With the Sudan conflict passing its one-month mark on the 15 May, NGS Risk Analyst, Gary Abbott, considers what the conflict means for the wider region, exploring how it could exacerbate underlying grievances and lead to increased insecurity in several countries in the Horn of Africa and those further afield.
15 May marked one month since fighting erupted in Sudan between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemetti), and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by the de facto ruler of Sudan, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. With both sides unable or unwilling to implement an effective ceasefire, the conflict has no end in sight and raises concerns about how the conflict may further undermine security in North-East Africa. On a general level, the conflict has already led to widespread humanitarian strife for millions of local residents in North-East Africa, principally on the back of refugee flows by Sudanese people fleeing the unrest and a sharp rise in essential commodities in regions that border Sudan. More concerningly for the security environment, the ongoing conflict threatens to exacerbate numerous underlying grievances in the region, which could deteriorate the security environment even further, potentially impacting numerous countries including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad, and even those further afield, including Libya and Egypt.
The Sudan Crisis
On 15 April, tensions between the RSF and the SAF erupted into internal conflict, concentrated primarily in the tripartite metropolis of Khartoum, Khartoum Bahri, and Omdurman. The fighting has, however, spread across the country, impacting the historically contentious Darfur region and reigniting ethnic tensions there between Arab and non-Aarab Darfurians, primarily in El Geneina (the capital of West Darfur).
At the root of the problem between the RSF and SAF are the failures of Sudan’s democratic transition that was first triggered by the ousting of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir in 2019 (who ran the country between 1993 – 2019). Although the Framework Agreement (a document outlining the transition to civilian rule) was signed by al-Burhan’s military government and a coalition of civilian actors in December 2022, the agreement failed to address the future role of the RSF and the SAF. With civil society weak in the country, the future role of the SAF and the RSF is likely to signify who governs the country. Accordingly, the current conflict can be seen to be a competition over who will govern Sudan (and thus protect their respective wealth, patronage networks and influence), likely through the veneer of a democratic civilian government. Without effective institutionalisation and the rule of law in the country, neither Hemetti nor al-Burhan can rely on a trusted third party (the state, including its judiciary and police) to safeguard their respective private interests through the political transition, resulting in the current zero-sum game where both sides are battling to control the Sudanese state to ensure the protection of their interests and their current power and influence.
Both Hemetti and al-Burhan have demonstrated their willingness to pursue their respective private interests, regardless of the ensuing costs to the Sudanese economy, the Sudanese people and the wider region. With many Sudanese nationals concerned about further escalation between the SAF and RSF, coupled with rising prices of essential items and shortages of food, water and electricity being endemic across Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predicts that failure to abate the fighting could lead to as many as 860,000 Sudanese fleeing the unrest by October. With as many as 200,000 people having fled Sudan (including refugees from conflicts in Syria and Eritrea), prices of essential items have rocketed in the border regions of Chad, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, a result of the influx of refugees from Sudan to remote border regions that lack vital infrastructure.
More concerningly for the broader security environment in North-East Africa, the current crisis in Sudan threatens to aggravate and enflame an array of political grievances found in the region. The region is defined by historic instability, weak states, only a tentative commitment to institutionalisation and effective checks and balances on the executive, intense competition among political agents for power and influence (both bilaterally and between rival states, but also below them at the substate level, such as ethnic-based militia groups), and multiform border disputes and diplomatic tensions. Combined, these problems present a highly fractious and challenging security environment, where state and non-state actors are likely to seize on the current crises and opportunities ushered in by the Sudan conflict, leaving room for considerable deterioration along several dimensions in multiple countries.
Possible Consequences for North-East Africa
Decreased pathways for Cairo to peacefully resolve its dispute with Addis Ababa: In recent years, discussions between Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have stalled. The parties last held multilateral talks in April 2021, and grievances from Khartoum and Cairo have yet to be addressed, namely legal guarantees and assurances that they will be entitled to certain amounts of water, preventing droughts and further water scarcity. Cairo, viewing the GERD as a direct existential threat, has attempted to resolve the matter bilaterally (mostly recently with France and the United States) and multilaterally, calling in June 2020 for the United Nations Security Council to mediate the dispute. However, these peaceful efforts have largely failed and have been undermined by the conflict in Sudan: the war has distracted the international community’s attention from the problem, while considerably reducing Khartoum’s negotiating power, which was formerly vital for Cairo to exert pressure on Addis Ababa.
