One year on: Conflict and crisis in Sudan

April 23, 2024
Sudanese refugee camp in Chad
A Sudanese refugee camp in the neighbouring country of Chad. Photo: VOA/Wikimedia Commons

April 15 marked one year since war broke out between General Abdel Fattah Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Mohamed “Hemeti” Dagalo’s militia, known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), sending Sudan into a spiralling social and humanitarian crisis, affecting millions. Green Left’s Susan Price spoke with the Sudanese Australian Advocacy Network’s Wilson Madit Kuek about the scale of the crisis, SAAN’s work and prospects for peace and democracy.

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Can you briefly outline the scope of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis facing the country?

Since April 15 last year, Sudan has grappled with a brutal conflict that has pushed the nation into profound social and humanitarian distress. The strife stems from a power struggle between General Al Burhan's Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Hemeti's Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This clash is not merely a contest of military might; it is an impediment to the establishment of a civilian democratic rule that millions in Sudan yearn for.

During a year of devastating war, the Sudanese people tasted various kinds of indignity, humiliation and horrific forms of violations, such as killing, displacement, rape, forced celebration, torture, plundering of private and public property, destruction and sabotage of public facilities.

The war’s primary goal was and still is to eliminate the glorious, peaceful revolution of December 2018 and to kill all features of what the December revolutionary movement accomplished in five years. The victim is always the Sudanese citizen.

Since the eruption of conflict, the outcome has been nothing short of catastrophic, particularly for the health sector.

The World Health Organization reported in April that more than 70% of hospitals in Sudan are now completely or partially out of service.

In addition, hospitals and care facilities across the country face debilitating shortages in medicine and medical supplies, critically hampering their ability to care for the sick and injured. Water scarcity, power outages and communication service disruptions further strain their operations. There is also a significant lack of medical and technical personnel, creating a substantial barrier to delivering comprehensive and effective health services.

The ongoing violence and security instability severely limit citizens’ access to healthcare. In addition, some health facilities have been commandeered by the RSF and repurposed as military barracks.

The humanitarian implications of the conflict are extensive, worsening an already desperate situation for millions. Diseases and epidemics have surged, notably within Khartoum State, where instances of cholera, dengue fever, shingles and skin rashes have been reported, putting additional strain on the few operational health facilities.

Massive displacement has left countless Sudanese without a home, contributing to overcrowding in safer areas and further stretching limited resources.

The conflict has also led to acute food and water scarcity, jeopardising people’s basic survival.

The ripple effects touch every facet of life. From April 15 last year to April 20 this year, the conflict has driven an average of 20,000 individuals from their homes each day. In total, 8.6 million people have been displaced, dispersing across all 18 states of Sudan and into neighbouring countries.

About two million people have fled to neighbouring nations, including Chad (730,550), South Sudan (629.902), Egypt (514,827), Ethiopia (119,525), the Central African Republic (29,444) and Libya (7620), with tens of thousands more moving towards Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Rwanda and Kenya.

How has the war impacted on the popular democratic struggle that rose up in 2018 to overthrow Omar al Bashir's regime?

In the wake of the late 2018 uprisings in Sudan, a powerful wave of popular democratic struggle surged to dismantle the entrenched regime of Omar al Bashir, marking a significant chapter in the nation’s history.

This movement, rooted in decades of economic hardship and political repression, evolved from localised protests into a nationwide call for democracy, symbolising a collective yearning for change.

The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad coalition that emerged as the movement’s voice, successfully rallied support across various sectors of society, illustrating the Sudanese people’s unwavering commitment to their cause.

Initially, the movement seemed to herald a new dawn for Sudan, with al Bashir’s ousting presenting a tangible testament to the power of collective action. However, the subsequent transitional period quickly became mired in complexity. The replacement of al Bashir’s regime by the Transitional Military Council introduced a new phase of struggle, with the military’s reluctance to relinquish power posing a formidable obstacle to the democratic ambitions of the Sudanese populace.

The onset of war has dramatically compounded these challenges, starkly illustrating the precarious nature of the democratic struggle in Sudan. This conflict has not only halted the progression towards civilian and democratic rule but has also led to a disheartening regression, with military dominance reasserting itself.

The ramifications of this conflict are multifaceted, impacting the democratic movement in several key ways:

The war has effectively obstructed the advancement toward a civilian-led government, disrupting the transitional processes that were thoroughly negotiated by the FFC and other stakeholders.

With the resurgence of military control, the aspirations for a democratic Sudan governed by civil authority have been greatly undermined, if not temporarily derailed.

The conflict has worsened instances of violence and human rights abuses, undermining the rule of law and further inhibiting the establishment of democratic institutions.

The conflict has caused a diversion of much-needed investment from social programs and infrastructure to military spending, worsening the already dire economic situation that initially sparked the uprising.

Can you explain briefly the origins and work of the Sudanese Australian Advocacy Network (SAAN)?

