Darfur: local conflict, international chaos – ISN

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Simon Roughneen in El-Fasher, Darfur

A senior Chadian general died in a battle with rebels near the Chad-Sudan border, close to the Darfur region, on 30 March. It was the latest sign that the three-year-old Darfur conflict is set to degenerate in the coming months, and could also lead to the destabilization of Chad and a Sudan-Chad war.

Since February 2003 – when Darfur rebels known as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), joined later by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), attacked government positions in the western region – between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died from conflict or related causes, and over two million others have been displaced into refugee camps in Chad or Darfur.

A detailed report by the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (commissioned by UN Security Council Resolution 1564) published early last year stated that genocide had not taken place in Darfur – but gave ample reference to mass killings, displacement, and the widespread use of sexual violence by protagonists, particularly government-sponsored militias seeking to quash the insurgency.

However, the US government has twice referred to the situation in Darfur as “genocide”, accusing the Sudanese government of working closely with various local and state-allied militias, such as the Peoples Defense Force (PDF) and the loosely defined and now notorious “Janjaweed”, to rid the region of its native “African” population – the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit tribes.

The diplomatic response to the crisis has, in general, been inconsistent and weak. An African Union (AU) peace force has struggled to cope with the violence – hamstrung by a restrictive mandate and lacking the financial and material resources necessary to effectively protect civilians and prevent large-scale violence between rebels, militias, and Sudanese government and proxy forces.

Darfur now is confronted by two forms of internationalization: a growing cross-border conflict between Sudan and Chad and their respective proxies in and around Darfur and eastern Chad, and the likelihood that a UN peacekeeping force will enter Darfur in September this year.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw threatened sanctions against all sides involved in the conflict, and directly blamed the insurgents for their role in the recent escalation of violence in the region.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and US President George W. Bush discussed Darfur at a meeting held at the White House, during the US leadership of the UN Security Council in February.

NATO and the EU have pledged financial assistance to the AU mission for the remainder of its tenure. However, despite a strong French military presence in Chad, there is no apparent move to create a viable military presence on the ground before the UN takeover of the peacekeeping role.

Furthermore, Sudan has strongly objected to a UN takeover of the AU peacekeeping mission.

Caught in the middle of nowhere

The consequences will be catastrophic if these trends continue. A recent UN report outlined that lack of funding and decline in security has rendered humanitarian assistance for Darfur’s conflict-affected people precarious at best. Without adequate protection for civilians and humanitarian access protocols for aid agencies, an increasing percentage of the 3.5 million conflict-affected will be left without vital food, shelter, water, healthcare, and sanitation provision necessary for survival.

A recent visit by ISN Security Watch staff to the region observed Janjaweed militias on camels on the move on rural roads, while African Union patrols nearby – each side seemingly oblivious to the other’s presence.

Speaking to ISN Security Watch at a camp for internally displaced civilians north of El-Fasher, Tahani, a mother of seven, said: “These camps are not safe. At night, Arabs come in and steal things, beat people up, kill people. We cannot go outside most of the time. When we go to the market we need the African Union to bring us there. And there are never enough of them to bring everybody.”

The humanitarian situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly, with depleted resources for international organizations and NGOs compounded by the worsening security situation. Much of west Darfur is now a no-go area, and the same applies to parts of southern Darfur and the northern area as well. At least 50,000 more people in Darfur have been displaced since the beginning of the year, and an estimated 25,000 more have been uprooted in eastern Chad.

In any case, humanitarian access is declining in Darfur itself. Aid organizations were forced from the Jebel Mara area of south-central Darfur in late January, when SLA rebels attacked the government-held town of Golo, briefly taking it before being repelled by government troops and Arab militias.

Peace pantomime and tribal dances

The Abuja Peace Talks are into their seventh round, now marred by accelerated faltering and rebel in-fighting. Regardless, the diplomatic procedures are rendered effectively meaningless by events on the ground. The SLA is increasingly torn apart by ethnically based disputes along its constituent Fur-Zaghawa lines. SLA leader Abdul Wahid has sought to cut a separate deal with the government – reflecting Khartoum’s ability to manipulate ethnic differences among insurgents.

