Retreating from Darfur? A decade on, spectre of atrocities returns

Almost half-a-million newly displaced people have in the past year followed the two million who took refuge in camps after violence erupted in Darfur in 2003. EPA/Olivier Chassot/UNAMID

News media have been reporting widespread atrocities by Boko Haram against as many as 2000 civilians in Nigeria. But a similar escalation of violence in Darfur, Sudan, over the past two months has been all but ignored.

This is in spite of the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs raising the alarm on January 8 over “significant civilian displacement” caused by Sudanese military operations. This included unverified reports of direct attacks against civilian villages.

A long history of conflict

Violence in Darfur is nothing new. Conflict reflects a range of problems, including divisions between Khartoum and the region, between Arab and African tribal groups, and between different understandings of land rights. Thus the conflict, which began in 2003 and which the then US president, George W. Bush, among others described as genocide, is part of a longer pattern of violence dating to the 1970s.

The 2003 conflict was notable because of the levels of violence used by the Janjaweed. Supported by Sudan, these Arab militias attacked the African civilian population of Darfur in the guise of responding to the insurgency.

Between September 2003 and January 2005, at least 120,000 people were killed. The conflict created almost 200,000 refugees and 2.7 million internally displaced persons, most of whom remain in camps.

Even after peacekeepers were deployed in 2008, the situation remained volatile. Two peace agreements – the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement and the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur – failed to end the violence. Few of the main rebel groups were willing to sign on, the Sudanese government did little to implement the agreements and international support was minimal.

With the world distracted, violence intensifies

In 2014, violence in Darfur escalated significantly, with 430,000 people newly displaced. This happened as the government reconstituted the Janjaweed as the renamed Rapid Support Forces.

These forces were supposed to fight the rebels, but UN reports suggested they moved instead to “raze villages, rape women and kill civilians”. Since January, the Sudanese military has been working directly with them to launch a large-scale offensive against rebel positions in Darfur.

Why is this occurring now? The secession of South Sudan in 2011 meant that Sudan lost 75% of its oil reserves. Darfur holds significant natural resources, including recent gold discoveries. This has led to suggestions that the government is spurring the violence by “employing favoured Arab nomadic tribes as tools for consolidating economic control and power” over the region.

The government is also fighting on multiple fronts. Many of the Darfuri rebel groups are supporting insurgencies in the provinces of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Fighting in South Kordofan this month is expected to displace another 145,000 people. This means a lot of the fighting strength of the rebel groups is outside Darfur.

Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir has a record of exploiting the times when the world’s attention is elsewhere. EPA

Finally, the ruling National Congress Party, led by Sudanese President Omer Hassan al-Bashir, is facing a deadline, with general elections to be held in April. Bashir has previously committed to ending armed rebellions and tribal clashes before the election.

These shifts are coupled with declining international involvement. In December, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, suspended investigations in Darfur after no arrests had been made in a decade. At the same time, peace talks in Ethiopia failed to reach agreement.

The United Nations, acquiescing to Sudanese pressure, has also announced plans to reduce the size of the UN Assistance Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Since its deployment in 2008, UNAMID has been a beleaguered peacekeeping force, targeted by all sides and with limited capacity. But the displaced in Darfur are deeply concerned about it leaving. This follows the expulsion of both the UN’s Humanitarian Co-ordinator and Resident Co-ordinator from the country.

With much of the international community distracted by Syria and Islamic State terrorism, Bashir may be gambling that an end to the conflict is within his grasp. Such an end, however, may lead to massive displacement and civilian suffering.

What can the international community do?

The initial Darfur conflict revealed Bashir to be a canny observer and manipulator of world opinion. The highest rates of death were in the first year, when the global media ignored the conflict and it was not even on the Security Council’s agenda. As historian Gérard Prunier recounts in his book, open violence in Darfur began to recede once the Sudanese government was subjected to hard diplomatic pressure.

Right now, the international community is displaying little interest in Darfur. This has to change.

The UN Security Council and the African Union can signal their continued involvement by making a clear commitment to maintain UNAMID at current troop levels. But the crisis also needs to be better publicised. Otherwise, the people of Darfur are likely to be forgotten just when they need the world’s help again.