The death toll is rising in Sudan’s Darfur region
An outburst of violence spiraled Sudan’s westernmost region, Darfur, into disarray in January. This territory has been subject to endless conflicts since early 2000 due to its tribal tension, even with the newly elected democratic government. However, Darfur is only taking the spotlight for what is a complex amalgamation of issues within Sudan’s core that are barely understood by the international community.
“Sudan is very large and complex, it has essentially been at war since before it was a country,” said Sara Winger, professor and former external affairs officer at the United Nations Mission in Sudan.
Sudan’s federal government is no stranger to perpetrating hostilities in its provinces.
“There is no single region of Sudan that has not been victim at one point or another to the central government’s exclusionary practices,” said Winger. Sudan is, like any other country, facing challenges intertwined with its social web and history. The Darfur Crisis is only one part of what is a national issue.
“Because we are focused on the problem in Darfur, we don’t address the crisis in Blue Nile and Kordofan states — these must be addressed globally to establish peace in Sudan,” said Aristide Nononsi, country director for Lawyers Without Borders Canada and former independent expert in Sudan for the United Nations. Yet, peace has not been reached. Why is that?
A legacy of violence
Throughout Sudan’s previous government, led by former president Omar al-Bashir, violence was enforced upon its people, especially when political opposition started to grow in certain regions.
Taking Darfur as an example, a civil war between the government and two rebel groups in 2003 led to the government hiring militias from nomadic Arab tribes to eradicate the rebellion. These Arab tribes were named the Janjaweed; they committed mass violence against civilians.
The government would “manipulate and instrumentalize the tribes against one another” to dismantle the rebellion, said Nononsi.
Similar actions were taken when dealing with most other conflicts. Even with the peace agreements signed after the wars, tribal hostilities are still plaguing many regions of the country because they have yet to reconcile.
When Al-Bashir’s government was toppled by the Sudanese Armed Forces in 2019, a democratic civilian government was elected later that year. This new government has been active in negotiating with the United Nations according to Nononsi.
Although, a history of governmental violence upon its people does not simply fade away.
“Changing leaders is one thing,” said Winger, although “There is a broader change that has to take place in order to make sure to inoculate the country from it ever happening again.”
She added, “The political elite were part of the country’s structure when these decisions were being made … Unless you change out your entire political elite, then you still have these people involved with these institutions.”
“When the root causes of the crisis are not addressed, the crisis will continue,” said Nononsi. According to him, these causes are related to the establishment of law, ensuring everybody can enjoy their human rights and resolve Sudan’s extreme poverty. But it seems as if the government is not taking every step needed to provide these needs.
The government’s inactions
The United Nations is limited in what it can do to solve a problem in countries with conflict, which include that no outright actions can be made without being filtered through the biases of the local government.
But advising can be offered by the international community as tools to help a country build its various institutions, including education and health care.
“Tools can be provided, tools are super easy,” said Winger, “but it’s the willingness to open the toolbox that changes everything. If you don’t want to provide education, it doesn’t matter if there are five international partners who want to help you provide the education.”
In another setback, while assessing the human rights situation in Sudan, Nononsi found that the governmental position on this “is that there are no human right violations in the country and there are no human right abuses.”
This apparent government inaction stems from a feeling of persecution.
“Although the government seems to cooperate with the United Nations,” said Nononsi, “it also has a perception that the wars in general are against the regime of Sudan,” meaning that these wars based upon political opposition are critiques of Sudan’s governmental regime, attacking the legitimacy of their function.
Negotiations for international intervention and internal peace have been difficult for Sudan because of this notion. From outright denial to laborious negotiating, the solutions that may provide peace to Sudan are not acknowledged, making the process frustrating.
“I worked in a town called Wau,” said Winger. “We were driving around as election observers at the time. And then in that same town in 2013–2014, conflict erupted, and everybody left. It is kind of crazy, like wow, I walked those roads. I went and bought my vegetables at the market, and now that market has been burned down.”
“We’re doing a bad job, making promises that we’re not coming anywhere near,” she said. “The UN says that they are going to save the next generation from the scourge of war. Well, sorry guys, you haven’t done it, you’re not doing a great job at it.”
The United Nations’ involvement in Sudan has been widespread, yet unproductive.
“There wasn’t a good understanding that the conflicts, while they were related, they were also distinct,” said Winger, “and I think just that sheer level of complexity bested and arguably continues to best the UN when it comes to Sudan.”
Decision making at the UN has been flawed when it comes to making a comprehensive strategy to solve conflicts. For example, in Winger’s UN experience in South Sudan, the international community would “focus on South Sudan and getting the election done,” instead of providing for other regions in need.
She follows this idea with “South Sudan was very much the hot topic until Syria started happening. We have kind of a collective inability to think about more than one thing at a time.” The short attention span of both the international community and the media can only be detrimental to the well-being of the countries supported by these institutions.
“I think that the UN has to have a really nuanced understanding of an area, and I think that those kinds of interconnections need to be well understood,” said Winger.
That nuance can be reached through many means. Selecting specific conflict regions to solve the overall problem will only perpetuate unattended conflicts.
However, she also adds that a country’s overreliance on the international community may blur the lines.
“If you think the international community is supposed to bring you housing and education then you don’t get mad at your government when they fail to provide that. So, that’s part of the problem as well, there is this kind of unclear narrative about who is supposed to be doing what, and who is responsible for what.”
Sudan’s web of conflicts is convoluted. Decades of expert analysis, international investing and lives lost builds up to now.
The combination of a nuanced understanding, governmental implication and healing of the violent legacy may bring peace to Sudan. But, deeper roots to the conflict are harder to resolve.
“When you talk about long standing discrimination and inequality, you can’t address it in one day,” said Nononsi. This means that there are more years of conflict to come in Sudan, but the new democratic government is a step in the right direction for the country’s eventual peace.
Graphic by @ihooqstudio