Sudan war: What does governor’s call to arms mean for Darfur?

As governor of Darfur, a province made up of five states that has endured two decades of conflict, Minni Arko Minnawi has tried to avoid taking sides in Sudan’s latest war.

But on May 28, he called to all residents to take up arms and “defend against attack”. His call to arms has sparked fears that he will recruit civilians – especially non-Arabs like himself – into new militias and task them with fighting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is mostly Arab and at war with the Sudanese army. residents and experts told Al Jazeera.

“I call on all honorable citizens ‘the people of Darfur’ – old and young, women and men – to take up arms to protect their property, and we, the armed movements, will support them in their defense,” he tweeted. he.

“What an irresponsible statement by Mini Minnawi,” said Amani Hamid, a nurse and human rights defender in North Darfur. “It was a call for the proliferation of weapons… and this is the most damaging scenario in Darfur, because weapons in the hands of civilians will turn the region into a tribal civil war.”

A tumultuous past

Minnawi has a long history in Darfur. In 2003, he joined the non-Arab Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) to revolt against the central government for neglect and exploitation of Darfur along with another group known as the Justice and Equality Movement.

Translation: Attacks against civilians have increased and many do not want citizens to have their rights and security, and they deliberately destroy national institutions. Therefore, I call on all honorable citizens – the people of Darfur – old and young, women and men – to take up arms to protect their property, and we, the armed movements, will support them to defend themselves in all cases. to defend.

The SLA consisted mainly of two non-Arab tribes: the Zaghawa and the Fur.

But in 2005, the group split into two main factions across tribal lines as a result of a power struggle between Abdel Wahid al-Nur and Minnawi. The former is from the Fur and led the SLA’s political wing, while Minnawi is from the Zaghawa and commanded the SLA’s fighters.

A year later, Minnawi’s faction – known as SLA-MM – signed the Darfur Peace Agreement with the government. Minnawi reportedly felt pressured to sign after mediators and diplomats warned that the UN Security Council would punish him if he did not.

The settlement was short-lived and Minnawi declared another rebellion in 2010. The government, struggling to put down the insurgency, responded by deploying the newly formed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in 2014. Arab militias to whom the central government outsourced its fighting in Darfur, the RSF, committed numerous massacres in the region, according to human rights groups.

In 2016, the SLA-MM was forced to withdraw from Darfur and relocate to Libya, where they fought as mercenaries for Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. In 2020, Minnawi and other militias returned to Sudan after signing a power-sharing agreement with the army and RSF. The army and RSF negotiated with the rebels to strengthen their position against a civilian cabinet, with whom they had collaborated to form a transitional government following a popular uprising that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

Salma Hisen Hasan had just learned that her husband had been shot dead in el-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur [File: Virginia Pietromarchi/Al Jazeera]

The talks with the rebels led to the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA), which made Minnawi governor of Darfur and put his men on the state payroll. But now his call for residents to take up arms threatens to plunge the region into another intractable civil war.

“Minni’s statement is hardly a call for communities to adopt purely defensive positions,” said Jonas Horner, an independent expert on Sudan. “There is a fine line between offense and defense and historically in Darfur low trust between some communities has been sufficient justification for pre-emptive strikes.”

Al Jazeera reached out to Minnawi for comment, but he did not respond.

Ethnic violence?

In October 2021, the military, RSF and Juba signatories led a coup d’état that overthrew the civilian administration. But with army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo unable to consolidate their power grab due to protests against the coup, the alliance quickly disintegrated.

Dagalo sought to reposition his troops as supporters of anti-coup protests after signing the framework agreement in December 2022. While the settlement ostensibly aimed at restoring civilian rule, al-Burhan supported the agreement because it stipulated that the RSF would be in the military would be integrated. .

However, the ensuing dispute over how quickly the RSF would be integrated was a catalyst for war that broke out on 15 April. Since then, most attention has been focused on Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But violence in Darfur has become increasingly ethnic.

