Fears of repeating the civil war scenario in the Darfur region in western Sudan arise, especially after renewed clashes between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in El-Fasher city, the capital of the region, and El-Geneina city. Darfur has already suffered from decades of security disruptions and humanitarian crises. The situation seems to be repeated with the continuation of violations of humanitarian truces and successive breaches of the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan and facilitating humanitarian arrangements, even after extending the truce. As the conflict enters its seventh week, it seems that the region is in a state of security fluidity.
An Arena for Tribal Clashes
Violence has escalated sharply in the Darfur region; hundreds of civilians were killed, markets burned, and health facilities and humanitarian aid were looted. The repercussions of the conflict have seriously spilled over civilian lives, given the strategic importance of the region to both parties of the ongoing conflict, especially for RSF, who mostly belong to ethnic groups in the region. The region also shares borders with Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic. Accordingly, the most important sites of clashes between groups and tribes in the Darfur states are as follows:
West Darfur (El-Geneina city): Since the outbreak of armed clashes, fighting has been concentrated in this area during the second week of fighting. Violence has more than tripled, and bloody clashes have erupted between Masalit tribes and Arab militias associated with the RSF. The situation calmed down temporarily following a truce by tribal leaders in early May 2023, yet escalated again on 12 May 2023. In such context, civilians have armed themselves to protect property and avoid looting. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that all 86 internally displaced persons’ (IDP) gathering sites in El-Geneina were burned, forcing more than 85,000 people to a temporarily displacement in neighbourhoods in the northern parts of the state capital.
• North Darfur (El-Fasher city): Clashes erupted between the two conflict parties. On 20 April 2023, local authorities’ leaders brokered a ceasefire agreement between the two parties in El-Fasher, effectively dividing the city between the two parties. The agreement allowed them to maintain their positions west and east of the city, with the central area operating as a buffer zone under the control of police forces. A week later, five armed groups signing the Juba Peace Agreement (a faction led by Mini Arko Minawi of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), the SLM-Transitional Council, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), and the Sudanese Alliance Movement) deployed hundreds of fighters to secure the city on 8 May 2023. Minawi withdrew his forces stationed in northern Omdurman to North Darfur, after mediation efforts between the warring parties failed.
• South Darfur (Nyala) was the scene of intense fighting between the two conflict parties. A local initiative led by civil society was formed, but failed to maintain the situation in the city, as fighting continued. The RSF control the eastern part of the city, including Nyala airport, while the SAF are in the western side, which hosts the Sudanese government headquarters.
• East and Central Darfur: Lower-level clashes took place in Central Darfur; fighting in the capital, Zalingei, concentrated in the three localities of Zalingei, Wadi Saleh and Um Dukhan in Central Darfur from 15 to 25 April 2023. However, levels of violence have since decreased in both states. Yet, the RSF attacked a SAF base near the capital of Central Darfur, entering the city and looting banks, government buildings, and offices of civil society organizations.
Serious Rebounds and Divergent Positions
Armed clashes increase the multiplicity of actors, the intersection of regional interests and geographical alliances, tribal mobilization in the country, and the worsening of the security and humanitarian situation. This is evident in Darfur, including the exacerbation of ethnic tensions, renewed tribal conflicts, the eruption of new conflicts, the mobilization of armed movements according to societal affiliations, the intertwining of conflicts, fears of growing illicit arms smuggling, and border security problems. This can be detailed as follows:
• Renewed tribal conflicts and the eruption of new conflicts: Clashes reached the city of El-Geneina in West Darfur state, and tribal conflicts exploded. Conflicts between Arab and African tribes (Masalit) are among the greatest risks facing the Darfur region. These found room with the intensification of disputes between the RSF and armed movements in the region. For the second time in three weeks since the outbreak of clashes, El-Geneina was at the center of violence escalation just few hours after the Jeddah Declaration.
• Escalation of systematic looting and robbery: Entire villages in the city of El-Geneina in West Darfur were burned by the RSF on 19 May 2023, as well as the village of Abu Adam near Nyala in South Darfur, amidst warnings from aid agencies of a humanitarian catastrophe. The spread of looting and the destruction of vital infrastructure facilities deprived many citizens of access to food, clean water and medicines as a result of RSF storming El-Geneina city with dozens of pickup trucks loaded with guns and a large number of motorcycles.
• Involvement of armed movements in the conflict: On 28 May 2023, Minawi, Governor of the Darfur Region and SLM Head (one of the largest armed movements in the Darfur region), announced his support for the National Army, saying, “I call on all our honorable citizens, the people of Darfur, young and old, men and women, to take up arms to protect their property”. Nevertheless, some citizens in Darfur rejected and denounced his statements. As such, Minawi, who was on the other side of the Darfur conflict, raises the tone against his former enemy again. His position has thus changed after he was neutral at the beginning of the clashes. Sudan’s Defence Ministry also called on retired and reserve personnel to report to command units.
• Growing concerns about illicit arms smuggling: There are fears about a repetition of what happened in Libya, in light of the spread of the phenomenon of individual armaments in Darfur as a result of conflicts between pastoral and agricultural groups over resources, specifically agricultural land and grazing areas. In addition, the repercussions of climate change exacerbated these conflicts. Previous governments have also failed to derive results from their projects to collect weapons from local tribes. According to the Geneva Small Arms Survey, there were 6.6 rifles per 100 persons in Sudan in 2017. The problem of illegal weapons has already spread across the Horn of Africa due to the porous borders and continued violence in places like Somalia and South Sudan.
In such context, Darfur represents a fertile environment for the growth of this phenomenon, in light of many armed movements beginning to fight the former Sudanese Government, and the repercussions of the losses from the peacekeeping forces deployed in Darfur as a major source of illegal weapons for armed movements. In 2020, a survey conducted by United Nations and African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) revealed that disarming civilians is very difficult, especially if the people of Darfur lack confidence in the ability of the government and state security institutions to protect them with continued conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains, and Abyei. Sudan has never had the opportunity to carry out disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
In conclusion, after reaching a sustainable ceasefire and ending hostilities, the priority remains to prevent the escalation or ethnicization of the conflict, to avoid the recurrence of ethnic tensions in the country, particularly the Darfur region. Failure of the ceasefire in addition to ethnic divisions threaten to sustain the conflict in the country, and have it enter a new phase of struggle for armed movements, exacerbating the already complex humanitarian challenges, and negative repercussions on the stability of the immediate neighboring countries and the entire region.