Sudan: The Arab world’s and Africa’s forgotten conflict
Unlike conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa that grab the spotlight and make front-page news in the world’s leading media outlets, the armed conflicts that have plagued Sudan since its independence have a hard time getting the world’s attention.
Sudan, a predominately Arab country in northern Africa, is one of the poorest places in the world. Its infrastructure and public services leave much to be desired and the country ranks among the world’s lowest in key domains such as human rights, economy and education.
While the conflict in Sudan is very real and murderous, it at times appears to belong more in an Evelyn Waugh novel.
After gaining its independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956, Sudan had decades of civil conflict, with the people voting to allow the south to secede in 2011. This split Sudan, then Africa’s largest country, into two sovereign states: Sudan and South Sudan. Three times the size of France, Sudan claims to have a road network of some 17,000km but only 200km are paved.
The referendum in January 2011 indicated overwhelming support for the south’s independence. South Sudan officially gained independence on July 9, 2011. Sudan and South Sudan have yet to fully implement security and economic agreements signed in September 2012 to normalise relations. The final disposition of the contested Abyei region has also yet to be decided.
The underlying causes of Sudan’s multiple wars are many. There is the religious war between the Christian south and the Muslim north. The north is mostly Arab and Muslim, whereas the south is Christian and Animist. Despite having some of Africa’s largest oil reserves, South Sudan is poorer than Sudan. Second, there are wars between various tribes and militias, such as the Janjaweed, which operates in western Sudan and eastern Chad.
Following South Sudan’s independence, fighting broke out between the government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which is active in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile (together known as the Two Areas). The clashes resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people and created a refugee crisis, displacing nearly 1.1 million people.
In 2003, Janjaweed went on a killing spree in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, displacing nearly 2 million people and claiming thousands of more lives. While fighting between government and opposition forces has largely subsided in both regions, civilians are threatened by low-level violence, including inter-tribal conflicts and crime, which is largely a result of the weak rule of law.
For all intents and purposes, Sudan is a failed state incapable of providing security for its citizens. Efforts to quell the violence by the United Nations and the African Union have not succeeded. Peacekeeping forces from the United Nations and the African Union have been dispatched to Darfur.
Already weighed down by massive social and economic problems, including the provision of housing for millions of refugees from its own country, Sudan is further troubled by an influx of refugees from neighbouring countries, primarily Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Armed conflict, poor transportation and the inability of the central government to offer any tangible solutions to the country’s problems have contributed to Sudan’s dire condition.
In the past, Khartoum was accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. Former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sought refuge in Sudan until, under international pressure, he fled to Afghanistan.
While bin Laden may have been forced out of the country, a state of anarchy persists in Sudan, making it an ideal haven for terrorists.
The US Department of State has warned US citizens not to travel to Sudan:
“US citizens should avoid all travel to the Darfur region, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states and consider carefully before planning travel to other areas of Sudan due to the risks of terrorism, armed conflict and violent crime,” reads the agency’s travel warning.
“The US embassy’s ability to provide services outside of Khartoum is extremely limited. Terrorist groups are active in Sudan and have stated their intent to harm Westerners and Western interests through suicide operations, bombings, shootings and kidnappings. Violent crime targeting Westerners, including kidnappings, armed robberies, home invasions and carjackings occur everywhere in Sudan but are particularly prevalent in the Darfur region.”
“Despite numerous ceasefires declared by the government of Sudan and opposition forces, tensions in the Darfur region… remain high and violence continues. In addition to risking injury or death, US citizens who go to these areas without the permission of the Sudanese government may be detained by security forces,” the travel warning stated.
These embassy warnings may well be the only media coverage that the tragic story in Sudan receives. There is no end in sight for the country, its conflicts and its many problems.