Plumes of smoke fill Khartoum’s sky as Sudan’s armed forces battle the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, for control of the country and its capital. The fighting, which erupted late last week, has killed at least 185 people, according to the United Nations special representative for Sudan, leaving critical infrastructure — from Khartoum’s airport to hospitals to water supplies for residents — damaged.
But the intensifying fighting could also cast a cloud over the broader Horn of Africa region, experts and top diplomats are warning.
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On Monday, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an immediate ceasefire, adding that Washington was concerned at the potential risk the unrest poses to the region. Also on Monday, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres warned that any further escalation could be devastating for the region.
The region is already grappling with ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia, South Sudan and Somalia that have left tens of thousands of people dead and have displaced millions more, while climate change has also left its deadly mark, with repeated sub-par rainy seasons exacerbating a humanitarian crisis.
Experts believe a full-blown civil war in Sudan could make things worse — from a new refugee crisis to water woes to meddling by powers from outside the region.
“Were Sudan to descend into civil war then the entire Horn of Africa region will be affected,” Matt Bryden, a strategic adviser at Sahan Research, a think tank focusing on politics and security in the Horn of Africa, told Al Jazeera.
Alarmed, heads of state from the regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) held a virtual meeting on Sunday and called for the “immediate cessation of hostilities”.
The bloc announced that South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, Kenya’s William Ruto and Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh would visit Khartoum “at the earliest possible time to reconcile the conflicting groups”.
So far, however, these leaders “have been unable to travel to Khartoum due to the ongoing fighting between the warring parties”, Ahmed Soliman, a senior research fellow at the Africa programme at the London-based Chatham House, pointed out. “There is huge concern among leaders in the Horn of Africa” about the “prospects for regional spill-over”, he said.
Another refugee crisis?
Sudan shares borders with seven countries. Five of those – Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad – are already theatres of ongoing armed conflict. Egypt and Eritrea are Sudan’s other immediate neighbours. “All [these countries] will be heavily affected,” said Bryden.
As of September, Ethiopia, the region’s most populous country, had more than two million internally displaced people, an outcome of natural disasters and a brutal conflict between the country’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that governed the Tigray region. Ethiopia also hosts nearly a million refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. Meanwhile, Chad is home to 370,000 Sudanese refugees.
“The risk of a refugee crisis is real considering the conflict dynamics [in Sudan],” Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at Development Reimagined, an Africa-focused international development consultancy, told Al Jazeera.
“As it stands, both sides are still fighting for control of key strategic infrastructure,” Eguegu said. That al-Burhan’s forces have been unable to gain a decisive edge despite having the Sudanese air force at their disposal “speaks to the strengths of the RSF”, he added. The battle-hardened militia has been accused of war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region and has fought alongside Sudanese and Emirati forces in Yemen.
“Without immediate mediation, we may see a protracted conflict,” Eguegu said. “Which will cause a refugee crisis.”
Fears of foreign intervention
As the conflict deepens, experts fear that the threat of foreign powers jumping in — as has happened in Sudan’s neighbours Libya and CAR — could also mount.
Russia, Turkey and the UAE have all intervened actively in the Libyan civil war, through a mix of weapons supplies, political cover and diplomacy involving the warring groups. The mineral-fuelled conflict in the CAR has also attracted Russia’s Wagner Group, whose fighters have lined up alongside government forces against rebels.
These concerns — that the clashes in Sudan could further turn the region into a playground for global and regional powers to extend their influence — were evident when African Union leaders met for emergency talks on Sunday. In a communique the body released after holding a meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the bloc warned against any external interference that could complicate the situation.
The Nile Dam dispute
Any full-scale conflict in Sudan could also derail the already protracted negotiations over a controversial dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile, an essential source of water and electricity for many countries. The Nile Basin river system flows through 11 countries. The Blue Nile and the White Nile merge in Sudan before flowing into Egypt towards the Mediterranean Sea.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is set to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project when completed, is the source of an almost decade-long diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and downstream nations Egypt and Sudan.
Addis Ababa says the project is essential for Ethiopia’s development, but the governments in Cairo and Khartoum fear it could restrict their citizens’ water access.
Egypt and Sudan have been pushing Ethiopia to sign a binding deal over the filling and operation of the dam, and have been urging the UN Security Council to take the matter up in recent weeks. Ethiopia has so far not signed any agreement. “Sudan’s position on the issue hardened under its military leadership, drawing closer to Egypt – due to the strong military-to-military ties between both countries,” Soliman of Chatham House told Al Jazeera.
Last year, Sudan said the process of filling the dam caused water shortages, including in Khartoum, a claim Ethiopia disputed. In 2021, Khartoum warned that if Ethiopia went ahead with the second stage of filling, it would file lawsuits against the company constructing the dam and against the government in Addis Ababa, citing the “environmental and social impact” and “dangers” posed by the dam.
Yet a civil war at home could leave Khartoum too busy to take part in any future talks, or make it hard for Ethiopia, Egypt and the international community to decide who to speak with in Sudan.
‘Tough choice’ on mediation
The crisis in Sudan also casts a spotlight on the limitations of the country’s neighbours in playing the role of mediators.
Egypt is widely viewed as backing al-Burhan’s military regime, Eguegu and Bryden said.
But according to Eguegu, regional blocs and most other countries in the Horn of Africa do not want to appear like they are either propping up an authoritarian regime or backing a militia. “It is not so clear-cut,” he said.
The RSF is a militia with little legitimacy. At the same time, it is challenging a military government that has been reluctant to implement a transition to democratic rule. “It is a tough choice both for the AU and IGAD,” Eguegu said.
There is also a strategic calculation these countries need to make, he added. “It is not clear at this point who is going to end up in charge,” Eguegu said. “It is prudent for regional countries to keep their cards close to their chests,” he added.