Sudan is an abject disaster. Is anyone listening?

In the year since civil war broke out, fighting in Sudan has left more than eight million people displaced—a number far greater than the displacement in Gaza and nearly on par with Ukraine. The war has killed and wounded more than thirteen thousand in the city of El Geneina alone, with the true cost in human lives simply unknown. The reports of war crimes by both parties to the conflict and the deliberate targeting of civilians because of their ethnicity are the stuff of nightmares.

But chances are you’ve heard little about this conflict or the other security tensions throughout East Africa given the lack of traditional media coverage or social media buzz in the United States. That’s due in part to a lack of consistent high-level engagement from the US government in the conflict. Those who are working on this region and care about security and instability need to do more to raise the profile of the disaster in Sudan and in the larger Horn of Africa—because more visibility can help light the way toward solutions.

The United States did not cause a civil war in Sudan, but the inability to deliver quickly on promises of development-related aid in 2021 left the country off balance, leading to an overthrow of the nascent democracy taking shape. Ultimately, the two primary and current belligerents—the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese Armed Forces—took up arms after attempts to retain power failed, leaving a path of destruction in their wake and destroying a country in the process.

It’s been just over a year since US forces evacuated the US embassy in Sudan in a daring operation that resulted in the rescue of just under one hundred Americans and a handful of foreign diplomats from the country. Due to the fighting devastating the country, the economy of Sudan collapsed as millions of people struggle to survive amid the chaos, suffering, and misery. US officials point out that regional players continue to fund and provide weapons to both sides of this conflict, claims that the United Arab Emirates and others deny.

From outside government, it is easy to spot the difficult nature of the policy problems in play: There are belligerents who are not interested in an end to the violence, economic collapse, and human suffering that they are causing. Outside actors are waging a proxy war perpetuating the violence. Diplomats seem to be unable to find a negotiated solution to end the conflict.

The United States is not addressing the confluence of these challenges with its full effort—and it is clear to anyone who follows these issues closely that the efforts it is making are not working. The US government has put in place multiple rounds of targeted financial sanctions on bad actors perpetuating the violence. In February 2024, the State Department announced a special envoy for Sudan to coordinate policy. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee seem to be the loudest voices when it comes to Sudan, drawing attention to the atrocities, the ineffectiveness of US sanctions, and the modest policy successes, but their reach has limits. The executive branch appears to be quietly trying to do its critical work but has said very little publicly beyond the setting of testy congressional hearings. The nongovernmental organization and advocacy community continues to try to shed light on the problem through task forces, letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, and articles like this one. The problem is that nobody in the broader public seems to be listening.

Where does this leave the people of Sudan? US efforts to mediate between the parties have not been successful to date. Fighting continues, sanctions are not working, and people are dying. Behind-the-scenes work by the diplomatic community is useful, but more should be done in public to raise the profile of the conflict, get more attention from people who do not work on Africa every day, and bring about more public pressure to end it.

This should include visits to Sudan by top Biden administration officials, as security allows, similar to what we’ve seen with senior-level visits to Israel during its war in Gaza or to Kyiv repeatedly in the past three years. Media appearances by senior US officials, as well as the advocacy community, can be helpful too. Alternatively, civil society, diaspora organizations, the nongovernmental organization community, and the general public should encourage journalists to ask US officials tough questions about their approach to Sudan, providing an additional avenue to reach a wider audience. Sudan’s dynamic diaspora in the United States, as well as everyday Americans, should also encourage continued bipartisan attention on Sudan on Capitol Hill.

East Africa’s security challenges extend well beyond Sudan. As one foreign diplomat told me recently on condition of anonymity, the region is full of “division and risks fracture.” Fighting in Sudan damaged an oil pipeline used by neighboring South Sudan to export oil from Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The disruption in oil exports from South Sudan, where a tenuous peace is under threat, led to an economic meltdown in the country and threatens the patronage system placating the delicate political coalition of elites. Continued violations of a United Nations Security Council arms embargo on South Sudan could fuel a return to conflict or perpetuate the fighting in Sudan to the north. Eritrean troops, who helped Ethiopia in its fight against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, remain in northern Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s prime minister continues to make public moves to secure access to a Red Sea port, leaving its neighbors uneasy and further contributing to regional instability. Longstanding security challenges continue in Somalia, which remains locked in a fight against rising threats from al-Shabbab and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

In all of these areas, the United States appears to be largely ineffective and viewed externally as not doing enough or lacking the political will necessary to have significant impact, particularly in Sudan. We can ask ourselves if this is another example of the waning influence of the United States in Africa in real time, a string of bad bureaucratic decisions, or, worse, acceptance that senior levels of the Biden administration lack a coordinated strategy for the country (and the wider Horn of Africa), but they would prefer to avoid dealing with it so as to divert their limited attention elsewhere.  

If the United States does not have the will to engage more forcefully in Sudan, its geopolitical rivals will continue to exploit the security vacuum in the country for their own gain and the region will be worse off for it. As East Africa teeters on the brink, US rivals are increasingly setting the terms of engagement. It’s time to pay attention, before it’s too late.

Benjamin Mossberg is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. He previously served in the US Treasury Department and US State Department with a focus on Africa policy.

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Image: A view of a street in the city of Omdurman damaged in the year-long civil war in Sudan, April 7, 2024. Residents in the city have found themselves besieged in their homes, trapped between the paramilitary RSF and the army. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig To match Special Report SUDAN-POLITICS/HUNGER-AID