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Holdout rebels, sidelined victims, and other hurdles to peace in Darfur

‘We are rejecting the agreement because nobody consulted us.’

A man walks down a dusty street, past a painted mural.
A mural from the 2019 revolution on the wall of a shop in Nertiti, a conflict-affected town in Darfur. Sudan’s transition is yet to have a positive impact on residents of the western region. (Philip Kleinfeld/TNH)

A peace agreement last year between armed groups and Sudan’s transitional government was heralded as a landmark moment, coming as the country charts a new course following the ouster amid mass protests of long-serving ruler Omar al-Bashir.

But in the western region of Darfur – one of several areas covered by the deal – resistance is coming from a major rebel group that refused to sign, as well as conflict-affected communities whose members complain that their voices have not been heard.

“We are rejecting the agreement because nobody consulted us,” Yaqoub Mohamed Abdallah, the leader of Kalma camp, one of the largest displacement sites in Darfur, told The New Humanitarian last month. “We simply have nothing to do with it.”

Thrashed out after months of talks in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, the peace deal involves armed and political movements from marginalised regions across Sudan, which has been embroiled in a series of deadly conflicts since independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956.

The document, signed in October, is ambitious: Sections on Darfur promise reparations and justice for victims of past wars, and include plans for returning displaced people to their homes – a critical issue in a region where at least 1.5 million people still live in camps.

But the deal is proving unpopular with those whose lives have been upended by conflict. Many resent their lack of involvement and distrust the new transitional government, which is dominated by military leaders involved in past conflicts. Analysts say a lack of public funds amid an economic crisis will also hamper implementation, and they fear some provisions could even trigger new conflicts.

The generals: ‘How can they be the problem and the solution?’

While many Sudanese have enjoyed new freedoms since the fall of al-Bashir in 2019, the situation in Darfur remains bleak. Humanitarian support has dwindled for displaced people, food needs are at crisis levels in some areas, and new outbreaks of violence – including deadly attacks this week in West Darfur state – have cost hundreds of lives in the months since the peace deal was signed.

Though al-Bashir is now behind bars – and many hope he will be handed over to the International Criminal Court – army generals linked to his regime have retained power, holding top jobs in the civilian-military administration that is tasked with steering Sudan to elections.

The generals were closely involved in the war that broke out in 2003, when Darfur’s rebel groups revolted against the government, accusing it of neglecting the region. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in the military operations that followed.

“The [current] government is led by the people who displaced us,” said Ahmed Guma, a community leader at Hamidia, another large displacement camp. “How can they be the problem and the solution?”

kalma-camp-darfur-leaders.jpg

Men stand and sit in chairs in a covered shelter
Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
Community leaders from Kalma, one of the largest displacement camps in Darfur, discuss what a new peace deal means for the region. Many are skeptical after a string of past agreements have done little to improve their lot.

Security concerns related to the agreement are growing. As part of the deal, rebel groups dislodged to neighbouring countries are coming back to Darfur, a region already teeming with militias, paramilitary groups, and government forces. Analysts fear that returning displaced people to their homes will also create conflicts with new occupants.

A long-standing rebel movement known as the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid (SLA-AW) has, meanwhile, refused to sign or even take part in negotiations because it, too, distrusts the new government.

And hanging over the deal is the question of who will cough up the hundreds of millions of dollars needed annually to implement it. Government coffers have been drained by a tanking economy, but international donors aren’t yet stepping forward.

“The biggest challenge is how to finance the agreement,” said Nour Taha, a negotiator for the Sudan Liberation Army–Minni Minawi (SLM-MM), a rebel group that signed the deal.

Community distrust: “The agreements we have seen before and now are the same”

The Juba agreement is not the first attempt at resolving Darfur’s crisis. Past efforts – in Nigeria in 2006 and Qatar in 2011 – failed because of unrealistic deadlines imposed on conflict parties and entrenched distrust between rebels and the government.

This time around, the process was different, said Ahmed Tugod, chief negotiator of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the main Darfuri rebel groups that signed the agreement.

“The revolution changed the political environment,” said Tugod, who was involved in past peace efforts. “The trust, the will, and the determination of both sides to reach peace is the driving force that led us to sign.”

Implementation of the agreement has already started, with signatory groups taking up jobs in government. The leader of the JEM became minister of finance in February; another Darfuri rebel chief was appointed to the transitional sovereign council, the body that runs Sudan.

Analysts say the inclusion in government of individuals from Darfur and other outlying parts of Sudan will help rebalance a political and economic system long dominated by elites from Khartoum and other central parts of the country.

Some Darfuris told The New Humanitarian that they see the agreement as a positive development, while others said they support it because they have nothing much to lose.

Voices of Darfur's displaced

“We are with the deal in principle,” said Abdul Razig Galis, a leader of Otash camp in South Darfur state. “If they implement it then we are okay. If not we will stay in our camp.”

But most victims of the conflict who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they were unlikely to benefit from an agreement that they didn’t help shape. And many accused the rebel leaders of prioritising their positions in government over the needs of people on the ground.

“The agreements we have seen before and now are the same,” said Nagim Adam, a youth activist from Central Darfur state. “The signatories of the deal are just looking for political positions.”

Disappointed in the agreement, Adam and other Central Darfur activists have taken matters into their own hands. With support from local officials, they have launched a peacebuilding initiative that promises to take into consideration what the Juba talks didn’t: the views of local residents.

