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One Year into War, Sudan Wracked by World’s Largest Displacement and Hunger Crises

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One year ago this week, a devastating conflict erupted in Sudan when a fragile alliance between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces collapsed. The war initially began around the capital city of Khartoum but quickly spread to other parts of Sudan, including Darfur, Port Sudan and the Gezira state, situated in the country’s agricultural heartland. One year on, the conflict has driven nearly 9 million people from their homes, collapsed the country’s health system and created the world’s largest hunger and displacement crisis. “This is essentially a war between two generals,” says Khalid Mustafa Medani, chair of the African studies program at McGill University, who explains why the warring parties have “absolutely no legitimacy in civil society” and how the fighting is weaponizing international aid. “Despite the severity of this conflict, there is only one solution and only one interest on the part of the majority of Sudanese — 99% of Sudanese — and that is the restoration of full civilian democracy.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One year ago this week, a devastating civil war erupted in Sudan when a fragile alliance between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary group the Rapids Support Forces collapsed, pitting the two sides against each other. The war initially began around the capital city of Khartoum but quickly spread to other parts of Sudan, including Darfur, Port Sudan and Gezira state, situated in the country’s agricultural heartland.

One year on, the conflict has created what the U.N. high commissioner for refugees has called, quote, “one of the worst displacement and humanitarian crises in the world, and one of the most neglected and ignored.”

More than 8.6 million people have been driven from their homes, creating the world’s largest displacement crisis. A new report by the International Organization for Migration has found 20,000 people are forced to flee their homes in Sudan every day, half of them children.

The crisis has been compounded by food insecurity, with the World Food Programme recently warning Sudan is facing the world’s largest hunger crisis. The number of Sudanese facing emergency levels of hunger — one stage before famine — has more than tripled in a year to almost 5 million, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a U.N.-backed index. Save the Children has warned that 230,000 children, pregnant women and newborn mothers could die of malnutrition in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Sudan’s health system has collapsed, allowing outbreaks of diseases, including measles and cholera.

The war erupted April 15, 2023, when a planned political transition following the ouster in a popular uprising of President Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power fell apart between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces.

For more, we’re joined by Khalid Mustafa Medani, an associate professor of political science and Islamic studies at McGill University, chair of the African studies program there. His recent piece for MERIP is headlined “The Struggle for Sudan: A Primer.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you here in studio in New York, Professor. If you can start off by telling us where Sudan stands, one year after the war erupted?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Well, first of all, thank you, Amy, for having me on the show. It’s a real honor. Thank you for your coverage of Sudan.

I think that where we stand is an unbelievable kind of, what the Doctors Without Borders have called, a failure of humanity. I think that there are very few crises in the world historically, including in Africa, where there’s been such an acceleration, in just one year, of the kind of devastation that you just itemized — 9 million displaced internally, over a million across the borders, the seven borders of Sudan, mostly in Chad, Egypt and South Sudan, and the complete destruction of the infrastructure.

In addition to that, in December of last year, something occurred that has accelerated the famine, basically — not just food insecurity, but the expansion of the famine. And that is the attack on the Gezira state in central Sudan, which really produces over 60% of the agricultural products of the country.

In addition to that, of course, there are 70% of the hospitals that are destroyed. The educational system has completely collapsed.

And so, the acceleration of this kind of devastation, I don’t think we’ve seen since perhaps maybe the genocide in Rwanda. And I think that compounding that, for those of us, of course, concerned about the situation, is the lack of attention to the conflict. Of course, eyes are elsewhere, but that has been a really problematic aspect of this conflict so far.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, you remarked that this is a war that doesn’t have support for either side among the Sudanese people. Could you talk about that and also the roots of this conflict, going back to the revolution of 2017 and 2018, how that informed these current warring parties?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the very kind of unique aspects of this particular war, and local Sudanese have insisted, including in Darfur, one of the most ravaged regions, that this is not a civil war, that this is essentially a war between two generals: on the one side, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who’s the head of the Sudan Armed Forces, on the other side, the militia leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti. And whereas, in general, civil wars are characterized by, you know, two groups with some kind of significant constituency and civil society supporting one side or the other, in this particular case, the war has absolutely no legitimacy in civil society and no real constituency for either side. And that, I think, is unique in the history of conflicts in Africa and, I would argue, elsewhere.

The reason for that has very much to do with what you said, and that is the genesis and the root of the war really is the revolution of 2018, 2019, that many people followed throughout the world. And what was unique about that particular pro-democracy revolution is that it encompassed the entire country. It wasn’t just in the urban areas. It wasn’t just in the rural areas. It wasn’t just middle-class Sudanese. But Sudanese across social classes, Sudanese across regions, across ethnicities, rose up in late 2018 as a result of implementation of economic policies that raised the price of consumer goods, and it expanded over a six-month period, leading, as you probably know, to the downfall and the ouster of an authoritarian regime led by Omar al-Bashir that lasted for 30 years and had conducted or executed three different wars in the country.

