The war in Darfur also nicknamed the Land Cruiser War, erupted in 2003 when Darfuri rebels, angered by longstanding discrimination against the region’s non-Arab population, rose up against the government.
Darfur has historically been one of the most remote regions of Sudan. Even in normal circumstances, the region is hard to reach because it is so far from the capital, Khartoum. Tribal and ethnic conflicts are neither new nor uncommon.
Incidents of both small and large scale conflicts are recorded as far back as 1939 and they generally arise from disputes over access to natural resources like range lands and water points as well as livestock trespassing (grazing on farm lands), closure of herd routes and cattle raiding. Larger conflicts normally emerge from tribal disputes, banditry and disputes with transnational migrating communities. The influx of modern small arms since the war in Chad has increased the loss of life during such conflicts and caused polarization on ethnic lines.
In the past, North Darfur and parts of West and South Darfur have suffered recurrent droughts. Crop yields have remained low and unpredictable due to erratic rainfall, pest infestation and the lack of agricultural inputs. Livestock has also dwindled due to pasture and water scarcity. The local labor force has continued to migrate in search of employment leaving behind children, women and the elderly. A combination of these factors over several years has systematically eroded the coping capacities of communities.
Civil war that has occurred between the Christians, the animist Black southerners, and the Arab dominated government since Sudan’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1956. The violence that took place for about 11 years left more than a million people displaced by the hostilities: fleeing to other places around Sudan or across the border to Chad.
The ethnic conflict in Darfur has been persistent. Darfur is home to six million people and several dozen tribes. Darfur is split into two: “those who claim Black ‘African’ descent and primarily practice sedentary agriculture, and those who claim ‘Arab’ descent and are mostly semi nomadic livestock herders”.
The pattern of conflict changed from low-intensity, small-scale outbreaks from the 1950s to the 1970s, to high-intensity, persistent and large-scale battles in the mid-1980s. These conflicts have included those between the Rezegat and Maaleya (1968), Salamat and Taayesha (1980), Binihelba and Meharya (1980), Zaghawa and Gamar (1989).
The prolonged drought that began in 1983 drove nomadic Zaghawa and Arab groups southwards into the central Fur region of Jebel Marra. By the time of the 1989 peace conference, several thousand tribesmen had died, tens of thousands had been displaced and 40,000 homes destroyed. These conflicts have been between nomadic and sedentary communities, and amongst and within nomadic and pastoralists.
There has also been an additional source of instability in Darfur. Although the ethnically diverse people of Darfur were all Muslims and have a very strong sense of belonging to the Sudan, a sizeable minority also feel affinity with related groups in neighboring Chad.
Diminishing rainfall over decades had made life precarious in Darfur, leading to recurring food shortages.
There were frequent clashes between ethnic groups, often over “hakurat” or land rights. The the late 1980s, an Arab supremacist movement emerged, allegedly backed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Identity in Darfur is both fluid and complicated, but African groups like the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit felt the government was taking the side of the Arabs. Religion was not an issue: Almost everyone in Darfur is Muslim.
The two rebels
Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement; both groups denounced the Sudanese government and were inspired by what South Sudan accomplished: a negotiation of monetary funds, a power-sharing deal, and, most importantly, independence; the rebels of Darfur attempted to make similar demands.
In 2003, the government backed militia called the “Janjaweed”, began committing widespread atrocities all over Darfur. Security agencies detained student activists, human rights defenders, members of opposition parties and journalists.
This conflict quickly moved from fighting between rebel groups and Sudanese forces into full on slaughter, systematic destroying of villages, and government orders for the rape of women and children.
In April 2003, when the rebel groups attacked the military airfield and kidnapped an air force general, the government launched a counterattack. It led to a response from the Khartoum government where they armed militia forces to eliminate the rebellion. This resulted in mass violence against the citizens in Darfur.
Rebel allegiances have shifted and split since the conflict began, most notably in November 2005, when the SLA split into two factions, and once again following the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in May 2006. As of April 2008, there are some two dozen splinter factions of the SLA and JEM.
