Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan's decision to dismiss two armed movement officials in Darfur from their government positions a few days ago, created a sharp debate about the Juba Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and several armed movements. The agreement, which had been controversial since it was signed in 2020, has been put under the microscope since the conflict began, with many questions raised about it.
Many believe that, instead of fortifying peace, the agreement has broadened the scope of the problem, especially in Darfur, and that it has pushed the disputes and conflicts to other regions, giving rise to a larger number of armed movements and groups. Others saw it as a means for distributing positions and gains rather than a real solution that addresses the roots of Sudan’s problems and ends its conflicts.
Since the agreement was signed, several of these leaders’ movements have made robust arguments, at several junctures over the turbulent years that followed, pushing back against the skeptics and to those who accuse them of prioritizing their positions of power and struggle for seats. Burhan dismissed Dr. Hadi Idris, who heads the Sudan Liberation Army Movement - Transitional Council, from his position in the Transitional Sovereignty Council. In his statement repudiating the decision, Dr. Idris stressed that his appointment was in line with the Juba Agreement and that violating it would mean the collapse of the agreement. Sudan Minister of Animal Resources Hafez Abdul-Nabi made the same argument after his dismissal. He claimed the decision was void because it had been issued by a party without constitutional legitimacy and it violates the Juba Peace Agreement, which he claimed is “at risk of collapse.”
The fact is that the Juba Peace Agreement was brought down by the armed movements when they joined the coup that overthrew the government of Dr. Abdalla Hamdok in October 2021 and the position they have taken during the war. The leaders of these movements were in agreement regarding the coup and all sought to maintain their positions and gains. However, they took divergent positions during the conflict, with some opting for neutrality, others choosing to join the Rapid Support Forces in their fight against the army, and a third group sided with the army, believing that doing so at this stage is to defend Sudan, whose existence and unity are under threat.
For the Darfur movements that signed the peace agreement, neutrality may have seemed comfortable, even, at first. The statement of Minni Arko Minnawi, the Governor of Darfur who heads the Sudan Liberation Army, was very clear in this regard. “At times we are with this side, and at others, we are with that side.” That is, he would side with the army sometimes and the Rapid Support Forces at others. This neutrality sums up their rationale: as their “rivals” in the army and Rapid Support Forces fight it out and weaken one another, they win.
Neutrality was no longer comfortable when the war in Khartoum stretched to Darfur and the Rapid Support Forces began expanding and taking control of army garrisons, entering Nyala, El Geneina, and Zalingei. With this expansion, and even before it, the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations warned of horrific massacres and human rights violations in Darfur by the Rapid Support Forces. The United Nations warned against further massacres, calling their actions in the city of El Geneina last June genocide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed its “deep concern” regarding reports of women and girls being kidnapped and held captive in inhumane conditions akin to slavery, and that were being sexually assaulted and held for ransom in regions controlled by the Rapid Support Forces in Darfur.
Many began to ask themselves: Who do the leaders of these movements represent? And who do their forces protect if they are not defending the region and its people?
Minnawi, who was made Governor of Darfur through the peace agreement, has been watching on as human rights violations are being committed in the region. Meanwhile, the governor of North Darfur, Nimr Abdel Rahman, broadcasted an audio message, from outside the region, calling on citizens to seek refuge away from the city of El Fashir, as the city is expected to become an arena of clashes between the army and the Rapid Support Forces, which see the city as the last major arena to fight over in the region.
Minnawi’s position is particularly embarrassing because he had acknowledged the gravity of the situation months ago. In an interview he gave last August, Minnawi called the atrocities that unfolded in El Geneina and other areas in Darfur “genocide and ethnic cleansing;” his forces and the other armed movements in Darfur nonetheless refrained from taking actions to repel the attacks on their people. They stood by and watched as the cities of the region were pillaged and thousands of residents were displaced, adding to the three million citizens who had been forced to flee to neighboring countries, especially Chad.
The armed movements in Darfur are now in a tough spot. Neutrality is no longer convincing, and many are calling on them to join the fight, that is, to side with the army. On the other hand, some believe that these movements, or some of them, may choose or find themselves with no other option than to ally themselves with the Rapid Support Forces if developments lead to the secession of the region and the emergence of a parallel government there, as had been seen in Libya. My assessment is that such an alliance is unlikely. If it were to take shape, it would be temporary or opportunistic. Such an alliance would not be sustainable, it would turn Darfur into a furnace of devastating war more horrific than any of those that preceded it. Darfur is not homogeneous in its tribal composition. The Rapid Support Forces and some Darfur movements have fought wars and historically mistrust one another. Moreover, many people in Darfur oppose secession.
This war has exposed many. It has revealed many flaws that must be looked into and resolved once the fighting ends. The Juba Peace Agreement is certainly among them.