1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. East Africa
  4. Sudan

Fallout scenarios

Darfur situation map

The expulsion or closure of 16 aid groups in Sudan could worsen North-South relations, stall the Darfur peace process and deter future humanitarian action, analysts said.

The decision, and the 16 March announcement that Sudan would "nationalise" all humanitarian work within one year, have attracted condemnation from the highest levels of the UN and the US.

"The ICC [International Criminal Court] row in general, and the expulsion of the aid agencies in particular, certainly have the potential to destabilise North-South relations," says Wolfram Lacher, a Sudan analyst with the London-based Control Risks Group consultancy.

Though partners in a national unity government since a 2005 peace deal, the North's National Congress Party (NCP) and the South's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) have been at odds over the border demarcation, distribution of oil revenue and timing of elections.

"The [expulsion] decisions were made by the NCP without consultation and against the will of the SPLM and that certainly puts an additional strain on relations between the two parties," Lacher said. "The relations between the two are very volatile, very fragile, and on these relations depends the big question whether the North and the South will go back to war in the next few years."

Border tensions

Relations are especially tense along the border, where the heaviest fighting took place. While the government has argued that the expulsions apply countrywide, the Southern government has encouraged NGOs to continue working there.

But in contested areas along the border, especially three "transitional areas" singled out in the peace agreement - Abyei, the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state, and Southern Blue Nile state - it is unclear whose rules prevail.

"We are telling [the NGOs that the decision to expel them] is null and void in these areas, and yet they were chased away by security," says SPLM spokesman Yien Matthew Chol.

Pushing NGOs out of areas desperately needing aid, he said, could provoke a reaction from the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Situation in Sudan - Map

Situation in Sudan - Map
Thursday, March 5, 2009
D’autres organisations humanitaires dans le collimateur
Situation in Sudan - Map

Photo: ReliefWeb


In addition, communities could turn against each other as resources provided by NGOs disappear. In Darfur, the expulsion of the NGOs has wiped out half the aid effort; in South Kordofan, it meant "there's almost nobody left", according to Sara Pantuliano, research fellow at the UK Overseas Development Institute.

According to the UN, in South Kordofan alone, the targeted NGOs provided health and nutritional services for up to 800,000 people; water and sanitation services for 400,000, and assistance in food security for 200,000.

"People are already angered by the lack of peace dividends," Pantuliano says. "It's the area of the country least supported by the peace agreement."

She says the lack of support for these areas had exacerbated tensions. In May and December 2008, fighting broke out in Abyei town, killing civilians, destroying infrastructure and sending thousands fleeing.

Over the past year, the US administration and the UK Department for International Development had finally begun investing in the three areas, Pantuliano says, in an attempt to prevent a war that many analysts warned could restart. 


In June 2008, the NCP and the SPLM agreed to a road map for Abyei, intended to pull the region back from the brink of war. The presidency promised money for a new administration that was to govern the oil-rich area.

"Up to now there is no budget for the Abyei administration, even for services," says Kuol Deng, a chief of the Dinka group in Abyei. "I don't know what will be the situation if these organisations leave the area. It means the area will be evacuated of any services ... for the people of the area."

That, says Foreign Minister Deng Alor, a native of Abyei, could lead to conflict, as people quarrel over limited resources - especially given that competition over land and water has always been a source of conflict between local communities.

"If people are in need and there's nothing that can support them, you definitely expect some unrest," Alor said.

Some of the NGOs provided a monitoring role, acted as bridge-builders between warring parties, and were the sole advocates for Sudan's arguably most sensitive areas.

Stalled peace process?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (right) and Vice-president Salva Kiir (left) celebrate the inauguration of the Sudanese People's Initiative for resolving the Darfur problem on 16 October 2008.

Heba Aly/IRIN
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (right) and Vice-president Salva Kiir (left) celebrate the inauguration of the Sudanese People's Initiative for resolving the Darfur problem on 16 October 2008...
Thursday, October 16, 2008
A test for the African Union
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (right) and Vice-president Salva Kiir (left) celebrate the inauguration of the Sudanese People's Initiative for resolving the Darfur problem on 16 October 2008...

Photo: Heba Aly/IRIN
President Bashir (right) and Vice-president Salva Kiir at an earlier ceremony (file photo)

As water pumps run dry, health centres shut down and food distributions stop, analysts fear unrest will begin to spread in some of the camps housing 2.7 million displaced people in Darfur - and that could play right into the hands of Darfur's rebel groups.

"The longer these camps are in place and the worse conditions get, the more likely you are to have young women and men – and even old women and men – wanting and willing to take up arms," says Colin Thomas-Jensen, a policy adviser with the Washington-based Enough Project.

The expulsion of NGOs could be linked to a future attempt to clear out some of the camps – the government says they are breeding grounds for the rebels – and move the displaced to "model villages". Such forced displacement could further encourage people to take up arms, he adds.

Rebel leaders say the government’s plan to nationalise the aid effort is completely unacceptable, saying Sudanese organisations would always be controlled by the government. 

"How can the killers of these people become their feeders?" Justice and Equality Movement leader Khalil Ibrahim was quoted as saying in the Sudan Tribune online on 16 March. "Darfur people will certainly not accept any relief from Bashir’s security apparatus and will reject them."