For a period in early 2005, the number of government attacks on civilians decreased, partly because the majority of targeted villages were already destroyed and their inhabitants displaced from the rural areas. In late 2005, however, the situation dramatically worsened, and deteriorated still further after the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement.
Throughout 2006 and 2007 the situation gradually transformed due to the increasing fragmentation and changing allegiances of the parties. As both government and rebel factions jockeyed for position and pursued military gains, violent clashes and outright targeted attacks on civilians continued across Darfur. Unfortunately, civilians also suffered harassment, beatings and rape even outside the context of large scale attacks, at the hands of government forces, militia, rebels and ex-rebel groups and bandits.
The UN and the African Union have jointly commanded a Darfur peacekeeping operation (UNAMID) since 2007, but are slowly drawing down as the situation in Darfur becomes more stable. Armed conflict, poor transport infrastructure, and denial of access by both the government and armed opposition have impeded the provision of humanitarian assistance to affected populations.
Chad wishes to be a helpful mediator in resolving the Darfur conflict, and in 2010 established a joint border monitoring force with Sudan, which has helped to reduce cross-border banditry and violence; as of early 2019, more than 590,000 Sudanese refugees are being hosted in the Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan; Sudan, in turn, is hosting more than 975,000 refugees and asylum seekers, including more than 845,000 from South Sudan.
Satellite evidence and testimonies confirm that government forces and associated militias damaged or destroyed at least 45 villages in Jebel Marra between July 2018 and February 2019.
The highest levels of Sudanese leadership were responsible for creating and coordinating the government’s counterinsurgency policy in Darfur, which deliberately and systematically targeted civilians in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.
Former president al-Bashir and other leaders from his government remain in detention in Khartoum. Although he is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Darfur conflict.
In February 2020, Mohammed Hassan al-Taishi, a member of the Sovereign Council, announced that Sudanese authorities would cooperate with the ICC, after obstruction to the court’s investigation by the former government.
Hundreds of thousands have died from direct violence and conflict-related disease and starvation during the conflict in Darfur. The United Nations estimates that at least 300,000 people have died in a conflict that decreased in recent years.
Recent clashes in Sudan’s Western Darfur region has driven more than 2,500 people across the border into neighbouring Chad, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) report.
The fall of Bashir
Civilian leaders of Sudan have struggled to advance a reformist agenda amid resistance from some factions of a powerful military and President Omar al-Bashir loyalists as well as grave economic challenges.
Nationwide protests that started December 2018 led to the ousting of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, after 29 years of authoritarian rule.
On 12 April 2019, a day after the army overthrew veteran President Omar al-Bashir, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan was sworn in as chairman of Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council.
Protest leaders agreed to a power-sharing deal with the military whereby Sudan is to hold its first democratic election in decades in 2022.
Authorities have embarked on reforms but have yet to provide justice and accountability for past crimes including the killings and other abuses committed during the government’s violent dispersal of protesters in Khartoum on June 3, 2019. The deputy chair of the ruling sovereign council is also commander of the Rapid Support Forces, which has a record of abuses in Darfur and elsewhere.
The Sudan army’s threats against critics including protesters who helped oust the former government and bring the current transitional government into power understandably raises alarms for citizens.
After the dictator’s ousting, several factions declared a truce and joined negotiations with the new government.
Hamdok’s “great work”
Negotiating an end to the rebellions in Sudan’s far-flung provinces has been a crucial goal for the transitional government.
Moreover, the Sudan’s transitional government has signed a long-awaited peace agreementdeal with the SRF was signed by Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the chairman of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in the South Sudanese capital, Juba. South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, played a large role in mediating the agreement.
But two factions with the biggest presence on the ground in Darfur and the south, the Sudan Liberation Movement-North, have yet to reach a deal, while another major group, the Sudan Liberation Movement-Army, rejects the transitional government as a legitimate entity.
At the same time, the cash-strapped transitional government will struggle to pay for the return of millions of displaced people and regional development promised in the deal.