In this regard, Cairo is likely to assess its available options to guarantee its interest in the context of the GERD, including military action. For instance, in March 2023 the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that “all options are open, all alternatives remain conceivable, and Egypt can count on its capabilities and strong foreign relations”, a likely nod to the possibility of military action. Displaying Ethiopia’s concern that Egypt could act unilaterally and damage the dam, in January 2020 the Israeli SPYDER air defence system was installed at the GERD, despite Cairo’s pleas to both Tel Aviv and Addis Ababa. Since these states do not border one another, in the worst-case scenario Cairo could launch air strikes against the dam (presuming it can overcome the SPYDER system) or, most likely, increase its support for local militia groups in Ethiopia to in turn project its interests vis-à-vis the GERD through a proxy conflict. One such group would be the Gumuz Liberation Front (who have been engaged in ethnic conflict with other ethnic groups near the dam, as well as the Ethiopian government), which is reported to have received some past aid from Sudan, a likely effort by Khartoum to destabilise the area near the GERD. Overall, with Cairo facing increasingly few peaceful pathways to resolve its dispute with Addis Ababa, the appeal of a proxy war may increase, raising concerns for further migration flows, ethnic conflict in Ethiopia, and insecurity in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, potentially threatening global supply chains that pass through the region in the process.
Increased likelihood of conflict in the border region between Sudan and Ethiopia: Besides Khartoum’s ongoing dispute with Addis Ababa over the GERD, Sudan and Ethiopia have an ongoing territorial dispute over the Al Fashaga border area. Since an agreement between them was signed in 2008, the area is legally Sudanese territory, though Amhara farmers (the second largest ethnic group in the country) maintain that this agreement was signed without their consultation and is at odds with their ties to the land. The dispute soured considerably in November 2020, when Khartoum (at the behest of Addis Ababa) deployed 6,000 soldiers to the area to secure the border with the rebelling Ethiopian Tigray state. However, Khartoum expelled Ethiopians (mostly Amhara people) from the disputed region, effectively breaking the 2008 agreement.
With the city of Khartoum now embroiled in a conflict between its warring generals, the SAF has reported an uptick in Ethiopian reconnaissance and surveillance operations in the area, as well as a reported attempted military incursion by unknown soldiers in April 2023. These tensions risk mixing with ongoing ethnic tensions within Ethiopia and triggering renewed violence in the region.
Although the Amhara initially fought alongside Addis Ababa against the Tigray rebels, the Amhara are concerned that their interests are being sidelined by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ongoing attempts to peacefully reintegrate the Tigray rebels. These concerns have already led to violence between the Ethiopian military and the Amhara: in April 2023 violence erupted in Amhara state over the government’s intention to disband regional paramilitary groups, with an unidentified gunman assassinating the head of the ruling Prosperity Party’s Amhara branch. Abiy may increasingly look to the Al Fashaga region to reduce the Amhara’s grievances, reducing the likelihood of yet further ethnic conflict in Ethiopia. In this scenario, Addis Ababa could implicitly support (or at least tolerate) Amhara attacks against Sudan in the Al Fashaga region, which risks further migration flows or the intervention of Egypt, which could use any attack on Sudanese territory as a casus belli to pursue its wider interests vis-a-vis the GERD.
Increased instability in South Sudan and the possibility of renewed conflict: Since 2018, South Sudan has maintained a tenuous peace between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and the influential First Vice President Riek Machar. Having previously fought a civil war from 2013 – 2018 (which ran largely along ethnic lines; Kiir belongs to the largest ethnic group, the Dinka; Machar belongs to the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer), tensions between the two leaders remain high. Since the end of the war, Kiir has increasingly tightened his grip on the South Sudanese state, postponing elections scheduled for July 2018 to August 2022, which were subsequently delayed to December 2024 (aggravating Machar, and many other political agents who are pushing for federalism and who are opposed to Kiir and his centralising mission). Relations soured considerably in recent months, when Kiir sacked the defence minister (the wife of Machar) and replaced her with one of his allies in March 2023, a violation of the peace accords. Despite these tensions, Machar currently lacks the necessary power to challenge Kiir, and Kiir has managed to maintain peace and compliance with his generals and other warring groups through patronage networks.
