Sudan’s Third Civil War: In Medias Res

Sudan’s Third Civil War: In Medias Res

Violence has ebbed and flowed in Darfur for more than ten years now. Now, though the situation is almost totally absent from news coverage, the region teeters on the edge of a complete humanitarian collapse and uncontrollable violence.

Military helicopters at Juba Airport, South Sudan (Photodiarist/Wikimedia Commons)

In December 2011 I wrote for Dissent about “the early history of Sudan’s third civil war.” Some judged my comments gratuitously pessimistic, others shared my concerns (if more privately), and still others worried about self-fulfilling prophecies. But in fact the war had already begun, battle lines were taking shape, and on at least two subsequent occasions Sudan and newly independent South Sudan came perilously close to renewed all-out war. An incident in April 2012 in the highly volatile oil region along the border between Unity State (South Sudan) and South Kordofan (Sudan) led to major fighting between the Khartoum regime’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). For over a month violence flared, including Khartoum’s repeated, indiscriminate aerial attacks on Bentiu, capital city of Unity (the South has no meaningful military air force).

But the actors in this third civil war are not simply on two sides, except insofar as all armed movements in greater Sudan have the Khartoum regime, as well as its SAF and security services, as their target. This has resulted in a loose and probably untenable alignment of forces known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF); it includes the increasingly potent Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A-N, based primarily in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan); it also includes several Darfuri rebel movements, most notably the well-armed Justice and Equality Movement and factions of the Sudan Liberation Army. The geography of conflict has greatly expanded, and the SRF attacked a major town (Umm Rawaba) in North Kordofan this past April, a northern state that had heretofore seen no fighting. A rebel force in eastern Sudan has also made cause with the SRF.

Heightening military tensions is Khartoum’s decision to halt the flow of oil from land-locked South Sudan to Port Sudan in the north, denying both economies desperately needed foreign exchange currency. Hyperinflation is poised to strike, although its consequences for the more developed, import-dependent, and integrated northern economy may well be greater than in the south. A range of other agreements between Khartoum and Juba, the capital of South Sudan, have come to nothing, including the most recent agreement (made in March) to resume oil transit.

It is difficult to find evidence of progress anywhere in greater Sudan since South Sudan became independent in July 2011; African Union (AU) mediators dutifully present various “agreements” that Khartoum refuses to sign, or signs and then violates; there is no effective international support for negotiations. An agreement to permit critical humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile—proposed in February 2012 by not only the AU but the UN and the Arab League—has gone nowhere: the SPLM/A-N signed on almost immediately, but Khartoum has dithered, reneged, and finally declared the agreement “superseded.” Meanwhile, more than 1 million people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states are in increasingly desperate condition; hundreds of thousands have suffered acute malnutrition for almost two years, and more than two hundred thousand have fled to refugee camps in South Sudan, often in locations that are poorly situated for water and sanitation. Tens of thousands of civilians from Blue Nile have fled to Ethiopia.

The situation in Darfur—until very recently almost totally absent from news coverage of the region—is especially shameful, given the appalling conditions that have prevailed so long within the displaced persons camps, the steep rise in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, and the escalating violence and insecurity. Relief organizations are withdrawing expatriate workers and suspending many operations. UN and nongovernmental organizations are increasingly restricted by both Khartoum’s Military Intelligence and expanding violence. The UN/AU “hybrid” Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has failed abysmally. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations—already vastly overstretched and funding three separate peacekeeping forces in greater Sudan—is looking to draw down UNAMID, but rather than speak honestly about its failure, the UN has made the disingenuous claim that “circumstances on the ground” permit such a withdrawal of forces. This at least was the judgment of Hervé Ladsous, head of UN peacekeeping—a judgment he now refuses to defend publicly.

International journalists have been almost completely excluded from Darfur for many years, as have independent human rights investigators. According to humanitarians on the ground, Khartoum has made of Darfur a “black box genocide.” There has been only one significant dateline from rural Darfur in several years, a story by the New York Times in February 2012; it declared on the basis of a single, tightly controlled visit to a “Potemkin Village” in West Darfur that “peace had settled on the region.” So-called “returns” of refugees and IDPs were a “sign that one of the world’s most infamous conflicts may have decisively cooled.” In fact, every available indicator of human security and well-being was, in aggregate, deteriorating, and the level of violence in various regions accelerated sharply. “Returns”—nominally safe and voluntary—have mostly been neither.

