Multiple waves of violence hit Darfur as UN-AU mission starts withdrawal

A peace deal – in effect a power-sharing agreement between the government and the armed rebel groups – has provided no solution to the root causes of the violence in the region, which has spiked after the decision to end the mandate of the UNAMID to protect civilians

March 09, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
Darfur conflict
(Photo: Sudan Tribune)

Multiple waves of violence that led to dozens of deaths and the displacement of hundreds in the Darfur region of Sudan over the past week have again raised alarms over the premature ending of the mandate of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Joint forces comprising personnel from the Sudanese army, police, paramilitary and the armed rebel groups which concluded a peace deal with the Sudanese transitional government in October 2020 have taken over from the UNAMID the task of protecting civilians. However, they have often displayed inability or unwillingness to fight the armed militias in defense of civilians. 

On Monday, March 1, Mousa Mahdi, the governor of South Darfur – one of the five States in the Darfur region – signed the official handover of the UNAMID offices to the State government in the State capital Nyala, promising to punish the perpetrators of violence. On the same day, the city of Gireida, about 100 kilometers down south, was attacked by armed men.

According to Radio Dabanga’s report based on eyewitness accounts, about 35 horse-mounted gunmen attacked the city in the morning. Retreating for a few hours after the intervention of the joint forces, they returned by four in the evening with greater armed power and four-wheel drive vehicles.

This second attack left at least one person dead. Several of the injured were admitted to the Gireida hospital and those with critical injuries were shifted to better-equipped facilities in Nyala. The government’s deployment of joint forces in 50 vehicles following the attack proved to be of little help as the attackers returned the next day. 

After the joint forces withdrew with little resistance, the attackers reportedly torched the neighborhoods of Rahman and Shati, leaving hundreds displaced. The forces reportedly did little else but fire in the air. 

A total of 11 were killed and 26 were wounded in Gireida over the two days. Similar violent clashes between tribes – rooted in a history of conflict over land and water – were witnessed in the city in July, October and December last year as well, and again in mid-January 2021. 

After an uneasy calm was restored in Gireida, violence erupted in the city of Saraf Omra in North Darfur State on Wednesday, March 3. 11 people were killed and 32 injured as members of two other tribes clashed. While tensions still prevails, the two clashing tribes’  administrations have been reportedly working on diffusing the hostilities. A high deployment of security forces remains on the streets. On Thursday, the joint forces reportedly arrested some people suspected of being involved in the attacks.

In a separate incident on Wednesday in West Darfur’s capital El Geneina – where at least 163 people were killed and over 100,000 displaced in a massacre in mid-January – the arrested suspects reportedly attempted a prison-break by exploding a bomb inside the complex. 

Raising suspicions about the complicity of prison administration, Kamal El Zein, a member of the High Committee for the Management of the West Darfur Crisis, warned at a press conference in national capital Khartoum that a successful escape would “aggravate” the already volatile situation. Most of the perpetrators of the massacre remain outside prison as they are members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the public prosecutor has refused to lift the immunity granted to them.

The RSF is a notorious paramilitary force made up of the Janjaweed militias with members of nomadic Arab tribes that were organized and armed to commit a genocide in the conflict-affected States, including in the Darfur region, by the previous regime of Omar al-Bashir. 

Bashir was engaged in a civil war with armed rebel groups in Darfur since 2003, mainly the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which claimed to represent the interests of the minority African tribes that were economically and politically marginalized under Bashir’s Islamic regime.  

Peace deal has not ended violence

The war officially ended with the signing of the peace deal between the Sudanese transitional government and the rebel groups, including the majority factions of SLM and JEM, in October 2020. However, the assumption behind ending UNAMID’s mandate on December 31 – that the peace deal would mean an end to violence – has been proven wrong.

Even as Bashir stands trial at the ICC after being ousted from power in 2019 by the Sudanese Revolution, the military continues to exert strong control over the subsequently formed transitional government. The military has ensured the incorporation of the RSF into the security forces. The RSF is now a part of the joint forces deployed to protect civilians in the conflict-affected areas.

Under popular pressure, many Janjaweed militia groups which were not incorporated in the RSF were formally dismissed by the government. However, no serious efforts have been made to disarm and rehabilitate them. The RSF has strong tribal bonds with these Arabic nomadic tribes. 

