April 3, 2024

IntelBriefs: Conflict in Sudan Continues to Have Spillover Effects Throughout the Region

AP Photo/Jsarh Ngarndey Ulrish

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The conflict in Sudan has triggered mass displacement and one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, risking the destabilization of the wider region.
  • The influx of over half a million refugees to neighboring Chad has strained its infrastructure, with conditions in overcrowded, makeshift camps increasingly dire.
  • Libya is becoming a transit country for Sudanese refugees attempting to reach Europe, and rampant oil smuggling in the country has reportedly provided fuel for the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, perpetuating the conflict.
  • As many – including donor states – have turned toward Gaza and Ukraine, Sudan risks becoming a forgotten conflict, an outcome that is both consequential for its devastating humanitarian implications and wider regional stability.

After nearly a year since the eruption of fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the conflict in Sudan has triggered both the displacement of approximately 9 million people and one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. During a UN Security Council meeting in mid-March, senior UN officials warned that the conflict was pushing millions to the brink of famine, setting it on a course to be the world’s worst hunger crisis – a devastating assessment for a country that was once considered the future breadbasket of East Africa. The hostilities have also resulted in looting and widespread destruction of critical infrastructure, with the expansion of the fighting across south-eastern Sudan severely impacting national food production and grain harvests. Further, evidence that ethnic cleansing is currently underway in Darfur includes accounts of roving RSF killing squads along with other atrocities. The violence, mass displacement, and rising food insecurity risks not only worsening the dire conditions in Sudan, but also destabilizing the wider region. Experts have warned that the active conflict risks spilling across Sudan’s borders into neighboring countries, with significant potential of evolving into a wider regional conflict. In a battle in early March for the Omdurman radio and television buildings, the SAF claimed to have captured foreign fighters from Chad and South Sudan who were fighting for the RSF. Many of the mercenaries have tribal affiliations and the cross-border nature of the conflict risks making this a regional war, which some would argue it already is. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, who has received backing from the United Arab Emirates, has reportedly facilitated the shipment of weapons to Mohammed Hamad Dagalo (“Hemedti”) and the RSF.

In Chad, more than half a million Sudanese refugees have fled to the neighboring country since April 2023, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This brings the total number of refugees hosted in Chad to 1.1 million, making it Africa’s largest host per capita, according to UNHCR. The current scale and rate of the displacement is unprecedented, and more people fled Sudan for Chad in the first ten months of the recent war than the entirety of the 2003 war in Darfur, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. In addition to the extreme violence of the conflict, recent arrivals to the camps have shared further evidence of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, with refugees recounting systematic killings, violence, and sexual and gender-based violence, including rape.

Chad hosts the most Sudanese refugees in the region, and the relatively rapid influx of arrivals has put a significant strain on Chad’s infrastructure. Poverty and economic vulnerability are pervasive in the country, with 42.3 percent of the population living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank. Extreme poverty – measured as the percentage of the population living on less than $2.15 a day – was on the rise before the recent arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, climbing to 35.4 percent in 2023, according to World Bank figures. Such conditions have hindered Chad’s ability to provide basic assistance to refugees in the country, resulting in desperate living conditions in the overcrowded, makeshift camps. Chadian authorities have declared a state of emergency for food and nutrition security. A lack of adequate funding and humanitarian aid has exacerbated the situation with catastrophic impact. In December, the World Food Programme (WFP) suspended rations to some refugee groups due to lack of funding and the UN warned this week that aid to refugees in eastern Chad is set to run out. Senior UN officials have warned that the “abandonment” of Chad poses severe challenges for the region, as well as Europe, as an increasing number of refugees are attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

Although Libya only hosts approximately 13,000 Sudanese refugees, it is increasingly becoming a transit country for those attempting to reach Europe, according to UN officials and refugee organizations. The number of Sudanese refugees in Libya may also be higher than official estimates, as many have reportedly crossed the largely unpatrolled Libyan border, including through Chad. Some – after failed attempts to cross the Mediterranean from Libya – have then attempted the crossing by traveling through Niger, to Algeria, and eventually sailing from Tunisia, a country that has become a key transit point for refugees from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

Beyond the refugee situation, a recent report submitted to the UN Security Council alleged that rampant oil smuggling in Libya has helped provide fuel to the RSF. The country’s authorities have announced that they will investigate allegations of the mismanagement of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, which has been accused of fueling not only the civil war in Sudan through oil smuggling, but also that some of the money from the smuggling activities have made its way indirectly to Russia’s rebranded Wagner Group, the Africa Corps. Further, reports last year indicated that Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, had been supplying gasoline and weapons to the RSF on behalf of his sponsors in the Middle East and for financial gain, according to the Middle East Monitor.

Since Sudan serves as a link between the Middle East and Africa, coupled with its abundant natural resources, including petroleum and minerals, the country’s civil war reverberates beyond its immediate borders and has evolved into an arena for some Gulf states to solidify their dominance in the Middle East. The growing rift between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia has been noted in the conflict in Sudan, with the UAE accused of supplying the RSF with weapons and Saudi Arabia reportedly backing the leader of the SAF, General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan. With Egypt – which has accepted the second largest number of Sudanese refugees – taking the side of the SAF, many analysts have pointed to the risk of the conflict becoming a proxy war among these states, as in Yemen. As the humanitarian situation continues to worsen, with the regional implications staggering, Washington has sought to possibly resume peace talks in Saudi Arabia, according to a statement last week by U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Tom Perriello. Perriello told reporters that the U.S. has made it clear that peace talks would need to be inclusive, including the UAE, Egypt, the regional East African bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the African Union. Yet, it is unclear whether the SAF and RSF would agree to resume the negotiations, and experts have noted that the long-term end goal in Sudan that is acceptable to the warring parties – such as impunity for crimes and a division of territory – may not be acceptable to the U.S., and more importantly, Sudanese civilians. As many – including donor states – have turned toward Gaza and Ukraine, Sudan risks becoming a forgotten conflict. The result is both consequential for its devastating humanitarian outcomes and wider regional stability.