The latest round of conflicts in Sudan’s westernmost region of Darfur has left 132 dead, hundreds injured and thousands displaced three weeks after United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) forces left. Some estimates reported by AFP put the number of displaced people at 100,000 after fights broke out in January.
The governor of West Darfur, Mohamed Abdallah Al-Doma, stated that elements tied to the former regime generated chaos following the withdrawal of UNAMID forces. “This is a political, not a tribal, conflict stirred by Islamists belonging to the former ruling party,” he said. It is no secret the regime of former president Omar Al-Bashir, who was toppled in April 2019 following 30 years at the helm, is the side that fuelled conflict in Darfur.
The Bashir-led regime had armed Arab tribes to face the uprising in which African ethnicities, including the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, demanded the fair division of power and wealth in 2003. Those Arab tribes were given the name Janjaweed, loosely translated as “devils on horsebacks”. Years of bloody fights in Darfur resulted in the death of 300,000 people and the displacement of three million at home and abroad, according to UN estimates. It is primarily due to the Sudanese regime taking part in the genocide in Darfur that Al-Bashir was tried before the International Criminal Court for “masterminding” war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
This was not the first time the Arab tribes of the region had been given arms, however. Before the government of Sadek Al-Mahdi provided weapons to the Arabs of Darfur, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi supported the creation of an Arab Gathering and armed the Islamic Legion during his war with Chad in the 1980s.
The recent clashes near the city of Al-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, took place between Arab tribes, most of whom are nomads and herders, and the farming Masalit ethnic group. The fighting erupted when a man stabbed and killed another for unknown reasons. Clashes between the Arabs and Masalit continued for more than a week in “the biggest wave of fighting in Darfur since the October agreement”, according to an unnamed doctor in Western Darfur.
The Khartoum transitional government had signed a peace agreement with a number of armed movements. The deal didn’t include all the armed tribes, however. According to the New Humanitarian website, eyewitnesses reported that rapid support forces (RSF) took part in the clashes against the Masalit.
The majority of RSF troops hail from the Arab tribes of Darfur. They are led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti, the current deputy to the president of the sovereign council.
According to the New Humanitarian report, written by journalists who say they stayed in Darfur for several days and met with a number of victims, the RSF provided the Arab assailants with weapons and some RSF troops participated in the killings and blazing of homes. Al-Ahram Weekly couldn’t confirm these claims. The Western Darfur doctor said the injured reported that security forces interfered at a later stage, adding that the majority of injuries were in the arms, legs and heads.
On 5 and 6 April, video footage of fires in Al-Geneina were uploaded to YouTube. On 5 April, the Sudanese government declared a state of emergency in the region. But conflicts persisted. The UNAMID had been stationed in Darfur for 13 years. The mission withdrew after the Juba peace agreement was signed between warring factions in October. But the withdrawal of UNAMID from Darfur exacerbated violence.
Fayez Al-Salik, a journalist based in Khartoum, said “the fighting renewed not due to the withdrawal of the hybrid forces [of UNAMID] but because the Arab tribes fear the peace agreement will undermine their encroachment on the Masalit and Fur lands, and others.”
Many Arab herding elements from Chad, Niger and Mali participated in the fighting alongside the Janjaweed in exchange for obtaining lands from which they expelled their non-Arab inhabitants.
“The situation is growing worse because Sudan is being targeted by the Amhara militia in the east, in Fashqa, and now it is facing an escalation of violence in Darfur in the west. This has to stop,” Al-Salik added. “This is a chance for supporters of the former regime to make new gains in return for establishing calm, in which case they can drop their poor Arab Bedouin collaborators.” The Juba peace agreement can be part of the solution, the journalist said, by disarming all movements and founding a 12,000-troop force to replace UNAMID. “But the elements of the former regime don’t want to see this happening before obtaining a political and criminal pardon and protecting their money.”
Islamists who supported Al-Bashir present an unprecedented threat to the current transitional government and implicated the forces taking part in the government in a tribal conflict that will cause rifts at a critical juncture in Sudan’s history. Sudan is battling to solve the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis, engaged in a border fight with Ethiopia, and enduring an economic crunch unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly