10 Nov 2023

This is an update of my current thinking about Sudan.

“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.”

For nine months of fighting, the contest has been a brutal slog, with neither side seeming to make much advance against the other. No outside power seemed to want to get involved. Peacekeeping forces were rejected. Arms merchants did a brisk business. Everyone seemed willing to let the situation continue for as long as it would.

In the last few weeks, the RSF has seen a series of victories over the SAF which have left it largely in charge of four of the five states in Darfur, and poised to potentially capture the Northern state as well. The RSF has been establishing ruling authorities in the areas. It also has significant control over areas within the Khartoum try-city area, along with areas south of the city.

The RSF has thus achieved substantial territorial control. Control of Darfur could determine whether Sudan achieves lasting peace or relapses into conflict; the RSF’s presence there could potentially facilitate a bid to control the entire country, particularly given their track record of overcoming government forces in the region. The RSF’s control over Darfur could also influence Sudan’s regional relations, especially with neighbors such as Chad and Libya.

This is not a game of Risk or Chess, and simply achieving victories in one area does not necessarily guarantee victory or even provide significant leverage. In considering the possible futures of Sudan, we often look at the current situation through the lens of a number of assumptions. But assumptions should be brought into the open and questioned. Here are a few examples:

  1. That the conflict is primarily about power and control of resources, disregarding the complex ethnic, social, and regional dynamics.

  2. That external actors are not significantly influencing the conflict, overlooking potential foreign interests and intervention which can lead to increased capacity to fight.

  3. That the RSF and SAF are monolithic entities, ignoring possible internal factions and dissent within each group.

  4. That the population uniformly opposes or supports one side, failing to account for diverse public opinions and loyalties.

  5. That a military victory by one side would lead to stability, not considering the potential for ongoing insurgency or unrest.

  6. That historical grievances and injustices are not significant drivers of the conflict, minimizing the long-term social and political issues at play.

  7. That economic factors, such as control over resources in Darfur, are secondary, when they may be central to the conflict’s motivations and sustainability.

Out of the current situation a number of scenarios could be imagined, none of which lead to a quick end to the conflict:

  • Independent Darfur: The RSF creates an independent governance structure in Darfur, effectively forging two countries.
  • Over the Cliff: The intensified RSF-SAF conflicts spirals into widespread civil war that spills over the borders.
  • Diplomatic Salvage: Escalating violence and horrifying tales of atrocities prompt global powers to step in, forge a power-sharing deal.
  • Chips on the table: The RSF employs Darfur to gain an upper hand in talks, but talks falter on atrocities.
  • Time for an Intervention: Neighboring states intervene, aligning with either the RSF or SAF, risking broader regional conflict.
  • Fractures and Splinters: Internal RSF rifts and desertions threaten to destabilize its control.
  • We’ve had enough: Local opposition to RSF rule potentially coalesces into a civilian-led resistance movement (but where would they get the weapons, or soldiers?).
  • Economic Chokepoints: The international community imposes sanctions targeting the RSF’s economic interests.
  • Peacekeeping Deployment: The UN or African Union sends forces to restore order in conflict zones.
  • How about a nice game of chess: International powers back different factions, turning Sudan into a proxy battleground.
  • It all falls apart: Government disintegration leads to a power vacuum and the splintering of the state.

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.

My own thinking about Sudan’s future, updating my priors based on this week’s events is this: it’s a worst-case scenario. The two sides will harden their control of their respective areas. Still more refugees will flee, and there will be still more difficulties for any Kingdom work on the ground. Aid and relief agencies largely won’t operate in Sudan for the time being, but eventually will re-enter.

I think the SAF could still win, but this appears less probable at the moment. Equally unlikely is the RSF’s ability to conquer the whole country, at least any time soon - but the advance of the Taliban surprised me, and the RSF could surprise me too. The fog of war hides much that would tilt our analyses, if only it were known. If the RSF does win over the SAF, how they govern is even more challenging to see—but I don’t doubt they would be supported by some external powers.

The easiest solution for me to see (and therefore, based on availability bias, probably wrong) is: the RSF pounds away at the SAF but reaches the natural limits of its expansion. The two battle each other, but finally come to the bargaining table. Some sort of agreement is struck that allows for UN or AU peacekeepers, and humanitarian aid. A defacto split occurs.

When might this occur? 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.) Some form of the current grind could continue for another 6 months. In that scenario, 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.

In this scenario, Sudan, as it now stands, would functionally cease to exist. In its place would be a collapsed state, with two competing governments, and millions of refugees flooding around the region. The nation might break apart, with parts absorbed into surrounding countries (although I doubt the likelihood of that). In any event, absent a miracle, Sudan could become the region’s nightmare for decades to come.