In the final weeks of the Darfur peace talks in Abuja, Mohamed Issa, the chairman of the Rizeigat Advocacy Council and the most prominent independent Arab observer at the talks, grew daily more depressed. Under American pressure, the African Union was forcing the pace of the talks and setting deadlines for an agreement.
The leaders of the two factions of the Sudan Liberation Army, the largest rebel group, were not speaking to each other. A third SLA faction was taking shape, despairing of the other two. Dreams of a peace agreement that had even a minimal chance of ending the violence in Darfur were disappearing fast. The Arabs of Darfur, Issa said, were caught between a rock and a hard place -between the storm violence of the government – Janjaweed alliance and the abuses of the rebels. He estimated that 90 percent of the Arabs had remained neutral in the conflict so far but warned that they could not remain neutral indefinitely. “If there is no peace in Abuja, he said, “they may take a role. Perhaps with the government, perhaps with the [rebel] movements. We shall see. Until now the lion is sleeping. This month, as Janjaweed violence raged uncontrolled, the lion bared its teeth–at the government. Seven months after the government and Minni Minawi’s Zaghawa-led faction of the SLA signed a peace agreement that all other factions rejected, Darfur’s first Arab rebel group announced itself with an attack on a government garrison in South Darfur state, the only one of Darfur’s three states that has an Arab majority.
The new group, the Popular Forces Army, said it would liaise with the rebels still fighting the government “until all demands of Darfur and other marginalized parts of the Sudan are fully realized. It denounced the Janjaweed as “a minority of mercenaries and hired individuals who “do not represent Darfur Arabs and do not embody their heritage, courage and sacrifice for peace and justice. Arabs constitute approximately a third of Darfur’s population of 7 million and are no less neglected and marginalized than the non-Arab tribes who form the backbone of the rebel movements. Although the conflict in Darfur is popularly depicted as a war between “Arabs and “Africans, it is estimated that no more than 20,000 Darfurian Arabs have joined forces with the government, motivated as much by the promise of a salary and loot as by any fuddled notions of Arab supremacy.
Despite strong identification with the rebels’ demands, most Arab tribes have attempted to toe a middle line, dissuaded from joining the rebels by their descent into tribalism and by a noxious government propaganda campaign that accused Minawi’s Zaghawa of plotting to establish a “Greater Zaghawa State on the more fertile lands of others. The Popular Forces Army is led by two members of the Rizeigat tribe, Darfur’s largest Arab tribe, who have opened a channel of communication to the third SLA faction–known both as the Group of Nineteen and SLA Unity.
In the months since the Abuja peace process ended, SLA Unity has dealt the government a series of stunning battlefield defeats and is suddenly the single strongest rebel force on the ground in Darfur. Its success has undoubtedly been one the factors that has propelled some Arabs off the fence. Another has been conflict within the Rizeigat tribe itself, with attacks on the Baggara cattle herders of South Darfur by the Abbala camel nomads of North Darfur. The landless Abbala are the most neglected and impoverished of all Darfurians and were the first to join the government war under their paramount chief Musa Hilal. Early reports suggest that the Popular Forces Army has been able to draw support from the tribal militias of three of Darfur’s most important Arab tribes–the Rizeigat, Habaniya and Beni Halba. Its two most prominent figures are both university graduates: Salah Mohamed Abdul Rahman, “Abu Sura, a Rizeigat from South Darfur, who studied at the Khartoum branch of Cairo University; and Yassin Yousif, a Rizeigat from North Darfur, who studied at Juba University.
Both the Rizeigat and the Habaniya have suffered years of largely unreported abuse at the hands of Minawi’s Zaghawa forces, who have been active hundreds of miles outside their own tribal homeland in North Darfur and who are now the government’s partner in the Darfur Peace Agreement. In September this year, Popular Forces Army leaders met SLA Unity commanders in North Darfur and received from them a promise – and soon after a delivery – of weapons. Because of the parlous state of the SLA, fragmented and fractious, they decided not to declare for SLA Unity for the moment but rather to operate as an independent group which, although launched by Arabs, would be “non-ethnic and open to all marginalized people in Darfur in particular and Sudan in general. The Popular Forces Army has echoes of an earlier group–the National Movement for the Elimination of Marginalization – which attacked the Abu Gabra oilfield on Darfur’s southern border in December 2004.
Unlike the Popular Forces Army, the National Movement did not describe itself as an Arab group although it, too, was commanded by Arabs: Ali Abdul Rahim Shendi of the Shaygiyya tribe, one of three Arab tribes which control power in Sudan, and Abdul Gader Hamid Mendi al-Sharif, of Darfur’s own Taaisha tribe. Like the Popular Forces Army, the National Movement coordinated with the SLA – less divided then than it is now. But it fizzled after Ali Abdul Rahim died in a car crash and the SLA, hopelessly disunited, lost its way. The resilience of the new rebel group, and the direction taken by the hitherto silent majority of Dafurian Arabs, will depend on a number of factors – among them, the ability of SLA Unity to forge a cohesive armed opposition to the governmen – Janjaweed alliance; the stand of the Umma Party, the main northern opposition party; and the position taken by the Arab chiefs of Darfur, who still wield considerable influence over their tribes.
They know their power, and the power of their tribes, and will not use it lightly. As Mohamed Issa said back in April: “If the Rizeigat move, this Darfur will be destroyed. Khartoum would do well to ponder that as it continues to seek a military, rather than a political, solution to the rebellion on its western border. Julie Flint has written extensively on Sudan. She is the author, with Alex de Waal, of “Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.