Sudan Democracy First Group

Darfur 2014: Time to Reframe the Narrative


This June 30th marks twenty-five years since the coup d’état that brought President Omer al-Bashir’s “Salvation Regime” to power. Far from bringing “Salvation” to Darfur, which had suffered from decades of neglect and marginalization under al-Bashir’s predecessors, the regime’s record there is one of death, destruction and desolation for the population. So far in 2014, Darfur has seen a resurgence of violence reminiscent of the early years of the conflict, displacing over 300,000 people since January, uprooted communities who join the over two million who have remained confined to camps since 2003. At the root of the conflicts tearing Darfur apart are local government policies aggressively implemented by the ruling Islamist elites to divide the region’s communities in order to better control its rich resources. Twenty-five years down the road, these policies have achieved the feat of turning Darfur into a de facto mixed bag of ethnicized federal states, provinces, localities, as well as traditional chieftain units. In many of these units, particular tribes rule sovereign, with traditional chiefs serving both as heads of the administrative unit and commanders of the tribe’s militia, often government-armed and trained. Sudan’s version of federalism as applied in Darfur appears to primarily serve the purposes of political mobilization and security control, with the welfare of the citizenry failing to make it to the list of the regime’s priorities. The cumulative outcome of this policy is a region where governance as a civil concept has collapsed, law and order are a distant memory, and the social fabric is left in tatters.

c48f4fb6-a923-4939-9949-682b43b55b95In late April, SDFG convened a Darfur Experts’ Consultation to debate and analyze the new conflict dynamics in Darfur and their implications for local population groups, the rest of Sudan and the wider region. The participants, a select group of Sudanese and international researchers and activists focused on Darfur, also examined the impact of shifting dynamics on the current peacemaking efforts at the local, national, and international levels.




Children in South Darfur, March 2014.
Photo credit. 3Ayin.com

From this in-depth reflection emerged a narrative of the situation in Darfur today that significantly departs from the prevailing perception of this situation. Today’s conflict in Darfur has multiple dimensions and layers. Any explanation cannot be reduced to a conflict over resources fought between so-called Arab and African tribes. Regional, national and local drivers and dynamics, and their interaction, must be reanalyzed, as must be the humanitarian impact of the conflict and its consequences for Darfur’s demographic, social and political structures. Furthermore, the motivations, capacity and composition of the armed actors need to be examined. Failure to recognize this complex reality, and the changing context, means that the current policy responses, including UNAMID, the DDPD and the government-led national dialogue, are all inadequate to address both the national political and the local social and economic drivers and consequences of the crisis.

Key drivers, dynamics and consequences in 2014.

The crisis cannot be understood using the old binary approach, as a conflict over resources (land, livestock, cash crops, and the newly discovered gold and oil wealth) between (Arab and non-Arab) tribes. With the exception of conflict over control of gold mining areas in north Darfur, which has seen the involvement of state authorities, the conflict is politically driven, with the concept of tribe being highly politicized.

d0b5a266-02f2-4014-8d34-e8acbe57a54fThe crisis cannot be understood using the old binary approach, as a conflict over resources (land, livestock, cash crops, and the newly discovered gold and oil wealth) between (Arab and non-Arab) tribes. With the exception of conflict over control of gold mining areas in north Darfur, which has seen the involvement of state authorities, the conflict is politically driven, with the concept of tribe being highly politicized.Broadly speaking, the conflict is a process of social engineering through force to alter local demographics and therefore the distribution of political power within the region, most notably through the targeting and marginalization of non-Arab groups. Control of land is vital as this is the means to gain political representation and posts, and political power is the means through which to access wealth, resources and services. The decision taken by the West Darfur legislature to empower the Governor to appoint the Sultan of the Masalit, a process governed by the group’s traditional processes, is an example of this long-term policy. The root of the conflict therefore continues to be the political marginalization of the peripheries from state power and resources.

The government’s employment of the predominantly local Arab militia groups to assert control over the region and combat rebel groups has been institutionalized over the years, the latest embodiment being the Rapid Response Forces. The use of militias principally under the control of National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) has undermined the authority of both the SAF and local authorities in Darfur. The mobilization of militias has created its own dynamic in which, if these forces are not paid and rewarded with political power, they become beyond the control of the government, for example in the case of Musa Hilal. In fact, power struggles within the government, between President Omer al-Bashir, Nafie Ali Nafie, former presidential assistant, and Ali Osman Taha, the former first vice-president, have been reflected in confrontations between these groups within Darfur, while local and individual power struggles between these groups, for example Musa Hilal and Governor Osman Kibir, have added a new dimension to the conflict. These dynamics, along with growing economic pressure on the government’s patronage system, are transforming militias into more autonomous military and political actors.

