Conflict between Sudan’s army and rival paramilitary force is escalating and posing a threat to South Sudan and the disputed Abyei region, according to the UN special envoy for the Horn of Africa. The envoy, Hanna Serwaa Tetteh, highlighted the recent seizures of an airport and oil field by the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF) in Belila, southwest of Sudan’s capital. This conflict is not only impacting bilateral relations between Sudan and South Sudan but also has significant humanitarian, security, economic, and political consequences.
The conflict in Sudan began in mid-April when tensions between the military and the RSF erupted into open warfare in Khartoum and other areas across the country. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data project estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed, and over 4.5 million people have been displaced within Sudan, with an additional 1.2 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
The turmoil in Sudan started after Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan led a coup in October 2021, overthrowing a short-lived democratic transition following three decades of autocratic rule by Omar Al-Bashir. Since mid-April, Burhan’s troops have been engaged in a conflict with the RSF, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Despite ongoing talks in Jeddah, brokered by Saudi Arabia and the United States, the fighting has persisted.
The UN Security Council recently discussed the situation in the oil-rich Abyei region, which has been unresolved since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. The region is claimed by both the majority Ngok Dinka people who favor South Sudan and the Misseriya nomads who rely on Abyei for grazing their cattle and favor Sudan.
Tetteh expressed concern that the recent seizures by the RSF in Belila bring the military confrontation closer to the border with Abyei and South Sudan. She warned that these developments could have adverse consequences on the social fabric of Abyei and the fragile coexistence between the Misseriya and Ngok Dinka communities.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the UN peacekeeping chief, also addressed the Security Council, stating that the outbreak of the conflict in Sudan has interrupted the positive signs of dialogue between Sudan and South Sudan witnessed earlier in 2023. He emphasized that the conflict has put on hold the political process regarding the final status of Abyei and border issues.
Tetteh echoed Lacroix’s sentiments, noting that there is currently no interest from key Sudanese and South Sudanese leaders to address the status of Abyei. However, she stressed the importance of keeping the Abyei dispute on the agendas of the UN and African Union, as representatives of the communities in Abyei recognize the adverse consequences of the conflict on the resumption of talks.
The escalating conflict in Sudan not only threatens regional stability but also exacerbates an already dire humanitarian situation. The international community must continue to engage with all parties involved to find a peaceful resolution and address the underlying issues fueling the conflict. Efforts should be made to protect civilians, provide humanitarian assistance to those affected, and support initiatives that promote dialogue and reconciliation.
In conclusion, the ongoing conflict between Sudan’s army and the RSF is intensifying and has implications for South Sudan and the disputed Abyei region. The recent seizures by the RSF in Belila bring the conflict closer to the border with Abyei, posing risks to the social fabric and coexistence of communities in the region. The international community must prioritize efforts to resolve the conflict, protect civilians, and address the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict.