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On Sunday, heads of state from across the continent convene for the annual African Union Summit in Addis Ababa. Africa’s most pressing concerns will be discussed this week, but one looming crisis is missing from the agenda.
War continues in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of neighbouring Sudan, where a humanitarian catastrophe is in the making. Experts predict some conflict areas will reach extreme levels of food insecurity — barely shy of a famine designation — just one month from now.
On the heels of a famine that devastated the Horn of Africa, the AU is now faced with an opportunity. With Khartoum denying access, and the US exploring alternative means of emergency relief, African states can take the lead in negotiating a solution, achieving not only a humanitarian imperative in Sudan but also a political one for Africa.
Since June, Khartoum has been engaged in an air and ground war with opposition forces; first in Southern Kordofan and later in Blue Nile — two states that aligned with other marginalised regions during the country’s long civil war.
Local populations in the two areas are up in arms over the same structural problem that has long plagued Sudan — a concentration of power and wealth in the centre at the expense of the peripheries. In the wake of that war, the failure to forge new political and security arrangements in these two areas, and more broadly in Sudan, prompted a resumption of war, displacement, and suffering.
In addition to the disruption of movement, trade, and livelihoods in conflict areas, the government has deliberately prevented humanitarian operators from accessing affected civilians, doing anything to prevent assistance from making its way into the hands of rebel forces or their supporters.
US President Barack Obama dispatched senior national security officials to Khartoum in November, with a proposal, and incentives, aimed at opening corridors for “sufficient and sustained” humanitarian relief and dialogue towards resolution of the conflict.
Not surprisingly, given persistent mistrust, a perception that Washington’s offers are hollow, and an unwillingness to end its military campaign, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party did not agree. In fact, it didn’t even respond.
Several subsequent attempts by the United Nations to negotiate access have not borne fruit. UN efforts to shape agreeable terms continue, though Khartoum’s co-operation to date remains minimal. Meanwhile, the US, UN, and others have engaged AU member states and others to help persuade the government to permit international access.
Washington has also been studying alternatives, including, if all else fails, a plan to facilitate cross-border relief in the absence of consent from Khartoum.
No doubt Washington has given this a great deal of thought, including the risks. Any form of non-consensual access to its territory could prompt a hostile response from Khartoum, further deterioration of US-Sudan relations, and consternation from African states already made wary by international intervention in Libya.
But with Khartoum providing no avenues for co-operation, Washington feels pressed to act before the world watches another humanitarian catastrophe unfold. Given the potential for unexpected and unintended consequences, there is widespread preference for a negotiated alternative — not least in Washington.
Africa now has a chance to deliver on two fronts.
AU leaders with contacts in Khartoum should privately advise the NCP that negotiated access is both necessary and in its interest. International intervention will be politically bad for Sudan’s regime, as it will appear weak and belligerent at a time when it needs external co-operation to find its way out of an economic quandary.
At the same time, for those African states leery of foreign infringements on sovereignty or continuing perceptions of AU ineptitude, now is the time to take ownership and demonstrate resolve by forging a regional solution that incorporates multilateral efforts already underway.
The AU has already committed itself on a number of occasions.
First, it mandated an African mediation team (headed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki) to facilitate resolution of outstanding issues in Sudan, a tall order that includes governance reforms, humanitarian access, and security in the two areas.
Second, the AU chairman sent a letter to Khartoum in December offering to take the lead in developing a humanitarian response.
Most recently, it joined others in offering observers to monitor relief distribution — aimed at assuaging concerns about aid flow to opposition forces.
But more must be done to realise these commitments, and now is the time to assume a more visible role.
The AU should use this week’s summit to extend a detailed proposal to partner with the government and international relief teams in providing critical access. Meanwhile, it should quietly engage Khartoum both on a plan itself and on the political imperatives.
Commitment should simultaneously be sought from opposition forces to allow civilians to access assistance and ensure the safety of relief personnel and independent monitors.
An opportunity has presented itself, not only to mitigate a crisis and ensure regional stability in the near term, but also to bolster the AU’s reputation and role in global affairs in the long run.
Zach Vertin is a Sudan / South Sudan Analyst with the International Crisis Group.