What does Minnawi’s call to arms mean for Darfur?

The governor’s call risks ingiting ethnic conflict among the tribes of Darfur, critics have said.

an abandoned hospital in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur
An abandoned hospital in El Geneina, capital of West Darfur, as deadly fighting continues in Sudan, where an already troubled health sector faces 'disaster' as heavy fighting continues, on May 1, 2023 [AFP]

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

But on May 28, he called on all residents to pick up weapons and “defend themselves from attacks”. His call to arms has raised fears that he may recruit civilians – particularly non-Arabs like himself – into new militias and task them with fighting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is comprised mostly of Arabs and is at war with the Sudanese army, residents and experts told Al Jazeera.

“I call on all honourable 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 defending themselves,” he tweeted.

“What an irresponsible statement from Mini Minnawi,” opined 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 harmful scenario in Darfur because weapons in the hands of citizens will turn the region into a tribal civil war.”

A tumultuous past

Minnawi has a considerable history in Darfur. In 2003, he joined the non-Arab Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) to wage a rebellion – along with another group known as the Justice and Equality Movement –  against the central government for neglecting and exploiting Darfur.

Translation: The assaults on citizens have multiplied and many do not want citizens to have their rights and safety, and they intentionally destroy national institutions. Therefore, I call on all honourable 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 defending themselves in all cases. 

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

But in 2005, the group split into two main factions across tribal lines due to a power struggle between Abdel Wahid al-Nur and Minnawi. The former is from the Fur and led the political wing of the SLA, 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 sanction him if he did not.

The settlement was short-lived and Minnawi declared another rebellion in 2010. The government, struggling to crush the uprising, responded by deploying the newly formed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in 2014. Formalised the previous year out of the Popular Defence Forces – the Arab militias to whom the central government outsourced its fighting in Darfur, the RSF committed numerous massacres in the region, according to rights groups.

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

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

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

“Minni’s statement is hardly merely a call for communities to take purely defensive postures,” said Jonas Horner, an independent expert on Sudan. “There’s a fine line between attack and defence and, historically in Darfur, low trust between some communities has been justification enough for preemptive attacks.”

Al Jazeera contacted Minnawi for comment, but he did not respond.

Ethnic violence?

In October 2021, the army, RSF and the Juba signatories led a coup that toppled the civilian administration. But with army head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo unable to consolidate their power grab due to anti-coup protests, the alliance quickly fractured.

Dagalo attempted to reposition his forces as backers of anti-coup protests after signing the Framework Agreement in December 2022. While the settlement ostensibly aimed to restore civilian rule, al-Burhan backed the agreement because it stipulated that the RSF would be integrated into the army.

However, the ensuing dispute about how quickly the RSF would be integrated was a catalyst for the war that erupted on April 15. Since then, most attention has been on Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. But violence in Darfur has increasingly turned 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 army focused on the battle in Khartoum, Arab militias have been able to kill hundreds and possibly even thousands of non-Arabs without facing much resistance, according to victims and local residents. The ceasefires reached in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia have not resulted in lulls in the violence in Darfur as it has in Khartoum.

Meanwhile, army troops and RSF fighters are clashing elsewhere in Darfur, such as in el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. Violence could soon turn ethnic there, too, warned Mohammad Hassan who heads the Darfur Network for Human Rights, a local monitor.

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

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

Zam Zam camp for Internally Displaced People (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 with it. They have been saying: ‘We’ve been suffering for 20 years but now we are finally 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 was not intending to personally arm residents.

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

“Minnawi told people that when you are home and somebody comes to try and kill you and your kids and rape your wife, then what are you supposed to do? You need guns. That’s what he’s talking about only.”

No protection

On May 24, Minnawi deployed fighters from the joint protection force – made up of signatories to the JPA  –  to try and halt 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, yet civilians were still calling on authorities to protect them.

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

According to Hassan, the human rights monitor, the only way to keep Darfur from spiralling into an all-out civil war is to deploy peacekeepers to stop al-Burhan and Minnawi from pushing non-Arabs into the conflict to collectively 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 has to deploy peacekeepers,” he told Al Jazeera. “They need to enter in order to protect both [Arabs and non-Arabs].”

The previous joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was terminated at the end of 2020 following pressure from the army and the RSF.

At the time, both sides were part of a civilian-military government that was tasked with steering the country towards a democratic election. The RSF, in particular, coveted greater legitimacy by acting as a security guarantor in Darfur. Last year, the group coerced, arrested and co-opted tribal leaders to sign a number of local reconciliation agreements which it then touted.

A new peacekeeping mission is unlikely to be deployed to Darfur despite fears of a new civil war, said Emma DiNapoli, an expert in international law who focuses on Sudan.

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

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

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

Source: Al Jazeera