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The Role of Local Militias in Shaping Sudan’s Ongoing Civil War

2024-05-09 16:30

Fuat Emir Şefkatli

#HumanitarianCrisis , #Sudan, #SudanConflict , #CivilWar , #Khartoum , #Darfur , #EthnicTensions , #MilitiaDynamics , #PeaceEfforts,

The Role of Local Militias in Shaping Sudan’s Ongoing Civil War

"Sudan's civil war risks complicating peace with shifting power among militias and tribal politics, potentially leading to ethnic cleansing."

In April 2023, the Sudanese military landscape was profoundly disrupted by the outbreak of hostilities between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as 'Hemedti'. These conflicts have persistently captured international attention due to their severe violence and resulting humanitarian distress. According to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), from the onset of the civil war to the end of April 2024, the confrontations have resulted in more than 15,550 casualties. Most of these confrontations, numbering over 3,660 incidents, transpired in and around Khartoum. Notably, the intensity of conflicts extended beyond Khartoum during April and May to regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan, and Al Jazirah, manifesting new conflict dynamics. It was noted that several local militias, which had previously declared neutrality, entered the fray, exploiting the opportunities afforded by the existing bipolar military contention.



The Origin of Conflict

The genesis of the strife in Sudan can be traced back to a fierce power struggle between President Abdel Fattah Burhan and Hemedti, key figures within the national military and political bureaucracy. Historically, the RSF, initially known as the Janjaweed militias, served as a paramilitary proxy during Omar al-Bashir's regime, tasked with quelling insurgent groups and enforcing government suppression tactics. Remarkably, financed by Bashir during the Darfur conflict, the RSF was formally incorporated as the Border Guard Forces in 2013 and subsequently operated as mercenaries in various conflict zones, including Libya and Yemen. Under Hemedti's command, this paramilitary entity significantly contributed to the 2019 coup that deposed Bashir and secured substantial influence in the emergent security apparatus. In recent developments, escalating tensions between Burhan and Dagalo were primarily fueled by the need to recalibrate the burgeoning influence of the RSF. Attempts to integrate the RSF into the national army led to a rupture in their relationship. This scenario underscores the critical challenges posed by non-state armed actors and the complex interplay between paramilitary formations and state authority in Sudan and the broader African context.



New Actors: The Localization of Conflicts

Prior to the outbreak of conflict in Sudan in April 2023, militias commonly served as instruments for projecting central governmental power and authority to local. These groups, which were officially or semi-officially empowered by the state, functioned as components of a mechanism for controlling potential armed factions at various points across the country. Like other African nations, political and economic instabilities, compounded by environmental challenges due to climate crises, have cultivated discontent with the central government among local communities in Sudan. When such grievances escalated to rebellions, as observed during the crises in South Sudan and Darfur, they were suppressed by armed factions aligned with official security forces. This cycle was technically disrupted by the RSF’s mutiny to the military and it subsequently inspired other micro-level groups.



As of the last quarter of 2023, the scenario in West Darfur provides a vivid portrayal of how local groups have exploited the civil war dynamics for their gain and power maximization. The longstanding ethnic tensions between the Masalit militias and Arab armed groups led to orchestrated assaults on the predominantly Masalit communities by Arab militias in collaboration with the RSF. On the flip side, the Masalit militias, backed by the Sudanese Alliance Forces (aligned with the Sudanese army), abandoned their neutrality to shield civilians from attacks and mitigate mass displacements. This pattern is replicated in various provinces. Particularly, Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, emerges as a significant urban center after Khartoum due to its demographic and economic significance, rendering it a strategic asset for both contesting factions. In October 2023, the RSF secured substantial territorial gains in Nyala by overtaking the Sudanese army’s 16th Infantry Division, thereby putting both North Darfur State and the proximate capital of El-Fasher at risk. The looming threat of an RSF assault prompted mobilization calls among various armed groups, including the Zagawa ethnic militias. However, internal ethnic and political strife appears to hamper these anti-RSF militia groups from effectively responding to these calls. This clearly demonstrates the susceptibility of El-Fasher to potential attacks and highlights the dynamic and fluctuating nature of local tribal-armed group interactions.



Intra-militia Discord and Local Governance Dynamics in Darfur

In contrast, it is not possible to speak of complete unity among the Darfur Arab militia groups supporting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). These groups, divided by ethnic, political, and even economic distinctions, are engaged in significant competition. Throughout 2023, prolonged and intense clashes in South Darfur resulted in numerous casualties. Thus, local governance mechanisms, still dominated by tribal affiliations in Sudan, play a crucial role in shaping the course of the ongoing civil war. Both the Sudanese Army and the RSF are reliant on the support of tribes and their affiliated militia forces. In a civil war that has been ongoing for a year and where the balance of power between the parties is closely matched, local communities that are self-organized and armed hold a pivotal position for any actor seeking military victory. Indeed, this relationship of interest is leading some armed groups, as seen in North, South, and West Darfur, to transform the areas they control into local "proto-states". This scenario may lead to a situation reminiscent of the military and political power-sharing within the Sudanese Army and the RSF post-2019 in the medium to long term.



In conclusion, the ongoing civil war in Sudan will inherently produce "winners" and "losers." However, the gains and privileges obtained by militia groups with varying agendas and motivations within a year have the potential to obstruct future peace agreements. The ethnic tensions in Darfur, exacerbated by the wartime atmosphere, could potentially lead to ethnic cleansing, which would undermine community-based peace-building efforts in the future. Moreover, power-sharing based on tribal politics, as seen in many other instances, remains an obstacle to sustainable governance in Sudan. Furthermore, the end of the civil war will necessitate military integration programs. Integrating local militia groups, which have gained significant power and influence over the population, into security forces remains a problematic issue.

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