That is really the genesis, for viewers and listeners to understand, because this war is essentially a war against that revolution. It’s a war against the Sudanese people. Both of these generals, while they have a great deal of competition over resources, over political power, have one thing in common, and that is their fear of this kind of revolutionary potential, and their, essentially, fear of Sudanese civil society. That’s why, in addition to all of the kind of devastation that we’ve been talking about, a key aspect of the targeting has been civilians. Civilians, of course, have been the greatest victims, and not just randomly. I’m talking about not only doctors and journalists, but also activists and those members of what we call in Sudan and are well known to be the grassroots resistance committees that led the revolution. Those people are either being targeted and killed or expelled from the country or forced to leave the country. And so, that becomes a really important aspect of the root of this particular kind of conflict in Sudan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk also about the influence of outside governments on the conflict in preventing a ceasefire, and especially Egypt and the United Arab Emirates? And where is the African Union on this?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Well, it’s very important to understand that the external forces had very much to do with supporting what was a fragile coalition between civilian leaders and military leaders. At that time, there was an alliance between these two warring generals, which I think that it’s very important to understand. Because of the continued protest for democracy in Sudan, by the end of 2022, there was something called a framework agreement, basically talks to bring together civilian leaders and these generals in order to oversee a transition to democracy. That was overseen by the international community — in particular, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the EU. And their genesis of the external involvement and the failure to see Sudan through a peace and a democratic transition really has to be understood in that context.

It was at that point, I would argue, that the failure of achieving a civilian transition occurred, and it was, of course, a result of the machinations of these two generals, but also the lack of foresight with respect to external actors at the time, specifically the lack of inclusion of the very forces and groups and youth and resistance committees and civil society organizations that really were the ones who mobilized for the revolution. So, that is really important. That failure of the framework agreement, it was accelerated. It was not inclusive. And, of course, as you know, the catalyst for this war began in the context of a contentious issue around merging the militias into the standing army. That, of course, would have led to the lack of autonomy and power of the militia leader who has gone to war against the Sudan Armed Forces, and at the same time, of course, the Sudan Armed Forces, Burhan at its head, was very concerned about having two command-and-control institutions. In essence, he wanted to control the country. So, to answer your question currently about external actors, that is the genesis of their lack of foresight in terms of really supporting the revolution, in my view.

And to bring it up to date, the kind of variety of interests — Egypt’s interest in and support of the Sudan Armed Forces, the United Arab Emirates’ support of the militia, Saudi Arabia’s support also of the Sudan Armed Forces — has led to the situation where we have up to three or four different peace initiatives — one in Saudi Arabia headed by the U.S., one in Djibouti headed by IGAD, the regional bloc, another headed by the UAE that was recently held in Bahrain — basically, competing peace initiatives that have obstructed, number one, a resolution to the conflict in terms of implementing a ceasefire, but also motivated these two generals, because, basically, they are utilizing their patrons, whether outside forces, in order to perpetuate the war against the Sudanese people.

So, I hope that makes sense. But we do have to get back and understand the initial failures of the international community in really implementing a peace agreement that would really satisfy the, you know, kind of the roots of the problems in Sudan, but most specifically those forces, including resistance committees, young people, civil society organizations, that mobilized for the revolution. The reason I mention that is that any resolution to this conflict would require getting back to that and understanding, given that this is a war against the civilian population, the support must be given to the civilian population and immediately be included in any peace initiative that would seek to resolve this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor, on Monday, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced that donors had pledged more than $2 billion to Sudan. He was speaking at an international conference in Paris aimed at increasing humanitarian aid to Sudan.

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: [translated] Even if today there are far too many conflicts and there are conflicts that are covered more by the press and diplomatic efforts, our duty was to make it clear that we are not forgetting what is happening in Sudan, that we remain mobilized, that there are no double standards. … We can announce that more than 2 billion euros will be mobilized for the women and men of Sudan. Before this conference, we had a commitment of 190 million euros. This evening, we are at 2 billion euros for Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s French President Emmanuel Macron at this international conference in Paris. If you can talk also about the role of France, but, overall, what the international community can do to be most supportive to ending this war?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Well, of course it’s good news. The priority, of course, is to address the humanitarian crisis. There is absolutely no question about that. The 2 billion euros is important. There have been a lot of different initiatives on the part of the United Nations. Very few have met the targets. And this is one of the reasons Doctors Without Borders has called it a failure of humanity, because of the lack of donor, you know, kind of pledges and support.

