Peace in Darfur seems unlikely until dissolution of militias complicit in genocide

The latest bout of violence in Darfur, which is believed to have cost 48 lives, has halted peace negotiations. A sustainable peace process seems unlikely till the militias involved in mass killings are dissolved and those in power who supported them are overthrown

January 04, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
The El Geneina refugee camp on Sunday after violence broke out.

At least 48 people died and 241 were wounded in four days due to ethnic violence in the State of West Darfur in Sudan, as reported by the international agency, the Red Crescent, on Thursday, January 2. Violence erupted on the evening of December 29, and continued into the next day, between the Arab pastoralist and nomadic tribes and the indigenous African communities of the region. Arab militias reportedly attacked camps holding Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from indigenous communities, though casualties have been claimed on both sides. 19 critically injured people have also been flown to Khartoum for medical treatment.

According to various media reports, the fighting began on Sunday in a market near the Kerending refugee camp in West Darfur’s capital city of El Geneina, and spread to surrounding areas. At least 10 villages were reportedly burnt down.

On Tuesday, December 31, when the fighting had mostly subsided, Asaad Bahr al-Din, a leader of the Indigenous Massalit tribe, confirmed at least 30 deaths from his community. He added that 14 more people, who had been displaced during the civil war in Darfur, were injured in the armed attacks on their IDP camps by the Arab tribes. 

The armed Arab militias also reportedly opened fire to prevent families and relatives from collecting the dead bodies of the victims. Bahr al-Din claimed that “Some bodies are still in the open and have not been counted as no one can approach the places where they are.” He maintains that hundreds of IDPs have since fled the camps, and are seeking refuge in remote villages within Sudan, or are headed to neighboring Chad. 

On Wednesday, January 1, the spokesperson of United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) told Reuters, “The Arab tribesmen came to the IDP camp and started shooting and killing and burning.. Then relatives went to the hospital and threatened hospital staff at gunpoint and destroyed the blood bank … and when a government of Sudan policeman tried to intervene he was shot and killed.”

On the other side of the conflict, Massar Abdel-Rahman Assil, the head of the Arab tribes, claimed that at least 15 members from his community were injured, and at least 11 were confirmed dead as of Tuesday morning.

The Darfur region, which consists of five states, has seen ethnic violence erupt often over the past decade. Last week’s violence was preceded by a fight between an IDP from the Massalit tribe and an Arab community member, in the course of which the latter was killed. 

History of the Darfur conflict

The animosity between the Arab pastoralist and nomadic tribes, and the indigenous African Masslit, Fur and Zaghawa tribes of the region, has peaked over the past few decades. Though the communities co-existed for centuries in relative harmony, tensions began to mount under the regime of the now ousted president Omar al-Bashir, who seized power through a coup in 1989.

By introducing Sharia law, Bashir marginalized the non-Arabic communities in Sudan. Further, the IMF-propelled policies pursued by his regime deepened the agrarian crisis in the region, which disproportionately affected the Indigenous tribes who rely mainly on subsistence farming.

This created increased conflict over resources between the communities. In 2003, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), whose members were drawn from the Indigenous communities, took up arms against the state, which they held responsible for the economic marginalization of the non-Arabic communities in Sudan.

In response, the government created a militia called the Janjaweed, whose fighters were drawn from the nomadic Arabic tribes, predominantly the camel herders. These fighters, armed and uniformed by the state, were then used to launch attacks aimed at depopulating villages inhabited by the Masslits, Furs and Zaghawas.

Mass killings, rapes, and the burning down of entire villages, along with the contamination of their water sources, was systematically practiced by the Janjaweed fighters under the supervision of the state. An estimated 300,00 people were killed and another 2.5 million displaced in the Darfur conflict. Among those displaced, roughly 110,000 fled to neighboring Chad while the vast majority live as IDPs in the refugee camps within Darfur. 

For his role in the armed operations in Darfur, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has found al-Bashir guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

When the Sudanese Revolution began in December 2018, the Indigenous persecuted communities in the Darfur region also formed resistance committees, which were being organized at the neighborhood level across the country with the support of Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). The SPA is an umbrella organization of trade unions that were banned under Bashir’s regime, but were brought together with the support of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP).

The revolution eventually succeeded in removing al-Bashir from power and subsequently forced the military junta to make way for a civilian-dominated transitional government in Sudan.

This transitional government initiated peace negotiations with the armed rebel groups soon after its formation in August 2019. While some progress was made in the form of a fragile ceasefire, and agreements over the issues to be resolved to bring an end to the civil war, the recent spate of violence in West Darfur has brought these negotiations to a halt. 

An incomplete revolution

It is widely believed that the biggest hurdle t0 concluding a peace agreement is the very structure of the transitional government itself. This is due to the presence of important figures from the former military junta have managed to obtain key positions due to the wavering of the centrist parties in the opposition political alliance.

One of the members of sovereignty council, the highest body in the transitional government, is general Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo. He was the vice-president of the former military junta and is the head the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a militia outside of the regular armed forces of Sudan, consisting of the Janjaweed fighters who were used to commit the genocide in Darfur. 

Dagalo has been resisting attempts to dismantle this militia. Other Janjaweed fighters in Darfur also continue to use the arms and military vehicles supplied to them by the former regime. 

After these groups launched the attacks on the IDP camps last weekend, the government dispatched several battalions of police, army and intelligence officers, along with the RSF to West Darfur, in order to restore peace 

Dagalo himself was one of the high-level government officials who accompanied civilian prime minister Abdallah Hamdok on his visit to the affected areas on January 1, with the purpose of calming tensions. 

Sudan Tribune reported that a group of IDPs with their resistance committees held a sit-in demonstration on the road taken by Hamdok’s delegation to El Geneina. They also submitted a memorandum demanding that the Arab militias, including the RSF, be disarmed of the weapons supplied to them by the former regime.

The SCP has also complained about the fact that the military figures sharing power in the transitional government have been a part of the former regime, and thus their approach to the situation remained the same. 

“All evidence indicates the involvement of elements of the former regime in the escalation of the tribal conflict”, the SCP Central Committee said in its statement on January 2. The party has demanded that the Arab militias be disarmed and their weapons handed over to the regular armed forces. They have also demanded the right to return for the IDPs who have been displaced from their lands, and the handing over of Bashir to the ICC.

Coordinator of the IDP camps in central Sudan, Hassan Abu Al-Qasim, said that the IDPs will not participate in, be represented by, or even recognize any government which does not fulfill these tasks. 

Expressing the sense of betrayal felt by the IDPs regarding the transitional government’s handling of their issues, al-Qasim said in a statement on December 31, “All those who want to ride the wave to power on the backs of the displaced populations have to find other roads,” adding that playing with the IDPs’ issues in the pursuit of power was a “red mistake”.