Sudan's expulsion of more than a dozen international aid groups not only puts the lives of at least 1 million displaced Darfuris at risk of starvation, it could also set off a series of regional conflicts.
The world's largest humanitarian aid effort is being cut in half overnight. With the biggest groups, such as Doctors Without Borders, Care International, and Oxfam leaving, Darfur watchers expect an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Darfuris from camps in Sudan for havens in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. But there's also a rising risk of more armed conflict within Sudan.
Rebel groups fighting with the Khartoum government see an opportunity to recruit more fighters from the current camps, as the hungary turn to them for food and water. And aid groups that have acted as important community bridge builders in fractious towns along the north-south Sudan divide, are leaving. Analysts say their removal threatens the four-year-old north-south peace agreement that ended Africa's longest civil war.
"It is very important to look at the implication beyond Darfur and beyond humanitarian," says Sara Pantuliano, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, who has studied Sudan for close to two decades. "It will further aggravate people that are already profoundly unhappy about the lack of support postpeace," Ms. Pantuliano says. "People with weapons are every where…. Tensions build high and it can just take a little incident to spark it off."
Khartoum's decision, last week, to expel 13 international aid groups from Sudan was not unexpected after the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with war crimes in the Darfur region and issued a warrant for his arrest. Khartoum says that the aid groups have acted as "spies," providing the court's prosecutor with much of the evidence, a charge that the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) all reject.
The United Nations has desperately tried to convince the government to reverse the decision, arguing that their expulsion would leave millions without food, water, and healthcare.
But if the NGOs' expulsion is a humanitarian disaster for Darfur, many observers are concerned that Sudan's fragile north-south border could erupt in conflict again. A peace deal between the Khartoum government and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement in 2005 ended a two-decade-long civil war, and launched the current Government of National Unity between President Bashir's National Congress Party and the late rebel leader John Garang's SPLM.
At a rally Sunday in the northern Darfur town of El Fasher, President Bashir said that Sudan could do without the expelled NGOs. "We will fill the gap left by the NGOs," he said. Government officials say that Sudan will fill that gap through "national and friendly foreign" NGOs, such as the Sudanese Red Crescent society and Islamic Relief.
But the UN's humanitarian aid chief, John Holmes, said Monday that the UN agencies and other organizations allowed to remain in Darfur don't have the resources to replace the activities of those expelled.
According to Mr. Holmes, 7,610 people worked for the 13 expelled aid groups. They represent more than 50 percent of the roughly 14,000 humanitarian workers from 85 organizations that had been working in Darfur.
Analysts point out that none of Sudan's local NGOs have either the money or the expertise to replace a relief effort that currently costs $2 billion per year.
"If nothing is done to replace this humanitarian capacity, it literally threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of Darfurians," says John Prendergast, a Sudan expert for the Enough Project, a US-based human rights group. "Remember, the biggest mortality spikes during the north-south war occurred when the government of Sudan cut off aid access or restricted aid agencies to areas the regime was punishing for one reason or another. Today, the Khartoum government is again utilizing starvation as a weapon of war and if there is little response as there was during the 1990s in Southern Sudan, we could be entering one of the deadliest phases yet of Darfur's war."
"The further the crisis escalates in Darfur, the more at risk it places the north-south peace deal." Mr. Prendergast says.
Many analysts are watching the Abyei region, and the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, along the border between Northern and Southern Sudan. These three areas were given special status in the north-south peace agreement as "transitional areas," contested by both sides. Abyei – an oil-rich area that saw some of the heaviest fighting in the civil war – is of particular concern.
In May 2008, a firefight between Northern and Southern armies killed 89 people, sent 50,000 fleeing, and burned the town to the ground. In December, another death occurred after shooting broke out between military and police, sending thousands fleeing again. And now, the expulsion of the biggest aid groups threatens to bring conflict back to Abyei.
"There could be very dire consequences in the political situation in the three areas," Ms. Pantuliano says.
Analysts have been warning for months that Southern Kordofan, the most volatile of the states straddling the border, needs immediate attention. Now the little attention it was receiving from NGOs will all but disappear. Communities that were already complaining of a lack of peace dividends will now have to search harder to find them.
"If people are in need and there's nothing that can support them, you definitely expect some unrest," says Abyei native Deng Alor, a former Southern rebel who now serves as Sudan's foreign minister.
By digging bore holes, building roads, and supporting livelihoods, the NGOs were increasing communities' access to otherwise limited and contested resources.
"There will be some shortage of everything. And as the shortage comes, people will, as usual, be in quarrel with one another and this will bring clashes between the people," says Kuol Deng, a chief of the Dinka tribe, reached by phone. "This is really a very terrible situation."
A lack of water and grazing lands has historically caused conflict between the Dinka, who supported the Southern rebels during the war, and another tribe, the Misseriya, who were aligned with the Northern government.
Observers say this expulsion of aid workers could bring conflict on more than one front. Darfur's most powerful rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has, for months, been threatening to attack the government to capture Bashir and hand him over to the ICC to face trial. The expulsion of NGOs could also bolster JEM's numbers, as they will have an easier time recruiting from the camps.
Darfur's limited peace process, which just last month had seen a rare sign of progress, may also be in jeopardy. JEM sees the expulsions as a move to "starve the population" and a violation of a goodwill agreement signed with the government in February, committing both parties to the unobstructed flow of relief to Darfur. This perceived violation, JEM says, is reason enough to stop any further peace talks.
"We have already signed an agreement. If that agreement is not implemented, then we are not going sign a new one," says Gebreil Ibrahim, JEM's economic adviser and brother of the group's leader, Khalil Ibrahim.