By Suliman Baldo
New Year’s Day spelt death and despair for the people of West Darfur. Following the intensification of clashes between elements from Arab and non-Arab Massalit ethnic groups during the two previous days, thousands of inhabitants of El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, and of the IDP camps in the vicinity fled the fighting. Many crossed into neighbouring Chad in search of safety, while thousands of others joined their extended families throughout Darfur.
In an escalation of indiscriminate killings, the two sides reported at least 70 people killed and scores more injured. According to the Massalit chieftain, armed uniformed fighters motivated by tribal considerations raided Kerending camp, torched the houses, and killed some fifty displaced people, forcing survivors to flee. Gunfire prevented emergency workers from rescuing the wounded or collecting the dead. Fearful for their own safety, workers in humanitarian agencies were evacuated on Tuesday. Doctors at the hospital were allegedly threatened as they tried to treat the wounded from both sides. The sudden fighting left thousands of people stranded across Darfur as they were forced to interrupt their travel to El Geneina.
Local sources have attributed responsibility for the attack on Kerending camp to a local Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander. However, the new balance of power at the national level appears to have prompted Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, or “Hemedti,” the leader of the RSF who has himself been involved in organizing and committing horrific acts of violence, to commit opportunistically to the prosecution of those found responsible for the violence. Sudan’s new Attorney General, meanwhile, has launched an independent investigation.
Security forces from elsewhere in Darfur were deployed to the region as signs emerged of a schism within local security forces along ethnic lines. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and a delegation of the Sovereign Council led by Hemedti also travelled to the region in an attempt to subdue the violence. The officials met with the elders of both groups, who agreed that the stabbing of an Arab youth by some Massalit youths on December 29 was the trigger for the revenge killing that ensued. However, the two groups still accused one another of seeking to uproot their people from the region.
Recent political changes at the national level have raised local tensions. Reflections of this include increased polarization, with militant youth among the oppressed Massalit forming "resistance committees" and shadowing the grassroots groups that organized eight months of protests in 2018 and 2019. For the Massalit, the region’s militias, armed by the Bashir regime and including the RSF, are seen as oppressing remnants of the fallen regime. Conversely, the communities from which these militias were recruited, predominantly groups of Arab origin, see themselves as at risk of losing power.
The aspirations and fears of the different groups have been heightened by the ongoing process for nominating a civilian governor for West Darfur. Locals on both sides of the divide blame the interim military governor and the state’s Security Committee for failing to stop a series of individual, isolated confrontations between members of the two communities. These include attacks by armed militiamen on farmers and IDPs, as well as revenge killings of members of Arab groups.
As recent events in Port Sudan and elsewhere in Eastern Sudan have shown, tribal clashes are a symptom of deeper ills inherited from the Bashir regime—the legacy of widespread ethnic manipulation, undertaken for regime survival. A complicating factor is the survival of Bashir’s military and militia establishments in the transitional institutions, which have little disposition to reform their decades-old doctrine of divide-and-rule. Bashir’s regime selectively armed certain tribal groups and supported some groups against others in localized fighting. They flooded the region with weapons, and a thriving black market for weapons emerged. Without a radical reversal of the destructive policies that Bashir’s regime used to manipulate tribal allegiances, this type of deadly inter-communal conflict will continue to erupt throughout Sudan, most destructively in Darfur where these policies have been applied systematically since the launch of the 2003 genocidal campaign.
Such a tragic beginning to the year should prompt Sudan’s government to review its approach to the peace process in Darfur. Instead of focusing primarily on signing power-sharing agreements with armed groups claiming to represent Darfur’s victimized communities, absolute priority should be given to promoting social peace among Darfur’s diverse communities.
Ultimately, a genuine and comprehensive security sector reform will be needed to rid Sudan of Bashir’s legacy, which not only deepened intercommunal fault lines but also allowed the security apparatus to monopolize key sectors of the economy and kill civilians with total impunity. Building social peace in Darfur will be a critical step in transforming that warped legacy.
Dr Suliman Baldo is a Senior Advisor at the Enough Project.