History of violence in Chad and Darfur

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 9 May 2023

Sudan and neighbouring Chad share an intertwined history, the repercussions of which have spilled over into the present crisis in Khartoum, reports Haitham Nouri

History of violence in Chad and Darfur
Sudanese refugees from the Tandelti area shelter in Koufroun, Chad (photo: AFP)


Tens of thousands of Sudanese have flocked into Chad to escape the conflict between the Sudanese Army Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan. Now in its third week, the conflict has already claimed hundreds of lives and is likely to linger on.

Even if there is a dim hope that the clashes in Khartoum will be silenced in the foreseeable future, the battle in the westernmost region of Darfur, which shares long borders with neighbouring Chad, will probably last longer.

The UN and its agencies in Sudan and Chad estimate that more than 20,000 Sudanese have fled to Chad following the outbreak of the conflict between the SAF and RSF. The RSF comprises Janjaweed militias and is already charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Darfur conflict that took place between 2003 and 2013.

Sudan shares its borders with seven countries, including South Sudan, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Central Africa, Eritrea, and Libya. Thus far, Chad has received the largest number of Sudanese refugees as a result of the clashes.

Sudan is a turbulent country in a turbulent region. Its neighbours, save for Egypt, have lived through decades of tension and Civil War. Relations between Chad and Sudan are inextricably intertwined, which has led both countries to interfere in each other’s affairs, said Amin Magzoub, a Sudanese military analyst.

Magzoub believes the crisis in Sudan, spilling over into Chad, is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. “The war in Sudan affects Chad, prompting N’Djamena to side with one party in the conflict, which probably in this case is the SAF,” he said.

The first crisis between the two countries took place between 1980 and 1988, when late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi used the pastoral Arab tribes of Chad, Niger, and Darfur to fight in Chad.

These forces were popularly called the Islamic Legion and were led by Sheikh Ibn Omar, a Chadian professor of mathematics of Arab origins, who opposed the rule of presidents Goukouni Oueddei (1979-1982) and Hissène Habré (1982-1990).

The Islamic Legion was disbanded with Habré’s victory in the so-called Toyota War, the last phase in the war between Libya and Chad (1987-1988), and the expulsion of Ibn Omar to Darfur.

The situation in Darfur was not much different. The defeat of Libya and its allies at the hands of the pastoral tribes came in tandem with the spread of drought and desertification in Sudan, Chad, and further north.

Civil War broke out between the north and south of Sudan in May 1983 after late president Jaafar Numeiri violated the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement with the south. The situation was further complicated by Numeiri’s response to the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood and his announcement of the implementation of Islamic Sharia Law in September 1983.

In the same year, drought and desertification in the region resulted in famine from which Sudan and much of the African Sahel region suffered until the late 1980s.

Numeiri’s regime fell in April 1985 and was replaced by the democratic rule of prime minister Sadik Al-Mahdi from 1986 to 1989.

Al-Mahdi’s minister of defence Fadlallah Burmah Nasser armed some Arab tribesmen, creating the nucleus of what was later known as the Janjaweed militias in the Darfur conflict.

“The Sudanese used to call these forces the Marahil, or Arab Gathering, and gave them a few other names as well. No one believed they could resolve the crisis. Many thought they had ulterior motives,” Magzoub said.

Later years saw the fall of democracy and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan. The group led a military coup planned by their late leader Hassan Al-Turabi under former president Omar Al-Bashir in June 1989.

Al-Bashir used the Bedouin tribes in the war in south Sudan. When the non-Arab tribes in Darfur demanded economic and social equality, they saw the Janjaweed’s guns pointed at them.

In Sudanese Arabic, Janjaweed means “djinn [devil] on horseback carrying a GM [rapid fire gun]”.

The International Criminal Court later accused the Janjaweed, their leaders, Al-Bashir, and prominent figures in his regime of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, killing 300,000 people, according to UN estimates, and being responsible for the rape of up to 40,000 women and girls, according to reports of humanitarian organisations operating in the region.

The Janjaweed were used not only in Darfur, but also in the conflict against late Chadian president Idriss Déby who succeeded Habré in 1990.

Together with the Chadian opposition, the Janjaweed carried out two attacks on N’Djamena in April 2006. Hundreds were killed before Déby’s forces were able to take back control.

In 2008, the Janjaweed and Chadian allies carried out a bigger attack on the Chadian capital, threatening the presidential palace and resulting in the deaths of 700 people. However, with French support, Déby was able to emerge victorious.

In response to the moves of the Al-Bashir regime, Déby’s government supported the Justice and Equality Movement, which was fighting in the Civil War in Darfur, in its attack on Omdurman in the western part of Khartoum in May 2008.

Sudanese forces fended off the attack after the deaths of 200 people.

When Chad gained independence from France in 1960, the number of Muslims in the north and Christians in the south was equal.

Population increases in the following decades tipped the scales slightly in favour of Muslims, though these were divided into Arabs and Africans and were engaged in fighting between the Arabs associated with the pastoralists of Darfur and the herders of Zaghawa, to whom Déby belonged, Magzoub said.

The Zaghawa were heavily present in the Justice and Equality Movement, which stood against the Bedouin pastoralists in Darfur.

Following the killing of Gaddafi in late 2011 and regime change in Libya, weapons spread throughout the region, and neighbouring countries began to intervene in Tripoli’s affairs.

The first intervention took place at the hands of Al-Bashir, who supported Arab tribes in southern Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood and threatened Déby in Chad.

Sudan’s moves were not carried out by the army, but rather by the Janjaweed, whom Al-Bashir changed into the RSF in 2013 and had reported to him directly.

Despite pressure on Al-Bashir to take his troops out of Libya, Chadian and Libyan tribes allied with Al-Bashir remained involved in the conflicts in oil-rich Libya. One of these forces attacked Chad, and the conflict resulted in Déby’s death in April 2021.

According to Magzoub, the tribal presence is a cause of worry for EU countries that want to see an end to the conflict in Libya. This will require the Europeans to stand against the RSF to prevent the sabotaging of the faltering political process in Tripoli, he said.

The Chadian government will not accept the victory of the RSF. If they win, the RSF will not settle unless Déby’s government is overthrown, he added. “Neither will France accept the RSF’s victory. France is using Chad for its anti-terrorist Barkhane operation,” Magzoub said.

Chad has been home to the French forces in the region since 1987. These played a role in defeating Gaddafi’s forces, participated in the conflicts in Central Africa, supported governments in Niger and Cameroon, and coordinated with Nigeria to confront the terrorist group Boko Haram.

“France fears the spread of terrorism in the African Sahel if Hemedti [RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo] and his militias take control of Sudan due to his close links with tribes that support terrorist groups in the region,” Magzoub concluded.

 A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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