Khartoum asserts that the real motive behind the Darfur conflict is a pan-Zaghawa plot to create a greater Zaghawa state incorporating Darfur and most of Chad. As such, rebel divisions and incoherence at Abuja are derived from the increasing Chadian dimension to the conflict, as Chad backs Zaghawa rebels in Darfur against Khartoum, while Khartoum and Darfurian Arab militias support anti-Chadian President Idris Deby Zaghawa rebels and army defectors based in Darfur, in their cross-border raids on Chadian regular positions.

Meanwhile, the Zaghawa leadership of the SLA under Minni has aligned itself more closely with fellow tribal Zaghawa in the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – a pan-Sudanese as well as Darfurian opposition movement with alleged links to Islamists once part of the ruling elite in Khartoum.

Chad: conflict spreads

The Darfur-based Rally for Democracy and Liberty (RDL) launched a spectacular attack on Adre on the Chad-Darfur border on 18 December. Deby blamed Khartoum, referring to a state of belligerence between the two states. This situation has deteriorated since then, with the RDL joining up with other Chadian dissidents as part of a broader umbrella group.

On 10 February, Sudan and Chad agreed on a border monitoring force – which requires UN and AU resolutions before it can be established. In the meantime, however, developments on the ground, as has been the case throughout the Darfur conflict, make the diplomatic wranglings almost irrelevant and almost certainly mere examples of bad faith on all sides

After this latest fighting, Chad accuses Sudan of violating the February agreement, which was mediated by Libyan President Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi.

The increased fighting resulted in the death of Chadian army chief, General Abakar Youssouf Mahamat Itno on 30 March.

Chris Melville, Africa expert at London’s Global Insight was quoted by the UN’s IRIN news service as saying that the recent assassination of the Chadian commander suggested that the Chadian Army was severely weakened in intelligence terms – following on from defections and dissent that have erupted since late last year.

Any analysis of internal Chadian ethnopolitics would support this assertion. Ethnic ties link the Chadian regime to the Darfur conflict. Deby is Zaghawa, one of the three ethnic groups indigenous to Darfur. However, the Zaghawa are broken down into a variety of sub-groups, and affiliations predicated on these linkages partly drive the Zaghawa in-fighting that characterizes the intra-Chadian dimension to the conflict.

Khartoum’s ‘clean hands’

With the UN seeking western backing for and potential involvement in the peacekeeping force, the diplomatic stakes have been raised in recent weeks. The Sudanese government remains opposed to any non-African intervention in Darfur, and Khartoum has warned that Darfur would be “a graveyard” for any western troops.

Moreover, when ISN Security Watch staff recently visited the central and north-central Darfur region, we were informed that self-styled jihadi groups were emerging in the region. The precise identity or make-up of these groups remains unclear.

However, given the fluidity with which individuals move between various Arab and government-allied militias, official and non-official, non-Arab Darfurians believe that these new groups are another form of the Janjaweed and similar elements.

The phenomenon was described by one man as “promoted by the government to scare off the foreigners. In Darfur, we do not participate in any jihadism. We are peaceful Muslims”.

The Arab League has been uncritical of Khartoum’s role in Darfur. On 28 March, the Arab League pledged to provide funding for the current African Union mission. A Zaghawa trader in Darfur’s main town of El-Fasher told ISN Security Watch that the Arab League made the offer in order “to keep the government happy”.

“This is because the government is afraid that the Americans will come in and arrest them all. So they want their allies to give money to AMIS and keep the UN out,” he said.

Khartoum has portrayed Darfur as a localized tribal conflict, and has absolved itself of any blame for the killing and displacement in Darfur, and the growing conflict with Chad.

This is despite repeated testimony given by civilians, aid workers, and various international organizations bearing witness to Sudanese military support to militia activity

Gerald Prunier, in his recently published Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, says: “The whole of GoS [Government of Sudan] policy and political philosophy since it came to power in 1989 has kept verging on genocide in its general treatment of the national question in Sudan.”

Speaking to ISN Security Watch, Sudan analyst Eric Reeves comes to a similar conclusion: “The GoS employs genocide as a domestic security policy, and has done so without international response in south Sudan, in the Nuba Mountains, and now in Darfur.”

With diplomatic momentum slowly gathering behind a UN peacekeeping force, due to take over from the African Union in September, the question remains whether this will be too little too late for many of Darfur’s civilians.

Even though Kofi Annan was recently authorized by the UN Security Council to speed up plans for a UN force, it will take at least five to seven months before any effective UN presence can reach Darfur – and only then with the acquiescence of Khartoum. Otherwise, the UN peacekeepers will have to fight their way into Sudan.

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