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Sudan’s neighbours pay the price as rival forces vie for power

Sudan’s relationship with its neighbors is 'at the moment very asymmetric'
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 10:17 IST

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The conflict between rival generals in Sudan threatens neighbouring African countries that are already struggling with refugee flows and armed rebels at their borders.

If the two-week-old war between Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces becomes protracted, as many fear, the implications for the region would be dire. Ethnic militias, anti-government insurgencies, paramilitary groups and Russian mercenaries operating in porous, mineral-rich borderlands could use the crisis to launch attacks or foment rebellions.

“It’s a region where we have a lot of gold and diamonds,” said Anicet-Georges Dologuele, former prime minister of the Central African Republic. “The armed groups finance their operations through these resources. I fear this could be a pull factor.”

CAR to the southwest is one of seven countries that border Sudan, along with Egypt, Libya, Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many of the nations have dealt in recent years with some combination of sustained conflict, food insecurity, armed rebellions and civil unrest.

Credit: Bloomberg
Credit: Bloomberg

Analysts say Chad and South Sudan are at the most immediate risk from the conflict in Sudan. The United Nations estimates that the two countries, which rank among the world’s poorest, could receive as many as 270,000 refugees in the coming weeks.

“The spillover effects are already visible. Thousands of people have arrived in the neighbouring countries, South Sudan included,” Deng Dau Deng, acting foreign minister of South Sudan, said at a briefing in Juba on Friday.

Chad, a key Western ally in the fight against terrorism and a bulwark against growing Russian influence in the region, has in recent years beaten back two serious coup attempts that emerged from just over the border in Sudan’s Darfur region, where intense ethnic fighting has already killed scores during the current war.

Many of the rival groups in Darfur “may also have connections over the borders in Chad and CAR,” said Sarra Majdoub, a Sudan-based independent conflict analyst.

Dagalo was leader in the Janjaweed militias that brutalized the area, and his cousin is a senior adviser to interim President Mahamat Deby, who’s tried to mediate in the current crisis.

Soon after fighting broke out in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum on April 15, Chad closed its border and deployed troops at checkpoints.

“The rebels might try to enter Chad,” Chad’s Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo said by phone from the capital N’Djamena. “They could join forces with groups already at Chad’s borders.”

Sudan’s relationship with its neighbors is “at the moment very asymmetric,” said John Lechner, a Central African researcher based in Washington. “What happens in Khartoum will have an impact in CAR and Chad, while these countries have little control over the situation in Khartoum.”

Wagner influence

Among the armed groups operating in the region is the Russian paramilitary company Wagner Group. The Kremlin-linked mercenary operation has forces in Sudan, Libya and CAR, where it’s involved in the diamond and gold trade. The group also has ties to a gold processing facility outside Atbara in Sudan, according to recent EU sanctions.

The foreign fighters have helped the CAR government secure its gold-rich northern region that’s rife with armed groups, some with links to rebels in western Darfur. CAR’s government maintains that the only Russian forces in the country are unarmed trainers.

“The worsening security situation with rebels operating on both sides of our borders, which aren’t very well-protected, could see Wagner strengthen its position in CAR and Sudan,” Martin Ziguele, another former CAR prime minister, said by phone from Bangui.

Humanitarian crisis

Those borders are now seeing an influx of refugees fleeing Sudan’s violence, with at least 30,000 people having arrived in Chad and South Sudan so far, along with 16,000 who’ve fled north to Egypt, according to authorities.

Most hope to enter fragile countries hit hard by their own protracted conflicts as well as the impacts of climate change and food insecurity. More than two million people in South Sudan have been displaced by war, and some two-thirds of the nation’s 11 million population is in need of humanitarian assistance.

In neighbouring CAR, prices of staple foods such as millet have doubled since the fighting in Sudan began. More than 12,000 refugees from Sudan arrived in CAR in recent days and more people are massing at the border, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The situation is very worrying,” said Dologuele, the former CAR prime minister. “Our government has no leverage in what happens in Khartoum. We will just have to face the crisis if, or rather when, it hits here.”

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Published 30 April 2023, 09:28 IST

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