As crisis grips a Sudan strangled by years of political instability, economic hardship and widespread unrest, neighboring countries such as Libya could become casualties of Sudan’s rapid deterioration. The North African country remains crippled by its political crisis, and a conflagration at its border with similar dynamics has grave implications for a Libya expecting some dividends from the latest UN-led push to secure its long-term stability and unification of its institutions. Given the interconnectedness of the region’s political, economic and security environments, key stakeholders, regional playmakers, aspiring statesmen or potential mediators must acknowledge and address the possible consequences of Sudan’s crisis beyond Libya’s political landscape.
Any interventions suing for de-escalation and dialogue must be accompanied by effective, practicable strategies for promoting stability in both countries and the wider North Africa region so as not to repeat the unforced errors of the post-2011 decade that are partly responsible for Libya’s woes. As neighboring countries, it is easy to pinpoint how the civil war in Sudan could quickly spill over into Libya and other countries from Egypt to Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
For Chad, worsening conditions in Sudan already present significant risks, as many refugees, armed personnel and weapons will likely cross the border. The Sahelian country already hosts 400,000 Sudanese refugees, despite facing acute challenges ranging from extreme poverty to acute food insecurity that will only worsen with more displaced Sudanese. It previews how a Darfur-like conflict could become another potent stressor, particularly in porous border zones between fragile states. Additionally, their respective governments there could potentially use the crisis to justify more illiberalism, unperturbed by threats of sanctions or isolation since the international community will likely be distracted by events in Sudan.
Similarly, for Libya, cross-border migration will be one of the ways Sudan’s maladies could seep their way into the North African country. As Sudanese citizens flee the deteriorating situation in their country, they may seek refuge in Libya, thereby adding pressure on the already strained resources and security apparatus. Alternatively, Libya could become a launch point for migrant vessels headed for European shores, transporting desperate Sudanese, much like Tunisia is today for sub-Saharan Africa.
The influx of migrants could exacerbate tensions between various factions in Libya, further escalating the country’s political crisis. Additionally, the increased presence of refugees in Libya could create a humanitarian crisis, with inadequate resources to address the basic needs of the new arrivals, further straining Libya’s already fragile social fabric.
Secondly, instability in Sudan could also contribute to the proliferation of arms trafficking and non-state armed groups in the region. As the Sudanese state weakens, its control over arms depots and border regions may diminish, leading to a further increase in the illegal flow of arms into Libya. This, in turn, could empower non-state actors in Libya, such as militias and extremist groups, who may capitalize on the chaos to expand and terrorize areas they control, undermining efforts to establish a unified Libyan government. Even before the mid-April clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, a report by the UN highlighted the role of Sudan in the proliferation of arms in Libya, emphasizing the need for effective border control and regional cooperation to counter this threat — an unachievable prospect now.
Moreover, escalations in Sudan endanger plans to repatriate Sudanese mercenaries from Libya, further complicating Libya’s already tenuous political situation. The continuing uncertainty in Libya, exacerbated by Sudan’s deepening conflict, threatens to prolong Libya’s political transition and intensify security risks. Libya relies on Sudan for coordination and information exchange concerning the repatriation of Sudanese mercenaries and limited commercial trade. The presence of more than 10,000 Sudanese mercenaries in Libya, primarily aligned with the Libyan National Army, or LNA, raises concerns about potential spillovers and increased cross-border movements of combatants into Libya, which would worsen border insecurity in southern Libya. This development could prompt the LNA to focus on securing the border with Sudan to limit the flow of arms and fighters to its adversaries in Libya while also providing sanctuary to Sudanese soldiers, many of whom may have previously served in LNA ranks before the October 2020 ceasefire.
Thirdly, Sudan and Libya share some economic ties, particularly in trade and investment. The UN estimated that a peaceful transition and reconstruction in Libya could potentially enhance Sudan’s economic performance by more than $20 billion over four years beginning in 2021. However, continued turmoil and escalating violence in Sudan may dampen these economic prospects due to heightened concerns about security and political and economic management. A conflict in Sudan will further disrupt these economic links, affecting both countries’ economies and exacerbating existing hardships.
In addition, a destabilized Sudan could have broader implications for the regional stability of North Africa, as it may hinder regional cooperation efforts and undermine the international community’s attempts to restore peace and order in Libya. For instance, the African Union and the Arab League have been key players in the mediation efforts in Libya. Still, a crisis in Sudan could divert their focus and resources away from the situation. Egypt is also active inside Libya and will likely move to exert some influence over the developing situation in Sudan to safeguard its regional strategic interests now under threat, especially the dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD.
Egypt’s policy toward Sudan has always focused on aligning with Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan due to their shared approach to the GERD issue. However, an all-out conflict will undermine Egypt’s efforts to create a united front with Sudan, emboldening Addis Ababa to continue taking unilateral action despite Egypt’s repeated warnings. Prolonged conflict in Sudan also raises the risk of GERD talks collapsing and the likelihood of Egypt becoming more militarily aggressive in the region, possibly directed at Ethiopia, or reasserting itself on its borders, including in Libya.
Sudan’s crisis was never going to be a localized affair likely to wax and wane between brief skirmishes, ceasefires, protracted talks and vague settlements within its borders. Its spillovers will complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve Libya’s political impasse while putting pressure on neighboring countries. Thus, as regional and international actors become increasingly preoccupied with managing the catastrophic fallout from Sudan’s turmoil, they may be less able or willing to focus on Libya’s challenges, which still need sustained external support. Furthermore, divergent or combative responses to Sudan’s crisis by members of the global community will worsen divisions among key stakeholders, making it more difficult to build consensus around a common strategy for resolving Libya’s political deadlock. The fragmentation of the international community’s approach has been a critical obstacle in the Libyan peace process, and the crisis in Sudan could further exacerbate this.
In conclusion, the crisis in Sudan poses a significant risk to Libya’s efforts to overcome its political crisis. The spillover effects, such as cross-border migration, arms trafficking, economic interdependence and shifting international relations, could further destabilize Libya and undermine attempts to establish a unified government. As such, it is crucial to highlight the potential consequences of Sudan’s crisis on Libya’s political landscape in order to develop effective strategies for promoting stability in both countries as well as in the wider region. Failing to do so could result in a protracted conflict that will not only affect the two countries but also have far-reaching consequences for the stability and security of North Africa as a whole.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell. This article originally appeared in ArabNews.