Expert opinion piece: One year later, Sudan teeters on the edge of collapse

For Sudanese and observers alike, recalling the optimism of 2019, when the country bid farewell to thirty years of dictatorship, is a challenging task. Street protests had then successfully ousted President Bashir, charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity, heralding what was believed to be a pivotal shift in the country's trajectory. However, four years later, amidst a flurry of futile attempts to transfer power to civilians, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, ignited the powder keg on April 15, 2023, sparking what can be described as the most profound and deadly crisis in Sudan's history.

As the war reaches its one-year milestone, more than 8.5 million people have been forcibly displaced across the country, underscoring the immense scale of violence wrought by the warring factions. Over 1.7 million individuals have been compelled to flee to volatile neighbouring countries, often finding themselves forced to return to the very same places they had previously fled. Khartoum, the capital city, now lies in ruins. With humanitarian access severely restricted, the United Nations estimate that more than 25 million people are in need of assistance. Furthermore, as a result of displacement, crop failures, and skyrocketing food prices, more than 17 million people are forecasted to fall into severe food insecurity in the upcoming months.

What was hastily brushed off as yet another personal power struggle in Africa is, in reality, a crisis that challenges the very essence of the social contract defining post-colonial Sudan. Questions surrounding power, nation-building, and citizenship have long been contentious, unresolved debates within Sudanese society, notably contributing to the secession of South Sudan in 2011. For too long, Khartoum elites across the political spectrum have consciously failed their people and marginalized the peripheries for their own political and economic gain. Sadly, famine, racism, and violence became tragic instruments in their pursuit of state-building, mere tools used to bolster their authority. However, this strategy spun out of control when the Rapid Support Forces, once mere pawns in President Bashir's political manoeuvres in Darfur, amassed enough power to attempt to overturn the established order in Sudan.

The ongoing struggle, now enveloping the entire country and embroiling numerous factions defending their homelands, necessitates a response surpassing the usual – an ineffective -  one-size-fits-all power-sharing agreements favoured by the international community in the last decade. Presently, diplomacy has faltered as none of the ceasefire agreements have held, underscoring that the United States' purported 'indirect' engagement, reliant on regional allies, reflects their dwindling influence rather than a calculated strategy. The regionalization of peace and security, emblematic of the crisis in multilateralism and the diminishing capacity of the United Nations to prevent atrocities, has likewise proved fruitless. The African Union, and to a lesser extent IGAD, have failed to wield substantial influence, while regional powers like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have prioritised hegemonic ambitions over genuine efforts to resolve the conflict.

Sudan's plunge into chaos, where none of the warring factions can seem to establish authority, undoubtedly carries significant ramifications for an already tumultuous region marred by extreme poverty and endemic instability. The Horn of Africa emerges as a region characterized by a higher frequency of conflicts, border redrawals, insurgencies, and shifting alliances than any other part of Africa. Once contenders for regional supremacy, the internal upheavals in both Ethiopia and Sudan have not only unsettled regional relations but also exacerbated nationalist rivalries to an unprecedented degree. Forced population movements have destabilized fragile and recovering countries like South Sudan, endeavouring to recover from a five-year civil war, and Chad, striving to establish a post-Deby order. Together, these countries host over 1.1 million refugees or returnees, further straining their already precarious situations. 

The convergence of state collapse, ethnic cleansing, economic interests, and external interventions constitutes, as the Great Lakes region of Africa can already attest, an explosive cocktail. While the conflicts in Gaza and the challenges faced by Ukraine have captured significant attention, the war in Sudan has been dangerously marginalized. However, such indifference from the international community can only serve to foster impunity and criminal behaviours among elites, especially when instability appears more lucrative than peace. It is thus imperative for regional players, supported by external actors like the United States and the United Nations, to underscore that the cessation of hostilities stands as the sole feasible recourse. Yet, such an endeavour requires coordination and, indeed, political will.