News | War / Peace - North Africa The War in Sudan Is Causing Mass Hunger

Without a ceasefire soon, the situation could spiral out of control



Andreas Bohne,

People meet for Iftar (the evening meal marking the end of daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan) in Khartoum, Sudan.
People meet for Iftar (the evening meal marking the end of daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan) in Khartoum, Sudan, 17 March 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

It is currently the biggest refugee crisis on the planet: more than 10 million people have now been displaced in the wake of the fighting in Sudan, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The World Food Programme has also warned of the world’s biggest hunger crisis. If a ceasefire is not reached soon, the United Nations claims, up to 25 million people will be threatened by hunger.

Andreas Bohne directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Africa Unit in Berlin.

Yet an end to the civil war, which began a year ago on 15 April 2023, is currently not in sight. The fighting that broke out in the capital Khartoum between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has quickly spread across almost the entire country.

In media reports on the catastrophic situation in Sudan, there is often talk of a “forgotten war” that is overshadowed by the war in Ukraine or the fighting in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, many people in Germany do not realize the scale of the war. Nevertheless, the description falls short: the international supporters of both main warring parties — above all the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the side of the RSF and Egypt on the side of the Sudanese military, who both supply weapons and buy the gold that primarily finances the RSF — have not forgotten the war at all.

Moreover, Western countries such as the “troika states” of Norway, the UK, US, which have sought to facilitate a peace process in Sudan since 2001, as well as the European Union, have legitimized the military players in Sudan instead of limiting their influence for far too long. They failed to help build viable civilian structures when they had the chance, although they had all been involved in Sudan for decades. The outbreak of war is therefore also their failure — yet precisely that aspect is often ignored in reports on the “forgotten war”.

But how did this catastrophic escalation come about in the first place? As recently as December 2018, the Sudanese revolution, which was mainly supported by young people, had overcome the kleptocratic regime of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir and appeared to present an opportunity for a transition to democracy. But the civilian structures lacked support at the time.

Despite warnings from civilian and left-wing forces inside and outside Sudan, the military was relied upon in the name of stability. The civilian-military coalition government established after the revolution with interim president Abdallah Hamdok and General Abdelfattah al-Burhan as chairman of the military council consolidated the role of the armed forces in the Sudanese “military deep state” instead of overcoming it. For decades, the Sudanese military has claimed the lion’s share of the national budget and also controls a large part of the economy.

According to the United Nations, more than 12,000 people have died in the fighting so far.

In addition to the military, the paramilitary forces of the RSF play a decisive role. Their commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemetti”, is the opponent of army chief al-Burhan in the current civil war. Originating from the Janjaweed militia, responsible for the genocide in Darfur, they are a toxic legacy of the ex-dictator al-Bashir. After his fall, the battle-hardened unit remained an important force, partly due to its external supporters such as the UAE. Like the SAF, it has an economic basis: it is financed by gold mining in Darfur and profitable mercenary activities, among other things, and its fighters were also active in the Yemeni civil war.

In 2021, the current opponents in the war — al-Burhan and Hemetti — staged a joint coup against the civilian government. The efforts to build a civilian political force to counter the military and drive the transition to democracy had thus failed —due to the greed for power of civilian politicians and the military, social divisions, and external actors such as Egypt. It is an open secret that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi eyed the revolutionary stirrings in the neighbouring country with suspicion and feared that they could spill over into his own country.

There was a brief glimmer of hope when negotiations between the military government and the civilian coalition of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) began in autumn 2022. These resulted in a framework agreement on a renewed “democratic transition” and also included the reorganization of the Sudanese security apparatus and the integration of the paramilitary RSF into the regular army. However, the merger of the two military formations ultimately failed on account of the ambitions of the two coup leaders, al-Burhan and Hemetti, each of whom wants to rule Sudan alone. Both are seeking to capitalize on the social and ethnic divisions in the multi-ethnic state. Hemetti, for example, has declared the “Arab bourgeoisie”, which he claims is regaining its lost influence through al-Burhan, to be his main enemy.

With 200,000 soldiers, the SAF outnumbers the 100,000 fighters of the RSF in the war. However, it has not been able to achieve a quick victory. On the contrary, the RSF now controls the Darfur region and the strategically important city of al Gezira south of the capital. Khartoum itself is still being fought over. Hence, a strategic stalemate is emerging between the two parties, while at the same time various local militias continue to arm themselves.

Displacement, Destruction, and Human Rights Violations

According to the United Nations, more than 12,000 people have died in the fighting so far. Of the 10 million displaced, 1.7 million have fled to other countries, almost 70 percent of them to the neighbouring states of Chad and South Sudan. Mostly members of the middle class made it to Egypt, the Arab countries, or Europe, while poor people who had often already been displaced in the past found themselves stranded in the refugee camps in Darfur or South Sudan.

As both the RSF and the SAF are deploying heavy artillery and shells in densely populated areas, important water, sanitation, education, and health facilities have been largely destroyed. This is especially true in the capital, Khartoum, where infrastructure and residential buildings took heavy damage in the first days of the war. In February 2024, the internet connection was also interrupted for several days — vital for the survival of many in Sudan who receive money digitally from their relatives abroad.