Violence has ebbed and flowed in Darfur for more than ten years now. A dramatic surge began following the December 2010 defection from Khartoum by Minni Minawi, the only Darfuri signatory to the ill-fated 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement; the authoritative Small Arms Survey (Geneva), on the basis of courageous and detailed ground-based research, reported an escalation of violence against the (non-Arab) Zaghawa, the tribal group from which Minawi came. In the latter half of 2012, violence exploded in North Darfur, particularly near the Jebel Amir region, which has significant gold mines. The regime, desperate for a source of foreign exchange to buy parts and supplies from abroad, gave free rein to the Aballa tribal groups from which the Janjaweed, infamous for carrying out attacks in Darfur in the first decade of the twenty-first century, had been so heavily drawn. This meant attacking the Beni Hussein, the Arab group within whose administrative area Jebel Amir lies. The fighting killed hundreds, perhaps thousands—including a number of UN peacekeepers traveling to Hashaba town, site of reported mass killings by Khartoum’s forces. Peacekeepers themselves were clearly targeted by Khartoum in order to forestall such an investigation.

Militias have became increasingly aggressive, especially the notorious Abu Tira—nominally the “Central Reserve Police,” but now little more than a semi-autonomous fighting force that has attacked and extorted IDP camps and sexually assaulted countless women and girls. An even greater problem is seizure of the lands of African farmers by Arab militias and armed groups—some clearly from Chad, Niger, and Central African Republic. Farmers attempting to return are violently warned off or simply killed; women working their former lands have been raped and killed. The “returnees” that the UN celebrates are constantly being forced to return to IDP camps.

Moreover, figures for new displacement in Darfur dwarf even the most optimistic UN/UNAMID estimates for returnees. UN data, supplemented by that of NGOs, provide strong evidence that more than 1.5 million people have been newly displaced since January 1, 2008, when UNAMID officially took up its mandate. The head of UN humanitarian operations was recently obliged to report that 300,000 Darfuris had been newly displaced between January and mid-May of this year alone. The refugee surge into Chad is again growing: the figure had remained at approximately 280,000 for a number of years, but in the past half year 50,000 more people have fled to Chad, according to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières—nearly all in desperate condition.

Human Rights Watch reported on June 18 satellite photographic confirmation of Janjaweed attacks on villages in South Darfur—attacks led by Ali Kushayb, the Janjaweed “colonel of colonels” indicted by the International Criminal Court for massive crimes against humanity:

Satellite images confirm the wholesale destruction of villages in Central [formerly South] Darfur in an attack in April 2013 by a militia leader sought by the International Criminal Court….The images show the town of Abu Jeradil and surrounding villages in Central Darfur state almost completely burned down….Villagers who fled the area told Human Rights Watch in May that Sudanese government forces, including the militia leader Ali Kosheib, had attacked the area. More than 42 villagers are believed to have been killed and 2,800 buildings destroyed.

Darfur teeters on the edge of a complete humanitarian collapse and uncontrollable violence. Rebel fighters have recently gained the upper hand in many areas of fighting, and the callous leaders in Khartoum seem willing to let Darfur sink into destructive chaos, so long as gold from Jebel Amir continues to make its way to the capital.

Satellite photography has also revealed a great deal about Khartoum’s conduct of war in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the latter the most inaccessible of the three contested areas between north and south (including Abyei). According to an important report recently released by Amnesty International,

New satellite imagery and eyewitness testimonies from rebel-held areas in Sudan’s Blue Nile State show that Sudanese military forces have resorted to brutal scorched earth tactics to drive out the civilian population….“We had no time to bury them”: War crimes in Sudan’s Blue Nile State documents how bombings and ground attacks by Sudanese military forces have destroyed entire villages, left many dead and injured, and forced tens of thousands to flee—with many now facing starvation, disease and exhaustion.

None of this should be surprising, given Khartoum’s May 2011 military seizure of Abyei, now the most dangerous flash-point for renewed war along the entire north/south border. The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) provided detailed satellite photography showing a steady build-up by the SAF and its Misseriya Arab allies over several months in early 2011. The scale of destruction in Abyei town was also made clear by follow-up satellite images.

Subsequent photography indicated that South Kordofan would be the next site of major violence, and on June 5, 2011 the SAF struck again. The nature of this assault was immediately apparent, and clear patterns emerged in early reports. Human Rights Watch confirmed that Khartoum’s regular military and militia were undertaking a campaign of house-to-house roundups of Nuba (African) civilians in the capital city of Kadugli. Many of these people were hauled away in cattle trucks or summarily executed; dead bodies littered the streets of Kadugli. Nuba were also stopped at checkpoints grimly similar to those in Rwanda; those suspected of SPLM/N or “southern” political sympathies were arrested or shot. One aid worker who escaped from South Kordofan in the first weeks reported on militia forces patrolling further from Kadugli: “Those [Nuba] coming in are saying, ‘Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you.’” Another Nuba aid worker reports that an Arab militia leader’s orders were “to just clear.”

