News | War / Peace - Western Europe - East Africa - Europe2024 The EU and Sudan’s Forgotten War

The path to peace will only succeed with the involvement of civil society


Refugees from Darfur line up at a food distribution centre in Adré, Chad, March 2024.
Refugees from Darfur line up at a food distribution centre in Adré, Chad, March 2024.  Photo: IMAGO / MAXPPP

For more than a year, a war has been raging in Sudan that has been largely ignored by the public. The main actors are the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The role of the European Union is contradictory, as in the past it has not only legitimized the military actors, but has also helped to equip some of them.

Saskia Jaschek is a journalist and doctoral candidate at the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS), where she studies the revolutionary movement in Sudan and the military coup.

At present, the EU is unable to position itself as a mediator and continues to favour isolation. The foundation’s Andreas Bohne spoke to journalist and research Saskia Jaschek  about the political situation in Sudan and the ambivalent role of the EU.

Let’s start with a look back: On 11 April 2019, the rule of Sudan’s long-term dictator Omar al-Bashir came to an end. What was the EU’s attitude towards al-Bashir and his regime during his almost 30-year rule?

Not only did the Sudanese government under al-Bashir isolate itself politically and economically through its links to Islamist terrorist groups, but he also isolated the entire country. In 1990, one year after the coup, the EU suspended its development aid, and political dialogue with the government was only resumed at the end of the 1990s. Compared to other Western powers such as the US, the EU’s policy towards the Sudanese government was characterized by restraint. In the early 2000s, the EU found it difficult to describe the mass killings in Darfur as “genocide”, but ultimately imposed sanctions, focused on humanitarian aid and attempted to contribute to conflict resolution through political mediation.

Sudan’s relations with the EU had grown closer through mediation in another domestic conflict, namely the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), a resistance group from what is now South Sudan, and the Sudanese government. Relations were only intensified in the 2010s, when the EU realized that Sudan was actually an important factor for the desired externalization of the EU’s external borders.

You mentioned the external borders, externalization, a term that has only been taken up in the discussion in recent years. But the so-called “Khartoum Process” was already underway during the al-Bashir dictatorship. Can you describe this process, define its objectives, and outline the EU’s role in it?

The “Khartoum Process”, or more accurately the “EU Horn of Africa Migration Initiative”, was launched in 2014 as a result of increasing migration from the Horn of Africa region. Officially, this initiative aims to combat human trafficking and curb so-called “illegal migration”. To this end, the EU provided 4.5 billion euro for migration control measures for various African countries. In doing so, it did not shy away from cooperating with dictatorial states such as Sudan or Eritrea.

Sudan was and is a very important centre of migration: on the one hand, it is itself the country of origin for millions of refugees and internally displaced persons due to its own conflicts, but on the other hand it is also an important transit point for migration routes of people from all over Africa — but especially from the Horn of Africa — who then want to make their way to Europe.

There is always the question of how such a powerful apparatus as the Sudanese military can be brought to a peaceful transfer of power without a violent confrontation.

This initiative not only externalized the EU’s external border, but also conditioned development payments by means of migration control. The funds were not used to create safe escape routes, but most of the projects were aimed at stopping migration at such an early stage that people were unable to reach the Mediterranean in the first place.

What is particularly worthy of criticism for Sudan is the support for the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which were deployed with this initiative for border protection at the time. The EU approved this, knowing that the RSF emerged from the armed Janjaweed militia, which perpetrated genocide in Darfur in the early 2000s and was responsible for sexualized violence, robbery, and the disappearance of people. This cooperation also involved other questionable institutions, such as the Sudanese secret service, which benefited from this initiative. The latter has actually always been known for its violent actions against opposition groups and also for its arbitrary arrests.

What role and position did the EU take after the 2021 revolution — it was not part of the “troika” like Norway, the US, and the UK?

After the revolution, the EU was indeed quick to support the transitional government and provided a large financial package to drive forward economic reforms, create jobs, and also empower women economically. There was also a lot of money for cultural organizations and civil society initiatives to help promote democracy.

At the time, there were quite devastating subsidy cuts and economic reforms that had to be implemented by the transitional government due to the strict conditions imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. In order to cushion the socially devastating impact of these economic reforms, a direct cash transfer programme was set up. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which also severely weakened the country, there were large support packages to combat the pandemic.

You have now painted a slightly positive picture. In my view, however, one reason for the failure of the transition and transformation is that both Sudanese and external actors such as the EU have clung to the primacy of the military. Do you agree with this assessment?

Yes, to a certain extent. Even during the 2019 agreement between the military and civilians, some — especially Sudanese — voices were quite critical of this power sharing. Even then, it was questionable what the actual incentive was for the military to voluntarily relinquish its political power and thus presumably also curb its own economic influence. After all, it is not only very powerful militarily, but also controls large parts of the Sudanese economy. A voluntary relinquishment of power was already a rather unlikely scenario at the time.

The problem with these deals, which have been a recurring motif in Sudan’s history since independence, is that they always go hand in hand with impunity for the perpetrators of atrocities. As long as these people or parts of the system remain unpunished and are then politically legitimized internationally, a real change in the system is of course not possible. On the other hand, there is always the question of how such a powerful apparatus as the Sudanese military can be brought to a peaceful transfer of power without a violent confrontation.

However, the agreement of December 2022 was highly questionable. In principle, the 2019 agreement was more or less repeated. There was to be another power-sharing agreement, a reorganization and rehabilitation of the military, which was then to relinquish its political power in return. In addition, the RSF was to be dissolved and integrated into the military.