Abdolwahid Alnour, founder of the Sudan Liberation Movement, told the paper the move would push Darfuris to take up arms "because with arms they can control territory and invite the aid groups to reach them".

Peace deal

On 16 February, JEM and the government signed a goodwill agreement in Qatar, committing themselves to the unrestricted flow of relief to Darfur.

Gebreil Ibrahim, JEM's economic adviser and Khalil’s brother, said the expulsion was a violation of that deal, and his group would now not agree to talks until the NGOs were reinstated.

Analysts say JEM is already under pressure to back away from peace talks to maintain credibility in the face of the arrest warrant against Bashir.

"If the expulsion of aid agencies causes massive population displacement in Darfur, this will also put pressure on JEM to withdraw from the talks and engage in a new offensive against the government," says Lacher.

By choosing a confrontational response to the arrest warrant, Bashir plays into JEM's hands, Thomas-Jensen says. "JEM can rightly say, why would we negotiate? … It weakens the prospect of a peace agreement in the near term."

US reaction

"In general, the deteriorating relations between the government and the West are among the arrest warrant's most important repercussions," Lacher says.


[Sudan] Woman carrying grain in Kassab IDP camp near Kutum North Darfur. [Date picture taken: 13 February 2006]

Woman carrying grain in Kassab IDP camp near Kutum North Darfur
Derk Segaar/IRIN
[Sudan] Woman carrying grain in Kassab IDP camp near Kutum North Darfur. [Date picture taken: 13 February 2006]
Monday, May 1, 2006
Food rations drastically cut in Darfur
[Sudan] Woman carrying grain in Kassab IDP camp near Kutum North Darfur. [Date picture taken: 13 February 2006]

Photo: Derk Segaar/IRIN
A displaced woman in Kassab camp near Kutum North Darfur (file photo)

"This [the expulsion of agencies] is likely to provoke a more antagonistic, more hawkish stance towards Sudan by the [US President Barack] Obama administration," he says.

Analysts say the US may take tough retaliatory action to show this type of behaviour will not be tolerated. However, it has limited options. It has already imposed heavy economic sanctions on Sudan and the international community can no longer use a possible arrest warrant as leverage.

"This is clearly an escalation and a challenge from Khartoum," Thomas-Jensen says.

"The call now is for diplomatic pressure and diplomatic isolation of Khartoum to reverse the decision," says Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition.

"We need a big diplomatic effort saying this is unacceptable. There will be a cost for it," says Enough’s executive director, John Norris.

But a tough reaction by the US, Britain or France could ignite a war, according to Alex de Waal of the New York-based Social Science Research Council.

US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden, have long said the US is considering a no-fly zone over Darfur. New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof and Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, US Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994, have argued that destroying Sudanese aircraft may be the only way to gain leverage over Bashir.

In such talk, Sudan sees the West's goal as regime change, De Waal says, and will not commit "collective suicide" without a fight. Sudan and the western powers on the Security Council are now at the "brink of an armed confrontation", De Waal says. "If they carry on escalating, it's a war."

Chad-Sudan relations

Sudan and Chad are already engaged in a proxy war - each supporting rebels trying to topple their respective governments. Analysts fear relations could deteriorate, as some of the 2.7 million people living in Darfur's camps travel over the border.

"There are 250,000 Darfuri refugees in Chad. If you had some of the big camps in Darfur emptying and all deciding to go into Chad, you could quite quickly double the number in Chad," says one aid worker, who requested anonymity.

Thomas-Jensen says that could be just what Khartoum wants. In an attempt to defeat JEM, the government will try to bring down Chadian President Idriss Déby, and housing refugees who compete with local Chadians for natural resources will make Déby more unpopular.

"The preferred strategy for [Khartoum] would be clearing out the camps and forcing people to go home - a knockout blow in Chad and weakening JEM," Thomas-Jensen says. "They think they can end this war and demonstrate to the international community that humanitarian assistance wasn't really necessary anyway and that ultimately it's not the nightmare scenario everyone thinks."

But an increased Sudanese presence in Chad could do just the opposite, Lacher and De Waal say, by facilitating Ch adian mobilisation of Sudanese rebels, thus intensifying the fight.

''There are 250,000 Darfuri refugees in Chad. If you had some of the big camps in Darfur emptying and all deciding to go to Chad, you could quite quickly double the number in Chad''

If the absence of services does force Darfuris over the border, "they will likely go soon, before the rainy season makes travel … far more difficult", CARE, one of the expelled agencies, recently warned.

According to the aid worker, whose agency had informal talks with the Chadian government, Chad may attempt to close its border to pre-empt any such movement, causing relations to further deteriorate.


"Everybody is scared," says the aid worker, who worked for one of the expelled groups. "Staff have been harassed, interrogated; had all their personal cameras, laptops, phones stolen; been threatened with arrest; had their passports taken off them; had Sudanese newspapers print their names and accuse them of being spies. This all happened hours after we were reassured yet again by the government that nothing would happen."

Remaining NGOs were "scared they will be next" and were therefore less likely to speak out in the future or to engage in sensitive programme work, including counselling and medical support.

Also see: North Darfur: Humanitarian Impact of Expulsion of NGOs


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help make quality journalism about crises possible

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.


Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story. 


We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.