The estimated death toll from recent ethnic violence in West Darfur, which brought peace negotiations with the armed rebel groups in the region to a halt, has increased to 54. Hundreds have been injured and tens of thousands are estimated to have been displaced.
Most of the dead belong to the African Massalit tribe, a community that used to making a living out of subsistence farming. A large section of them reside in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps after having had to flee their ancestral lands during the civil war that began in 2003.
The current round of violence broke out on December 29 after a member of an Arab tribe, who in the region are mostly nomads or pastoralists, was killed by a Massalit IDP. This happened during a fight between the two individuals at a market near one of the IDP camps in the El Geneina, the capital city of West Darfur State.
Soon after, Arab militias, which had been armed and trained by the ousted Omar al-Bashir regime to help the government crush the rebellion, attacked the IDP camps and nearby villages where the people of the Massalit tribe live.
Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), the governmental body in charge of regulating international and national NGOs in the country, said in a statement that about 40,000 people have been displaced due to the violence.
At least 32,000 of them were displaced from Kriding 1, Kriding 2 and Al Sultan – the three IDP camps which were attacked. The remaining are from the nearby villages of Bab Al Jena, Dar Al Salam, and Dar Alnaiem.
Over 5,000 of them are reported to have crossed the border and escaped into neighboring Chad for safety, while a majority of them are taking refuge in 19 buildings, including schools and government buildings, around El Geneina. Local youth organizations, NGOs and international agencies are providing humanitarian aid to these distressed people.
Tension is reported to have eased now after the tribal leaders reached an agreement to maintain peace. Disputes in this area have usually been settled through reconciliation between tribal leaders and payment of blood money – compensations doled out by those involved in the killing to the kin of those killed.
However, the recently formed civilian-dominated transitional government has indicated that it will break with this practice and initiate judicial proceedings against the guilty. Following the five-day visit to violence-affected areas by senior officials, including prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, a meeting of the sovereignty council and the cabinet was held to discuss the situation.
Addressing the press after this meeting, the minister of information and a government spokesperson, Faisal Mohamed Saleh, said it was acknowledged in the meeting “that the traditional methods of resolving tribal disputes through state interference, holding tribal reconciliation conferences and paying blood money are no longer effective.”
These conflicts have far exceeded the bounds of traditional tribal clashes over resources. The regime of Omar al-Bashir had armed and cultivated militias from the Arab tribes to commit a genocide in Darfur to depopulate the villages mostly inhabited by Massalit and other indigenous African tribes. The members of these tribes had formed the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to resist the government.
The Sudanese revolution, which broke out in December 2018, deposed al-Bashir in April and subsequently forced the military junta which had then assumed power to make way for a civilian-dominated transitional government. Members of the junta are part of this government. Considerable progress has been made since the formation of this government.
Peace negotiations have been initiated with multiple armed groups in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Al-Bashir is in prison for corruption, and is standing trial over other charges. His party, the National Congress Party (NCP), has been banned, and the confiscation of its assets has begun. Two newspapers and two television channels which are alleged to have received funds from the deposed regime were seized on January 7.
The unfinished tasks of the revolution
However, the armed militias, recruited from the Arab tribes in the conflict affected regions, have continued to carry arms and military vehicles supplied by the former regime. Standing in the way of dismantling these militias are some of military generals are part of the sovereignty council – the highest body of the transitional government, all of whose members have immunity from prosecution.
One of them, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, is the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This force was put together from these militias which were involved in the Darfur genocide. Numerous photos and videos circulating in Sudan appear to show the involvement RSF forces in the attack.
Spokesperson Faisal Mohamed also added in his press address that the “conflicting parties claimed that.. some individuals members of regular forces were involved in these events.” The Attorney General is overseeing the activities of the committee tasked with investigation.
Faizal assured that these persons will be identified, stripped of their immunity, and prosecuted. However, according to the agreement between the former military junta and the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), this power to revoke immunity of sovereignty council members is vested in the legislative council.
The DFCF is a coalition of left and centrist parties that had come together to represent the protest movement which led the Sudanese Revolution. 66% of the legislative council is reserved for the members appointed by the DFCF and the remaining 33% will be shared by other parties excluding the NCP and its allies.
As per the agreement, this legislative body was to be formed within three months of the formation of the transitional government, which was on August 22. However, at the peace negotiations in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, the armed rebel groups insisted on negotiating their representation in the legislative council, which will eventually adopt the permanent constitution that will replace the transitional one.
It was thus decided to delay the formation of this body until the peace negotiations conclude. However, the necessity of the legislative council, which can act as a counterweight to the military members in the sovereignty council, is becoming increasingly obvious. This is because the entrenchment of the junta’s members in the government is hindering it from taking the necessary actions to further the peace process.
To speed up the process of formation of this council, on January 4, the DFCF launched a series of meetings to discuss who will be chosen as the representatives in this body.
In a revealing statement, Kamal Bollad, a central council member of the DFCF, told Sudan Tribune, “We hope that the peace talks will reach an agreement before the formation of the Legislative Council.”
He added, however, that “in the case of failure to strike a [peace] deal, it is normal that the council be formed because it has other tasks such as enacting laws and controlling the performance of the executive.”