The 2 billion euros are important, but it’s very important to understand that one of the central aspects of this conflict is the way that these two parties are using food delivery and aid delivery as a weapon of war, not only in terms of targeting aid workers, but also setting up bureaucratic blockages, refusing permits for aid workers. And the reason I mention that is the 2 billion is extremely important, but the problem is that without a really vigorous political intervention, without understanding that this aid must be really kind of implemented or utilized in the context simultaneously with a vigorous political intervention that seeks to stop the war — and the reason I say that is, one of the most important problematics at the moment, as I mentioned, is the lack of coherent coordination on the part of external actors, with France and the EU, of course, pledging this money, Canada and the United States utilizing sanctions against these two generals, but a lack of coordination that would, A, include civil society organization to set the agenda for a ceasefire and to implement that kind of ceasefire. And also, this kind of pledge, while it’s so important, it really does not make up for the destruction of the distributive networks in Sudan. Aid is an absolutely important aspect, but what is happening now is so severe in terms of food insecurity and the famine, that the support of local Sudanese, including organizations that were transformed from resistance communities into voluntary association, like emergency response rooms.

So, what we need is, A, a very vigorous political intervention, coordination between the different actors. And I’m talking about the Gulf countries, the United States, Europe and African countries. All of them have a stake in this conflict. The reason that this pledge has gone through — one of the reasons — is the recognition on the part of external actors, to be quite honest, Amy, that there is not only a huge humanitarian crisis, but the spillover effect across the region, the Red Sea region, the strategic areas that are of such concern to the Gulf countries, to the United States, to Europe, the issue of migration. All of that necessitates a coordinated understanding of the problem or of the intervention, that everyone has a great deal to lose from this conflict. So, the pledge is important and very, very useful and vital, but without a political coordinated intervention that includes civil society forces and supports local Sudanese organizations, like the emergency response rooms, the Darfur Association and others, we won’t really see kind of the restoration of peace.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, I just have one question that maybe you could address briefly. A war of this length obviously requires weapons. Who is supplying the weapons to both sides? And what could be done to put pressure on the arms suppliers of the warring parties?

KHALID MUSTAFA MEDANI: Well, the problem is that in the Sahel region, in Africa, in general, the smuggling of arms is something that is very difficult to control completely, what we call the small arms trade, that really encompasses the entire Sahel region. One of the issues of the arms supplies for the militias has to do previously with the supply of arms that was brought in by United Arab Emirates. That is something that is well known. You know, the Russian Wagner Group also facilitated arms to the militia. The arms that the Sudan Armed Forces have, of course, number one, has to do with its own stock. It is the Sudan Armed Forces and had received a lot of arms supplies recently as they began to lose the war, particularly after the fall of Gezira, the central state. They have been getting arms and drones from Iran as a last resort because of the grave situation they find. So, we have Gulf countries involved, Iran involved, the small arms trade. That requires, of course, great attention. There have been sanctions implemented against the financing of these arms through the corporations of both the militia leaders and the Sudan Armed Forces, who are supported, I want to add, by extremist Islamists, as the only small coalition left to support them. So, there is a complex of external actors and informal trade of arms. That is important to pay attention to, but without really looking at the ways to implement a ceasefire and restore peace, it’s just a stopgap kind of policy or intervention. So, it is important, but, once again, we have to really bring these regional actors into play.

The United States, as you know, has finally appointed a special envoy to Sudan, who has, interestingly enough, reiterated much of what I’m saying. And that is that there needs to be a coordination among the regional actors, the ending of arms supplies by certain actors to the different warring parties. And interestingly enough, he has also emphasized the importance of taking civil society seriously. And I would like to also mention that — and this is very key — that he has also mentioned, as the majority of Sudanese have mentioned, despite the severity of this conflict, there is only one solution and only one interest on the part of the majority of Sudanese — 99% of Sudanese — and that is the restoration of full civilian democracy. I know it’s counterintuitive. It seems difficult at this stage to think postwar in Sudan. But there is, I think, that even if the American envoy has recognized, as I’ve said in this program a couple of times, that because of the lack of constituency, the lack of legitimacy, the kind of venal, kind of instrumental, self-interested political and economic objectives of these two warring parties, there is absolutely no other way to resolve this conflict except to support the vast majority of the civilian population and Sudanese, inside and outside, and to continue what we call the objectives of what Sudanese call al-Thawrah Majida, the Glorious Revolution. That is really the only solution. And this is what even the special U.S. envoy has reiterated, and, I would argue, primarily because he’s been talking to Sudanese.

AMY GOODMAN: Khalid Mustafa Medani, we want to thank you so much for being with us, associate professor of political science and Islamic studies at McGill University, also chair of the African studies program. He is from Sudan. We will link to your piece in MERIP headlined “The Struggle for Sudan.”

When we come back, at least nine Google workers are arrested after staging sit-ins at the company’s offices in New York and the Google Cloud CEO’s office in Sunnyvale, California, to protest the tech giant’s work with the Israeli government. We’ll speak with two of the arrested workers. Stay with us.

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