Darfur’s infamous Janjaweed militias are splintering as the region’s web of shifting alliances plunge it deeper into chaos.
The former face of the Janjaweed – Musa Hilal – has renounced his allegiance to the ruling National Congress Party, turning his forces on the Sudanese Army and his former Janjaweed captain, Mohammed Hamdan Dalgo.
Hilal’s forces have captured at least five towns in Northern Darfur over the past month, adding fuel to the fire already stoked by rebel leader Minni Minnawi and the government allied Rapid Support Force – led by Dalgo. Darfur has seen a recent surge in violence as rival Arab militias, rebels groups and government forces clash over territory in all three states. According to UN, some 50,000 people had been displaced since the end of February while peacekeepers and aid agencies have been denied access to the war-torn region.
Hilal’s forces are reportedly based in the town of Kabkabiyah, some 80 km from the capital North Darfur State, Al-Fashir.
His defection presents yet another challenge for a Sudanese government fighting several rebel groups in Darfur in addition to flagging public opinion and a stagnant economy. Over 200 people were killed in September during countrywide protests against fuel subsidy cuts announced by President Bashir.
Hilal has been pegged by human rights groups as a powerful government ally in the Darfur counterinsurgency campaigns at the beginning of the conflict. However, Hilal has been increasingly critical of President Al-Bashir’s government for allegedly neglecting the region and inciting conflict among Darfur’s ethnically Arab communities.
Old and New Demands
While initially denying reports about Hilal’s mutiny, the NCP-led government is now openly rebuking Hilal. State-owned media outlets in Khartoum have reported that several high-ranking government officials contacted Hilal in a bid to reunite him with the government but were turned away. A prominent NCP figure, Rabi Abdel-Aati, warned that Hilal’s decision would only widen his rift with the ruling party. Abdel-Aati further accused Hilal of manipulating ethnicity and tribalism for political gains.
Though they concern primarily the Arab ethnic groups in Darfur, Hilal’s demands mirror those issued over the past decade by Darfur’s various rebel groups.
Announcing the defection in November, Hilal’s spokesperson accused Khartoum of exploiting the Arab tribes in Darfur war, and called on Darfuris to unite to change what he called the policy of exclusion and marginalization.
Following his split, Hilal presented a list of demands to the government late in November. In addition to wealth and power sharing between Darfur and the central government, his demands included the integration of his forces into the Sudanese army. He also called on the government to address issues affecting Arab nomads, pay compensation to war victims and return displaced communities and refugees to their villages.
The militia leader threatened action if an agreement was not reached. “If the government refuses our demands, we will keep our options open,” he said without elaborating further.
A New Darfur Alliance?
It is unclear whether Hilal is looking to join with Darfur’s other rebel groups, but prominent lawyer Salih Mahmoud said “all scenarios are possible these days, especially that he has been away from Khartoum for some time to lead tribal reconciliation efforts in Darfur’’.
Hilal has, in the past, made overtures to Darfuri rebel groups in an attempt to join their ranks. He held brief negotiations with Sudan Liberation Army leader Abdul Wahid al Nur in 2009, though nothing came of the talks.
Despite his attacks Hilal still considered to be a member of the ruling party. No decision has yet been made by party leadership to remove him. His relation with President Bashir’s regime dates back to 2003 when he was released from prison in order to spearhead the Janjaweed counterinsurgency in Darfur. He has denied committing crimes against civilians but told Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005 he mobilized the Arab militias on behalf of the central government.
In recent years, Darfur’s Arab leaders have become disenchanted with Khartoum, arguing they have received little politically or economically from their involvement in the conflict. According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, since 2006, Arab groups in Darfur have grown increasingly hostile to Khartoum and reluctant to fight on its behalf.
In another report, the International Crisis Group reported that several tribal chiefs in the Kordofan region recently rejected a government request for 2000 men to fight rebel forces in South Kordofan. The chiefs reportedly told ex-Sudanese Presidential Aide Nafie Ali Nafie they would only comply with the request if the same number was recruited from northern Sudanese states – the home regions of most NCP leaders. The report also highlights significant recruitment of Arab fighters – mainly from the Messeriya and Hamar tribes – into the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
Coupled with these developments, some observers see Hilal’s recent actions as the beginning of a pan-Darfuri rebellion against the central government. A spokesperson for the Sudan Revolutionary Front coalition – Abu al-Qasim Imam – has cautiously described it as “a positive step,” but said the coalition was not yet ready to trust Hilal or his forces. “We, in the SRF, still view the matter as a wrangle between Hilal and [Al-Bashir’s regime] in order to settle their differences,” he said.
Like the SRF Spokesman, some analysts see Hilal’s move simply as an attempt to wrest political concessions from Khartoum. In earlier statements Hilal’s press advisor admitted “there are some issues between Hilal and the government but they can be resolved without external intervention.”
Though Hilal is still popular among some Arab communities in Darfur, critics say the tribal leader will struggle to win support for his new political movement due to his notorious past. “This is an act of extortion and political maneuver [by Hilal] to put pressure on the government to attain prerogative,” said Nour al-Sadiq, a lawyer and member of the Sudanese Communist Party in Darfur. She argued that Hilal would eventually negotiate and reach a settlement with the government on his own terms.
Whatever his intentions, Hilal’s recent offensive leaves Khartoum with yet another foe and increasingly few allies in Darfur as the conflict enters a new, bloody phase.