The Shifting Security Dynamics in Darfur: This is the first of a series of briefing papers on the security situation in Darfur. The other soon to be released briefing papers will focus on Darfur’s Tribal Wars and the Rapid Support Forces.
Musa Hilal, once one of the principal commanders of the Janjaweed militias which supported the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in the 2003/04 ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur, has increasingly become a thorn in the Government of Sudan’s (GoS) side. The already tense relations between Hilal and the GoS recently took a turn for the worse for the government when a spokesman for Hilal’s Sudanese Awakening Revolutionary Council (SARC) on 24 February 2015 gave the government until 10 March to respond to SARC’s political demands or risk facing unspecified consequences. Such ultimatums have come and gone in the past without consequences, mostly because the GoS has consistently compromised to avert a confrontation with Hilal’s forces. However, this time the SARC instructed its followers to boycott and obstruct the April 2015 elections in Darfur even before the ultimatum’s deadline. Given the strategic importance of the elections for the Government’s hopes of gaining some legitimacy, the Government and SARC appeared on a collision course that neither could avoid without a public loss of face.
Come the 10 March, the GoS blinked yet again. The presidency sent word to SARC it was dispatching a mediation team to meet with Hilal. Media reports indicated the government’s readiness to accept the SARC’s demands and act on them on the condition that the SARC does not interfere with the elections. A SARC spokesman said it would allow the elections to proceed while awaiting the implementation of the Government’s promises. Hilal later endorsed President Bashir’s candidacy and invited his followers to vote for the ruling National Congress Party. Media reports alleged that during the 13-16 April polling, elements loyal to Hilal were seen forcing voters who were boycotting to vote for the ruling party candidates and Al-Bashir.
The dramatic reversal has raised doubts about Hilal’s sincerity and real intentions and concerns about how far the Government might go to contain his growing political ambitions without relinquishing ultimate control on its manipulative policies in Darfur. The relations between the two are best captured by the legendary “Hair of Muawia”, whereby one party would relax its hold on the hair when the other pulls on it lest it irreparably breaks. So far, Hilal has proven more expert at this game than the GoS, doing most of the pulling and getting higher leverage on the government at each incident.
The media speculated that the Government’s best option would be to concede to Hilal and his followers key positions in the state and federal governments, including one vice-presidency position and the position of North Darfur governor that Hilal has made no secret of coveting. Sources tell SDFG that Hilal would in fact be pressing to a first vice-president from Darfur and to nominate three of Darfur’s five governorships and two deputy governors. In a recent interview with the reporter Ms. Shamail El-Nour of al-Tayar newspaper, Hilal pondered “why would the successor to Bashir either be Nafei Ali Nafei or Ali-Osman? Why not Hilal or Tigani El Seissi?” He added that he has recently started dreaming of ruling Sudan for the first time. Proximity to power circles in the center has taught him that “the government doesn’t pay attention to any political demands that are not backed up by military force,” hence Hilal’s current postures of keeping his option open without precipitating military confrontation with the government prematurely.
In return for conceding to Hilal, the GoS would want him to dissolve his militia, estimated at 3, 000 fighters. It would make sense for the Government to want to absorb Hilal’s militia into the Rapid Support Forces, already based on former Janjaweed. This is a scenario feared by human rights and peace activists in Sudan because of its implications for the dynamics of the protracted and overlapping conflicts in Darfur. Further, the GoS has already used Hilal as a counterweight for Darfur’s armed rebel groups, seen as dominated by the non-Arab groups and would further be inclined to concede to Hilal to prevent him from switching over to the other side.
These developments are occurring at a time when Sudan is engaged in delicate negotiations with both the African Union and the United Nations, demanding the drawdown of their hybrid peacekeeping mission in Darfur. GoS’ argument for pressing ahead with this demand is that it had brought the security situation in Darfur under control, an allegation that makes a mockery of the realities of the security situation on the ground as evidenced by UNAMID’s own reporting and that of the UN’s Panel of Experts on Sudan. The UN and the AU would be wise to consider the multiple layers of complexity among the factors that continue to threaten the security of civilians in Darfur, including the emergence over the last few years of a multitude of autonomous violent armed actors, in the forms of tribal militias, all initially recruited and armed by the GoS, but over whom it ended up loosing control. Infighting among these groups, and their occasional attacks on government troops or threats of such as in the case of Musa Hilal’s SARC, currently represent the most single threat to civilian security in the five federal states of Darfur.
The African Union’s High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), mandated to mediate between the Government and the Darfur’s armed groups of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), would need to factor in the implications for their mediation efforts of the growing tensions between the GoS and these autonomous armed actors, as represented by Musa Hilal’s new forces.