Darfur holds Sudan back with threat of new violence

United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission

Sudanese children walk past an armoured vehicle of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) in Kalma Camp for internally displaced people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, on December 30, 2020. UNAMID ceased operations last December, with a gradual transfer of duties to local security forces slated for June this year. 

Photo credit: AFP

Sudan hoped to begin a new year with tranquility, just weeks after the US lifted crippling sanctions and allowed Khartoum back into the international arena.

But renewed violence last week, in which at least 250 people were killed and another 3,500 displaced, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), meant that Sudanese officials were on Friday back on the ground seeking peace solutions.

A statement from Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s office said a high-level government delegation had been sent to West Darfur to seek facts on how a stabbing incident snowballed into an ethnic clash.

Darfur, nearly the size of Kenya, had been restive during the Omar al-Bashir years. But after he was toppled, the transitional government under Dr Hamdok began reaching out to rebels who had taken up arms against the central government in Khartoum. Those efforts appeared to pay off when nearly all groups signed a peace deal.

In the aftermath, the UN-African Union hybrid peacekeeping force commonly known as UNAMID ceased operations last December with a gradual transfer of duties to local security forces effectively by June this year.

Was it a premature decision of the UN Security Council to end the mandate of UNAMID? Some rights groups were on Friday lampooning the UN’s most powerful organ of leaving gaps in Darfur, now being filled by armed groups.

“As was anticipated, UNAMID’s premature withdrawal has created a security vacuum in Darfur and exposed civilians to violence. The killings of dozens and displacement of thousands of people this week has exposed the Sudanese security forces’ systemic failure to protect civilians,” Amnesty International said on Friday.

“We urge the UN Security Council to halt UNAMID’s withdrawal and re-mandate it to protect civilians and to remain in Darfur until Sudanese military and civilian leaders prove they are willing and able to do so themselves.”

The UN Security Council had been expected to gather for an emergency meeting on Darfur and African countries on the council, including Kenya, were expected to vouch for the AU’s position, which is that the world supports Sudan’s security forces through equipment and training to be able to deal with local threats. The AU had also proposed that the withdrawal be gradual to avoid leaving behind a vacuum.

Officials were treating the incident as a mere criminal act, playing down fears it could return the region to war.

On Friday, the Darfur Bar Association, a grouping of lawyers involved in rights campaigns in the region, played down the incident as a criminal act rather than ethnic cleansing.

“A member of the Masalit tribe stabbed an Arab, whose group retaliated. Armed militias took advantage of the incident and attacked the city of El Geneina from all directions,” the association said, claiming more fighters came from other towns like Saraf Omra and the neighbouring Central Darfur.

Lingering problem

But reports that more fighters came in from neighbouring Chad point to a lingering problem of armed groups, and it means Sudan may have to seek regional cooperation with neighbours. In fact, the very incident may point to the vacuum. Tribal clashes have always happened in Darfur, a result of proliferation of illegal small arms and the remoteness of the region from the central government.

Darfur, divided in five regional states, is about 1,000 kilometres west of Khartoum via poor roads. Most areas rely on diesel-powered generators for electricity, the lingering scar of war.

UNAMID played the role of government for more than a decade since establishment in 2007, but its continued stay, some diplomats argued, could be bad optics for a country trying to rebuild.

The Sudanese Rapid Support Forces had by Friday been deployed to help restore normalcy. But it emerged that the clashes snowballed widely, initially, because a local commander ignored an SoS from the regional governor.

The conflict in Darfur began during the era of Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in April 2019. The International Criminal Court is seeking to prosecute him on charges of committing war crimes and genocide in the region.

Conflict in the Darfur region erupted in 2003 after mostly non-Arab rebels revolted against the government in Khartoum, and government forces and Arab armed groups that moved to quell the rebellion faced accusations of widespread atrocities, including killing an estimated 300,000 and displacing 2.5 million others.

The demand for justice for the people of Darfur has been among the issues raised by civilian demonstrators who forced the overthrow of Bashir, who had been in power for 30 years.

In October last year, the Sudanese Transitional Government concluded a peace agreement with rebel groups from Darfur in October 2020, but the agreement excluded the most active group on the ground, such as the faction of Sudan Liberation Movement/Army headed by Abdul Wahid Nur.

But even then, the terms of the peace agreement have not yet been implemented on the ground. The agreement stipulated the formation of a joint force of 12,000 individuals, equally between the Sudanese security forces and the fighters of the armed movements, in order to maintain security in the region, which is witnessing major tribal problems.

Lucrative promise

Some analysts believe that the years of war that the region witnessed have increased the state of aggression among the factions and tribes competing for resources, as well as the lucrative promise of earning a government position if you sign a peace deal with the central government.

Tariq Othman, a Sudanese political analyst in Khartoum, told the Sunday Nation the easy access to arms has made revenge easy, which in turn becomes a vicious cycle of retaliations.

“Although the tribal conflict in Sudan in general is not new, the proliferation of weapons of various kinds in the hands of the tribes has made that conflict heading into disastrous forms, through inter-tribal violence,” he said on Friday.

“The transitional government and its inability to impose state authority has made those who fall victim to oppression resort to their tribes for revenge, as they see the justice system of the state as weak.”

Othman said it will require intensive efforts from the state and society in general to shun violence, including for armed groups to lay down the arms.