In West Darfur, Arab militias that loosely support the RSF – and receive support from the RSF – have exploited the power vacuum to consolidate control over disputed land and water resources.

With both the RSF and the military focused on fighting in Khartoum, Arab militias have been able to kill hundreds and possibly thousands of non-Arabs without encountering much resistance, victims and local residents said. The ceasefire reached in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has not brought a lull in violence in Darfur as it did in Khartoum.

Meanwhile, army troops and RSF fighters clash elsewhere in Darfur, such as in el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. Violence could quickly become ethnic there too, Mohammad Hassan, head of the Darfur Network for Human Rights, warned a local observer.

Unlike 2003, when army-backed Arab tribes crushed a mostly non-Arab insurgency, Hassan says, the army is now trying to co-opt non-Arabs in Darfur to fight the RSF.

He added that many non-Arabs have waited a long time to settle accounts against certain Arab tribes who attacked their communities as part of the Popular Defense Forces, dubbed Janjaweed by the rebels.

Zam Zam Camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), North Darfur
A general view of the ZamZam IDP camp in North Darfur on April 9, 2015 [Ashraf Shazly/AFP Photo]

“Minnawi’s announcement was very dangerous, but many non-Arabs were happy about it. They’ve been saying, ‘We’ve been suffering for 20 years, but now we’re finally being supported to protect our lives and property,’” he told Al Jazeera.

Minnawi’s supporters and fighters have also defended his controversial statement.

Mohamad Suliman, a 42-year-old fighter with SLA-MM, blamed the RSF and their traditional Arab tribal allies for the attacks on civilians. He added that the SLA-MM had no intention of personally arming residents.

“The Janjaweed militias are killing civilians, looting markets, raping and harassing women and doing so many killings,” he said.

“Minnawi told people that if you are at home and someone comes and tries to kill you and your children and rape your wife, what should you do? You need weapons. That’s all he talks about.”

No protection

On May 24, Minnawi deployed fighters from the Joint Protection Force – made up of JPA signatories – to try to stop the violence in West Darfur. However, the RSF quickly ambushed them when they arrived.

The incident indicated that Minnawi was ill-equipped to fight the RSF, but civilians still called on authorities to protect them.

“I think [Minnawi] debates whether or not to intervene, because there is no turning back from intervention,” said Jawhara Kanu, an independent Sudanese expert and political economist.

According to Hassan, the human rights monitor, the only way to prevent Darfur from turning into all-out civil war is to deploy peacekeepers to prevent al-Burhan and Minnawi from driving non-Arabs into the conflict to jointly punish the Arab population.

He added that while local peace initiatives have led to pauses in fighting in North and South Darfur, activists and community leaders are increasingly leaving the state due to threats, lawlessness and war.

“The international community must deploy peacekeepers,” he told Al Jazeera. “They need to come in to protect both [Arabs and non-Arabs].”

The previous joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was halted in late 2020 under pressure from the military and the RSF.

At the time, both sides were part of a civil-military government tasked with leading the country to democratic elections. In particular, the RSF sought greater legitimacy by acting as a security guarantor in Darfur. Last year, the group forced, arrested and co-opted tribal leaders to sign a number of local reconciliation agreements, which were then touted.

It is unlikely that another peacekeeping mission will be sent to Darfur, despite fears of another civil war, said Emma DiNapoli, an international law expert who focuses on Sudan.

“UN peacekeeping missions are established on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions… the challenge is that peacekeeping missions, or peacekeeping missions, depending on the context, require the agreement of the main parties to the conflict,” she told Al Jazeera.

For now, DiNapoli said, neither the RSF nor the military seem interested in having international actors on the ground to protect civilians or monitor abuses, with the latter recently pulling out of ceasefire talks in Jeddah .

“I don’t think there is really any reason to believe that there would be an agreement on peacekeepers. Normally they would be deployed to maintain a lasting ceasefire or uphold a peace deal, and we’re not there right now,” she said.