The Sudanese Australian Advocacy Network (SAAN) was formed on April 16, last year, following the outbreak of war. The Sudanese diaspora came together at this critical juncture, to raise awareness about the situation in Sudan and facilitate fruitful communication with the Australian government.

SAAN's engagement with senior officials from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs has been pivotal. These meetings have focused on addressing the challenges faced by evacuees, the support required, and discussing issues pertinent to Sudanese people in Australia.

Establishing positive relationships with members of parliament (Federal and State) has been a significant step, with several federal parliamentarians raising the community's concerns during Senate estimates hearings.

In partnership with the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), SAAN played a critical role in advocating for humanitarian assistance for Sudan. This collaboration led to a consolidated appeal for a $25 million assistance package dedicated to Sudanese aid.

SAAN has also partnered with the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies to develop a policy brief on the Sudanese conflict and its implications for the Sudanese diaspora in Australia.

What are the major challenges in advocating for Sudanese refugees in Australia and those still trapped in Sudan?

One of the significant hurdles we face is the relatively minimal global attention and awareness regarding the extent of the Sudanese crisis. Despite the catastrophic human cost, the situation in Sudan has struggled to occupy a prominent place in international media narratives, overshadowed by other global events. This lack of visibility complicates SAAN's efforts to galvanise support and resources.

The precarious security situation poses a critical barrier to delivering humanitarian aid. Internally displaced people (IDPs) in North Darfur state have reported the deterioration in security, affecting access to essential resources such as water and food. The siege conditions, coupled with aerial bombardments, foster an environment of terror and panic among the camps, severely complicating advocacy and relief efforts.

While the Paris conference on humanitarian issues in Sudan, held on April 15, saw financial pledges exceeding $2 billion, the continuous need to meet the overwhelming demands of the crisis remains a constant pressure.

SAAN's call for increased Australian government support emphasises the gap between the current contributions and the actual needs on the ground. Despite significant pledges from international partners, the sustained effort required to address immediate and long-term needs poses a persistent challenge.

For example, the scarcity of clean water in the Kassab camp in Darfur due to non-functional water pumps and a fuel crisis hinders the quality of life within the camp but also impedes the ability to provide adequate healthcare and prevent malnutrition, further complicating advocacy efforts aimed at improving conditions for IDPs.

SAAN aims to tackle these challenges through engagement with parliamentarians and NGOs. This political advocacy is crucial in elevating the issue within Australian governmental priorities.

The call for $50 million in new humanitarian assistance funding to Sudan underscores the urgent need for Australia to actively support the crisis response and align its contributions with those of its international counterparts.

The challenges confronting SAAN in advocating for Sudanese refugees are steeped in the complexities of the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Despite these hurdles, SAAN continues to shine a light on the dire needs of displaced Sudanese and forge pathways for effective humanitarian intervention and support.

Since the war broke out last April, there have been several attempts made to resolve the conflict through negotiations sponsored by external actors. Do you believe that these talks will lead to a peaceful resolution?

All regional and international attempts that seek to address the humanitarian situation resulting from the war without sufficient political and legal pressure to stop the war, open humanitarian corridors to deliver aid, and activate the ceasefire, are like a ploughing in the sea.

Political pressure to stop the war requires putting pressure on the countries that supply its parties with weapons, then preventing the parties to the war from continuing to play any political roles or even participating in shaping future policies.

It also requires putting pressure on its financiers and those who benefit from its continuation, by immediately stopping support for the militias, as well as the leaders and the current Sudanese army.

For talks to be successful, several components are necessary:

First, there needs to be a genuine commitment from all parties to the conflict to seek common ground and prioritise the nation's stability over individual or factional gains.

Secondly, an unbiased and effective mediation that takes into account the perspectives and aspirations of the people who are suffering every day because of the war, represented by resistance committees.

Finally, there needs to be transparency in negotiation proceedings to build trust among stakeholders and the wider public.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The ongoing conflict in Sudan has created a humanitarian crisis that calls for immediate and sustained international attention. Key events in the conflict have underscored the need for a comprehensive approach to peace that addresses not only the immediate triggers of violence but also the deep-rooted issues that have fuelled unrest for years.

For any peace solution in Sudan to be durable, it must move beyond the superficial remedies that have characterised past efforts. These prescribed solutions, often put forward by elite interests, have proven to be temporary and inadequate in resolving the long-term issues at the heart of the conflict.

The African Union (AU) has played a pivotal role, reflecting the critical stake regional bodies and neighbouring countries hold in Sudan's stability. Countries sharing borders with Sudan are directly affected by its instability and war. Therefore, they have a vested interest in contributing to a peaceful resolution that will ensure regional stability.

Working hand in hand with the AU and other international organisations, these countries can play a positive role in fostering peace.

A key aspect that has often been overlooked in peace negotiations is the involvement of local communities. Their direct experience with the conflict's impacts makes their input invaluable in crafting sustainable solutions. Ensuring their participation in the decision-making process can lead to more inclusive and effective outcomes.

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