How Darfur Became Sudan’s Kingmaker
The country’s strongman is using the region to cement his rule.
I met Husam earlier this year in a refugee camp in the desert in northern Niger. He was among some 2,000 asylum-seekers from Sudan’s Darfur region. Since he left Darfur two years ago, Husam, whose last name has been withheld, had crossed two international borders and lost his wife when she was kidnapped by human traffickers in Libya, and he was now making plans to cross two or three more borders on his way to Europe.
When he was a child, Husam’s village, like many other non-Arab villages in Darfur, had been torched by the janjaweed, Darfuri Arab militias the Sudanese government had armed to fight non-Arab rebels and civilian communities. During the attack, one of Husam’s sisters, a 14-year-old, was kidnapped. Another, 10, was raped. After that, his family left for a camp for internally displaced people in North Darfur. Husam managed to enroll in the camp’s school and then went on to attend university in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
While there, he said, agents of Sudan’s feared National Intelligence and Security Service tried to enlist him to spy on other students. They threatened to kill him if he didn’t comply, but he kept refusing. Husam’s teachers were no more welcoming, telling him that he was not like the other students, because he is not an Arab and is from the restive Darfur. (In his class, most students were from Arabized communities from the center of Sudan. Few were from marginalized peripheries, such as Darfur or Kordofan.)
In 2013, Husam, like many students, joined in widespread protests against the government of long-ruling President Omar al-Bashir. The repression was violent—at least 200 protesters were reportedly killed, including Husam’s brother Mohamed. According to human rights organizations, Darfuri students, in particular, were targeted.
In 2016, discontent bubbled over again, and many students, in particular from Darfur, were arrested. For his part, Husam spent seven months in the infamous Kober prison. When he was released, he and his wife decided to leave for Libya and, they hoped, Europe. Over the last few years, there have been thousands like them.
When, late last year, the ongoing so-called revolution began in Sudan, it included unusually few people from Darfur and other war-torn peripheries. One reason was obvious: In previous rounds of protests, they had been the primary target of ensuing repression. By now, Darfur is bled dry. Although in the past, many Darfuri youths were supporters or even members of armed opposition groups, an increasing number, like Husam, seem to have given up hope for change. Instead, they’re either leaving or have plans to do so.
To be sure, in December 2018, the regime still described the protests as a plot engineered by Darfur rebels backed by the West. But the regime’s conspiracy theories were not particularly credible. Not only were protests unusually limited in war zones, but, in recent years, Bashir had also been an increasingly close partner of the United States and European Union himself.
The protesters reacted to the regime’s rhetoric with the slogan “Kullu al bilad Darfur,” “We are all Darfur.” It was partly opportunistic, partly sincere. When in April 2018, the protests morphed into a massive sit-in, people from Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile finally came out to support the movement but also to remind the crowd in Khartoum of the horrors they’d faced.
Another group of mostly Darfuris also gathered in the capital’s streets around the same time: the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the official label now given to the janjaweed, which had been responsible for most of the violence in Darfur and its peripheries. (Husam had faced the RSF’s brutality twice. Once during the crackdown on the 2013 protests, and once when he crossed from Sudan to Libya, when he was beaten and robbed.)
Unlike in 2013, the RSF seemed to tacitly support the protests, and its commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, has now risen to the position of deputy chairman of the newly formed transition military council that replaced Bashir after he was ousted on April 11. Although Hemeti’s decision to ignore Bashir’s orders to fire on the protesters initially won him some popularity among demonstrators from the capital, those from Darfur and other war-torn regions remained wary.
Perhaps that is why Hemeti seems to be trying to upend Sudanese politics. In the past, the janjaweed’s strategy was based on a simplistic but efficient vision of Sudan, which it saw as divided into three blocks: the center, non-Arabs of the peripheries, and Arabs of the peripheries. The center and the Arabs on the peripheries were aligned, as much by opportunism as supposed ethnic proximity, against all non-Arabs. His role in Bashir’s fall made Hemeti surprisingly popular in the center, but the honeymoon ended on June 3, when the RSF lead a deadly crackdown on the sit-in. Since then, Hemeti, badly in need to enlarge his constituency beyond Darfur’s Arabs, has appeared ready to strike a partnership among all Sudanese on the periphery against the center.
The warlord presents himself as the first man from the peripheries to reach such a high position, and says he is a representative of all the marginalized regions. With both the security apparatus and the protesters dominated by the center, people on the peripheries feel oppressed by the former and neglected by the latter. That’s why there is reason for some them to deal with Hemeti, and he’s received some welcoming signs from the armed opposition. The Darfur rebel leader Minni Minawi suggested that, although his forces had suffered heavy losses from fighting the RSF, the real enemy was the center.
This all came to a head on July 5, when the Transitional Military Council and representatives from the protest movement agreed on a new transitional authority in which they would share power, and the main Darfur rebel leaders rejected the deal, which they criticized as yet another incarnation of the center’s domination on the peripheries. This is opening the door to the continuation of separate talks with Hemeti.
Even those rebels who are suspicious of Hemeti might not have much of a choice but to work with him. His troops repeatedly annihilated theirs, and if they don’t try to reach some settlement in Darfur with him now, they may risk missing out on the revolution’s spoils, in particular the possibility of retaking some ground in Darfur, which could give them more leverage in future negotiations.
The Bashir regime may be gone. But its legacy of a Sudanese society fractured by strong political and tribal divides persists. International observers, recognizing the country’s tensions, worry about chaos and have often rushed to support the military over the civilian side in the name of “stability.” But those who still have faith in a possible democratic transition should worry about one section of society (the center) still dominating the other (the peripheries). Sudan may thus be in need of two transitions: one from military to civilian rule, and another from a centralized to a truly national state.
Just before the RSF cracked down on the sit-in in Khartoum, Husam and his fellow asylum-seekers in Niger had a glimmer of hope: “Some of us are very happy with the situation in Sudan,” Husam wrote me on WhatsApp. “They are saying that they want to go back to Sudan.” Others remained wary. “We hope for real change,” he said. “Because we need our country.”