Violent outbursts in the region often begin with disputes over land, water and cattle between Arabic herdsmen and African tribes whose members are mostly sedentary farmers or live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, having been uprooted from their lands in the course of the civil war. When these disputes escalate into a violent tribal clash, the Arabic herdsmen often have the advantage, being heavily armed by the previous regime and having the explicit or implicit support of the RSF

On the other hand, the SLM and the JEM are in no position to protect the minority tribes they claim to represent. “Frankly speaking, they don’t have any mass-representation or followers in Darfur. First of all, they belong to one single tribe,” Dr. Fathi Elfadl, national spokesperson of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), told Peoples Dispatch

“Secondly, for quite some time, they have sent their groups to fight in Libya. The JEM’s troops have been fighting alongside the Tripoli government, while a faction of the SLM has been fighting on the side of Haftar. With the present situation in Libya changing into a possible political settlement, both groups have withdrawn their troops. Some of these troops are now in Khartoum, threatening the peace in the country’s capital, and some are on their way back to Darfur. So I don’t see any role for them as far as peace is concerned,” Elfadl claims.

He adds that “the peace agreement has nothing to do with (the prospect of) peace. It is at best a ceasefire between the government and the armed rebel groups, accomplished by offering the groups a share in state power,” in terms of seats in different governing bodies of the center and at the States. 

By failing to address the question of access to distribution of resources, particularly land and water which lies at the root of the conflict, the peace deal offers no way forward to end the violence in this region. “As you can see, violence has only increased since the deal,” Elfadl notes.

Bloody January

Ignoring these factors and despite protests from the civilian population in Darfur and Khartoum, the transition government (which is under the thumb of the military), the African Union and the UN came to an agreement on ending the UNAMID’s mandate. This is at a time when the unresolved conflict can be fueled further by instabilities in neighboring countries to the west of Darfur – Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic. 

The UN Security Council, via a video conference on December 22, 2020, unanimously adopted Resolution 2559 (2020) terminating the mandate of UNAMID from December 31. The UNAMID has been given six months till June 30 to withdraw all its uniformed and civilian personnel. The mandate of its armed forces during this withdrawal phase is only to protect the Mission’s personnel and facilities, and not to protect the lives of Darfur’s people.

Armed clashes in this region saw a spike almost immediately. Between January 15 and 18, clashes erupted in different parts of Darfur between the militias of the Massalit, an African tribe from which most members of the JEM and SLM hail, and those of Arab herdsmen.

As a result of the January violence, an estimated 183,000 people were displaced. According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), the “surge in inter-communal attacks in West, South and North Darfur states.. forced more people to flee their homes in three days (from January 15-18) than in the whole of 2020 in Sudan, and the numbers continue to rise.”

 “We leave the Team Site in the good hands of the Wali (Governor) of North Darfur State and his administration,” UNAMID’s Director of Mission Support Division, Houston Fergusson, had said while addressing the handover ceremony at Saraf Omra only days after this mass-exodus. 11 more were killed in Saraf Omra in the violence on March 3.

Ferguson had also added that “The UNAMID fully appreciates the strong commitment of the Government of Sudan regarding the utilization of the Mission’s former camp in Saraf Omra as a vocational training center.” Less than a month later, in mid-February, the premises it had handed over the North Darfur government were “looted and leveled”. Two other premises in West and South Darfur were also reportedly ransacked after they were handed over to the State governments. 

“Darfur is on the verge of sliding back into conflict. The scale of the ongoing violence in West and South Darfur, with reports of attacks by Janjaweed militias, has already set tens of thousands of people on the road,” IDMC director Alexandra Bilak had warned last month. “Considering the long history of protracted displacement in Sudan and the few incentives for return, there is little hope that the people fleeing will be going home anytime soon,” she said.

Despite the dire situation, Elfadl remains hopeful about the future of Darfur. He argues that alongside this escalation in the cycle of violence, a parallel process of strengthening progressive mass-movements is also underway in the region. 

“The influence of the December Revolution has made organization of the masses and the use of peaceful means to attain their demands, the political language of the day,” he says. “We have seen in the second half of last year how the people in a number of towns and refugee camps have resorted to civil and peaceful means to demand security and peace in their region.” He argues that their sit-in demonstrations have been countering the tendency towards violence.

Elfadl believes that as mass-organizations continue to expand over time, politically strengthening the civil society, it will be the political parties “including the SCP” which will play a major role in determining the future of Darfur, and not the dynamics between the army, the armed rebel groups and the plethora of militias, which has fueled violence in Darfur over the last two decades.