Africa, Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Food Security and Nutrition, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Humanitarian Emergencies, Migration & Refugees, Peace, TerraViva United Nations


Sudan’s Conflict Needs Civil Society Solutions

Credit: El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters via Gallo Images

LONDON, Dec 14 2023 (IPS) - It’s recently been reported that the two main protagonists of Sudan’s current conflict – leaders of the armed forces and militia at war since April – have agreed to face-to-face talks. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African body, announced the potential breakthrough – although Sudan’s foreign ministry has since claimed IGAD’s statement is inaccurate, creating further uncertainty.

There’s no question that an end to the violence is urgently needed. The conflict has created a humanitarian and human rights crisis. But the two leaders involved, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia, have provided ample evidence to doubt whether they’re really interested in peace, or in accountability for atrocities.

Human rights crimes on all sides

Al-Burhan and Hemeti were partners in the October 2021 coup that ousted the civilian government that followed the 2019 revolution. Their conflict began at a crunch moment for a supposed return to civilian rule and amid a plan to absorb the RSF into the SAF. As much as anything, it appears to be a personal power battle between the two leaders.

The conflict initially played out on the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and its neighbouring city of Omdurman. It has since spread to other regions. Other rebel groups are active, some acting independently of the two main forces.

All sides are targeting civilians, with clear evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed. Over 12,190 people have been killed since the conflict began. The UN also estimates that 6.6 million people have now been displaced, the world’s highest number of displaced people.

The conflict has been brought to Darfur, the site of a genocide against local ethnic groups committed by the RSF and other Arab militias that began in 2003. Twenty years on, people are again being killed solely because of their ethnicity. The RSF now controls much of the region. In November, in response to the RSF’s ethnic cleansing, key Darfur militia groups joined the SAF’s side, signalling a further escalation of conflict.

The chaos of conflict has caused a cholera outbreak, with the health system collapsing and medical workers under attack. The World Food Programme has recently warned of a deepening hunger crisis.

In Chad, a low-income country home to around a million displaced people before the conflict began, refugee centres are struggling to cope with arrivals from Sudan and people live in crowded and insanitary conditions, exposed to continuing insecurity.

Humanitarian workers are being targeted. In December, two people were killed in an attack on a Red Cross convoy in Khartoum. Journalists are also being targeted, making it harder to get accurate and independent news from the ground. In Khartoum, the RSF has turned media buildings into detention centres.

And yet the response from the international community has been wholly inadequate. Recently the UN announced it had received only 38.6 per cent of the US$2.6 billion needed for humanitarian response in 2023. It’s only been able to help a fraction of those in need.

In another blow, at the start of December, the mandate of the UN Integrated Assistance Mission in Sudan was terminated at the request of the SAF-led government. Its job had been to support a democratic transition. The move offered a troubling sign that the government wants less rather than more international oversight.

A history of wishful thinking

With other conflicts dominating global headlines – first Ukraine, now Gaza – the world isn’t paying attention. But that doesn’t mean states have stopped taking sides. Sudan’s size, mineral wealth and geographical position give it strategic significance. Foreign states have long made self-interested calculations. Before the conflict, most states, as well as the UN, placed faith in the military as a source of stability. With that idea blown, states are now deciding which side is their best bet.

The United Arab Emirates is reportedly supplying arms to the RSF, and recently several of its diplomats were expelled by the foreign ministry. Russia is also on the RSF’s side. Both countries have an interest in Sudan’s gold. On the other side, Egypt has always been strongly behind the military establishment and the USA is said to be sliding towards the SAF as the perceived lesser of two evils.

Even when apparently well-intentioned, states and international organisations have consistently been guilty of wishful thinking. Before the conflict they put their faith in the promises of a military-led transition plan. Every process attempted since the coup has only further empowered the leaders now at war.

Need to enable civil society

It’s time Sudan’s civil society was heard and enabled to help pave the road to peace.

Sudan’s civil society is complex and layered. There’s an elite tier that broadly backed the supposedly transitional administration that emerged after the coup. There are established civil society organisations that work to provide essential services and advocate for rights. But the biggest source of opposition to armed rule has come from resistance committees: informal neighbourhood-level groups that played a crucial role in the 2019 revolution.

The committees are democratic and make decisions by consensus. They call for civilian rule and reject the calculations of the outside world about which form of military government can best guarantee stability, which for the resistance committees means continuing oppression. They’ve also become a key source of humanitarian response, including by providing food, water and healthcare.

Diverse resistance committees have worked together to develop a plan for transition to democracy. But the outside world seems perplexed, struggling to engage with a leaderless movement and rejecting demands for democratic civilian rule as somehow too ambitious.

But everything else has failed. There should be no route for either of the warring military leaders to retain power. When peace comes, so must accountability for human rights crimes. And neither will materialise unless democracy does – which means an enabled and empowered civil society.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Republish | | Print |

the feminist press