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Sudan: The Forgotten War


December 19, 2023 • 4 min read

by Paul Westbury, GOAL East Africa Security Advisor

“Lucky are the people of Yugoslavia and Somalia as the world’s eyes rest on them… it is painful to die or be killed, without anybody knowing it” — letter from Juba, South Sudan, August 1992.

Sudanese Revolution

This December marks the fifth anniversary of the Sudanese revolution. It was a powerful demonstration of the people’s will, but its promise of bringing about civilian rule and peace in Sudan has yet to be realised. After ousting former president and long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir, and giving hope to the Sudanese people, two men — Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamden “Hemedti” Dagalo — became engaged in an ongoing violent and brutal struggle for power.

Last December, Sudan’s military and civilian authorities agreed on a political framework deal, which broke the political deadlock and provided for a transition to civilian government. Crucial to this process, however, were major security sector reforms that would mean the full integration of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

Not wanting to see his power diminished, RSF commander Dagalo was reluctant, leading to tensions with SAF chief of staff al-Burhan, which escalated to armed conflict in April 2023. As of now, the promise of the Sudanese revolution seems as far from realisation as ever.

As is too often the case, Sudan’s latest bout of conflict has hit civilian populations hardest. The fighting initially centred in Khartoum, where bitter fighting and heavy aerial bombardment in populated areas has claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. Since then, the violence has spread to other areas across the country, including the already conflict-wrecked Darfur region.

The conflict has degenerated with violations of international humanitarian law and reports of ethnically motivated killings, mass graves and rape now commonplace. All in all, more than 12,190 people have been killed since fighting broke out in mid-April, more than 5.3 million civilians have been internally displaced and some 24.7 million have needed humanitarian assistance this year.

“One of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”

Speaking two months ago, United Nations Humanitarian and Emergency Relief chief Martin Griffiths described the situation in Sudan as “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”.

Yet, the conflict in Sudan does not often find itself in the crosshairs of public discourse. Rather, it is a forgotten war.

Sudan’s invisibility has to do with a combination of factors. The first relates to the media and their editorial preferences. The media can be apprehensive of the difficulty involved in presenting a comprehensive account of the conflict or may be doubtful of their audience’s capacity to engage with and digest a narrative which lacks an obvious “good guy” or “bad guy”. As the conflict in Sudan is particularly complex, involving multiple armed factions and historical roots spanning decades, hesitancy on the part of the media to cover it is unsurprising.

A second factor relates simply to the passage of time and the existence of other conflicts competing for the world’s attention, which is itself ever-shortening due to changes in information consumption patterns and the prevalence of short-form media.

Since the beginning of hostilities in Sudan alone, conflict has erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh and Gaza. Chad has experienced a military coup and war continues to rage in Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The world is at war and the conflict in Sudan is but one of many deserving of our focus.

Finally, and intimately related to the previous factor, is the strategic importance of a conflict relative to the geo-political interests of regional and great powers. Where a conflict is central to the interests of the international community, media coverage will be widespread, public interest is likely to endure and humanitarian intervention is more forthcoming, even in the face of difficulties.

Discouraging as it is, it appears that conflict in Sudan and the struggle of its people do not feature prominently in the interests of the international community. Their eyes appear firmly fixed on Kyiv and Gaza.

GOALies are on the ground supporting Sudanese communities fleeing conflict

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves”

The Proverb 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” —implores Christians to acknowledge suffering in silence. But one need not be Christian to understand that the label “the forgotten war” should be a call to action for us all.

It highlights both the failure of the international community to get behind any form of resolution and the need for increased awareness, diplomatic efforts and humanitarian support to address the ongoing challenges in Sudan and prevent further suffering.

It might be wishful thinking to believe that shedding light on a conflict will lead to its resolution and an end to a people’s suffering, but it is the most crucial of first steps. Awareness is a prerequisite to action.

Sudan: the forgotten war was first published in the Irish Times on December 17.