New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Sudan's Intertwining Conflicts

In 2004, a man in Darfur’s Abu Shok displaced-persons camp said: “My tent here is very small but I’m ready to live in it for ever. At least, I don’t want to leave the camp before peace comes, and I believe this will take time. The war in South Sudan lasted twenty years”.

Ten years later, the same man is still living in Abu Shok. Fighting continues in Darfur and has resumed in neighbouring South Kordofan and Blue Nile. And in South Sudan, where fighting was to have ended with the nation’s independence from Sudan a year ago, conflict has again broken out.

The breakdown in South Sudan risks making the Darfur conflict a secondary concern. That would be a mistake, because all of the former Sudan’s conflicts are related, and treating them in isolation does not work – as Darfur so clearly demonstrates. Sudan needs a comprehensive solution if it is to have a solution at all.

The conflict in Darfur has evolved: attacks by government-backed, mostly Arab  “Janjawid” militias against non-Arab communities continue, but most fighting is now between Arab tribal militias, displacing more than 450,000 people in 2013 alone. Most recent fighting has been a continuation of competition over land and power within both modern and traditional administrations, with much heavier weapons than in earlier years.

The government’s policies to arm tribal units and to tribalise administrative structures have returned to haunt it. Darfurian Arabs, including Musa Hilal, the most infamous “Janjawid” leader, are increasingly dissatisfied with the central regime. Sudan’s economic crisis makes it even more difficult for the government based in faraway Khartoum to retain proxies’ loyalty. As its former allies fight, the government has done little to protect affected communities, fearing that intervening may push one side to further rebellion. Yet not doing so risks losing all sides; similar concerns prevent the promised disarmament of militias.

Khartoum aside, the international community has also largely failed in its responsibility to protect civilians. Troops from the African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force known as UNAMID have been regularly attacked and have proved unable to prevent militias from executing civilians in full view of peacekeepers.

The UN Security Council sanctions regime has proved ineffective. The arms embargo is regularly violated. A prohibition of aerial attacks is not implemented at all. To date, only four individuals have been sanctioned for allegedly attacking civilians and peacekeepers or violating the stillborn 2004 ceasefire, because Security Council members cannot agree on whom to add to the list – just as they cannot agree on anything concerning Sudan.

China and Russia have long opposed U.S. attempts at the Security Council to use the stick but that doesn’t mean the council’s permanent members can agree on carrots either. Incentives for the government to engage in a national dialogue inclusive of all opposition forces could involve debt relief, the lifting of economic sanctions, even a deferral of International Criminal Court (ICC) procedures against President Bashir – but some or all of these might not be accepted by enough Security Council members.

The main international players are also caught in a bind between their support to the ICC as an institution and the need to engage with President Bashir if there is to be any hope of a comprehensive resolution of the perpetual crisis in Sudan.

As the African Union recognised in 2009, the Darfur crisis is indeed a national problem. But many players remain ambivalent on a national approach. The 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur is a case in point. It was an attempt to limit the crisis to its local dimensions, guarding against demands from marginalised peripheries elsewhere in Sudan. Yet like other existing local deals, it includes provisions – such as measures to reduce the development gap between particular peripheries and the centre – that only make sense if embraced nationally.

Many in the government and among Sudanese from the central regions nearer Khartoum fear concessions on Darfur could lead to secession, as they believe occurred   with South Sudan. But in reality it is Khartoum’s intransigence and failure to “make unity attractive” for southerners that ultimately led them to vote for independence. Separate regional power-sharing deals perpetuate challenges to the Sudan’s unity. Despite the war, Darfurians still feel part of Sudan and the collapse of South Sudan has certainly not made secession any more attractive.

National-level transformation now the rallying cry of Darfurian rebels who rejected the Doha deal and have united in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) with those fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. But rather than just a military threat, the SRF might also be seen as an opportunity for peace, as part of a national dialogue and perhaps a transitional government to be formed with the ruling National Congress Party. At stake is the unity of what remains of Sudan.


Former President & CEO
Former Senior Analyst, Sudan

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