After six months of harrowing conflict, Sudan is trapped in a distressing humanitarian crisis that has reverberated globally, particularly impacting the delicate Horn of Africa. A country home to over 46 million people, its strategic location and historical and cultural links connect it to the Horn of Africa and North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Red Sea. The challenges facing this region, already with persistent crises, wars, climate change and terrorism, risk being exacerbated if the Sudanese conflict continues. The ripple effects could include increased displacement, food shortages, water disputes and spillover as conflict into neighbouring countries.
Sudan’s current plight is dire, with one of the gravest humanitarian situations globally. According to UNHCR, an alarming 5,722,139 million people have been displaced since the conflict ignited in April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (S.A.F.) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (R.S.F.). The neighbouring nations have seen an influx, with Chad now hosting 431,197 and Egypt hosting 317,230, respectively. In a cruel twist, 280,000 South Sudanese, previously displaced by conflict, are on the run again (ibid.). Another 4.5 million remain internally displaced within Sudan, including refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea who once viewed Sudan as a sanctuary. To add to the woes, 67% of hospitals in conflict zones have ceased operations, according to the World Health Organization, leaving many without essential medical aid.
Beyond Sudan’s borders, the Horn of Africa observes the unfolding crisis with trepidation. Countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, all contending with their distinct challenges, are now entwined with Sudan’s continuing ordeal. South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan in 2011, now faces the bleak prospect of accommodating refugees displaced multiple times, as highlighted by a recent report in The New York Times. As Sudan confronts the heart-wrenching scenes of conflict and immense suffering, neighbouring nations like Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia bear their deep-seated scars from recent and earlier civil wars, repeated skirmishes, and challenges like terrorism, underscoring the region’s fragility.
During a speech at the U.N. in September, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, cautioned that the conflict in Sudan might extend to neighbouring African nations. He requested the international community to designate his adversaries in the ongoing battle, the Rapid Support Forces (R.S.F.), as a terrorist organisation. General al-Burhan also spoke about the alleged connections between the R.S.F. and the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organisation known to operate in nations like the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mozambique. However, the SAF also have ties to the Wagner group and have been accused of violence and human rights violations against Sudanese civilians.
The danger is that this escalating conflict could envelop neighbouring countries, particularly within the vulnerable Horn of Africa. This threat is evident in the movements of refugees from Sudan to neighbouring territories. Ethiopians from the Tigray region who once sought refuge in Sudan are now forced to move again to Eritrea or South Sudan due to renewed conflicts. Furthermore, experts have raised the alarm that the influx of Sudanese refugees could exacerbate the climate crisis in the Horn of Africa.
Sudan’s strategic importance cannot be understated. As a country that stands on the banks of the Nile and shares borders with critical nations like Egypt and Ethiopia – as well as five other countries, namely Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, and South Sudan, which are themselves mired in deep-seated conflicts – Sudan is undeniably central to the Horn of Africa. Its significance goes beyond mere geography. Stability or instability in Sudan resonates throughout the region, affecting everything from commerce and economics to politics and climate change. The danger is that if this conflict persists, it can trigger a domino effect, leading to further conflict and endangering the developmental progress made by its neighbours.
The ongoing conflict in Sudan has also drawn significant regional interest, particularly from Middle Eastern powers like the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The U.A.E. stands accused of siding in the civil war, notably supporting the Rapid Support Forces (R.S.F.), a dominant paramilitary faction. As highlighted by a New York Times article, there have been allegations that under the pretext of aiding refugees, the U.A.E. is covertly supplying weapons, drones, and medical assistance to the R.S.F. fighters from a remote airbase in Chad.
The implications of this conflict are vast and potentially ripple-inducing. Should this persist, it has the potential to destabilise not just Sudan but could reshape regional dynamics in the Horn. This region has, in recent times, transformed into a hotspot for great power competitions, especially in the 21st century. The Horn of Africa’s strategic position along the Red Sea trade routes and its role as host to the U.S. and China’s military bases in Djibouti underscore the global significance and potential ramifications of prolonged strife in Sudan.
The distressing scenes unfolding in Sudan are a stark reminder of the Horn of Africa’s suffering in recent years. We must ensure that Sudan does not become another Somalia. I was born in Somalia and witnessed my country plunge into decades-long conflict. I was forced to flee my home in Hargeisa as fighter jets carpet-bombed my city, leaving it wholly devastated and earning it the grim moniker, the ‘Dresden of Africa.’ We became refugees, growing up in the Harta Sheikh refugee camp in Ethiopia, which was, at the time, the largest refugee camp in the world, housing 600,000 people.
Three decades later, witnessing the crisis in Sudan and the influx of Sudanese refugees into places like Nairobi brings back haunting memories. The ongoing conflict in Somalia, from which I escaped, continues and has left deep and lasting scars, personally and collectively. It has shaped our identity as Somalis. For the Sudanese today, there is a palpable danger that the current six-month-long conflict, fuelled by power-hungry generals, might plunge this expansive and culturally rich nation into a protracted battle from which recovery might take decades to recover.
Without a swift ending of the conflict and de-escalation, there’s a grave risk of Sudan descending into an ever deeper chasm of violence and chaos. Given its size, interconnectedness, and geostrategic position, the reality is that Sudan plays such a pivotal role that its internal conflict can disrupt the whole region’s stability. This conflict in Sudan isn’t merely a localised issue. It holds significant implications for the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and North Africa. International intervention is urgently needed to halt the senseless violence, re-establish civilian rule, and seek sustainable solutions addressing the root causes of the turmoil.