However, there was no formulated plan or a way in which all this was to happen. This was strongly criticized by large sections of the Sudanese civilian population, for example by the resistance committees, which were heavily involved in the revolution. A fundamental problem is that the generals were repeatedly supported internationally, and these tensions then repeatedly erupted into military conflicts. This is the result of a policy that is perpetuated by external actors such as the EU and that mainly deals with the political elites in negotiations, but usually excludes the civilian population.

Does this also apply to the EU?

It doesn’t just apply to the EU. I would say it applies to many Western diplomats. We see a continued colonial policy that excludes large parts of the civilian population, which is highly fatal in an ethnically diverse country like Sudan and excludes people from political life.

Germany has always been much more reserved than France, which has a much greater geopolitical interest in the region and the Sahel as a whole.

Could it be exaggerated to say that the EU bears some responsibility for the developments since 2019 and the escalation last year?

With regard to the aforementioned Khartoum Process, I can agree with this exaggeration to the extent that the RSF has received a considerable part of its power, its financial resources, its weapons, and even the training of its soldiers through the Khartoum Process. In the process, the militia became a state entity. We can clearly attribute this to the EU, and the fact that the RSF is now capable of such a major escalation is also partly due to this.

We are currently talking about the EU as a bloc. Is it even possible to speak of an EU position, or are there diverging interests between European states?

There are definitely divergent interests. If we compare France and Germany, for example, Germany has always been much more reserved than France, which has a much greater geopolitical interest in the region and the Sahel as a whole. France has always acted more as a donor or as an organizer of conferences on Sudan, although Germany has also repeatedly provided money for humanitarian support. Germany is rather reserved when it comes to political interventions or diplomatic endeavours.

Despite country-specific differences, a uniform EU position is nevertheless recognizable, in which the stability of Sudan is the top priority. This is because conflicts such as the one in Sudan have an impact on the entire region. The externalization of the EU’s external borders to prevent migration can clearly be described as a common EU position. In July last year, just a few weeks after the outbreak of war, the EU concluded a migration deal worth 900 million euro with Tunisia in return for stopping smugglers and illegalized crossings.

You mentioned France as a donor and conference organizer. An international donor conference was held in Paris almost two months ago. Of the aid totalling more than 2 billion euro, 350 million have been earmarked by the EU. What is known about how it will be used?

I actually have no information about the extent to which the money has already been implemented and realized. What is known is that the funds are being passed on to vulnerable people in Sudan and neighbouring countries and are to be used primarily for health and food supplies and for accommodation.

What I know from my own research work and from conversations with self-organized humanitarian organizations that are active on the ground is that in the past, funds have often not arrived in full. One reason for this is that these funds, which come from Western countries in particular, are always tied to certain bureaucratic processes that civil society organizations are often unable to comply with.

I would like to look again at the current situation. The war is not coming to an end, all peace initiatives are fizzling out and the reports of genocide in Darfur are increasing. What role should the EU play in ending the war? Or is it not in a position to do so?

I think that the EU should endeavour to take on the role of a mediator. It can create platforms and opportunities for networking, and by that I don’t necessarily mean Sudan’s military groups, but above all the civilian population, such as the resistance committees and numerous other organisations that have been campaigning for democracy in their country for decades. This is important because the war has now spread to include large sections of the civilian population. It is therefore important to talk to the civilian population, or to let the civilian population speak for itself and bring them all to the table. Because in the end, it is precisely these civilian groups that are doing the peace work on the ground.

What people need is attention and not for the world to turn its back on them and leave them alone with these mass deaths.

So the EU has not yet taken on this role for you?

The EU sometimes organizes talks, but always behind closed doors and usually only with the political elites. Whether this is far-reaching support for all these local initiatives or the committees, I would say rather “no” and the EU needs to do more. I believe that a peace initiative only between the military actors will not be successful — the war is internationalizing and both sides are receiving a lot of support from different countries. As long as this international support continues, fighting will be worthwhile for both parties and peace negotiations will probably fail.

The major diplomatic task is therefore to curb international support for the two warring parties, which will not be easy, as there are economic interests, some of them worth millions, behind it. Nevertheless, it is necessary to turn off precisely these money taps. The sanctions against various companies in the RSF and SAF industrial complexes were a good start, but it would have to go even further. To do this, the EU must also involve players such as the Gulf states — which are behind the military and the RSF.

Compared to the war in Gaza, the war in Sudan receives relatively little international attention. What do the people in Sudan need now?

Humanitarian aid is absolutely essential in view of the numbers. New estimates suggest that 2.5 million people could die of hunger by September this year without humanitarian aid. We see very little attention being paid to this war, and even in Germany, the war is often referred to as “the forgotten war”. I would say it is the “greatly ignored war”.

What people need is attention and not for the world to turn its back on them and leave them alone with these mass deaths. The question must also be asked as to why it is that the war receives so little international attention. In connection with her five-point plan, Annalena Baerbock said, among other things, that it would be a task to shine a bright light on the war. Yet a genocide is taking place in Darfur and nobody cares. That is also part of the responsibility.

I also think it is important to emphasize that, in addition to humanitarian aid, the policy of sealing people off must also be ended. This includes creating safe escape routes, but also enabling people to arrive safely, and not letting these people starve to death in huge camps in neighbouring countries and deliberately looking the other way.