Caught between the warring factions, hunger is now spreading among the civilian population. Due to the destruction of infrastructure, many are no longer able to provide for themselves. The war has now largely brought agricultural production to a standstill, and both warring parties repeatedly block access to humanitarian supplies.

The civilian population is also directly affected by attacks. At the end of February, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that both sides had committed war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian facilities such as hospitals, markets, and refugee camps.

The RSF in particular is responsible for human rights violations such as killings and sexualized violence in Darfur. The RSF and its allied Arab militias carried out two massacres in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, in April and November of last year. More than 10,000 people were killed — most of them from the Masalit people, who traditionally support the SAF. The governor of West Darfur, Khamis Abbakar, was also tortured and murdered in the course of the fighting and the state was subsequently placed under an RSF-aligned administration aligned.

The Role of External Actors

The RSF could hardly survive without partners abroad. The UAE in particular backs the paramilitary group, although Abu Dhabi denies supplying weapons to it. Weapons are mainly channelled into the country via Libya, Chad, and Uganda, where local political actors are involved in the arms trade. One of the players is said to be Libyan warlord Khalifar Haftar.

The Russian Wagner Group is also suspected of supplying weapons to the RSF. This is remarkable, as the UAE acted as a US ally in the region for many years, but is now pursuing a very flexible alliance policy — apparently to defend its economic interests in Sudan. For example, the Emirates have invested in the construction of a new harbour north of Port Sudan, while the RSF chief has very personal economic ties to the wealthy Gulf state. Both Hemetti himself and his younger brother Algoni Dagalo own companies there.

The rulers in the UAE viewed the 2019 democratic revolution with concern. They share this concern with Egyptian President el-Sisi, but unlike the Emirati government in Abu Dhabi, the latter relies on the regular army — Egypt officially supplies weapons to the SAF.

In this complicated situation, the UN special envoy, German diplomat Volker Perthes, had no other choice but to admit his political helplessness. After two-and-a-half years in Sudan, he handed in his resignation in September 2023. In December, the UN Security Council then decided to end the UNITAM mission that Perthes had led. The cause of the failure has been debated ever since: was it the primacy of politics over economic development, the cross-firing of external forces, the poor equipment of the mission, or the cooperation with the military while at the same time excluding many civilian actors?

If temporary ceasefires for religious or humanitarian reasons, such as to feed starving people, have no chance, then real conflict resolution is even further off.

Even if the causes were certainly manifold, the last point damaged the mission’s reputation among many Sudanese. After all, self-organized resistance and neighbourhood committees played a major role in the overthrow of al-Bashir. Supported mainly by the middle class, they kept up the political pressure from the streets in the face of repression long after the change of power, demanding the expansion of social infrastructure and the dissolution of the RSF. They warned against the escalation that has now occurred at an early stage, and the war has now weakened them permanently.

Although the Khartoum committees reaffirmed their stance against the militarization of the country in a joint statement two days after the war began, they have since been primarily occupied with humanitarian tasks. From providing information on reasonably safe escape routes to distributing food and providing shelter, they organize the aid that is vital for the survival of many Sudanese. Politically, however, they can hardly gain a hearing, precisely because many activists are in exile. Hence, the opportunity to build a strong civil society will not return any time soon.

There is also little evidence that democratic states have learned from the mistakes of the past. In the short term, all initiatives in favour of a ceasefire — which is understandable in realpolitik terms — are only aimed at the military players. However, there are hardly any considerations as to how civilian actors can be involved. This repeats a cardinal mistake of the past: although forums are repeatedly created for academics, representatives of humanitarian organizations, and civilian actors, they appear detached from what is happening on the ground and have no practical effect.

That said, all talks aimed solely at achieving a ceasefire have also failed so far. One of the first attempts was launched by the US together with Saudi Arabia, the “Jeddah Initiative”. Other initiatives were launched by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), supported by the African Union and moderated by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Kenyan President William Ruto.

None of the initiatives have succeeded in bringing the two military rivals to the table. In March, the recently appointed US special envoy for Sudan, Tom Perriello, travelled to Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to hold talks. However, apart from the dates, nothing is known about the content of these talks.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s five-point initiative, which she presented during a trip to Kenya at the end of January, also remains very general, with demands such as support for civilian actors, the prevention of arms deliveries, and targeted sanctions. It is unclear how all of this is to be implemented. The result is the impression of a helpless attempt primarily motivated by the desire to prevent Sudanese from fleeing to Europe. Many refugees from Sudan are already stranded in Tunisia, hoping to cross the Mediterranean despite the danger to their lives.

The UN Security Council’s call for a ceasefire during Ramadan, which went unheeded, shows just how muddled the situation is. Representatives of the Sudanese army ruled out such a ceasefire as long as the RSF would not leave civilian public facilities. But if even temporary ceasefires for religious or humanitarian reasons, such as to feed starving people, have no chance, then real conflict resolution is even further off.

This article first appeared in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.