Darfur. Photo: Nicolai Madsen

Darfur's return to war would spell disaster for Sudan

Opinion by Jan Egeland|Published 06. May 2021
At least 125 people were brutally killed this month, when Arab and Masalit tribesmen fought running street battles in the Sudanese city of El Geneina. Rocket-propelled grenades hit a hospital and UN compound, and families who were already forced to flee their homes because of past fighting were pushed out of camps.

This opinion article was first published by CNN.

At least 125 people were brutally killed this month, according to the Western Darfur State Doctors Committee, when Arab and Masalit tribesmen fought running street battles in the Sudanese city of El Geneina. Rocket-propelled grenades hit a hospital and UN compound, according to a UN report, and families who were already forced to flee their homes because of past fighting were pushed out of camps.

Fifteen years ago, I visited El Geneina, West Darfur, as the head of the United Nations humanitarian agency. Darfur was home to mass slaughter at the time. About 300,000 people were eventually killed. I met a mother of three who told me if she left crowded camps to collect firewood she would be raped or beaten by militia.

Attacks like what happened in El Geneina occur every few months in Darfur. Since the region's war began in 2003, armed groups have herded 1.6 million people into displacement camps, where many have lived for the past decade and a half. But what made this attack stand out is the absence of peacekeepers in Darfur. The UN and African Union ended peacekeeping operations in Darfur at the end of last year and are packing up to leave. Their withdrawal, despite recurring violence, forces us to rethink how we can help over 5 million Darfurians in need – 2 million of whom are still displaced or seeking asylum.

I returned to Sudan last year for the first time in nearly 15 years. My organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, was expelled in 2009 because of our work to help displaced Darfuri families. Former President Omar al-Bashir, with whom I frequently clashed in my UN role, was removed from office in a military coup following mass protests in 2019. We are finally allowed to resume humanitarian work.

Sudan is facing an inflection point in its history. The El Geneina attack comes months after a strained peace agreement was signed -- a deal that is so far long on promises but short on results. And the violence in Darfur has continued. This is the third time that civilians have been trapped in the middle of insecurity in El Geneina in just over a year. Women who collect firewood still say they are being raped. For one of the world's most prolonged humanitarian crises to end, the international community and officials in Khartoum must recalibrate their approach to protection and peace.

After the exit of the joint UN-African Union mission, which ended at the close of 2020, Sudan's transitional government says it wants to do what UN peacekeepers failed in doing: protect the vulnerable, hold perpetrators to account and resolve conflicts. To do this, Khartoum needs international support -- including humanitarian aid. But its leaders need to show they understand the drivers of conflict in Darfur and want to end it. They need to intervene to prevent attacks like the one in El Geneina, and intercommunal violence elsewhere.

My time leading the United Nations humanitarian agency and heading the Norwegian Refugee Council has taught me that unimpeded humanitarian access to communities in crisis is a prerequisite for progress in any country. If suffering and abuse spiral out of sight and out of control, a nation will rarely lift itself out of cycles of conflict and oppression.

We need to work together.

Sudan has the world's third-largest request for humanitarian assistance funding, as issued by the UN on behalf of NGOs and aid agencies, and faces a dire economic crisis, so aid organizations need to work quickly. But we are slowed by some of the same bureaucratic hurdles that the paranoid former regime installed. Travel restrictions, long visa delays and other regulatory requirements make the work difficult. The aid regulation system needs wholesale reform if the government wants to help keep all its citizens alive.

After the euphoria of removing a dictator, the slow work of rebuilding a government often grinds optimism down. In that regard, Sudan's transition has fared better than many predicted. In fact, we have seen the government make important changes that are improving peoples' lives. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok welcomed the return of aid organizations like ours to the country, after more than a decade of expulsion. Important legal reforms were passed that give new rights to women. Sudan has started crucial economic reforms and has been welcomed by the international community. All this happened under the pressure of a crippling economic crisis, a pandemic and stalled international support.

But more trouble is on the horizon in Sudan. Conflicts in neighboring South Sudan, Libya and Ethiopia have placed Sudan in the eye of a storm. While Sudan's government is due to receive debt relief from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a result of praiseworthy economic policies, some pain may come in the short term because of the effect of subsidy cuts. The transitional government's exit will see elections arrive faster than many realize. Even the most well-resourced and capable governments would struggle to weather this storm while making good on a peace process and protection strategy for Darfur.

But now is the time to sprint for reform. No more waiting.

Sudanese civil society and the humanitarian community must use proven approaches to protect civilians in Darfur. Coordination between different aid groups and UN agencies will make taxpayer dollars more efficient, but coordination alone isn't adequate. The international community can no longer passively observe while offering ad hoc monitoring and muted appeals to a struggling government after the fact. Offering some aid to families chased from their homes provides immediate relief, but it does not address the root causes of the violence.

Programs like dispute resolution, restorative justice and settling land disputes don't grab news headlines, but they do provide real, long-term solutions. It's also necessary to help displaced communities in Darfur to understand their political rights during the reconciliation process. All of this may not guarantee peace, but it would give peace a chance. Unless these solutions are put in place for Darfur, long-term stability will be out of Sudan's reach.