousted the civilian prime minister. Shortly thereafter, they turned their guns on each other.

That was April 15, 2023.

Fighting quickly spread from Khartoum to other parts of the country. This includes Darfur, where conflict took on ugly ethnic dimensions, potentially including genocide. Outside powers fueled this crisis as part of a broader regional power struggle. The United Arab Emirates has backed (and armed) the genocidal Rapid Support Forces, while Egypt has supported the Sudanese Armed Forces. Most recently, Iran has gotten in the game. The Sudanese Armed Forces are now reportedly using Iranian drones on the battlefield.

The country is divided. In the west, in Darfur, the RSF has committed ethnic cleansing, potentially including genocide against ethnic Masalit, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled across the border to Chad. (The RSF is the reconstituted Janjaweed, which carried out the first Darfur genocide twenty years ago.) The Sudanese Armed Forces control the far east of the country, including the Port of Sudan. Khartoum and its sister city Omdurman are battle zones.

It’s not that there is no peace process—it’s that there are too many.

There are, by my count, at least four ongoing peace processes, each with its own internal logic. There’s the Jeddah Process led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States. There’s a Cairo process between the UAE and Egypt. There’s a process ostensibly being facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, a regional body. And one led by the African Union.

None of these peace talks have amounted to much, as evidenced by the current situation on the ground in Sudan today. The proliferation of peace processes masks the true problem facing international diplomacy towards Sudan today: there’s no agreement among the key players that there should be a cessation of hostilities. As Kholood Khair, a Sudanese security expert, tells me, “Step one should be that you have consensus from the region that the war should stop and it’s not altogether clear that you have that.”

The one country that could have the juice to pull these key players together around a ceasefire consensus is the United States. The key regional players here are each American security partners, including Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In theory, the US can and should use its sway in the region to coordinate among these different actors and make a push for peace. Alas, there is very little evidence that the White House is paying much attention to Sudan. Linda Thomas Greenfield wrote a good Op-ed in the New York Times on the crisis, but in Washington, attention is firmly elsewhere. The war in Gaza and widening conflict in the Middle East have put this crisis on the back burner.

The Biden administration has a new Special Envoy for Sudan, Tom Perriello. He’s a former member of congress and ex-State Department official with deep experience in conflict management in Africa. He’s now the fourth such special envoy from the Biden administration in three years. It’s not clear he is getting much of an audience in the White House. Despite being the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, and one that is impacting key American security partners, it really does seem like Sudan is an afterthought for the White House. The United States could be playing an important role in conflict resolution in Sudan, but it’s not.

Neglecting the crisis in Sudan is foremost an abdication of humanitarian values. Leaders from wealthier countries ought to demonstrate some solidarity and pony up for aid and relief efforts. But the implosion of Sudan is also deeply consequential to regional and international security. Sudan is strategically located between the Red Sea, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a massive country, with a pre-war population of about 47 million people (that is about twice the size of Syria, by comparison). The mass exodus is already straining neighboring countries. To make matters worse, terrorism experts are warning that a collapsed Sudan will be a haven for jihadi groups.

War in Sudan will reverberate globally in profoundly destabilizing ways, yet the crisis is being neglected at the highest levels of international policy making. This grim anniversary could be an an inflection point for the international community to give this crisis attention commensurate to the scale of the disaster, but there does not seem to be any major shift afoot. As Kholood Khair put it to me, “Sudan is dying of neglect.”

The full transcript of my podcast interview with Kholood Khair, founder of Confluency Advisory, a think and do tank formerly based in Khartoum is available here.