Tucked away in the vast arid lands of western Sudan, Darfur may be on the brink of an abyss, with thousands killed or injured and tens of thousands displaced in the latest wave of tribal clashes to afflict the region.
Ominously, the underlying causes of the unrest — land disputes between Arab herdsmen and ethnic African farmers — are in large part those that ignited Darfur’s civil war of the 2000s in which 300,000 people died and 2.5 million were displaced.
The widespread use of rape and kidnappings during that war left a much deeper scar on the ethnically and religiously diverse nation than those caused by other conflicts that have beset Sudan since independence from Britain in 1956.
Feeding the potential for a fully-fledged conflict in Darfur is the preoccupation in Khartoum with the political crisis that began in October when army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan derailed the country’s fragile transition to democracy.
The wave of deadly protests against the coup across much of Sudan has also fed a climate of instability that, coupled with economic problems and the presence of armed groups operating outside the army’s control, has inspired lawlessness in far-flung areas like Darfur, campaigners say.
Another factor is the withdrawal last year from Darfur of UN peacekeepers who protected the hundreds of thousands of displaced Darfurians living in camps.
War in Darfur would have disastrous consequences for Sudan, taking away any chance of a political resolution of its political crisis and speeding it closer to economic meltdown.
Gen Al Burhan, who insists his coup spared the country a civil war, blames all of Sudan’s woes, including the resurgence of violence in Darfur, on what he says is the failure of civilian political groups to agree on a political future.
“The political infighting is effectively the very thing that’s responsible for these events [in Darfur] and everything else that will happen in Sudan,” Gen Al Burhan told a television interviewer last week. Up to 400 people were killed in Darfur in the past month, he said.
The UN said violence in western Sudan this month displaced more than 84,000 people, doubling the number of those driven from their homes this year. Last year, at least 440,500 were displaced, five times more than in 2020, the UN said.
A peacekeeping force mandated by a 2020 peace deal between Darfur rebel groups and Khartoum has yet to be put to work.
Gen Al Burhan has complained that the West has yet to honour pledges to bankroll the implementation of the accords, which call for the integration of rebels into the armed forces and the return home of the displaced.
The West has suspended billions of dollars’ worth of aid and debt forgiveness in response to the October coup.
On Wednesday, the NGO Human Rights Watch said the civilian-led government toppled by the military in October and the military rulers who seized power have failed to provide adequate protection for Darfur after peacekeepers left there in 2021, or to address causes of the conflict.
Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, whose paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has its roots in the Arab militias that fought on the government side against rebels in Darfur in the 2000s, has been touring the region in an effort to end the violence.
He has vowed he will not return to Khartoum until Darfur’s problems are resolved.
It is a tall order given the complexity of Darfur’s problems, the government's lack of sufficient resources to enforce law and order, compensate victims of years of violence or restore lands illegally seized by rival groups to their lawful owners.
A native of Darfur, Gen Dagalo led the Arab Janjaweed militia that fought on the government's side during the war in the 2000s and whose fighters are suspected of war crimes against civilians.
Former dictator Omar Al Bashir, who was toppled by the military in 2019, and several of his aides were indicted by the International Criminal Court more than a decade ago for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. Only one of Al Bashir’s aides is in custody in The Hague.
Gen Dagalo, who is now deputy head of Sudan's ruling military-led Sovereign Council, has denied accusations that his Rapid Support Forces were involved in the latest violence in Darfur, saying the charges were unfair.
During his tour of Darfur, he accused parties he did not name of being behind the violence.
“We must be smart and find out who is behind these consecutive and continuing disasters. Who is behind the hate and racist speech … we must discover our real enemy who walks among us sowing sedition,” he said.
He acknowledged that the ruling military must take some of the blame.
“I confess that the state has been negligent in carrying out its duties; namely to impose its authority, shoulder its responsibility in maintaining security and going after saboteurs and criminals,” Gen Dagalo said.
Darfur activist Moussa Dawoud traces the roots of the Darfur crisis to the 1980s — nearly two decades before war broke out there — saying the problems began when prime minister Sadeq Al Mahdi armed Arab tribesmen in 1986-1987 to reward them for supporting him in the 1986 general election.
“The fragility of society in Darfur has been taken advantage of by many,” Mr Dawoud said.
“It is not always African versus Arab in Darfur as many think. Arab versus Arab is very common. The problems in Darfur are many and you cannot just blame one party and not the other.”
Another Darfur activist, Mohammed Bashir, views the problems in Darfur in a broader context, arguing that only when Sudan’s “general” problems are resolved will there be peace in Darfur.
“It is a conflict over land and resources and there’s also the settlement there by citizens of neighbouring countries,” said Mr Bashir, who contends that integrating rebels and members of Gen Dagalo’s paramilitary force into the armed forces is essential for peace in Darfur.