Sudan 3

01 Sep 2023

“Waves of fighting have been a recurring feature of Sudan’s history,” writes John Eibner in Christianity in North Africa and West Asia. Before the independence of the South, violence was particularly religious in nature. The current iteration of fighting, which began in April, is far more about a clawing for control of resources: a “mobster shootout.”

Religious leaders, political leaders and diplomats have all called for an end to the violence and a negotiated settlement. Those calls seem futile without some significant change to the equation. Nothing that would cause that change is apparent to me, an outside observer. No power (e.g. Europe, China, the US) seems to want to get involved. Peacekeeping forces have been warned off by the SAF. Merchants of arms are basking in the money. Everyone seems willing to let the SAF and RSF pound each other, so long as it doesn’t get out of the constraints of the Sudan borders.

Worse, a cease-fire that leaves the two armies capable of fighting again probably won’t end the conflict in the long-term. Some sort of negotiated peace appears a distant dream: neither side wants to talk to the other, so they just keep on pounding at each other, like two elephants fighting while the ants run pell-mell out of the way.

The impact on the civilian population has been, obviously, horrific. I cannot even begin to imagine what life on the ground is like. There are only snippets from various organizational reports and field testimonies: of refugees pouring over the border, of desperation, of trauma, of chaos. The wounding, the scars being etched into this generation of Sudan are ones that will stretch far into the distant future.

What about Christianity and Christian ministries in Sudan? Christianity is a single-digit minority in Sudan (especially since the departure of the South), but between 1970 and 2015 it was the bright spot: the exception to the region-wide decline of Christianity in North Africa, Sudan rose from 3% Christian to 5% Christian. The bulk of that increase was Anglicans (5x over 45 years), and Catholics (who more than 10X’d in the same time period). Much of it was related to the mass evangelism conducted during the 1990s fighting that led to the independence of South Sudan, and the mass migration of displaced black Africans to the north, which increased the number of Christians there. Due to the fighting, many Christians will be among the internally displaced and external refugees, but it’s impossible to know what proportion they represent. I know a number of Christian ministries are attempting to serve the refugees as well.

If getting a sense of what is really happening on the ground - whether an evaluation of military forces, or population flows, or even the daily risks people face - is nearly impossible, estimating the future would be foolish given the sparseness of the data; it would be confusing scenarios (possibilities) with forecasts (probabilities), and that is something we should never do (Rule 33).

The scenarios themselves are fairly obvious, and none are particularly good. The SAF could win, but probably only if it could remove the RSF from the field, and if they did the country would likely return to authoritarian rule. The RSF could win, but it would be a political revolution if they did—and what nation would work with them, and how would they gain the support of the populace, after all the abuses? It might be possible, if the war goes on long enough, that neighbors or an external power might step in. (I think this is unlikely so long as the war doesn’t spill over borders, but if it should, then the calculus changes.)

One very simplistic estimate is: how long something has gone on is how long it is likely to go on—in this case, several months more. (My wife wisely notes this kind of estimate works until it suddenly doesn’t.) If the war continues on even for months more (and I cynically think this is likely) then the damage to Sudan will, likely, last for years. The current agricultural cycle will be lost, which means food that should be planted now will not be available for harvest. This will require more humanitarian aid. People are close to starvation now, and that will only get worse.

Then there is the very real, very possible scenario that Sudan, as it now stands, could functionally cease to exist. Imagine a collapsed state, with two competing governments, and millions of refugees flooding around the region. Or, imagine the nation breaks apart entirely, and is absorbed into surrounding countries. I doubt the likelihood of this latter scenario. I suspect that, eventually, and after much hardship and devastation—at least months, possibly years—one side will prove victorious, the war will end, and then the long work of reconstruction will begin. Either way, absent a miracle, Sudan could become the region’s nightmare for decades to come.