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Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival
Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 110 / Africa

The Chaos in Darfur

The two-year-old flare-up of violence in Darfur continues, adding 100,000 people this year to more than 2.5 million who have lost their homes since war began in 2003. Sudanese, regional and international peace processes have stalled. They should restart with parallel initiatives that take into better account all of Darfur’s communities and armed groups.

I. Overview

Violence in the Darfur region of Sudan’s far west continues unabated. Some 450,000 persons were displaced in 2014 and another 100,000 in January 2015 alone, adding to some two million long-term internally displaced persons (IDPs) since fighting erupted in 2003. The government remains wedded to a military approach and reluctant to pursue a negotiated national solution that would address all Sudan’s conflicts at once and put the country on the path of a democratic transition. Khartoum’s reliance on a militia-centred counter-insurgency strategy is increasingly counter-productive – not least because it stokes and spreads communal violence. Ending Darfur’s violence will require – beyond countrywide negotiations between Khartoum, the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition and unarmed players – addressing its local dimensions, within both national talks and parallel local processes.

Darfur’s complex and multiplying local conflicts are increasingly ill-understood, due to lack of information and the limitations of reporting from the hybrid UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Intensification of combat with rebel factions prompted the government in 2014 to fall back again upon notorious military auxiliaries, this time its new Rapid Support Forces (RSF), thus worsening violence and displacements. Arab militias and paramilitary forces like the RSF attacked non-Arab communities accused of being pro-rebel, fought each other, took part in communal conflicts and even hit at regular government troops.

Increasingly divided over Sudan, the UN Security Council has been unable to develop consensus around a new peace strategy and largely supports the untenable status quo. Discussions are now underway with the government about a possible UNAMID drawdown. Without strong support from New York and the African Union (AU) when the government obstructs it, the mission has been too deferential to Khartoum and systematically presented a narrative of an improving situation divorced from reality. It has also frequently failed to intervene and protect civilians, leading the UN to acknowledge “record levels of civilian displacement not seen since 2004”.

Peace in Darfur is unlikely separate from a solution to Sudan’s wider national problems, for which a number of processes need to be revived, modified or initiated, including an effort, especially in the UN Security Council, to review and rethink policy on Darfur and toward Khartoum generally. This briefing has a more limited purpose. It concentrates on Darfur dynamics, in particular a mapping of the complex conflict lines between and among communities and armed groups and militias, some sponsored by the government.

Suffering from a weak economy and without a military breakthrough, Khartoum appeared more open in 2014 to the inclusion of armed opposition in an AU-facilitated national dialogue. The AU mediation hoped to obtain separate ceasefires for Darfur and the “Two Areas” (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) in a “synchronised” way, paving the way for SRF inclusion in the dialogue. However, the process stalled, largely over Khartoum’s reluctance to negotiate with Darfur rebels on a basis other than the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD). While this may suit the government in the short term, the region’s continued fragmentation into competing armed communities will become increasingly difficult to arrest and reverse.

Darfur’s different conflicts cannot be addressed all at once or in the same way. Crisis Group analysed the limits of the existing peace process in January 2014, and many of its recommendations are still relevant, in particular to review the DDPD, some of whose provisions require establishing a national consensus around the relationship between central government and peripheries, while others – chief of them the increasing communal violence – are too local to solve by national dialogue only. While Sudan’s government has remained reluctant to compromise on the DDPD and invokes as justification the document’s importance for Qatar – which indeed considers it a major diplomatic achievement despite the lack of implementation – it would be in Khartoum’s own interest to address swiftly both the national and local dimensions of the violence in Darfur. For the latter, the government should in particular:

  • progressively control and disarm paramilitary forces and militias, via a mix of incentives, such as participation in local peace processes and the national dialogue, as well as development and services, but also coercion, including arrest and prosecution of those responsible for crimes; and
  • initiate and support communal dialogue and durable local peace and reconciliation mechanisms involving traditional and militia leaders, while leaving mediation to respected, neutral Sudanese, including from outside Darfur, and limiting the government’s role to facilitating, supporting and guaranteeing agreements.

To advance resolution of Darfur’s conflicts, the government and armed opposition should:

  • reach a ceasefire in Darfur, synchronised with a similar one in the Two Areas, including provisions for unfettered humanitarian access in both; and
  • develop proposals to address concerns of all Darfur communities on issues such as security, land ownership, services and development.

International players, particularly the AU, arguably have a more important role to play in national than local processes. However, the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council should:

  • agree on a Sudan strategy and then properly support it with political backing and appropriate resources.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 April 2015

The incumbent president and candidate of the ruling NCP for Sudan’s presidency Omar al-Bashir (C) waves to the crowd in the capital Khartoum, 31 March 2015. AFP PHOTO/Ashraf Shazly
Briefing 119 / Africa

Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival

Sudan's government is in survival mode. As it drifts away from its former radical Islamist ideology toward a new foreign policy pragmatism, Western powers should encourage Khartoum to solve the internal wars that have done so much damage to the country and blocked the normalisation of external relations with this increasingly active player in the Middle East.

I. Overview

There is an ideological vacuum at the heart of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP), its leaders no longer interested in a radical or reforming Islamist project yet offering no alternative political vision. President Omar al-Bashir’s 2015 re-election signalled a strengthening of the political centre around its long-time leader, neutralising opposition and forcing an empty “national dialogue” process with little prospect of significant outcomes. The March 2016 death of Hassan al-Turabi, the Islamist “salvation” regime’s original architect, highlighted the absence of younger, credible figures to revive a project in terminal decline since he left government in the late 1990s. Bashir’s strengthening of power around a small coterie of senior politicians, the military and security services has accompanied development of a more pragmatic government focused on regime survival. This change should encourage the West to explore ways to induce a more constructive approach by Khartoum to settling the internal wars that block normal relations with an increasingly active player in the turbulent Middle East.

While the president and his allies have progressively strengthened their position within the NCP, suppressing the political and armed opposition through control over the machinery of state, they have weakened the party’s attachment to the country’s fractured community of Islamists – formerly its ideological centre. Many are now competing over its legacy, including reformists eager to reverse Sudan’s decline into a corrupt patronage-based system, conservative supporters of a populist “Islamic Arabism” and more radical groups, including those professing support for the Islamic State (IS). The latter are a small, vocal minority, with some traction in the large student and graduate population but for now at least not a major domestic threat.

The decision to involve Sudan in major regional disputes, particularly those associated with Saudi Arabia and Iran, further demonstrates a shift from pursuit of a radical, reformist Islamist project to pragmatic use of the country’s strategic location and narrowly-defined Sunni-Arab Islamic identity for short-term diplomatic and material gains. The pivot to the Gulf emphasises the wide range of diplomatic partnerships now available to the leadership in a Middle East in which political upheaval, civil war and transnational extremism have engendered a fluid and opportunistic brand of alliance-making. The regime feels able to leverage its equities so as to strengthen itself without needing to seriously seek solutions to the several conflicts it is fighting in the country’s peripheral areas. This recourse to an internationalised Arab nationalism, historically adopted by the riverine elite but rejected by many others, however, further reduces the vestiges of a political and ethnic pluralism already severely tested by the South’s secession and those conflicts. 

The NCP’s shift from the radical Islamism of its earliest days in power to more pragmatic politics has not been matched by normalisation of relations with Western countries. This is the consequence of Sudan’s failure to deal effectively with its internal conflicts, including the war in Darfur, rather than the recent trajectory of its international relations. Since the late 1990s, Khartoum has sought alternative partners, notably China and India for the development of its oil industry, but now also a security compact with the Gulf states. Its increasing integration into regional alliance-building and latterly more constructive relations with South Sudan (and Uganda), however, should provide a stimulus for countries such as the U.S. and UK to assess what incentives are available (and engage with Sudan’s new allies) to more effectively influence Khartoum to end its internal conflicts.

Nairobi/Brussels, 21 March 2016