Mohammed Musa, a member of the group, told The New Humanitarian that the first part of the project – called Planting Peace – involved distributing a questionnaire to residents across the state asking for their opinions on the causes of violence and possible solutions.

On top of some “very good ideas” on conflict resolution, Musa said one point shone through clearly: “The first sense we got is that people want a peace that is not top down. [They want] a bottom-up peace that would help them feel like stakeholders.”

Returning rebels: ‘Do you invite these forces back?’

Supporters of the Juba agreement say that explaining it to communities whose members feel they were not consulted will be crucial in the months ahead. But local residents aren’t angered only by their lack of involvement.

Many are deeply wary of the al-Bashir-era military elites who led the Juba negotiations and are increasingly calling the shots in Sudan’s transition — despite their commitment to sharing power with civilians.

Two men are particularly distrusted, say some residents: The president of the sovereign council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led attacks against civilians in parts of Darfur; and the council’s vice-president, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the former leader of the Janjaweed, a brutal Arab militia armed by Khartoum to fight Darfur’s mostly non-Arab rebels.

“[The military] have the security and economic institutions in their hands,” said Abdalla Didan, a conflict analyst at the Sudan Democracy First Group, a Khartoum-based think tank. “The question is whether they will stand down from power [after elections].”

Victims of Darfur’s conflict are not the only ones that need convincing. The SLA-AW rebel group – led by serial naysayer Abdul Wahid al-Nur – said it will not negotiate with the government until it is composed entirely of civilians.

Implementing the deal without the SLA-AW will be difficult: the group retains the support of many of Darfur’s displaced, possesses the largest fighting force in the region, and holds a significant amount of territory in the remote Jebel Marra mountain range – home to hundreds of thousands of people.

By contrast, the main signatory groups – the JEM and the SLM-MM – were pushed out of Darfur in recent years by Sudan’s army. Most of their combatants became mercenaries in neighbouring Libya.

sudan-combatants-return.jpg

A portrait of a guard belonging to the Sudan Liberation Movement-Transitional Council, who wears a red beret and holds a gun
Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
A guard protects an office belonging to the Sudan Liberation Movement-Transitional Council, a rebel group that signed the Juba agreement. Analysts fear the return of hundreds of rebels to Darfur could trigger new tensions in the region.

Hundreds of these combatants will now be returning to Darfur as part of a high-stakes demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration process, which promises to incorporate rebels into the national army and other security institutions.

Motasim Adam, the JEM’s spokesman, said offering rebels jobs back home will prevent them from threatening the government. “Do you invite these forces back… or do you leave them [abroad] with their weapons to challenge you?” Adam said.

But analysts worry that the process will generate insecurity as rebel movements seek to re-establish themselves. UN experts have accused both JEM and the SLM-MM of recruiting combatants to increase their share of future positions in the army.

And despite the signatories promising to transform into civilian political parties as part of the agreement, many analysts suspect they will leave residual forces behind in Libya to continue their money-spinning mercenary operations.

Ethnic affiliations may also hinder the main signatory groups as they seek to drum up support for the agreement: the JEM and the SLM-MM are both led by members of Darfur’s Zaghawa group, leading other communities to dub the accord a “Zaghawa agreement”.

“Displaced people from different tribes don’t think [the rebels] represent them,” said Didan, the conflict analyst.

New conflicts: ‘How can they kill us in the past and now they protect us?’

The agreement may have the potential to spark new violence – in particular plans to return Darfur’s mostly non-Arab displaced people back to villages they fled during the conflict, say Sudanese analysts.

Many of those villages were seized by the Janjaweed and are now occupied by Arab groups. “The displaced have a right to return, but if you force newcomers to leave they will try to take it back,” said Didan. “There will be a new conflict.”

generations-kalma-camp.jpg

A young child stands in a dusty street, looking at the camera
Philip Kleinfeld/TNH
An entire generation of Dafuris have grown up in displacement camps still scattered across the region. Ongoing attacks by militias mean many feel unable to return home.

To address security challenges, the agreement calls for the establishment of a 12,000-strong military force composed of rebel combatants, Sudanese troops, and members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a revamped version of the Janjaweed led by Dagalo, who is better known as Hemedti.

The new protection force is designed to take over from the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission that had its mandate terminated in December, after 13 years on the ground in Darfur. 

“By forming the special forces and securing areas, that can create a good environment for displaced people to return,” said Adam, the JEM spokesman.

But deadlines for establishing the force have already passed, and the idea is facing resistance within many displaced communities, whose members do not trust the rebels and army – let alone members of the RSF, who they say are still attacking them.

“The joint security forces are unacceptable to us,” said Abdallah, the leader of Kalma, which has not allowed government forces into the camp in years. “How can they kill us in the past and now they protect us?”

Paying for the new security force – and other parts of the agreement – will be another challenge given the state of Sudan’s economy. Though some progress has been made in securing much-needed debt relief, government officials told The New Humanitarian they will need more international support than what’s currently forthcoming. 

If funding gaps cause delays in implementing the agreement – timelines on establishing various commissions and committees have already slipped – that could feed the skepticism of holdout rebels and other Darfuris who already see the deal as little more than ink on paper.

Diverting money away from the costly conflicts that have long stymied Sudan would be one solution to the funding challenge, suggested Taha, the negotiator from the SLM-MM. "Sudan has paid and sacrificed a lot of money for war,” Taha said. “All of this money should be allocated to peace.”

With local reporting support from Ahmed Gouja and Ibrahim Omar.

Translation support from Mohammed Hassan.

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