This political equilibrium is vulnerable to collapse as a result of the ongoing war in Sudan, however. South Sudan is an oil state, where as much as 97% of government revenue and 60% of GDP come from oil. This revenue is a vital means for Kiir to maintain peace and offset would-be challengers to his rule. However, the oil is exported through Port Sudan (the Sudanese city on the Red Sea), leaving South Sudan exposed to collateral damage and impacts from the ongoing war between Hemetti and al-Burhan. Any disruption to the oil flow, be it to the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline itself or disruption at Port Sudan, could risk upsetting the current uneasy balance in South Sudan, possibly reigniting conflict there, either by Machar or a challenger from within Kiir’s circle. Similar to Sudan, the lack of a trusted third party to safeguard private interests coupled with high levels of power consolidation in the executive means that there is no shortage of interests to seize the South Sudanese Presidency to ensure private interests such as respective political futures, wealth, and the wellbeing of family, allies, and ethnic kin.
Increased likelihood of civil unrest in Chad as a result of possible delays to the country’s democratic transition: Since 2021, Chad has been on a political transition following the death of its autocratic President Idriss Déby in April of that year, who ran the country between 1990 – 2021. Since then, his son – General Mahamat Idriss Déby – formed a transitional military council and was set to hold elections between June and September 2022, though they were postponed to October 2024 with Mahamat becoming the transitional president. So far, civil and violent unrest in Chad has largely been contained due to pledges by Mahamat to pursue democratisation and greater political pluralisation.
Coupled with these internal security concerns, Chad faces considerable regional insecurity on all its borders, with Fighters of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebels to the north along the Libyan border, Islamist terrorists active in the tri-border area to the west with Niger and Nigeria, an ongoing civil war to the south in the Central African Republic, and now a conflict to the east in Sudan. Historically, Chadian elites have justified and prioritised centralisation in a bid to offset such regional insecurity and threats to the Chadian state. With Mahamat’s commitment to democracy beyond superficial gestures remaining unclear, there are valid concerns that the current war in Sudan could provide the rationale to delay the democratic election, presented in the veneer of strengthening Chad against its numerous threats. Nevertheless, such a policy would likely resume conflict with FACT and other rebels, while considerably increasing the likelihood of widespread civil unrest in urban centres nationwide.
Greater insecurity in Libya, due to decreased international attention and an uptick in trafficking and smuggling: Sharing similar insecurity concerns as other nearby countries, Libya has also faced a tumultuous recent history, particularly in the wake of the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Since then, the country has been split between two rival governments competing for international and domestic legitimacy to rule Libya: the Government of National Unity (led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh; backed by the United Nations), controlling Tripoli and western regions, and the Government of National Stability (led by Osama Hamada, as of 17 May 2023), which controls much of the eastern and southern parts of the country. So far, Dbeibeh has failed to hold democratic elections, prompting the Government of National Stability to try and topple Dbeibeh through military means (most recently in August 2022).
The current conflict in Sudan risks enflaming tensions and driving insecurity in Libya across two key dimensions. Firstly, similar to other regional problems, the Libyan political transition has been stalled due to diverted international attention, raising concerns of renewed fighting and hostilities between the rival governments and their numerous allied militia groups. Second, the current instability in Sudan has led to an uptick in trafficking and smuggling in the tri-border region, Fezzan, and further afield. Organised crime groups are likely to exploit the ongoing regional insecurity and decreased international attention on Libya, while also having increased access to small arms as a result of the diffusion of weapons across Sudan. Such problems increase the likelihood of kidnap and ransom incidents in the area, and increase operational threats to travellers and companies.
A Conflict with No End in Sight
The ongoing conflict between Hemetti and al-Burhan is having stark consequences for Sudan, including the hampering of its political transition, widespread shortages of essentials including water, food, and electricity, and the rise of internally displaced peoples and refugees, fleeing the conflict zones. Coupled with the high costs within Sudan, the conflict also threatens to spark further insecurity in North-East Africa, a region that is plagued by numerous political grievances ranging from border disputes between states to ethnic disputes at the sub-state level. Although the region remains one of the most insecure and operationally challenging in the world, there is room for even further deterioration of the security environment, potentially impacting numerous countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, and Chad. Whether Hemetti and al-Burhan are able or willing to resolve their differences and prevent such problems remains to be seen.
Author: Gary Abbott, Risk Analyst, Northcott Global Solutions
Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.
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