The violence and large scale civilian displacement in 2013 was primarily driven by conflicts between Arab groups and militias, often related to local rivalries over land vacated by other groups earlier in the conflict. The conflict and displacement in the first half of 2014 has been a mix of government sponsored militia’s targeting civilians perceived to be aligned to with Minni Minawi’s rebel group, and confrontations between these forces and other militias formerly loyal to the government. Violence in 2014 has also been driven by the return of militia groups from the South Kordofan theatre of operations.

Darfur’s demographics and social fabric have been radically altered over the last ten years of conflict. Not only is there now more tribal fragmentation and polarization, but many of the lands vacated by internally displaced populations has been occupied by new groups, creating a new concept of land ownership. New tribally-based administrative units, the creation of new political posts and the appointment by the government of previously traditional authorities, are all changing social and political dynamics among and within communities. IDP communities have to find new livelihood opportunities, contributing to increasing urbanization. The conflict, long-term displacement and discrimination and neglect by state authorities are also changing identities of IDP and refugee communities, undermining the sense of a Sudanese identify.

Ongoing Ineffective Peace Processes

The relevance and performance of UNAMID continues to be severely questioned by many observers. Recent events and revelations have not only shown that UNAMID is unable to undertake its mandate to protect civilians and provide protection for humanitarian actors, but it has become complicit in undermining these goals. Despite initial attempts to engage the non-signatory armed groups, the effectiveness of the Joint Special Representative, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, to facilitate a resolution to the crisis is severely limited by his mandate and the attitude of the government. Moreover, the actions and performance of UNAMID undermines Ibn Chambas’ authority.

Similarly, the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) is regarded as an ineffective and indeed counterproductive instrument, and its implementation has been negligible. Security arrangements have made little progress because of the Liberation and Justice Movement’s (LJM) inflated troop numbers and the government’s unwillingness to disarm militia groups it is still using against rebels in South Kordofan and Darfur. The various commissions overseen by the Darfur Regional Authority (DRA), including the land and returns commission, established under the DDPD, have made no real progress, and development plans have been paralyzed by the government’s inability and unwillingness to release funds. The authority of the DRA is weak and not recognized by key actors, including the majority of governors in Darfur, and the government seems unlikely to respect the referendum on the region’s administrative status. The weakness of the DDPD is not necessarily the document itself but the internal weakness of the DRA and the LJM itself, the government’s lack of commitment and the failure to include the principal armed groups. Insistence by GoS and international actors on the DDPD as it stands as the only mechanism for resolution of the crisis has become a significant impediment both in addressing the conflict in Darfur and for other peace-building efforts (e.g. negotiations with the SPLM-North).

The rhetoric surrounding the ruling National Congress Party’s so-called national dialogue stands in stark contrast to the violence and reality of Darfur. The continuing violence in Darfur illustrates the government’s lack of commitment to an inclusive and accountable national dialogue process which will lead to meaningful political change, as well as the lack of an environment in which such as process can take place.

The engagement by political parties in the process reflects their disconnect from the communities most affected by conflict. The party that stands to lose most from this national insensitivity to the suffering of the population of Darfur is the National Umma Party (NUP), which historically had its largest popular support base in Darfur. The NUP leader’s vocal denunciations of the criminal conduct of the Rapid Response Forces, and his extended pre-trial detention as a result, might help the NUP regain some of the considerable support it had lost in the region.

Time to Change Course

If the vertiginous downward spiral of Darfur were to be stopped, policymakers at the national, regional and international levels would have to adopt radically different approaches from the ones they have blindly followed to date. While it is difficult to envisage the “Salvation Regime” changing its behavior, it needs to reverse the destructive policies it has put in place or else risk further dismemberment of the Sudan it inherited.

The African Union and United Nations, as well as “Friends of Sudan,” need to recognize that local peacebuilding is as important to peace as any political settlement. That would require them to support local independent civil society to foster non-violent voices on issues related to conflict transformation at the local and national levels; empower local traditional leaders who are closest to their communities, for instance by recreating annual traditional leadership meetings, rather than reinforcing new and politicized tribal leadership structures; and revitalize the understanding and respect for traditional land management and conflict resolution mechanisms.

At the national level, a comprehensive approach to Sudan’s conflicts is an imperative, including a move towards a single negotiating platform, linking a cessation of hostilities across Sudan to a genuine, inclusive and accountable national dialogue; recognizing that a genuine inclusive and participatory national dialogue cannot happen without the participation of all key actors, including the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), Darfuri civil society and the public, nor without a cessation of hostilities and other benchmarks, such as freedom of the press.

At the international level, international actors must revise the mandate and objectives of the DDPD and Joint Special Representative to create greater coordination with the AUHIP-facilitated talks between the NCP and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) in order to move towards a comprehensive negotiation platform; develop a public joint roadmap for a comprehensive approach to all of Sudan’s conflicts by the Joint Special Representative, the AUHIP and the UN Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan; as well as undertake an extensive review of the mandate, structure and personnel of UNAMID to ensure it can effectively carry out its purpose.





Burnt village in South Darfur, March 2014.
Photo credit: 3Ayin.com

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