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Darfur's Arab Armed Groups

Even though they themselves have suffered chronic neglect by the Sudanese state, Darfur's Arabs were not consulted by the insurgents who declared themselves in rebellion against the Sudanese Government in 2003. Excluded by the insurgents, and influenced by a strain of Arab supremacism imported from Libya, some answered a government call to fight the "rebels" alongside the regular army. In exchange for their loyalty, they expected the government to improve their conditions of life, including with development along the marahil (stock routes) of the camel-herding Abbala, the core of the 'janjaweed' militias.

The Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) of May 2006 was perceived as a betrayal of Arab concerns. A rebel leader, Minni Minawi, became senior assistant to President Omar al Bashir. Thousands of his men were incorporated into the Sudan Armed Forces, and his nominee was given authority over the reform and downsizing of all Arab militias. On the question of land ownership, which lies at the heart of the Darfur conflict, the DPA also alienated Arabs. It recognized the traditional system of tribal land domains (hawakir), which the landless Abbala have the greatest interest in reforming. Pastoralism was mentioned in only one paragraph of the agreement, with a passing reference to the 'important problem' of competition for pasture and water. There was no recognition of the need for development and services along marahil that were mapped out before drought, desertification, and conflict changed the resource map of Darfur.

In the year following the signing of the DPA, rumblings of discontent grew into a storm. The first Arab armed opposition group was formed in December 2006. In October 2007 the strongest paramilitary leader of South Darfur, Mohamed Hamdan Dogolo, nicknamed 'Hemeti', defected from the government camp, along with thousands of heavily armed paramilitaries. Khartoum first attempted to crush the rebellion militarily, including with air power. When that failed, it ceded to most of Hemeti's demands, including for promotion and development. Smaller protests were snuffed out with sticks and carrots. Arabs who remained in armed opposition were unable to coalesce around a single programme, however.

Heavy inter-Arab fighting in 2010 between Abbala and cattle-herding Baggara led to a second surge of rebellion. Abbala and Baggara both accused the government of letting the fighting continue in order to weaken Arabs as it prepared to sign a second peace agreement, modelled on the DPA. It is not yet clear whether the new groups will have any military punch; whether they will be willing to end their protests for short-term financial gain rather than lasting benefit; or whether, like their non-Arab counterparts, they will survive only as small, isolated groups, often subsumed into the original movements.

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Updated November 2010


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