By Joseph Hammond, Journalist and analyst • Updated: 17/05/2023
Humanitarian concerns should trump geopolitics in our view of the current Sudanese civil war, Joseph Hammond writes.
Since 15 April, Sudan has been locked in a bloody civil war that threatens to tip the Horn of Africa over the brink and straight into a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
No less an observer than the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, has said the conflict has the potential to be “worse than Ukraine”.
Her claim was quickly dismissed as a public relations move, but the recent military history of the Horn of Africa suggests how deadly conflicts in the region can be to civilians.
To add to the tragedy, the war threatens to additionally compromise the food security of one of the world’s most distinguished regions.
Wars in the Horn of Africa disproportionately affect civilians
The 2013-2020 South Sudanese Civil War offers a clear example of how the conflict in the Horn of Africa has a disproportionate impact on civilians.
According to one study published in 2018 by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, some 383,000 people had died in the conflict since 2013.
Of these, some 193,000 were civilian deaths due to displacement, disruption of health care, and starvation. Tragically, starvation continues to be a weapon of war for some actors in the Horn of Africa.
In the Sudan war that is raging on right now, roughly 500 civilians have been killed in the first month — a figure just slightly smaller than the monthly average in Ukraine.
That is to say, a large civil war in the Horn of Africa has seen already civilian deaths equivalent to a massive-scale invasion of Ukraine by one of the world’s greatest arms producers.
Millions more are at severe risk
While civilian deaths peaked and levelled off early in Ukraine, we are likely to see expanded suffering among civilians in Sudan due to a number of additional factors compounding their misery.
Before this conflict, a third of Sudan’s population faced food insecurity and other humanitarian challenges.
Additionally, this year, the country recorded its reportedly first-ever outbreak of dengue fever in the capital of Khartoum.
Yet the biggest issue this conflict has already exacerbated relates to food security. A UN document released in March claimed as many as 129,000 face imminent starvation and death in the Horn of Africa.
While initially it was forecast that South Sudan and Somalia will be the hardest hit by this emerging crisis, Sudan’s new conflict puts millions more at severe risk.
This year is the sixth in a row where rains have failed to fall across the Horn of Africa, causing the worst drought in forty years.
In some areas, locals said conditions are not as bad as in 2011 – a year in which famine, claimed by some estimates, directly or indirectly claimed a quarter of a million lives.
However, the conflict in Sudan and the disruptions to global food supplies due to the war in Ukraine may be complicating factors.
A humanitarian crisis should be avoided at all costs
Thus, it is imperative for collective action to both build peace and stem the humanitarian crisis.
While a number of countries pooled resources to help their nationals flee Sudan, the world must now use those same capabilities to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.
Some aid groups operating in neighbouring countries have announced in the past week that they may see food shortages soon.
The European Union has undertaken some important steps to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis, notably launching an “air bridge” to provide much-needed humanitarian aid.
To that end, a number of countries have launched similar efforts that have engaged civil society. King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSrelief), based in Saudi Arabia, has launched a similar air bridge to provide humanitarian supplies to Sudan.
NATO should demonstrate its prior engagement was not a one-off
Yet, NATO is still not getting involved, despite the fact that the alliance’s first-ever Africa-related operation was to provide logistical support to an African Union peacekeeping effort in Sudan in 2005 together with the EU.
After the war in Afghanistan, it was NATO’s second-ever out-of-area operation. Even today, NATO brags about its mission when discussing its role in Africa.
However, NATO should show that its former engagement in Sudan was not a one-off affair and support ongoing logistical efforts to support humanitarian efforts to the conflict.
Perhaps the argument this time around is even stronger than the one that sparked NATO’s involvement in 2005, given that Russia’s presence and role in the country have only expanded in recent years.
Sudan is much closer to Europe than most realise
As the Sudanese people bravely face this storm, they do so with less coin in their pockets. The country’s exports have been largely halted since.
Tragically, Sudan’s largest export since the start of the conflict has been refugees.
Ethiopia alone is receiving roughly 1,000 refugees per day from Sudan as the fighting rages on, while as many as 800,000 may flee as a result of the conflict — a small fraction of the refugees that the war in Ukraine has produced.
Yet, with the region facing a severe drought, those fleeing the conflict could see thousands of “climate refugees” following in their footsteps.
This is why humanitarian concerns should trump geopolitics in our view of the current Sudanese civil war.
Europe should act now to strengthen the humanitarian response less the conflict in Sudan destabilises the country’s neighbours and, ultimately, the Southern Mediterranean.
War has taught European leaders that Kyiv is far closer to Brussels than many realised. The same is just as true about Khartoum.
Joseph Hammond is a journalist who has reported extensively from Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East, as well as a former Fulbright Public Policy Fellow.
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