Charges of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” were coming ever more insistently from Nuba civilians, observers on the ground, and church groups with strong ties to the region. News reports confirmed that some 7,000 Nuba had been moved forcibly by Khartoum’s security services (disguised as Red Crescent workers) from the UN security perimeter in Kadugli to a soccer stadium; they were never heard from again. Mass graves were later confirmed both by UN human rights reporters who had observed events from the ground in June 2011 and by satellite photography from SSP.

At the same time, Khartoum renewed its blockade of humanitarian assistance to the people of the Nuba, hundreds of thousands of whom had already fled into the mountainsides. Two years later the blockade continues in the Nuba Mountains and rebel-controlled areas of Blue Nile. In Darfur and these two areas, Khartoum is denying adequate food, water, and medical care to more than 3 million people. Moreover, bombing of civilians and civilian agriculture has largely destroyed the last two harvests in both the Nuba and Blue Nile; malnutrition indicators long ago reached the emergency level; children and the elderly have begun to die, and many more will die soon. The trip to precarious safety in South Sudan is too arduous for many, and many more will not leave family members to starve alone.

As these events unfolded, the Obama administration has been engaged primarily in diplomatic damage control. Policy has focused on the realization of southern independence at the expense of other issues, including critical and unresolved implementation disputes arising from the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The administration has essentially abandoned Darfur—“de-coupled” was the word chosen by a senior administration official. It has remained largely mute on the military takeover of Abyei, and initially refused to credit reports of genocide in the Nuba Mountains.

On PBS’s NewsHour in 2011, Obama’s special envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman scoffed at the idea that the Nuba Mountains might become “another Darfur”: “Nuba Mountain people are fighting back and I don’t think the North is capable of dislodging large numbers of people on an ethnic basis….That’s the reality on the ground. Second, I’m not sure that’s the objective of the government….” Two years later, we know that Khartoum is not only destroying the civilian base of support for the SPLM/A-N, but doing so deliberately. The same is true in Blue Nile. The SPLM/A-N have no weapons that can defend against high-flying Antonov cargo planes, which need aim only at sorghum fields to be effective (they have no militarily useful bombing precision).

A second comment by Lyman proved dangerous. When asked in a December 2011 interview with the important pan-Arab news outlet, Asharq al-Awsat, about whether the United States would welcome the Arab Spring in Sudan, Lyman declared, “This is not part of our agenda in Sudan. Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the regime, or regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.”

But all true democratic forces—in Sudan and in exile—are committed to regime change, including those who insist that the change must be effected by nonviolent means. Lyman made clear that this broad-based democratic ambition is not consistent with U.S. goals and policy. Did he really believe that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime could preside over the “democratic” transformation of Sudan via “constitutional measures”? After twenty-four years of ruthless and comprehensive tyranny, the idea is preposterous.

Sudanese overwhelmingly want regime change, while a repressive security apparatus keeps the current cabal in power. But its survival also depends upon acquiescing before the decisions of key hardline generals—concerning the seizure of Abyei, the refusal to negotiate with the SPLM-N or allow for humanitarian access in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the abandonment of Darfur to chaos and increasing destruction, and—in an act of economic self-destruction—halting the transit of oil from the south to Port Sudan. President Omar al-Bashir has survived by siding with the most ruthless and militaristic elements in the regime (see my 2011 Dissent post “Creeping Coup in Khartoum”).

No real or just peace can emerge from negotiations with such a regime, as evidenced by the feckless efforts of the AU and the absence of unified international commitment. In the case of the Obama administration, the reasons for keeping the regime intact are all too clear: Khartoum’s putative provision of counterterrorism intelligence. The U.S intelligence community clearly puts tremendous value on the new embassy in Khartoum as a listening post (it was completed in 2010). Although we have no ambassador to Sudan, we do have a $175 million embassy, with nine buildings and more than 200 staff—and that’s before “top-shelf” spying equipment and personnel had been moved in.

Former Senator Russ Feingold, while chair of the Africa Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was ideally positioned to assess the price we were paying for intelligence from Khartoum. In May 2009, he said:

I take serious issue with the way the report [on international terrorism by the U.S. State Department] overstates the level of cooperation in our counterterrorism relationship. A more accurate assessment is important not only for effectively countering terrorism in the region, but as part of a review of our overall policy toward Sudan.

For those wondering why U.S. policy toward Sudan has been so ineffective during the Obama years, why special envoys have been so inept and disingenuous, why so little has been said about ongoing atrocity crimes and genocide, and why Khartoum feels no need to abide by agreements it has signed, Senator Feingold’s comment provides the most authoritative glimpse at what is done—and ignored—in the name of “national security.”

Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide and Compromising with Evil: An Archival History of Greater Sudan, 2007—2012.

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